How To Read A Letter From Jail
(image: pxhere/BloombergQuint)

How To Read A Letter From Jail


“Read it not once, but many times,” says Mohammad Aamir Khan explaining the process clearly over the phone. “Each word has a story. Try to feel the pain behind each word.”

Khan, 39, should know. After he was “kidnapped” one night (he never uses the word arrested because he was snatched from the street, tortured, made to sign blank sheets of paper, and then produced in a court only a week later), Khan spent 14 years in prison, incarcerated for serious crimes he never committed, before being acquitted in 2012. Letters and family visits were his only connection to the world from which he had been snatched when he was only 19 years old.

How To Read A Letter From Jail

Khan says it’s important you give a letter from prison the attention it deserves. “Read it alone. Close the doors. Read it three or four times to understand the true spirit of the letter.”

“Only if you read it multiple times you might understand why the prisoner is writing this letter. Remember, he’s writing it from the depths of his heart and mind,” adds Khan, who is fond of quoting Fydor Dostoevsky.

“The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” said the Russian writer who was imprisoned at the age of 27 and wrote letters to his brother from jail. We have a fair idea of how India would measure up against this.

Khan gives me the reading lesson after I tell him about a letter written by Dr. Kafeel Khan from Mathura Jail where he describes his life as “a living hell”. The paediatrician has been imprisoned for nearly 160 days for a speech in which he criticised the government at a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

As poets, academics, journalists, authors, students, and assorted other dissenters are jailed across India, the voices of those unjustly incarcerated by the state can only grow louder.

Meanwhile, we owe it to them to look for the way forward in their writings, whether in the form of letters, poetry, books, or the notes they wrote in prison. As women’s rights activist Shoma Sen, the head of the English literature department of the Nagpur University, who has been in jail since June 2018 charged with the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. wrote in a letter to her daughter, “They can keep me locked inside, but my mind is completely free.”

How To Read A Letter From Jail

Even as autocracies across the world push back against civil resistance movements erupting in their countries, prison literature, or literature written while the author is imprisoned or under house arrest, is gaining prominence, especially in countries like Turkey.

One recent favourite of readers in that country is a collection of short stories titled Dawn, by Recep Tayyip Erdogan-critic Selahattin Demirtas, imprisoned since 2016 in a maximum security facility. “That he can find the peace of mind to sit in his prison cell, writing playful stories about the everyday world from which he is now excluded, is a measure of his spirit,” Maureen Freely writes in the foreword to the book.

Like Turkey, we too have a history of important writing—mostly autobiographical—from jail.

Politicians of all hues from LK Advani to Subhas Chandra Bose, Ram Manohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad wrote from prison.

As radical poet Varavara Rao puts it in Captive Imagination: Letters From Prison, “It was only during the Emergency when a whole class of future central government ministers entered jail that white-collared folk realised there were human beings in jail.” Rao and lawyer-activist Arun Ferreira, both currently in jail for their “Maoist links” in the Bhima-Koregaon case, have written books on their previous prison terms.

Arun Ferreira brought back to his residence, in Thane, on Aug. 30, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)
Arun Ferreira brought back to his residence, in Thane, on Aug. 30, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

As prisoners, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh all wrote important, enduring books read by three generations of Indians. Gandhi and Nehru even wrote letters to each other while in different jails. Sahitya Academy award-winner Manoranjan Byapari learned to read and write in jail. At Shodhganga, a database of dissertations, one writer lists 44 works produced behind bars – from Lala Lajapat Rai in 1908 to Iftikhar Gilani in 2008. Khan released his book, Framed As A Terrorist, in 2016.

An ongoing campaign, inspired by the rich history of prisons and letter writing, urges citizens to write a letter to imprisoned author, scholar, and civil rights activist Anand Teltumbde on the occasion of his birthday on July 15. Keeping Khan’s rules in mind, it’s worth rereading the last letter Teltumbde, who is presently housed in Taloja Central Jail in New Mumbai, wrote to fellow citizens on the eve of his arrest. Its import—“this can happen literally to anyone”—hits you hard.

Gilani, a Kashmiri journalist who was arrested in 2002 under the Official Secrets Act and who spent seven months in Tihar jail before the case against him was withdrawn, says he wonders how Nehru and Gandhi wrote books during their imprisonment, considering how difficult it was to get pen and paper in prison. Both Khan and Gilani say the jail administration confiscated their diaries and never returned them when they were acquitted.

“Protecting the pen from getting stolen was another headache,” Gilani says, adding that paper, especially of the thinner variety, was also a precious commodity for a different reason. When in jail, Gilani noticed that there was a rush for a priest who would distribute copies of the Bible every week. “My first impression and for a long time was that Christian missionaries are doing a lot of work in jail and have influenced the prisoners. But then it turned out that prisoners made cigarettes out of its paper. The Bible would last only a week so the next week there would be another rush for it,” he says, adding that he gave his dictionary to the assistant superintendent for safekeeping.

All letters going in and out of prison are censored by the authorities. “When I was first arrested in 1973, the mere thought that someone would read my letters would paralyse my pen,” writes Rao.

P Varavara Rao being produced at a court, in Pune, on Aug. 29, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)
P Varavara Rao being produced at a court, in Pune, on Aug. 29, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

Khan says he would remove the refill from a pen and hide it. If there was no paper, he would write on the white borders of a newspaper, tear them out and smuggle them. He read and reread his chargesheets and sent tips to his lawyer; he wrote to his ailing father who was broken by his son’s arrest and who always believed in his innocence; he wrote to the High Court and the National Human Rights Commission; and above all, he wrote to the childhood sweetheart who waited outside.

If he hadn’t written to her from jail, he wouldn't be where he is now—married to her, with a six-year-old daughter, giving life a second go. “We wrote in a very difficult time. We were connected only by those letters.”

Priya Ramani is a Bangalore-based journalist and is on the editorial board of

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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