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Behind prison's concrete walls, religious faith can become a doorway to personal freedom. What happens to that faith when those walls dissipate?

Years later, I find people outside are also trying to escape. They live for the Friday night and dread the Monday morning.

To understand life you have to understand the ironies of a prisoner who wants to escape. I was in charge of the prison laundry. One day, I saw a guy peeping through a laundry bag. I thought, fair enough, he was only in for robbery. I did nothing, so the guy escaped. He got to London. I thought this guy was desperate to escape so he deserved the freedom, but do you know what he did? He was found in his favourite pub after committing another crime. He had to serve a sentence twice as long. It did him no good.

Outside, we do the same thing. As soon as we get our escape we don't know how to deal with it.

K.: This is how Bee had viewed the seven years he spent in the North of England, away from his family and friends. At the time in their lives when youths his age were getting in and out of their designer gear, he started a journey that led him through the deep crevices of his mind. He found that if you kept your mind on a leash you could control and train it.

Despite Bee's protests that he was not ready to tell his story, we met at my flat to transcribe Bee's tale. "We are never ready to recall our journey, not until our journey is completed," Bee objected. To that I replied, "But every stage of the journey is still the journey." And so over the warmth of tea began the recital....

Bee: I think I'm 30 odd something. I don't think about marking off the calendar. It's irrelevant. Does it make me better if I'm 45 or 25? Some people see things in time span. I see things as now — what I see around me now. In my journey, time is not of essence. Time doesn't really mean anything. It's not about how long it takes, I measure things by getting on and doing things.

I walk everywhere. I could get there faster if I take the tube, but I walk home two miles from work everyday. I enjoy the walk. You could see anything on the way. Nothing is ever the same... you sense different things. Walking is above ground. Even when it's raining I like the sense of moving. When I can't sleep, I put on my coat and walk about 5-6 miles in any direction. It dates back to the prison courtyard. In the depth of winter, I'd be the only one out there. The courtyard was the size of two rugby fields. It was green with high walls and wardens at every corner. They had to be out there because I was out there. Initially I did it to tease them. Then I went out to toughen myself, to keep my mind active. Imagining my dreams, relationships and politics, in prison and beyond. In a cell you do things, but it gives a different feeling when you're walking. Rain hitting your beard, the snow biting at your feet.... The blowing wind brings feelings and new images. Before prison I had spent my life capturing images. I was a photographer.

I used to have this dream in prison — I'm in Alaska with a rucksack and I'm walking. It was a persistent dream, for a while I didn't think about it. Maybe it was inspired by my prison yard walks. That was a nice image, it was comforting. I don't think it was about escapism, it was about walking.

K.: Bee sits by the window, and looks outward, as he talks. He wants to be able to look outside. "This tea is really nice," Bee says to me of the hibiscus tea he has brought. Jazz FM on the radio adds to the flavour.

Bee: Walking is something special to me. I feel the physical movement from one place to another. It gives a different dimension to the thought process.

My first walk out of prison was when they let me out of the gates in the morning with a free bus ticket to the train station. I saw two Special Branch officers who were hired to make sure I boarded the train to London. I looked at the bus ticket. I could take the bus. I had a choice. I didn't have a map. I didn't know the way to the train station, not yet. I chose to walk, hugging the first tree on my way — a moment of insanity. Remember, I hadn't been near a tree for seven years. You could only see the tops of trees when you were being moved from one prison to another. There are no trees in strip cells or special secure units.

Before I went to prison, I wouldn't take a walk anywhere without a map. Then I was always looking over my shoulders, in case I had a tail on me. I'll probably speak about it later on.

K.: Bee is on a journey to tell his story but he has not yet decided what he is going to say. His earlier protests against speaking on his experiences, however, have receded beneath the flow of his narration. Words now pour openly from a deep reservoir. They form a river seeking a direction.

