THE walls of prison are home for 37-year-old Asma Nawab, whose entire youth was spent in the barracks. “The past 20 years have made jail a habit for me, so much so that I used to often feel overwhelmed at the prospect of leaving it,” she says.
“When I was leaving the prison, I wanted to bring something from there as a souvenir with me, something to look at when I would miss the place, when I would feel lonely,” she trails off, then whispers: “I wish I could bring my friends back with me from there.”
Asma was 17 years old when she was accused and imprisoned for murdering her family — parents and a younger brother — in 1998. “I am 37 now... I have spent a larger part of my life there,” she says, adding that she is not sure what she wants to do with her life.
The events that transpired 20 years ago play like a horror film before her eyes. She says she had just completed her intermediate studies and was returning from college with her BA admission form in hand when she found the door to their 80-square-yard home in Saudabad, Malir, ajar. Inside the house were the bloodied bodies of her family. Many know what happened next: an aunt hurling accusations, police, courts, lawyers, judges, conviction, appeals, delays, but finally — freedom.
“My own maternal aunt had turned against me. Now that I am free, I don’t even have her to confront because she is dead. None of my relatives even came to visit me in jail expect for an uncle, who is also no more,” she says.
“So the inmates and jail staff became my family. Sometimes I needed a shoulder to cry on, sometimes they did,” she says. “That’s what families do, don’t they? Jail was my family.”
She recalls a fellow inmate, an old Baloch woman in her seventies. “She was in jail for drug trafficking and she couldn’t walk without support or help. I used to help her with her work. It was satisfying, like helping your elderly relative.”
Asma says she even made friends with the jail staff. “I assisted them as a jail munshi and I also learned a lot from them. They sometimes shared what was going on in their lives,” she says, adding that there were tears in her as well as their eyes when she was finally being released on April 5.
She had realised soon enough that jail was her home, and knew that she would yearn to be back there, secure within the walls of her barracks, during court hearings. “I have seen many changes taking place in the past 20 years. For starters, where there was a muddy ground earlier, there are now tiles; where there was one TV and only two channels, there is now a colour set in every barrack, with multiple channels on offer,” she says, before adding that she has also completed several vocational courses including a Montessori teaching course, computer course, cooking course, beautician’s course and a paralegal certificate course in jail.
Soon after being released, Asma visited her old home. “There is nothing there. It was absolutely bare with the exception of a 1998 calendar and a wall clock. I don’t know what happened to our other belongings,” she says.
What were her child aspirations, I ask, and she replies that she was never the sort who dreamt dreams. “My mother wasn’t well. She had fractured her leg in an accident and they had to put in a rod there. Then she had also had her gall bladder removed. There were other health issues as well so I used to do whatever I could.”
So she cooked and cleaned around the house and continued with her education. “I looked forward to graduating and getting a job. My mother worked at a well-known pharmaceutical company which had a policy of hiring children in place of their retiring parents. I thought maybe I could fill in after completing my education,” she says.
But that dream is now over. “Now I want to help other women like me. I am a survivor. Maybe I can give them hope as well as some assistance as far as their individual cases are concerned,” she says.
Her disenchantment with the ‘NGO’ lot, however, has left her bitter. “I used to feel like I was a zoo animal when NGO representatives visited us in jail. They would stare at us for entertainment,” she says.
“They assume we were all guilty, which is not always the case as there are under-trial prisoners and convicts who may have been falsely accused, too, in jail. That is why, one day [when they came to visit], I blasted them for their way of thinking,” she says.
With no where to go for now, Asma is staying at an accommodation arranged for her by her lawyer.Advocate Javed Ahmed Chhatari has been her counsel since day one. He says that he represented her free of charge, and helped her financially in prison as well. “I did that because I had faith in her despite her getting a death sentence,” he says, adding: “Now I will also help in her rehabilitation process.”
Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2018