Theirs is a shared solitude. When they married, he had already served 11 of a 20-years-to-life sentence for murder. In his rage, he clubbed to death his siblings and two others, and told the courts that anger had got the better of him.
In the corner room of his ancestral home in Batla House in Delhi, with old Hindi film music blasting from the radio in the karkhana outside, Najma, his wife, sits out the interminable hours, days, years of separation—the uncertain gift of a parole marriage. The light seems to have dimmed in her large, liquid eyes that linger uncertainly in space. Because waiting is difficult, she says.
She has forgotten how his touch felt. His sins made him even more desirable to her. “Crimes of passion,” she says.
In West Delhi’s Tihar prison, convict Asim Chaman is also biding his time, with the metronomic groans, curses, abuses of inmates for company. Light breaks in through the grilled iron windows, and another long day’s journey has begun… into a lonely night.
For three hours now, he will be in communion with his memory, recording recent conversations with Najma in a diary he keeps. He must. For him, memory has no return.
Asim and Najma got married while he was out on parole last year. Within 15 days of his reluctantly speaking to Najma, the wedding happened. Asim walked up the worn-out stairs of his house to seek his mother’s blessings, which she gave. Dressed in his sherwani, he knelt by the bed. The mother, paralysed and confined to the prison of her bed, kissed him on the forehead.
The bride, who knew they would be together for less than a week before he returned to prison—to be released maybe eight years later, maybe never—was not sure what this strange conjugal life meant. Even in that short period, when she came to his house, she was so tired she slept through most of their time together. “I kept sleeping, sitting in his lap, the day he was to leave for prison,” she says. “Then I cried for a long time.”
After he went back to Tihar, tobacco was recovered from his room, and the possibility of a parole or furlough cancelled for at least a year as deterrent punishment. Najma had come to see him off, and clung to his shoulders as he prepared to walk back to prison.
Although the reasons for parole do not include ‘marriage’, there are a number of instances in Tihar of convicts getting married while on parole. The promise of an ordered family life after they have served their terms possibly offers a reason to be on “good behaviour” in prison, so they give no reason to prison officials to prolong their sentence or bar them from getting parole.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of India granted parole to a convict so he could get married in June. Mahesh Sharma, who is serving life imprisonment, appealed to the judges through his counsel that if he didn’t turn up for the wedding, the two families would face “great embarrassment”. The judges were moved enough by his story to grant him parole for four weeks. Sharma had been arrested on murder charges in 2004. The Supreme Court upheld the charges in 2010. In April 2012, he got engaged to Sonia while on a month-long parole, and applied for an extension to formalise the wedding. The Delhi government rejected the extension request. The wedding was to be on 25 June, and when the Delhi High Court, where the petitioner had applied for parole, listed the matter for 9 July, he approached the Supreme Court saying it would shame the families if the groom-to-be did not show up for his wedding.
There are other instances of convicts getting married while on parole. R, for example, who married his long-term lover this year. The families were opposed to the idea and he would rather not talk about it. His wife has two children from her former husband, now dead. She married Raja while he was out on parole.
Then there is Hiralal, who is also reluctant to talk about his marriage. He got arrested on the day of his wedding because of a fight he got into. He was on parole at the time, and has not been able to return home to his wife. “They didn’t even spend the [wedding] night together as he got arrested and was brought back to prison,” a police official says. “He was out on parole in 2011, which makes it a year. So, the marriage isn’t even consummated yet.” Hiralal, who has a few years to go before his release, just hopes the marriage will survive the odds.
Vijay Kumar, now 28, who ended up in prison on charges of raping a minor, spends his prison days working and looking at his daughter’s photo. He says he was in love with his landlord’s daughter when he worked and lived in a factory in Noida. They eloped but were found. He was put behind bars. The matter is pending in Delhi High Court. Vijay Kumar, a native of Kanhau village near Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, sought interim bail, got married and the couple had a daughter. When he returned to prison, he showed officials his wedding photos and later his daughter’s photos, which made him eligible for interim bail to maintain “social ties”, says Sunil Gupta, law officer at Tihar.
