1859 is written on the front door.
Cycling in front of the Sante Prison in Paris, I used to notice the occasional one or two people screaming to the walls to to talk to those on the other side. It was such a heart-sickening sight that I never lingered on them: yet when this fragmented scene comes again to my mind, I bitterly regret not to have asked how they could figure out at what time to go, at which side to stand, how could they recognize the sound of their dear ones shuffling the floor beyond the massive walls, how could to be sure that their cries would reach the other side.
I remember the high heels shoes the protagonist of the Old Garden movie threw against the wall when she could not see her lover, a political prisoner in South Korea; although she had moved the warden to allow her in, he had refused to see her to show that his dedication to the cause was total and he would renounce to everything for it. The shoes hit the wall amidst her imprecations to him from outside (i am sure that in korean the short syllabes can fit a lot of swear words in few seconds of dialogue). I did not remember the scene in which she walked away, but the unmoved walls were a quite definitive image of the powerlessness of the singles.
The former Pudu Prison lies shrinking in between a parking and the new road below Berjaya Times Square shopping centre. The old front door stays today firmly shut for those outside and not anymore for the inside guests. There are some remains of murals on the outside walls, i start to walk along to catch some scraps of old stories, yet it feels like coming just after the fire, ashes are still there but they start to be cold. I can choose to tell myself that these heavy and slow footprints, certainly by mistake impressed on the fresh croncrete, are the echo of those many feet allowed to roam free again and yet too oblivious of the life outside to sprint, too used to be still to run. I tell myself that these walls must have been awash with stories and lives, lives spent waiting,remembering, raging, yet just like the very existence of prisons is shunned in our societies, nothing seems allowed to be left here out of that heap of years and days accumulated inside by so many men and women. Here on the outside, the walls only stand pale and short. I notice one person coming out of a cabin , next to it some shirts hanging and drying in the afternoon breeze. I ask one Malay sitting nearby eagerly whether it is a guard that is living there: the malay nods enthusiastically.
“For the prison ?” I ask again
“For the parking” he replies
He points at the arid bleached expanse of sand where two cars are parked.
So no secret is still too big to be carefully protected inside of the prison. And I resign to the fact that the today the wardens are more interested in the outside walls than the inside ones.
I notice ten meters down the walls a pile of gold lined paper and two people burning something. The Malay guy says “prayers, chinese prayers, i do not know what they do…” he pauses and then “I am muslim”.
The two chinese guys have laid several plates full of the sauciest and freshest plates: generously plump fried chicken thighs, round shining boiled eggs, there are even biscuits for the desserts. They burn incense sticks one after the other , their hands fast and precise, as operous as bees. It is the tradition to celebrate this way before beginning a business. When I ask what business they laugh, and then they nod when i point at the parking.
I move on and keep walking along the walls, they are covered in trees.
The barbed wire is collapsing on the walls and the trees are interlacing it with leaves. I keep walking with the dusty sand drying out my heels, they will crack up tonight, the water from my shower will trickle down in this imperceptible white yellow dust.
The watch towers look very short but they must still feel some dignity from their former duty and they are not afraid to defy the tallest and newest building in towns. I find in the rear a a blue painted tin fence. I cautiously step inside, delighted at the thought that i am actually trying to break in into a prison, to find a small camp and people washing cars and people working at some rusty iron bars. Just behind is the entrance to the prison where the bulldozer are meticoulously bringing the place down little by little. The demolition has been decided by the government. The UMNO minister replied to the conservationists that the place is not something they are proud of. This is exactly what the construction manager repeats word by word to Rafi trying to talk us in inside the remains of the prison. “Why do you want to keep this place? This is not something Malaysia is proud of”. I skip the temptation of mulling over the power of the television in this country: the average casual demolition manager adheres perfectly to the words spoken by some high ranked official. No, let us not go there: what interests me more is the why Malaysia is not proud of the prison. An old tv advertising comes to my mind: a black suited business guy walking next to a famished skinny african boy, the boy becoming thinner and more transparent along the way and eventually disappearing. The story intention was to show that is very easy to forget the famished and the poor that do not live in our rich developed country, they just slip out of your mind little by little. A spot like that would never work for a prison. Prison and prisoners are something nobody would ever camp in their mind for more than three minutes. They are commonly on our talk but I cannot see anybody at ease thinking about prisoners and prisons and myself, I do not know where to stand on this. The very same principle for which a human being has to be put away because it does not respect rules set by others is something that still seems very arbitrary to me. Of course I believe that a society needs rules to function , to allow people to live safe and in peace , yet i cannot forget that most of these rules we have never decided, we simply acknowledged them by definition and abided by them. Let’s say they seemed reasonable enough. Again what bestows a man the right to decide the life of another is a tricky subject to defend. This is the blank spot of a society; once upon a time, we thought that the world ended at Gibraltar and nothing was anymore beyond. A prison is the Gibraltar point of our society, the limit to individual freedom, autodetermination.
