Krishna is 14 , Srijana, 11. They share an unusual bond. Both have spent time in Kathmandu Central Jail – not because they committed crimes, but because their mothers did and they had nowhere else to go.
Krishna lived in prison for a short time before he was passed around from shelter to shelter. He was said to be unmanageable. A destructive kid, angry and defiant. Looking at him now, that is hard to believe. The boy is a bundle of positive energy. Eager to help, eager to please. A little showman hungry for attention. A kid who loves football, gardening and art.
Srijana, sad-eyed Srijana likes to sing. Delicate, introspective, self-sufficient. She’s the one who does all her homework. The one who bothers to wash her favourite pink trousers and hang them out to dry while other kids play. She wears those pink trousers to visit her mother in jail today.
We’ve been given permission to film in the prison’s visiting area. Our guides are the two children, and the woman who rescued them from a life behind bars. She’s called Indira Rana Magar. And she is Formidable.
We wait at least an hour for Indira to get our paperwork through. Srijana doesn’t say much. But Krishna more than makes up for the silence. It is unbearably dry this time of year. The area outside the prison is dusty, crowded. Every once in a while, a taxi pulls up, bearing policemen and men in handcuffs. A high wall and barbed wire tell us the place is out of bounds to ordinary people.
But Krishna and Srijana aren’t ordinary kids.
Which makes their mothers ordinariness so hard to digest. Krishna’s mum looks just like him. She dresses simply, speaks her mind. She’s in jail for drug trafficking. 15 years. Six more to go. And a massive fine to pay. She’s just glad Krishna is doing well.
Srijana’s mother is immaculately turned out. Her sari, beautifully put together, a string of pearls around her neck. A striking smile. She seems so refined. So, so like Srijana. Why is she here? She looks away, refuses to say.
Inside the prison, the crew is taken aback by just how normal everything looks. A big, bright yard. Laundry flapping on lines. Women knitting, sewing, playing cards. A few of them have toddlers on their hips. A few of them are pregnant. A couple of inmates are very very old. We’re told they were released ages ago. They don’t leave because they have nowhere else to go.
Indira runs several programmes in here. Literacy classes, workshops to teach the women income-generating skills. She’s clearly respected inside this community. They swarm around her. She listens. Cracks jokes. But she’s also tough – telling them they can’t count on handouts. They have to rely on themselves to better their lives.
The sleeping quarters are former horse stables belonging to a Rana palace. Cramped, with a faint smell of dung. A photo of Krishna sits on a ledge above his mother’s bed. She’s proud of what he’s become.
A floor up, Srijana lies by the window in her mum’s little corner, watching TV. Yes, TV. Where did it come from? We don’t ask but Krishna points to it straightaway. “I like to come here,” he says. “We watch movies here all the time.”
Srijana’s mum is cooking. The little girl looks up and asks if she can stay the night – the kids are sometimes allowed to do that during school holidays. The food smells delicious.
She bursts into tears when we have to go, this child known for her even temper and obliging personality. She doesn’t understand why she can’t have more time with her mother. Krishna is more stoic. But he too, is subdued as we walk out. A guard opens the prison gate. The kids exit. We turn back for one last look. Srijana’s mum hovers by the grills. She waves, smiles. Her daughter doesn’t see – she’s standing in a corner, crying her little heart out.