Excerpts from ‘From Phansi Yard: My Year with Women of Yerawada’ by Sudha Bharadwaj

Dec 26, 2023

Sudha Bharadwaj’s recently published book ‘From Phansi Yard: My Year with the Women of Yerawada’ is a tenderly written collection of her memories, through which one gets to witness her resilient spirit, and yet, her vulnerabilities. In the book, she observes, reflects and chronicles stories of women prisoners, prison conditions and her own journey.

Sudha Bharadwaj, a trade unionist, lawyer and human rights activist, was arrested in 2018, accused of inciting violence in Bhima Koregaon, as were 15 other activists, academics, poets and others in the case, known as the Bhima Koregaon case. She spent over three years in prison, in Yerawada Jail, Pune and then Byculla Jail Mumbai. She was granted bail in December 2021, and her bail conditions do not allow her to leave Mumbai or discuss her case.

The book begins with an interview, in which she narrates her story, her memories of the beginning of her activism, her relationship with her daughter and the work she did with the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha. Here are some excerpts from the book, that illustrate the warmth and compassion with which she wrote about her fellow prisoners (whom she has numbered and left anonymous), and her unyielding courage with which she survived incarceration.


She’s a short, old Bhil woman, about sixty-five, with white hair and a big, red vertical line of kumkum on her wrinkled forehead, wearing her green sari in the typical Bhil fashion, just below her knees and with a long pallu wrapped around and covering her head. She came to this jail four years ago, after being lodged as an undertrial in another jail. She was convicted of murdering someone who was found dead in her field. She speaks in a childlike sing-song mix of Marathi and Hindi and probably her own Bhilala language. Most people here think she is ‘simple’ or maybe just a little mentally backward, and quite incapable of the premeditated murder of which she has been accused. One day, when she is given two bright saris by a visitor, she excitedly asks someone’s advice – which one to wear for Diwali? (On festivals, even the green-saried convicts are allowed to wear colourful clothes.)

She moves around alone, but follows the ebbs and flows of the barrack. She’s always one of the first to rush to the water tap to fill her water bottles when the barracks are unlocked at 3 p.m. after the 12-3 afternoon bandi. She also sits obediently to hear the Brahma Kumaris every morning and religiously receives prasad, even though she seems not to understand or participate in the talk.

She’s most animated looking after kittens, to whom she gives her share of the morning milk, and they purr their love in her lap. Occasionally, she sits alone in the sun with her empty aluminium plate and bowl after finishing her meal, looking far away into the distance. Where does she transport herself? To her home, her village, her forest? If only there was a magic carpet… Then she has to be roused. Eh buddhi!! [Hey old woman!] Didn’t you hear the Toll?’ She laughs at herself apologetically and runs bow-leggedly back to her barrack.

Before we left Yerawada, she was released. Possibly, her children decided to appeal and her sentence was suspended by the high court. That day she waited a long time at the Gate, carrying, apart from other things, a small bucket somebody had given her to use. The social worker who was to accompany her was late, so she was once again locked in the barrack. She refused to come out later that evening, when the social worker finally arrived with tickets for the overnight bus, but finally relented and went off with her. A few days later the social worker told us how the two of them had to walk for several hours to reach the village where her small, bare hut stood.


Our Yard, the Phansi Yard, now more benignly called Separate Yard, was once called Karanti (probably the colloquialization of ‘quarantine’). We spend long hours locked up in our single cells.

For someone like me, notorious for making a virtue of nor looking after myself, isolation has meant not having an excuse for doing that. So I actually do the exercises I never had time for before, eat regularly and take my medicines for diabetes and depression. Since there is no scope for any snacking, and barely any sweets, my sugar is more or less under control.

Having mastered the art of bathing at the back of the Indian toilet, I actually start having the most unhurried baths of my life. In comparison with the barracks, here we have the luxury of a single cell with attached bathroom’, and ‘room service’ to boot.

Of course, the nights are long and can be taken over by reflection or swamped by anxiety, depending on one’s temperament and state of mind. Night-time in a single cell is a nightmare for the hypochondriac, a little bit of whom we all have within us. Are my arthritic joints more swollen today? Is that a varicose vein? A new patch of eczema? Aches become more painful, mosquitoes buzz louder and sleep evades one…”

“It is in the night that I do my writing. Writing letters to my daughter. Writing notes about other prisoners. Working on a book I am translating. Writing notes from newspapers. And reading whatever books I have. And of course, reading the voluminous chargesheet. And then there are all the Sudokus I have carefully torn out of the newspapers Shoma Di and I subscribe to. (We have to return them next morning.) Even at home I have problems with sleep, but here they have gotten worse. More often than not, when the Constables and sometimes the Jailer or Assistant Jailer herself, come on their late Night Round, I am still awake reading or writing. Go to sleep, Sudha,’ they say, not without concern. 