I didn't know the way to the train station, not yet. I chose to walk, hugging the first tree on my way - a moment of insanity. Remember, I hadn't been near a tree for seven years. You could only see the top of trees when you were being moved from one prison to another.

Bee: I came to a Catholic Church. If you can picture it, there I was along with this timid old guy. I had on a white long coat I had made in prison and a black turban. It was the "bee's knee's" — it was the best. My beard was long and I had a saffron scarf around my neck. I asked him where his collection box was. He was terrified at seeing me, I think. I wanted to do what I would have done at a Sikh Gurdwara. Maybe he thought I wanted to steal a candlestick, or the box. He showed me the box and his faith, if shaken, was restored.

I then took the train to London. The train was crowded at 9.00 am. It was a long time since I had seen so many people in a train... children so small. You look at peoples' faces and think, 'This is just another commuter day for these people.' For me it was the start of reality.

In prison they say, "You've got to 'hit the street running."

K.: What do you mean?

Bee: When you go out you have to be very careful because the police are going to try to get you back inside.

When I was at the platform, after a few hours of being out, I was still dazed. On the train I realised, with the Special Branch gone, I was on my own. They had made sure I was on the train, on my journey. I realised that I had to "hit and run" because I still had my friend, Kay, inside. She needed me to be outside. I went to jail for a reason — I was caught, basically. I don't regret being caught; it was an occupational hazard from day one. I understand the Khalsa (the Sikh Brotherhood) was at war. Just because I was released the war had not stopped. On the train I was taking a deep breath and saying "The war is still on. I have no resources. I can't trust anyone and the one person I can trust is still inside."

I felt like I had left someone behind, it was an ugly feeling, it brought me down.

I got off at King's Cross in London. There was a jazz shop nearby. I went in to get a Nina Simone record.

K.: Bee reverts to his life in prison. He remembers listening to music inside.

Bee: In my cell there was a rug, a CD radio system worth £500.00 and a makeshift soldering iron to repair radios. I sometimes also 'forgot' to return the prison iron that I would use to heat my food when we were locked in during a security alert. These weren't privileges. This was when I was on the main block. I was a category A (high security) prisoner still.

K.: How could you afford these things?

Bee: I would work for other prisoners, e.g. on their appeals, or case reviews or I would make them a jacket or two. So I would charge them by phone-cards — that was legitimate currency. I would then trade with phone-cards. I taught myself how to do these things in prison.

I once made our art teacher's father a silk tie. In the art department there were rags. For dye, we would use beetroot and tea. The needle and thread was no problem. Once, when I was raided, they took away "Matilda" from my cell. She was a mannequin made of a mop that I had used to fit my hats while I stitched them. There was a petition out to let 'Matilda' back into my cell because people were using my hats. I was the only person in prison who wore dress trousers. I tailored them. The authorities found my trousers to be a security risk. Jeans were part of prison attire, but not trousers because you could disguise yourself and escape. Me, escape with my black turban? They couldn't take the turban off me. I was allowed half a turban's length. I couldn't hang with it. But I still wore a full-length turban — I just stitched together two short lengths. They never knew that. In my seven years I had three turbans. I still have them. I got them from a sympathiser whilst on remand — not while I was a serving prisoner as I had no visitors. The priests were too scared to visit me.

Everything was in CD's. I lied and said I had bought a vinyl not long ago. He said, "We haven't sold a vinyl for years." He asked where I had been. I almost said, "In prison."

K.: Going back to King's Cross Station... I still cannot figure out how you got the stereo system.

Bee: Stereo systems were farewell presents from prisoners. After seven years I had made enough braces, belts, hats and jackets for people who had left before me. So, they had left me their belongings on their way out of prison. Sometimes they would come back and I'd return their things.