Journalist and author Sheila Isenberg explores such marriages in her book, Women Who Love Men Who Kill. Through hundreds of interviews with women who married men on death row or inside prison for murders, and inmates and others, she tries to understand the phenomenon of prison lovers and the ecosystem of these marriages in the US.
She finds these women, scarred by painful and damaged pasts, living in a world of make-believe, or in the words of a review, where they are ‘not in love with a real man but with an illusion based on denial’. The women, who feel ‘compelled to dance with the masters of death’ are women somehow obsessed with murderers, who they marry without thinking about the consequences, she writes in her book.
Najma, 26, was fascinated with Asim’s story. She still has a clipping from an India Today story that talks about murders within the family. The story led with a photo of Asim in a blue jersey, looking much healthier than he does now. The pages have yellowed and the letters are beginning to fade. The article, published in the magazine’s Hindi edition, is dated 16 February 2000.
She was just 14 then, but she said she wanted to meet Asim. When she found that Asim’s younger brother’s wife was a distant relative, she expressed interest. They belong to the same community. Her family had reservations and she was the youngest daughter, but Najma was determined. They got married in Aligarh in 2011.
About 10 per cent of the convicts in Tihar have married while out on parole or interim bail, which may be availed of if the matter is still pending in a high court. In Jail No 2, the prison marked for convicts, there are about 2,000 inmates, and the number of paroles a year averages about 800, says Gupta.
Paroles range from a fortnight to a month, and an inmate is eligible to avail of them twice a year. In 2010, Tihar also introduced a furlough provision, which, depending on an inmate’s conduct, can be availed of thrice a year. “The average [modal band] age of Tihar inmates is 25-37, which explains why they would want to marry on parole or interim bail,” says Gupta, adding, “It is an attempt at rehabilitation.” Most women, he says, marry convicts for the lure of property and they can bear children. And once they become fathers, the convicts are eligible for interim bail, which can last a few months.
Other than paroles and furloughs, some prison systems—like in the US, more recently introduced in Pakistan, and at least one state in India too—allow conjugal visits to prison premises by way of rehabilitating inmates. Punjab announced a couple of years ago that it would allow such visits to its prisons. But Tihar, Asia’s largest and among the most overcrowded prisons in the country, hasn’t yet figured a way to introduce this reformative measure. The most commonly cited reason for this is lack of space.
So, when Najma met Asim in prison on Friday, they stood facing each other across a glass screen, speaking in hushed tones. There was no privacy to be had. The couple has taken to writing letters to each other. He writes in Urdu, she in Hindi.
They know their letters will be intercepted by prison authorities. So, Najma won’t dwell on her longings in the letters. She draw hearts and quotes couplets from Bollywood numbers. Sometimes, she admits that she longs for his embrace, that she wants to have his children, and that the evenings and nights are dreary without him.
Asim saves his most intimate thoughts for the diary he maintains. Sometimes he pastes flowers on its pages, as lovers do. He misses her and fondly remembers a couple of hours spent at India Gate after they got married. Just the two of them, getting their photos clicked. Love has worn him out.
Twelve years ago, love led to un-controlled rage. All he’ll say now is: “It happened.”
He was a wrestler, and the four brothers were known in their community for their good looks. Asim, in particular, wanted to be a model. Photos of his portfolio are in an album Najma shows off with pride. He is tall, and his curls fall below his ears. Asim is 33. He is much calmer now. Not the angry young wrestler he used to be.
Before he married Najma last year, he was married to another woman with the same name. In 2010, when he was out on parole, his family prevailed on him to marry a girl who didn’t want him.
Late into the night, they had driven to Jhajhar in Uttar Pradesh, he writes in his memoir he has handed over to me. By the time they got to the bride’s house, most of the guests had left. When the maulvi approached her for her ‘yes’, as is the custom, she declined. The bride’s brother put a gun to his head, and asked her to “stop the tantrums or else”.
But the marriage under duress was not to last. The bride stood her ground in rejecting Asim’s overtures. On the last day of his parole, Asim called her brother to take her home. He hasn’t seen her since.
Out on parole again next year, he married a second time. This time, he was to find love.
