Updated: Apr 9
Mumbai: For years now, Nalin Yadav doggedly held on to one belief: that he was meant for big things.
That belief helped him while life threw challenges at him.
Yadav, now 25, said he felt that conviction, at 14, when his father died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage. He held on to it, as the family, having lost their sole breadwinner, weathered an emotional and economic crisis, which forced him to abandon his studies and work as a salesboy, hawking phone SIM cards.
The belief remained strong even when his mother died in October last year, at 45, from breast cancer.
“All through it, I kept thinking, eventually things will get better,” said Yadav.
That belief broke down in January 2021, when Yadav found himself in the Indore Central jail, sharing a 15 x 45 barrack with 150 others for nearly two months.
Yadav was one of five people arrested along with stand-up comic Munawar Faruqui by the Indore police in Madhya Pradesh on 1 January, after a mob from a Hindu vigilante group called the Hind Rakshak Sanghathan (Association to Protect Hinduism) disrupted a comedy show, alleging that Faruqui had “insulted” Hindu gods and goddesses through his jokes. The next day, the police also arrested Faruqui’s friend, Sadakat Khan.
All five were charged under sections 295-A, 298, 269, 188 and 34 of the Indian Penal Code, 1870, for “deliberately intending to outrage religious feelings,” for “uttering words etc with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings,” “negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life” (in view of the pandemic), for “disobedience to order” and for “acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention.” If convicted, they could face up to four years in prison.
Ostracised Over Fear Of Vigilantes
Now, three months after the arrest, Yadav’s life has turned upside down.
Dependent entirely on performing and organising stand-up and open mic performances in Indore, Yadav is shunned by most venues in his hometown.
Many venue owners say an outright no, he said, “while others tell me that if I perform, kuch bhi ho sakta hai”. Anything can happen, they say, a subtle reference to the mob that illegally disrupted Faruqui’s show and faced no action from the police, who filed criminal cases against Faruqui and his friends instead.
Before the pandemic, Yadav did all he could to stay afloat and pursue his stand-up comedy career—organising, hosting and performing events, even performing at weddings. Now, none of his professional contacts want to see him.
His belief about his imminent success shattered and after his money ran out, in March Yadav was forced to work at a factory that manufactures polythene bags in Pithampur, 30 km southwest of Indore. For nearly two weeks, Yadav worked 12-hour shifts, earning anywhere between Rs 200-300 each day, stitching polythene bags, folding them and packing them.
In mid-March—Yadav does not remember the date—a friend who accidentally spotted him walking into the factory loaned him some money, allowing Yadav to stop working there.
Yadav’s Crime Is Unclear
As a stand-up comedian, Yadav performed for five minutes just before Faruqui took the stage at Café Munroe. But the police said, in their arguments before the Indore bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, that Yadav was an “organiser” of the show.
Article 14 had reported the contradictions in the allegations—while rejecting his bail, the Indore bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court referred to a testimony from a witness named Palash Gupta, who said that Yadav was a comic.
Gupta went on to add in the testimony, quoted by the High Court, that Yadav said he “was not here to talk about religion”. “I have a problem with other things in society,” Yadav is quoted saying in Gupta’s testimony, after which he jokes about how pre-marital sex is considered taboo.
“The police kept calling me the organiser, when I had nothing to do with the show’s planning,” said Yadav. “I was just a performer on the show and was given a five-minute slot to perform. That five-minute slot became a 57-day slot.”
Rescued By The Police, Or So They Thought
According to Aklavya Gaur, who led the mob of Hind Rakshak Sangathan activists that entered Café Munroe on the evening of 1 January, they had only one target—Faruqui.
Gaur, the convenor of the Sangathan, told Article 14 in January, soon after the incident, that his organisation had been “tracking Faruqui for a few months, ever since he came out with that video.” Gaur is the son of Indore’s former mayor and city Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator Malini.
Gaur was referring to a video Faruqui had uploaded on his YouTube channel in April 2020 where he joked about a popular Hindi song, Mera Piya Ghar Oh Ram Ji, from the 1995-movie Yaarana. In the now-deleted video Faruqui joked about the irony behind the song, pointing to Ram’s own 14-year-long exile. The video had angered many—police complaints were filed against him and hashtags trended on social media demanding his arrest.
