Nineteen-year-old Kanhaiya Sharma hugs a small plastic bag to his chest while walking briskly through the crowded lanes of Kanpur in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. He can’t help but smile as he nears home – a sparse room in a rehabilitation centre run by a charity, where he lives with his mother Vijai Kumari. “This is something I’ve been wanting to do for so long,’’ he says, clutching the bag even tighter.

The moment he steps inside the compound, Vijai rushes to hug her son. In their room, he carefully hands over the bag. Inside is a yellow sari, a colour he knows his 50-year-old mother loves. “Do you like it?” he asks. She’s speechless, in tears, and can only nod.

“I’ve been saving my money to get you this,’’ Kanhaiya says.

Vijai turns to a friend who is standing outside. “This is the son who saved my life and who gave me the best gift ever,” she says. But she’s not referring to the sari. Instead she explains, “He rescued me from jail where I spent two decades of my life.’’

On October 22, 1993, Vijai, who lived with her husband Kanti Prasad and two children, a boy, Ravi Sharma and a girl Chandrawati, in a village in the Aligarh district of Uttar Pradesh, was convicted of killing a neighbour’s child, who was found dead in a rubbish heap in October 1989 – a crime she denies.

Pregnant with her third child Kanhaiya at the time, Vijai was sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to Lucknow’s Adarsh Nari Bandi Niketan women’s prison.

“I thought I’d die there,’’ she says. “People told me no one ever gets out from there.’’ She gave birth to Kanhaiya four months after going into prison and, ignored by her family following her conviction which they felt brought shame upon the family, she was forced to raise the baby boy in jail surrounded by convicts.

“Nobody from my family including my two sisters and two brothers came to see me or enquire about my condition in there,’’ says Vijai. “I was a forgotten woman.’’

Left to languish

Vijai’s husband Kanti Prasad, now 56, did appeal to the Allahabad High Court and sought bail, which was granted in 1994 on the condition that he provide a personal bond of Rs5,000 (Dh300) and two sureties who would pay the sum if he defaulted on the payment.

However, he did not pursue it, claiming he couldn’t afford it, and Vijai continued to languish in jail. “My husband came to see me once a long time ago to tell me that he’d remarried and that our elder son had died of a dog bite. But that was it, I had no contact with anyone else from the outside world,’’ says Vijai.

Kanhaiya was her only solace and she doted on him in jail. All day the little boy would run around in the open areas and play with the convicts and at night he’d sleep next to her.

He lived with his mother for six years after which, following prison rules, he was moved to a government-run juvenile home. “I was very upset when he went away,’’ she says. “I couldn’t sleep, but I consoled myself thinking that at least he is alive and growing up somewhere. 
A prison is not the place for a young boy.’’

The juvenile home arranged for Kanhaiya to visit Vijai every fortnight. “They were the bright days in my life during those years behind bars,’’ she says. As he grew older, Kanhaiya asked 
Vijai why she was there and she told him that she had been wrongly blamed for a crime.

Kanhaiya was enrolled in a government school in Lucknow where he studied until 
Class Eight before dropping out. “I don’t count the first 18 years of my life as real,” he says. 
“I sometimes get angry that there was no one to help me, they just left my mum and I to rot. 
I just wasted 18 years. I didn’t deserve that.’’

When he turned 18 last year, the home sent him to the Uttar Raksha Avam Punarvasan Kendra, a Kanpur-based rehabilitation centre. Among its many roles, it teaches children whose parents are in prison a skill so they can make a living.

Kanhaiya spent three months being trained as a garment packer before finding a job at a factory, earning Rs3,000 (Dh180) a month.

“Straight away I began saving some money to see if I could help my mother get out of jail,’’ he says. “She was falsely convicted and had already spent too many years behind bars. I wanted her out of prison. I missed her so much and I wanted her to be with me.’’

Even after moving to Kanpur, an hour and a half away by bus from Lucknow, Kanhaiya never missed his fortnightly visits to see her.

