A Jailed Indian Boy Chases His Scrap of Sky

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By Shaila Dewan

By Padma Venkatraman

In 2013, a 19-year-old who had been born in an Indian jail managed to use the wages he earned stitching clothes to free his mother. It turned out that all that time she had needed only $180 in bail money.

The story brought attention to India’s cruelly inefficient criminal justice system, and planted a seed in the mind of Padma Venkatraman, a middle grade novelist (and oceanographer) who is drawn to stories about marginalized but plucky children who must learn to navigate on their own in a world where kindness is closely rationed.

The early chapters of “Born Behind Bars” introduce us to the circumscribed world of Kabir, who can see a scrap of sky from the cell where he and his mother — his amma — sleep on a floor mat. Needless to say, the conditions are grim. But Kabir’s inner world is rich. He has evocative private nicknames for the other inmates: Grandma Knife, who has a “sharp tongue” and can kill a rat with a stone, and Aunty Cloud, whose mind has floated away.

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