I do not venture on rehabilitation, which would be the justification for which makes sense to put people away, the way society takes care of those that could not cope with their rules. Again even if the system worked in this sense, still it is imposing rules on other, for their own sake or better for what we think it is their own sake. Anyway, since i realise this is a too wide subject to delve in and above all i fear general terms, after assessing my mental embarassement on the prison concept, i would rather step back to my previous question; again, what the Malaysia government was not proud of : the prisoners or the prison?
Pudu prison must have been quite an infamous place, several blogs write “the windows were as small as the size of a shoebox” and on this i imagine that we are talking not about my boots shoebox but rather my ballerinas one.
At the time of building it, the choice fell on an old chinese cemetery land, roaming grounds for tigers at the end of nineteenth century. The result was an awful epidemic of cholera spurted out from the prison inside wells, contaminated from the old burial ground. It apparently took several years before solving the problem, easy to imagine that improving the prisoners quality of life must have not been a priority at the time.
During Second World War, the british , together with australian and newzelanders, had the chance to see it from the inside when the Japanese used it for the war prisoners.
The last time were it made the highlights was the hanging of two australian charged with drug traffic. The prison had already hosted caning and hanging.
Caning, which i ignored what it was before reading about Pudu, made hair dress and want to dig back its way onto my skin. The most perverse bit of this was having a doctor assisting the prisoner, to make sure he could make its way through , alive and in pain. There is also a mock of fairplay in the procedure: if the official appointed to administer the caning missed one blow , it was still counted as a valid blow. At least every sentenced to the torture had still the right to hope for some good luck.
I agree with the minister: caning and hanging are definitely things not to be proud of. I am not sure that erasing them allows to make up for them.
The only former prisoners that raised their voices for the prison were the australians and newzealanders kept inside by the Japanese. Certainly few people are not afraid to say that they have been in prison. Another blank point is how to accept people living inside prisons, how that happens. Some years ago here in south east asia prisoners staged a prison world football cup (they had enough prisoners from all over the world). And just a couple of weeks ago a Philippines prison saw its courtyard animated by an orange dresses Gangnam dance coreography. Life goes on inside the walls in a very similar way as outside.
The prison is two hundred years old, eight times Rafi age probably. She visited the prison in her primary school, when it was opened as a museum for a short time. Today she works at the sales dept of a big company, although she had studied to be a tour guide. She still brings around some tourists to the major sites on weekends, but she does not want to do that on a permanent basis “ I have such a good job, now”. Rafi stands up to the construction manager and replies “We, young people want to know our past”. At least Malaysia could be proud of this.
Regarding the concept of rules and individuals, there is no better movie than “The children of Belleville”, by the Asghar Farzadi, the incredibly talented director of “One separation”. The story starts in Teheran minor prison, Belleville, and what could be another love story set in a derelict place with an incredible turn of cards becomes a questioning on humane nature and the impossibility of knowing it. Walking out of the movie, we all bore this strange sensation of the murderer that could be inside us, of maybe not being much different than those we would have condemned one hour and half before. And the key of it all is really the “maybe”.
And now i am about to give the ending of the “Old Garden”; the idiot political activist that refuses to see his lover is eventually freed in the 90’s and gets out of prison to know that she has died of cancer one year before. Now he can only throw up his chicoree dish and get to know the daughter he discovers they had. Throughout the fifteen years of separation, notwistanding the absolute absence of letters and visits, although her imprecations and rambling she had kept loving him with a stubborn and matter of fact joy , the last painting she leaves behind is a life size portrait of him when they were young, as she still could see him in her heart. I found this strong belief in her love no matter how stupidly he behaved, one of the most romantic and touching story. Now that i think of it , I realise she went much further in her cause than he actually did with his own.