“I couldn’t wait to see her, but I didn’t tell anyone that I had a mother who was in jail. 
I guessed people would not trust me or give 
me a chance to prove myself if they knew that one of my parents is a convict.

“Many people would think just because my mother is in jail – whether she committed the crime or not – I must be a criminal too.’’

An uphill task

Kanhaiya spent every waking moment trying to find a way to help his mother. But not being very literate and with no friends or family to turn to, it was an uphill task.

“Until a year ago, I’d never seen a real train or a car except on the TV in the children’s home,” he says. “I lived a very secluded life, first in prison and then in the children’s home. Then when I began learning packing and went out into the real world, I realised it’s a crazy place where you have to be street smart to survive on your own. I had to learn very quickly.’’

While he was coping with life alone, he saved his salary in the hope he could secure his mother’s release. “I was determined to somehow get her out of there,’’ he says.

Then Vijai received some good news: a woman she had befriended in jail was given bail, and she suggested that Vijai might be able to get bail, too. She gave her the number of a lawyer, Arvind Kumar Singh, from Allahabad, and Vijai passed it on to Kanhaiya during one 
of his visits.

The teenager did not waste any time and promptly contacted the lawyer, who agreed to fight their case. Kanhaiya had saved up enough to pay for the lawyer’s fees and other court costs, so began the process with the lawyer. But there was a surprise awaiting them: they found out that Vijai had been granted bail back in 1994, but her husband didn’t arrange for the bond money and the guarantors, so the case got buried.

On finding out about this, the lawyer quickly approached the Allahabad High Court and sought Vijai’s release.

The court summoned Kanhaiya in April, this year. In the court, the young man broke down and pleaded for his mother’s freedom.

Taking into account the fact that she had already been granted bail, the court ordered that Vijai be released immediately. It also directed the state government to compensate the woman adequately for the unnecessary years she spent behind bars.

On May 4 this year, Kanhaiya arrived at the prison with the court papers setting his mother free. Nervous, excited and overjoyed, the boy had to wait several hours outside the jail gate while her papers were processed. When she finally emerged, Kanhaiya burst into tears and rushed to hug her.

“I couldn’t believe it,’’ he says. “In fact I still can’t believe she’s free and that we are together outside the walls of the jail.

“I still remember the years I spent with her in the jail and the day when I was taken away to the juvenile home.

“I hated being away from her, I hated the place I lived in and I hated the place that my mother was locked up in. Seeing her walk away from that jail was the best day of my life.’’

Finally free

Vijai is delighted to be free. “I feel like I’ve just been born again. I spent so many years away from the real world. If it wasn’t for my son, I’d still be prison,’’ she says. “He’s wonderful – he gave me my freedom.’’

Recently Vijai took Kanhaiya to Farkana village where her husband now lives. She showed him the road to her home although 
she did not want to go to her village. “What’s the point?” she asks. “Nobody came to see me even once while I was in jail.’’

Her husband had remarried without divorcing Vijai and had four more children with her.

Their oldest son, Ravi Sharma, had indeed died of a dog bite while she was in jail and her daughter, Chandrawati, 23, was married with three children. But neither Vijai nor Kanhaiya were welcomed back into the family, and her husband even removed them both from his will, depriving them of any inheritance.

Kanhaiya has never met his father or siblings, but now wants nothing to do with them unless they accept him and his mother back into the family.

“It was my father’s duty to help my mother and make sure she had a fair trial. If he had any interest he would have [secured the bail] and taken us home. But instead he chose to marry again and leave us both to rot in prison.’’

Vijai is now planning to sue her husband for marrying a second time – which is illegal in her community in India – and depriving their son of his inheritance.

“My son doesn’t deserve any of this. We want what is ours and to live in peace. My son is a good boy and he should have what is rightfully his. He fought for me, now I’ll fight for him.’’