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Mother Teresa once said – “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” The day Alokananda Roy walked into Calcutta’s Presidency Jail on International Women’s Day, 2007, she did exactly that. Or perhaps a little more than that. As a guest speaker, she was invited by the Inspector General of Prisons, B D Sharma, to the Presidency Jail in Kolkata, but the visit changed her perception about a prison forever.

IGP Sharma, who was ushering in reforms in the jail and touching the lives of prisoners, had invited Alokananda Roy to the women’s ward in the hope that she might be able to do something.  When the programme ended, Alokananda noticed that while the women were being involved in many creative pursuits, a good number of young men who were walking around aimlessly though they had nothing to look forward to.The men numbered around 2000 and this got her thinking. On the spur of the moment almost, she decided she had to do something for them.

She came up with a programme that was much bigger in scope than what IGP Sharma had in mind and decided to train these male convicts in dance, in order to bring a sense of new meaning into their lives. Most of the convicts were rapists and murderers who listened to her and scoffed at her idea. Nigel Akkara, was one of them and he had no clue that his life was about to change. He had been running with gangs since he was in school. Caught by the police while still in college, he was in jail for kidnapping, extortion and being an accessory to murder. His initial reaction was that this lady had “gone off her head,” or else why would anyone come to the prison to teach 50 prisoners who were serving life sentences for the most heinous of crimes. And yet, he decided to give it a shot. Instead of brushing it aside after a few days of watching from the sidelines, he realised that he had actually got a second lease of life as he found that he had got more than just a dance teacher in her.

Since the convicts identified dance with femininity, Roy decided to start off with training them in ‘Kalaripayattu’, the ancient Kerala martial arts form. This drew a good response. In six months, the convicts were ready to perform a dance drama, based on Tagore’s composition, Valmiki Pratibha. In the early days, all the inmates called her Madam. As time passed, she became Ma to everyone doing nothing but wholeheartedly accepting them with love, as one of her own.

She taught them how to brandish swords and twirl scarves and the basic steps that they would require of jumping and kicking in rhythm and in unison.

Nigel acting in the play Valmiki, organised inside the Presidency Jail.

Nigel acting in the play Valmiki, organised inside the Presidency Jail.

During its’ first performance outside the jail, four guards accompanied Nigel. He remembers walking out onto the stage. He was overwhemed with the response and the experience of performing to a packed audience. When he saw their response, he became so emotional that he began to cry. He had found meaning in his life and now there was no looking back. Nigel’s life was touched with positivity and had changed forever!He has been performing since then, throughout the country and abroad as well.

In 2012, when Valmiki Pratibha was staged for the 50th time, it became a rare landmark considered to be unparalleled in the history of prisons anywhere in the world. What started as an experiment in culture therapy for hardened criminals, had reached a climax, as lifers performed for the public and convinced them that they were artists too in their own right. Nigel, being an ex-convict at the centre of this high-voltage production, earned the sobriquet of a real-life Valmiki.

In 2007, when the experiment started, Nigel was a dreaded inmate with at least 18 charges. The unbelievable transformation, he says, he owes to music, that came to him like manna from heaven and awakened deep spiritual insights. The 35 other inmates who performed the play are still serving their sentences. They are given separate lessons. But when they come to perform together, they work in harmony and perfect synchronisation.

This play in turn has subsequently inspired a Bengali feature film,Muktodhara‘ (The Flow of Freedom) which saw Nigel play himself in a story that was a reflection of his own life events.

Since he left prison in 2009 after being acquitted, Nigel has gone through a tough battle to eke out a living. In spite of being an accountancy graduate, Nigel was rejected at numerous interviews the moment he mentioned his nine years in jail. Keen on proving himself, he took out a loan from his mother and set up a housekeeping and pest-control services concern. Here, IG Sharma, and Alokananda Roy came forward to help him by standing surety. When he started his own company, he made sure he employed ex-convicts for jobs as cleaners, pest control technicians and even security guards.

Alokananda Roy says she always reminds cheering audiences that the concert is not the feel-good end of this story. She insists that the only way to help these convicts is to reform them and then, once they have turned over a new leaf, it is imperative to accept them for who they are. “Let this acceptance not end this evening”- she tells people when they come to watch a performance.

Alokananda may be just one example of her kind and one can only hope that there are several such untold stories around the world. In particular, at the Tihar prison – supposedly the largest prison in Asia, the prisoners are being taught yoga and meditation so they can move on from their past. The prisoners are then taught skills they can use to find employment when they leave. Alokananda has also set up TouchWorld to rehabilitate those whom she has known and understood through her dance project in the prisons.

Nigel has managed a contract to maintain the gardens and premises of the Regional Institute of Correctional Administration in Dumdum, as also the sprawling quarters of police personnel in Alipore. He already has 12 people working under him and is keen on employing ex-convicts like him who are shunned by society.

With true grit, determination and hard work Alokananda Roy has shown us that nothing could be truer than that. We must never doubt that even one thoughtful, committed, citizen can change the world.

It is said that dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence. Alokananda’s work shows us that change can come in many forms in people’s lives. It might come forcefully like a tidal wave, or creep along incrementally like a glacier. Einstein once said that the world as we have created it, is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.

Possibly, it is the only thing that ever has.