I'll tell you a funny story. We had a smackey who was hooked on drugs. He was a Kashmiri who was in for a political crime. He was innocent, because we knew the confession was beaten out of him. He was an intellectual, but timid. There was no way he could have committed the crime. I am able to tell after a half-hour chat with someone if he could have committed the crime. The Kashmiri couldn't have done it. We used to talk to each other. One day, he bangs on my cell door asking to borrow my radio. I tell myself don't lend him it, he'll probably sell it for his smack. He says he needs it to listen to a late football match. It's a small transistor radio where I picked up the world service. I lent it to him and forgot about it. Two days later someone else asks me for my radio. I say, "Go over to the Kashmiri for the radio.' He doesn't see the Kashmiri or my radio."

He asked me what I was doing this for. I said, "It was for Punjab. He didn't quite understand the word explosives. I said "Bomb." He said, "Boom?" He didn't understand my Punjabi much, which was poor, having spoken nothing but English and a little Gaelic in prison.

K.: Bee has shifted his story into the present tense. It is visible from his face that he is picturing himself in the prison again.

Bee: I go up to the Kashmiri who says he'll get it for me. In the meantime, someone else has seen my radio in another cell. The new keeper bought it from the Kashmiri. I confront the Kashmiri who says he sold it to buy two phone-cards to call his dying mother. His thirst for drugs was so great that he was prepared to have his mother ill. So it became a joke in prison — borrowing my radio became a euphemism for buying drugs. How do you deal with that? You know he's innocent, but he'll die in prison because of his drugs. The Kashmiri had just given up. I saw a lot of that.

K.: Bee looks out of the window in silence, then turns back to me to continue.

Bee: Going back to King's Cross Station... I am without an I.D. in my pocket. I realise I am in a new world. Where was I going to spend the night? I had less than £100, which was two weeks unemployment benefit.

From my right, I heard a loud continuous sighing sound getting louder. By now I was getting used to the street sounds. I see a black guy, stark naked, running across my path, followed by security men and a policeman. This was the last thing I was expecting to happen. I was supposed to be thinking serious thoughts about my life. I found the scene humorous. It wasn't funny, "hee hee hee". It was funny, "Welcome to the City".

I knew of the jazz shop from before. There was a song of Nina Simone I wanted to hear, Brown New Day. It's about waking up and seeing a whole new world in front of you. The shop assistant said, 'Yes, we have Nina Simone,' and so I looked around. Everything was in CD'S. I lied and said I had bought a vinyl not long ago. He said, 'We haven't sold a vinyl for years.' He asked, where I had been. I almost said, 'In prison.' We had a conversation about jazz. I thought the less I thought about prison the better.

I had some contacts that were supposed to have arranged a place for me to stay. I rang a couple of them. I knew they didn't want me around. They suddenly became ultra-busy. I was prepared for this. I was taken by another contact to someone else's place. It was unsuitable. I had been lied to. I was told there was a flat for me. On arriving, I found it was a house where the owner wasn't expecting me.

I was amongst other strangers for my first night. My contact had told me not to tell my host about my background. Whilst I wanted to forget I had been in prison, I didn't want to hide or runaway from it. You're just out, you're really keen about being with your people, but here I couldn't even say where I was from. Why should I lie? I had not done anything I was ashamed of. My hosts were nice people, but I was not able to know them because I couldn't tell them about me. In prison you know whom you're dealing with. The room I was given at the hosts' home had one bed, one table, one chair and one wardrobe. In prison it was ditto. I would have preferred a mattress on the floor, and nowhere to hang my clothes, if I was with people I could relate to.

In prison you always knew everything about everyone. It was only the sex offenders who hid their background. They were considered pariahs. I felt that if I stayed in this accommodation I would be in the same mindset as them. I didn't care if it was raining. I thanked my host who was very concerned. I made my excuses and left in the pouring rain.

I rang my sister to tell her what was happening. It's one thing knowing you're alone, but to actually feel there's no one out there you can trust.... That night, knowing I couldn't roam the streets with only a letter in my pocket saying I've just been released from prison, I went to sleep under a tree close to a British Rail line. I put my bags down and slept under a March sky. I felt really good. My coat kept me comfortable — first day out and you sleep under a tree.