It had happened once before. Asim dropped out of school after Class IX. He didn’t really like school and he failed his exams. After he left school, he started to learn gymnastics at Nehru Stadium. He accompanied his father Chaman, a wrestler, to the Barkat Ali Akhara near Jama Masjid in the Walled City and started wrestling. But he cut his hand badly and couldn’t wrestle any more. He opened a gym near his house.
That’s when he met his first love. Rubeena worked at a beauty parlour in East of Kailash and Asim wanted a woman trainer at his gym. Asim belongs to the Ghosi community, who traditionally rear cattle and sell milk. They are also wrestlers and part of the local akharas.
The two wanted to marry but Asim’s family was opposed to the marriage as the girl was from a different community.
‘I broke the television and music system in the gym,’ he writes in the memoir. ‘I took sleeping pills and kept repeating Rubeena’s name in my delirium.’ And then came the fateful day, when in a fit of blinding rage, he killed his uncle, a tenant, elder sister Aasma and his brother Qasim. He attacked his mother too, but she survived.
When the police said they wanted to get Rubeena to the police station for investigations, he surrendered; he said he didn’t want her dragged into a murder case. That would have tainted her reputation, he writes. In prison, Rubeena came to visit him a few times, but when he got convicted, he told her not to wait for him. He returned her letters and gifts.
After nearly a decade, when he was out on parole, he looked for her but she wasn’t to be found. Asim told his family he was ready to marry. They got him engaged in 2009, and when he was out on parole the next year, he married Najma. The one who wouldn’t have him.
In 2011, he re-married. This time to a girl, also called Najma, who said: “He could kill for love; that’s the kind of love I wanted. I wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less. This was passion, and I wanted a man who could go to any length for love.”
At the time of his second marriage, father Mohd Chaman was in hospital and the newly-wed spent most of their time in hospital. One day they sneaked out for an hour to India Gate to have some moments on their own. “I haven’t held his hand or run my fingers through his beautiful hair after that,” Najma says.
She tends to his mother Hamidan, and cooks and cleans, all of which she details in her letters to Asim. Sometimes, she complains. The domesticity of life without her husband around to discuss their future, the future of their yet-unborn children weighs on her mind. ‘I don’t want to be dependent on others,’ she writes in a letter. ‘You must ask for your rights. What about our children?’
The letters are the conversations they would have had lat at night. For months she hasn’t been to visit him in prison. He said he had had an altercation with his father and he hasn’t had any visitors since.
“He said he’d be home in August,” she says. “But this July, we complete one year of our wedding.” She had whispered on the phone that she could kill if that would let her join him in prison. The women are lodged in a different prison, he told her.
Mohd Chaman has forgiven his son. “It was such a happy household,” he says. On the first floor of his house, he has locked up the apartment where his family used to live and is waiting for his son to reclaim the life that has eluded him. But given the severity of his crime, chances are even that Asim will not return to reclaim that life.
When his case comes up for review before the Sentence Review Board in 2020—when he will have completed 20 years in jail—the board will consider his conduct to decide if he should be freed. Gupta reminds us that freedom is not guaranteed for life sentences.
Chaman doesn’t know whether he should be mourning or cutting his losses. Aasma, he says, was his favourite child. He had found wife Hamidan breathing amid the bloodbath that had claimed five, including Aasma and his other son, Qasim. He had rushed her to Holy Family Hospital. By the time he got back home the next day, the police had taken the bodies away for post-mortem. Asim had been taken away and put behind bars.
Chaman still goes to the graveyard across the street and places flowers on the graves. “Aasma was just 26. My sons never studied much, but Aasma was different. She became a teacher and we had fixed her marriage,” he says. “And my son Qasim who also died that day was a good child. But we must move on.”
Hamidan hasn’t walked ever since her son struck her that day as she came out of the bathroom. But memories of the day are still vivid in that head which has literally caved in with the blow it took. Daughter-in-law Najma comes in to her room at regular intervals to relieve her, to change her clothes, to feed her.
The camera in her hand, which she holds gingerly with the less paralysed hand, has photos of her son writing to his wife in prison. She holds it close to her chest. Her eyes moisten. All is forgiven, she says.