"Better the devil you know than the one you don't". Surely, the person who coined this had never been to jail. Never had the memory of the stench of the toilets in his nostrils. Never known the boredom of the long, lonely days. Or the taste of watery dal day after day. When you have known this, lived this, then, the mere possibility of coming face to face with this devil again can crumple you. Watching and hearing about Salman's stoic stance through his day in court, only to break down on hearing the verdict, made me think he remembers his time all too well and he's none the worse for it.
Like most of the nation I love Salman. He was my first movie star crush. Years later he was the first guest on my couch. He was in a rare mood to share. So I asked him "What was your time in jail like?" He replied without a beat "A lot of fun!" Then laughed at his own gallows humour. I prodded. He continued, "... The only tension was the bathroom... Three-four times I've been in and out (of jail)... well... If somebody was to put you in, you go there quietly and, if you know you haven't done it, you go with your head held high."
I wondered was he being filmy and macho with me. No, it was a coping mechanism. A need to take the higher ground for survival. It didn't matter if it was true or not - he needed to believe it was true and that he was innocent. It would be harder to be Salman Khan a guilty criminal going to jail than Salman Khan wrongfully convicted, taking the fall, walking in slow motion through prison gates with his head held high. Even today his defence denies any guilt.
During that first chat on the couch, Salman went on to describe his experience in jail. "When you are in police custody you have rooms and nine-ten people are in there ... One bathroom one toilet (flinches at the memory) and when you go to central jail ... Judicial custody you get your own 'suite' there." Laughs again, and then, as if haunted by the memory of an object continues, "You get this one mug that you have your chai in, then you wash it, then you have your water in, then your dal-chawal in, whatever... Then you use it to take a shower you use it to ... You know... Whatever you want it for".
The idea of a superstar eating from and using the same mug for ablutions sent a strange shiver down my back. And no, I'm not being classist or ignorant of the misery and poverty that exists where people would be lucky to have a mug at all. Just because someone is not poor and starving doesn't mean they don't suffer. You can only live and feel the pain of your own life and yes, perspective helps, but it doesn't dissolve the hell you are going through. Over the next two days Salman will probably try hard not to think of that stench or that mug.
At a later interview, on a bed this time, as the crew tweaked the lights we were chatting about having children. I don't remember the exact words but he said something to the effect of how can he think of having a family when he doesn't know if tomorrow he will be a free man or not. To live with that for over a decade! Gosh! Yes, he ran away, no matter who was driving he should have stayed and helped. But it was 2002, and if you took someone to hospital after an accident, back then you were automatically involved in a police case. That doesn't make running away right, but can you say with surety you would have stayed back then?
As for the victims - they have a damned tough life to begin with - no home, hardly any money and the fear of being run over in your sleep ever present. If you know that side of Bandra - especially back then with pot holes, no street lights and dark shadowy bodies lying huddled up in the middle of the night, encroaching the already narrow bumpy road - then you'll know that they must be aware of that danger. Whose fault is it? Many times I've turned that corner, and the one near Lilavati, in my car and missed a leg or an arm of a sleeping dead-tired labourer by an inch. And no, I don't drive under the influence or rashly ever.
So tell me, if God forbid one day my car touches them because it's the dark road, where my car is supposed to be and they are not, whose fault is it? Where should they go? It's not theirs. Where should you go? It's not yours. Something needs to change. A world where people don't have to sleep on the street. But that's a necessary conversation to be had on a different platform.
I make no claims at knowing whether Salman truly did it or not but it is ironic that his conviction comes 13 years later, when he is no longer a bad boy. They should have convicted him, if they had to, back when he needed the time out to rethink his life. He's finally matured, has probably repented for all the mistakes of his younger days and is trying to live a life where he can genuinely hold his head up high. Well, not today in court.
The next two days will be harder than even his time as a convict in jail, because how will his mind stop from imagining the devil he knows.