Next morning it was dead cold. By this time, my sister and my friend in prison, Kay, are worried about me. There is one thing I love about my friend Kay; If there's no option, she'll create an option. If there's no way out, she'll find one.

Kay rang around from prison, and got hold of a Sikh Gurdwara official to say there's someone who needs accommodation in the Gurdwara. I got to the Gurdwara and paid my respects. The priest eventually came round to talk to me. He didn't know my background, but the Gurdwara official did. The priest asked me personal questions. He asked me routinely where I came from - I said, "Prison." He nodded. No judgement. He wanted to know more, "Why were you in prison?"

"Conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to possess explosives."

He asked me what I was doing this for. I said, "It was for Punjab." He didn't quite understand the word explosives. I said, "Bomb." He said, "Boom?" He didn't understand my Punjabi much, which was poor, having spoken nothing but English and a little Gaelic in prison.

He welcomed me. Nothing less.

All the people who were martyred for the faith, they had ended their journey on earth believing there was something better. Our forefathers had made Punjab the breadbasket of India. It was for that spirit. That's what I believe in.

Next day, as I was looking out of my room whilst tying my turban after a shower, I saw someone working in the garden with kids playing around him. It was Cee, someone who I would later become friends with. I thought, "That's very nice"... here was someone not looking like a Sikh, no beard, nor turban but he's wearing a steel bangle. I went down. Cee said, "Hello." He was hesitant and didn't ask many questions. He said he worked there. I thought he was employed by the Gurdwara. I saw a pile of junk that Cee had cleared from the garden. I asked the priest if Cee needed a hand to clear the rubbish near the garden.

Within the space of an hour I had cleared the junk and it felt as if I had cleared the cobwebs in my mind, to me it was a noraml thing to do. A job gets done because it needs doing. Another priest came up to me and offered me tea. He was shocked that the rubbish that had been lying there for a few years had been cleared. I knew he liked me straightaway. He started advising me about how to cope outside prison. He asked me about my religious views. I explained to him how confusing things were. About the past. How I felt about how I stood. He said something very nice.... He said he was proud of me that I had kept my faith this long, in the Khalsa and God. He wanted to know how I did it. I said, "I just didn't give up." It's not the buildings or the place I believe in, I meant the Gurdwara and Punjab. It's something more than that. I didn't say this to him. All the people who were martyred for the faith, they had ended their journey on earth believing there was something better. Our forefathers had made Punjab the breadbasket of India. It was for that spirit. That's what I believe in. All the visits I didn't get from the priests, whilst in prison, were being made up for by this priest. I had friends in this place. Cee turned out to be an artist. The garden was being transferred from Cee's tip to his canvas. He said he was working for God. It was a Gurdwara garden.

Prison is very destructive. The creativity of the garden brought me to the ground so I began to think clearly, no longer as a prisoner. I felt good. In the morning I could work in the garden with someone who was genuinely interested in the garden. He wasn't interested in my past. The only advice he gave me was not to trust anyone. Was I still 'inside'? I was taking in everything. I was learning all the time. My worst fear inside was that I couldn't cope outside. Being in the Gurdwara was different. If I hadn't gone to the Gurdwara I may have done something stupid and gone back inside.

There was another person I met at the Gurdwara. He used to turn up to read the Holy Book. I would make him some paraunthay — a Punjabi bread griddled with butter. I told him my political views. One day he turned around and said something bizarre, "I wished there was no religion." That knocked me out. I found a religious guy regretting it.

He said, "Religion is a way of life. When people take it on, they don't appreciate the values of the religion. They see another thing they have to deal with — to take or reject. Religion becomes a chain instead of a tool. Religion is a manual, be it for Christians, Sikhs or Muslims. Being a Sikh isn't wearing a turban only. It's how you think."