Yerawada Jail is so full of trees that we hear bird calls of many kinds in the early morning before the bandi opens. One bird, which I haven’t seen, I have christened ‘the doorbell bird’. I had never imagined that that very irritating doorbell sound that you sometimes hear when bells are rung in people’s homes actually existed in nature.

Fortunately for us, our isolation is not complete. There is a lot that we can see through our bars. We may be kept ‘separate’ but we are still very much part of this strange, many-coloured creature called the Women’s Jail.


“We are strangers here, thrown together by force of circumstances and made to sleep, eat and work side by side. We are women of different regions, socio-economic backgrounds, castes and temperaments. These create divisions, yet friendships are formed, and it is these friendships that are the key to one’s survival in jail.

It is touching to see women clapping at the news that someone has got bail, to see them embracing thrice, in the manner of a Muslim greeting, when they part, to watch them caring for each other’s children, for someone ill or pregnant, and quietly looking after newcomers.

But maintaining such friendships is a delicate art. The moment friendship becomes solidarity, that is, if a prisoner publicly stands up for another, the jail administration steps in to stamp it out. Why are you interfering?’ ‘What do you have to do with this?’ jail officials ask brusquely, making loyalty sound like a criminal offence…”

“The biggest crime of all, of course, is women loving each other. The slightest suspicion of a lesbian relationship leads to instant separation, invites sexist abuse from the jail staff and provides plenty of juicy gossip for everyone else. It’s only after I understood the deep phobia, rather horror, of lesbianism felt by the jail authorities that I was able to figure out why no One is allowed to wear ‘manly clothes here, such as I-shirts, jeans, trackpants, etc., and is forced to wear either a sari or a Punjabi suit WITH A DUPATTA. Yoga clothes are the only exception, and that too, a recent one.” 

Chapter: Winter Again – The Darkness Within

“On 1 November, I mark my second birthday in custody. Diwali was in late October this year, and Shoma Di has saved a bit of her Diwali faral (snacks, in Marathi) as a treat for me. She gives me a beautiful card with a hand-drawn Sudoku on the front and a ballerina dancing away to her freedom’ on the inside. It’s an ode to my Sudoku mania.

When I was ‘outside’, I would do Sudokus on the long metro rides from my home in Faridabad to the National Law University in Dwarka, where I was teaching, or to escape from the depressing news in the newspaper, but only the easy ones. It seemed such a waste of time to bother with the tough ones. In jail, time passes at a tortoise’s pace and I have become an expert at the tough Sudokus.

I do it the long-hand way, filling pages with the 9×9 grids and working out the alternatives. Now I can do nearly all the Sudokus in both our newspapers – including the Hard’ and Extreme ones.

Numbers are reassuring things – they are neither left wing nor right wing, they don’t change with governments, with freedom or bondage. You only need to focus on the digits 1 to 9 being in the right place…”

“So much has been happening in this one year, of which we can only hear echoes, see shadows. The Modi government has been reelected at the Centre, and a new Congress government has come to power in Chhattisgarh. Article 370 has been abrogated, a new Citizenship Amendment Act has been passed that is seeing widespread protests … It feels so strange to be out of touch with political developments. I miss my trade union comrades, my lawyer colleagues; it’s almost like an ache. I long for news of how they are coping. My biggest purchase from the Canteen is always notebooks and pens. I meticulously make brief notes on the news items that interest me: news of workers’ struggles, talk of new labour codes; land and displacement issues, poverty and inequality; the latest judgments and gossip about courts and judges. And of course … anything and everything to do with my home state, Chhattisgarh.

Why? After all, I know I will never read those notes again. Perhaps it is my little act of protest, of stubbornness. To say no, I will not be cut off, I refuse to be cut off, my knowing all this still matters, I will live to fight another day.”

The very cold water is quite invigorating after the first mugful bites you with a shock. We have to ask permission from our Madams on guard to dry our clothes in the patch of sun on the Stage, because otherwise they will take forever to dry. Shoma Di patiently waits till the afternoon bandi when one of the Madams can escort her to the solar heater to get half a bucket of hot water to ease the pain in her knees. Our neighbours of course try their best to hog as much hot water as they can and grudge her even her half bucket. The Madams chose diplomatically to pander to their pressure. Whatever momentous things might be happening in the outside world, the mundane daily struggle of our existence in jail goes on unabated.”