3 years

True Life

A Convict’s Escape

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A criminal at age 15, gang leader at 16, and state fugitive at 17, this student by day and gangster by night had done it all until he was arrested at 22. But even jail failed to break Vicky. Anupam Mukerji meets the man who turned to dance to kill the demon in him.

His is the face one would notice first in a crowd. He looks bigger than his 6 foot 1 inch frame. His striking looks could easily be assumed to be that of a film star getting into a new character. His beard and long dishevelled hair may give him the appearance of a Left-leaning journalist. He could even pass off as a student leader. But he is none of the above. Nigel Akkara aka Vicky, 32, is a post-graduate in human rights, an ex-student of Kolkata’s St Xavier’s College, and spent nine years in prison after being arrested on 17 charges of crimes ranging from kidnapping and extortion to murder.  

Vicky was born in a middle class Christian family in Kolkata on 13 August 1978. For the NCC cadet and student of Kolkata’s prestigious St Xavier’s School, sports was a natural calling and he excelled in football, volleyball and rugby. Growing up, Vicky would gaze endlessly at the picture of Army Chief General Shankar Roy Choudhry that he had up on his wall, dreaming of becoming an Army officer someday. He has vague memories of his seafood exporter father’s death in a road accident. Just eight years old then, he was too young to be affected very consciously by the loss.

At the age of 15, Vicky took his first step towards the abyss. It happened at a barber shop where he used to go for a shave. It happened in a fit of rage. At the end of which, one man was dead. Vicky’s initiation into the world of crime was swift as the blink of an eye. The incident filled him with a sense of power, the feel of which he quite enjoyed. And while still in school, he was sucked into the world of crime.

He got into four different gangs involved in kidnapping, extortion and contract killing. It didn’t take him long to build a gang of his own with 30-40 boys, which, he says, made him feel like an army officer. By 17, Vicky was wanted by the West Bengal State Police. Looking back, he confesses to having been “taken over by the devil himself”. 

“I was enjoying it, I don’t know why but I never thought what I was doing was wrong,” he says. Even as Nigel Akkara enrolled for the Accountancy Honours course at St Xavier’s College, Vicky’s gangster life continued unabated. Finally, in December 2000, at 22, after a seven-year spell in crime, Vicky was arrested for the first time. “And the last,” he insists. 

During the first six years in prison, Vicky felt like a caged tiger—angry, violent and unrepentant. An escape attempt left one policeman in coma for 40 days. He alleges that the attempt earned him the torture chamber, where his leg was broken, his fingers snapped, his nails pulled out and a brick hung from his genitals.  

In March 2007, 59-year-old Odissi dancer Alokananda Roy stepped inside Kolkata’s Presidency Jail to engage inmates in classical dance forms as part of Culture Therapy, a reformation initiative of Inspector General of Correctional Services BD Sharma. Little did she know that soon she would become ‘Ma’ to many of them, or that her art would trigger a dramatic transformation in one of her adopted sons. 

Vicky caught Alokananda’s attention early on. “I could feel his penetrating eyes trying to gauge if I was fake or real,” she says. Vicky, on his part, was almost derisive about the programme. “You want goondas to wear ghunghroos?” he asked Alokananda. But, Alokananda and Sharma coaxed Vicky to join. And once he was in, the reformation process began almost instantaneously. 

In December 2007, Alokananda’s troupe was invited to perform their act, Brotherhood Beyond Boundaries, at the Uday Shankar Dance Festival in Kolkata’s Rabindra Sadan. Vicky’s request to leave the jail premises for the show was denied. But he had Alokananda’s complete trust. “I knew he wouldn’t let his Ma down,” she says. Alokananda argued Vicky’s case with Sharma and, on her assurance, Vicky was allowed to be part of the troupe.       

The show ended with a standing ovation from the packed house. It was to be Vicky’s catharsis. After the last of the audience had left the auditorium, Vicky stood alone in the middle of the stage, looked around the empty galleries, and broke down. A man who couldn’t remember ever having cried in his life sobbed inconsolably on this night. At that moment, he says, he viewed his actions objectively. He questioned if he really deserved the applause and accolades of the audience. 

During his gangster days, Vicky had turned atheist. “I used to ask who the hell is God. Man has the power to kill. Man has absolute power,” Vicky recounts. Now, on Alokananda’s insistence, Vicky picked up The Bible, then The Bhagavad Gita and The Quran. Within weeks, he was chanting Quranic verses every waking minute of the day. With a change of mind came a change of heart. His dismissive attitude towards his mother, who had raised him and his younger brother alone, melted, and he started opening up to her, talking for hours when she visited him in jail. 

Ten months after the Rabindra Sadan performance, in October 2008, Alokananda returned to Presidency Jail, this time to teach her special troupe Tagore’s dance-drama Valmiki Pratibha. Vicky was the obvious choice to play Valmiki. For Vicky, playing the character of the dacoit Ratnakar who transforms into the sage Valmiki was nothing less than a spiritual experience. He describes it as “a conversation with God”. Alokananda too noticed the change in him. “His eyes speak,” she says. “And I saw that change in his eyes. He had calmed down.” 

On 20 October 2010, Alokananda’s troupe completed 25 public performances of Valmiki Pratibha. Vicky continues to play Valmiki, but now as a guest artiste. For, in July 2009, Vicky was released from prison after a High Court ruling went in his favour. But the world outside wasn’t exactly paved with roses for him. Unwilling to hide his past from potential employers, he found no jobs coming his way. “One big shot even offered me a salary as long as I never went to his office,” he says. Today, Vicky is self employed. His company, Kolkata Facilities Management, employs 14 people, provides housekeeping services and earns him about Rs 5,000 every month. Many former prisoners find work at his company. 

What made a normal middle class boy like Vicky turn to such serious crime? Vicky blames it on his rage and his greed for power and money. But Alokananda hints at some very personal issues, some deep rooted emotional needs that remained unfulfilled. “Don’t go by his tough, macho exterior. Inside, he is a softie,” she says with a smile. She thinks these unfulfilled needs, combined with his hypersensitive and, at the same time, aggressive nature may have led him astray. 

Alokananda is confident that Vicky will rebuild his life. “He has the soul of a saint,” she says. Vicky himself unequivocally accepts mistakes of his past. When asked what he feels now when he thinks of his past actions, Vicky looks away into the distance and shakes his head. “I have paid a heavy price for what I did. I am ready to move on now,” he says. “If only the world accepts...”