K.: As Bee pauses, a news-voice on Jazz FM announces King Hussein's death, referring to it as his final journey. Bee dismisses it.

The Sunday Times headlines today said "How the future will shape you?" That's what I resist. I will shape the future - not the other way round.

Bee: How can the dead make a journey? Our journeys are made whilst the soul is within us. On dying, the soul leaves behind mere matter. The soul then continues with its journey, if it hasn't reached its destination.

K.: Bee is eager to continue about his encounter with the Sikh at the Gurdwara.

Bee: After speaking to this Sikh, I asked myself, "Why are you a Sikh? So what, if you spent years in prison to preserve Sikhi?" In the Gurdwara, what struck me was that Sikhi could be preserved not by becoming martyrs, but by living for it. That meant cutting out all the rubbish and pretension but keeping the values of the Gurbani (Sikh Scriptures). Yes, we're still at war but it needs a new strategy. Teaching one-self what it means to be a Sikh, that's something very important. I no longer felt a need to take The Form (beard and turban) just because I was born a Sikh. I had to start from scratch and learn what it is to be a Sikh. This Sikh who had travelled around the world felt this way. I could relate to him. He was a signpost in my life. I told you time is now. This is why I think so. My thinking was shared by the 'now' this Sikh presented to me, not the past in what I believed. So that's when I started a new journey. I enjoyed being with him. This is partly why I don't wear a turban anymore. I'm still finding myself. I now want to treat my religion as an opportunity, not an obligation. If I don't drink or smoke it is because I want to take the opportunity to have a healthy body and soul, one that is awake, not because I have an obligation. I do not want to treat the 'don'ts' in religion as something I must resist. What you resist persists. I want to learn how to turn away by making different choices. That's the path I am on now. For example, if you believe you should stop drinking tea because tannin and caffeine is bad, you can't do that by resisting tea. What do you do at teatime? You choose to have herbal tea. All you do is change your choice. There are no good or bad actions, only good or bad outcomes. If the outcome hurts you then the action was bad for you. If you, however, had expected the outcome then, whilst the pain is there, it may not be painful and the action may not be bad.

The reason I'm doing this interview is not because an editor wants a story, but because I feel the need to give to others around me. Imagine someone picks up this interview in a train in Canada. They've had a bad day at the office. They read this interview and in it they find something to smile about. For a brief moment they can relax. Remember what I said about acting for the now? That's why I keep doing what I do, so others around me get something. Like this priest who appears from nowhere and changes my life.

Talking to the priest, I started asking myself if I was being constructive. I didn't see what I was doing as being praised anywhere in the Gurbani. It was no different from a Catholic's Sunday confession, if only to commit sins every other day of the week.

How is it that so-called devout Muslims and Catholics sell drugs and end up in prison and then continue to sell more drugs? You begin to compare yourself with them. You find that you too may be doing something for the wrong reason.

In prison, I was no more or less religious. But I kept a turban. Firstly, to keep a promise to someone, and secondly because I wanted to keep The Form. I felt it was the right thing to do. I felt that in a closed environment, I was learning more about Sikhi. I felt prepared to keep my beard and turban.

Later on, coming out of prison, I thought, 'Have I learnt anything from that?' You think something is not right. You get to a stage when you think you've learnt everything. I felt I hadn't. I felt I could not learn and keep The Form at the same time. The Form is one way of making a statement to God that one is a Sikh.

I felt I was wearing a school uniform, but I didn't belong to the school. A friend's mother who had been reading Gurbani since she was a young girl, had told me she had never understood the Gurbani as much until she started teaching it to others recently.

Wearing The Form was like saying to God, 'I look the part so let me in.' It was not the true thing to do. Sikhi is more than The Form. I'm looking for this 'more thing'. That's the journey I'm on.

