THE morning rays of the sun filter through the glass in the cell at Alcatraz; this is the only connection with the outside world. As Joseph, who is serving a death sentence, basks in the rays, he hears a shriek from a cell down the corridor. The sound is familiar. It is from an inmate who is mentally deranged. The attendant serves him breakfast consisting of dried toast and tea. With a wicked look on his face he tells Joseph, “eat up, you are lucky to get this”. Everybody in Alcatraz is wicked, thinks Joseph.
The time for menial labour nears, but he has already ‘burnt’ his breakfast, so he prepares to work on an empty stomach. The warden opens his cell and leads him to where he will be breaking stones with a pick. The warden tells a young boy, “The more hours you put into your work, the shorter the time of your sentence shall be.” Joseph’s eye focuses on the boy. What could his crime be? He had stolen some goods from a grocer’s at gunpoint. The grocer had tried to stop him and the gun that the boy fired in panic had hit him. The boy was given a lawyer, who had lost the case to the grocer.
Joseph’s son must be of the same age. His thoughts wander back to the times when he used to perch his son on the bicycle to drop him to school. “Come on son, we will stop on the way and you can buy yourself a chocolate.” He loved his children. He also had a daughter. His daughter loved to listen to the stories that he would tell. She sat on his lap, with her gaze fixed on him, devouring every word of the story, he uttered. As he reflected on the past, he felt his heart sink. But did it sink? The prison had really hardened him; hardened a man who was capable of being passionate to the letter E. and how did this come about?
He had been caught red handed, holding the weapon that had killed Brown. Brown was a cruel arms dealer. He had many enemies. They were all out to get him. He sold inferior arms and a couple of times they had backfired causing deaths. It so happened that Joseph visited the arms shop on the day that the dealer was killed. He was lying dead on the floor when Joseph entered the shop. As he picked the gun that had killed the dealer, somebody entered the shop and thought that he had caught the murderer red handed.
And here he was in the cell serving punishment for a crime that he had not committed.
Again his thoughts went back to his son. Well, they did every now and then. But this time a tear rolled down his cheek. So he was still capable of crying. Like all fathers, he had been full of ideas of what he would do with his son’s life, when he was born. Another tear and another, they just would not stop.
Not long after, news spread in the prison about a team of producers arriving from Hollywood. They were looking for a stuntman. One day Joseph found himself facing a producer. Joseph was a well-built man. The producer looked closely at him. “You are the perfect choice”. Then the producer briefed him. “I shall come with my unit”. The film had a shot of a plunge from a bridge into a rapid flowing beneath the bridge. The rapids were also full of rocks the producer told him, “If you live after the final plunge, you are free. What do you stand to lose?” He further added, “You are serving a death sentence, so even if you die from your plunge, it should not make much of a difference”.
The above arrangement had been made between the film folk and the prison authorities.
Wearing the costume that had been given to him by the clothes designer for the film he stood on the bridge from where he was required to dive. The film unit took many takes and finally the day drew close, when he was to take the final plunge from Alcatraz. He would either live or die.
He stood on the bridge, poised to dive, his eyes scanning the rocks and the empty spaces in between. He knew the empty spaces, so well. He knew them with his eyes closed. He had studied them thoroughly. He saw his son waiting for him on the bank with an outstretched arm beckoning Joseph to come to him.
The signal for the dive was give, and with the cameras in position, Joseph leapt into mid-air and the outstretched arm met him as his head touched the water. He had made it. The rock was at a short distance, but he had made it.
He did not surface for quite some time. He was underwater and he would not surface now. Not till he could hold his breathe. He was free and he did not want even the slightest obstacle to come in his way. Maybe if he were to surface soon, an obstacle would come in his way. He was disillusioned with the human race and he had grounds for this. He had just held the gun that had killed the arms dealer and they had locked him up for eternity till this producer came along. And it seemed like his son’s arm was beckoning him. He could not wait to be reunited with his family and now it seemed like the time to be with his family was near. Hope against hope of meeting them now seemed possible.
ZEENAT IQBAL HAKIMJEE
D/o. Late Ahmed F. Jivanjee