I really want to become a good Sikh. In that direction, I'm learning more about it. It's no good just reacting. I'm trying to understand the daily prayer. I try to associate a good feeling, the sunshine, a good sky and the rain on my head with the prayers. The Sunday Times headlines today said 'How the future will shape you?' That's what I resist. I will shape the future — not the other way round.

K.: The interview meanders naturally. No maps, no paths. Bee's a natural storyteller.

Bee: On the tube to work, I often see a person buried in his office papers. It's a packed train. He looks up, sees a woman with child but continues sitting. This is a person on a journey he has taken reluctantly. He doesn't enjoy his journey anymore. He's travelling through a terrain travelled before.

I see my work as something I do until it stops becoming a challenge. I don't call it work. Work is doing something you don't enjoy. I need the money to pay my rent. I could 've stayed on the unemployed list and no one would have grumbled. After all, prison doesn't prepare you for work. In fact prison militates against work.

When I got out I had skills at desktop publishing which I had acquired in prison. I couldn't go back to photography—too much passion. At job interviews they would ask for references. I would ask them to ring my tutor at the prison art department. They wouldn't have me as soon as they found out I had been in prison.

So I didn't work for four months and decided to go back to college to study computer networking, which got me my present job.

Even there I was asked if I had previous convictions. The course co-ordinator wanted to know what the offences were, but she got me on the course notwithstanding. She later told me that she got me on the course because of my blatant honesty.

K.: Our interview had taken a good part of the morning. I still had not got him to talk much about prison. I try. "What was it like in prison? How did you pass the time of day? Did your mind travel whilst the body remained in a cell?"

Bee: I did not hang personal photos in my cell. The only photo I now have on the wall is of me, with a cup in my hand at the edge of a rock looking over a valley, taking a rest from my walks.

In prison when they saw my steel bangle I was told I had to take it off. I refused. The tension escalated. The end result was a warden with a broken nose, and I had a cracked jaw. No questions followed... I was sent to the punishment block for two hours. In the normal run, a prisoner goes through adjudication following an incident like that. I was sent straight to the main block. I thought, "These people don't even follow their own rules." I continued to wear my steel bangle as if they couldn't take it off me.

I enjoy breathing, because I can get on and do what I want to do.

K.: What were you like as a child?

Bee: I remember running away from home when I was six. I went out of the backyard and liked the freedom of walking down the road without having to hold another's hand. I remember walking into a milk bar and asking for a strawberry milkshake. I was given one. The woman sat me down. Before I could finish it, a policewoman walked in and asked me what I was doing. I kept talking to her until she let me go. I said I would go home, but that I would want to come out here again.

K.: What are the small things you enjoy in life?

Bee: I enjoy breathing, because I can get on and do what I want to do.

K.: What kept you positive while inside? What kept you going?

Bee: My faith in what I believed in. I was not there with guilt. Now when I go to prison to see my friend, Kay, the idea of prison doesn't scare me.

K.: Did the prison teach you?

Bee: The prison didn't teach me anything. My mates taught me everything, so the prison cannot be credited.

K.: Is it easier on the outside?

Bee: We used to say 'when you're out everyday will be great.' I don't think it is. In jail, you're focused. You want to get out. But once you are out, there are more things to worry about.

The idea is not to worry about the journey. It's to just get up and go. The right path may not be found in this life. I may have to leave this journey to start another. The beauty is that we don't know. I can only talk this way because I've lived my life. In a few years I may become a chronic alcoholic and destroy myself, but then again I may not - if only because of my journey where I had placed my spirit first.

The interview was interrupted by a phone-call. A friend rang to say he was in the neighbourhood and could he come over for tea. It was cold outside. Bee and I were unanimous. Hibiscus tea all round. We decided to take a break from our journey. We promised to return to it one day.

Copyright (c) K. Manali 1999

Handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
K. Manali
K. Manali contributed to Rungh Magazine Volume 4 Number 4 - The Journeys Issue.
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