“So, when we heard he was coming to Indore, we bought tickets to his show so that we could catch him red-handed,” Gaur had said.
But in trying to avenge this perceived insult, the actions of Gaur’s mob scarred the lives of five others. Apart from Faruqui, the police arrested Yadav, Khan, another stand-up comic Prakhar Vyas, his minor brother and his friend Edwin Anthony.
Yadav, initially, had decided to refuse participating in the show. “But then, I felt saying no to work on the first day of the new year would not set a good tone for the year ahead so I reluctantly said yes,” said Yadav.
Within a few hours, Yadav came to regret the choice he made.
When the police entered the café that evening, after the mob had disrupted the show, Yadav remembered a sense of relief.
“I was very scared that the mob would lynch Faruqui; these days, mob lynchings are so common,” he said. Yadav felt that the Tukoganj police station, where the five were taken, would be where they would be the safest place for them.
Except, as they learnt seven hours later, from Vyas’ family, they had been arrested.
Having tried his hand at teaching contemporary dance, selling SIM cards and even brokering land deals, Yadav was searching for his life’s passion when he faced heartbreak and split from his girlfriend.
That’s when he stumbled upon Haq se Single, a show by comic Zakir Khan, where he talked about heartbreak and relationship woes.
“I heard him, and I felt I also had such funny stories to tell; even funnier, maybe,” said Yadav. So, he started calling café owners in Indore, asking for a chance to perform.
His first performance, he remembers, was dismal. “But the crowd was drunk so they loved it,” he recalled with a laugh.
Gradually, he rose up the ranks—from performing to organising events and giving novice comics a break. It had all been a struggle, but Yadav always felt it was worth it.
In prison, Yadav questioned all his choices, from performing that evening to pursuing stand-up comedy. He regretted not being by his dying mother’s side, while he pursued his dream of comedy.
With both parents dead, Yadav only had his minor brother, 17-year-old Akash. The police refused Yadav’s request to allow him to call his brother and inform him of the arrest.
“For days, I was scared because everyone else’s family came to visit, and there was no sign of Akash,” said Yadav. “I didn’t even know if he had found out about the arrest.” Four days after he was arrested, Akash finally showed up and told his brother he would do all he could to get him out.
Yadav’s relief was short-lived. A day later, the Indore sessions court dismissed their bail application and said their release could lead to a “law and order” situation.
Inside prison, he was surrounded by hardened criminals, names that he would read in the local newspaper—men charged with multiple killings, human trafficking, rapes and murders.
“Jail crushes your ego, it kills your self-respect,” he said. “You are reduced to nothing.”
“When I first entered that barrack, I saw 150 beds on the ground, in line, in a space meant for only 45,” said Yadav, who could not sleep for days.
“When you lie down in the night, you can smell the breath of the person next to you,” he said. “You can’t even turn over on your side.”
On 15 January, the Indore bench of the MP High Court deferred the hearing on his bail plea, after the police failed to present the case diary in court.
Shortly after, Yadav started experiencing anxiety attacks. He remembered being barely able to breathe before fainting. The authorities rushed him to the jail hospital, where he remained for three days.
A Slow Walk To Redemption
As his bail was rejected three times by various courts before it was finally granted by the High Court on 26 February, a slow realisation grew within Yadav: the only way to survive prison was to think of it as an adventure.
“Your perspective decides how you spend your time in jail—if you are scared, you won’t survive,” said Yadav. “So, I decided to accept this experience and said, I am just going to chill.”
Gradually, he started talking to prisoners around him, learning of their struggles and discerning his own diminish.
One prisoner said his mother was languishing in an old age home. Another said he did not know if his 16-year-old son was even alive. Yadav said the stories he heard helped burst his “bubble” and exposed him to the world. His bitterness about his own misfortune slowly evaporated.
His most humbling, if surprising, lesson came from a dreaded city gangster, suspected with involvement with multiple murders of rival gangsters. “He said, be kind to people. ‘Jitna haath jod ke kaam hota hai, utna haath utha ke nahi hota’ (You can get much more done by folding hands before raising them).”
Yadav even managed to write comedy while in jail. “I have content for a 1.5 hour-long show now,” he chuckled.
After 57 days, when he finally stepped out, the lessons came handy. His income had dried up, payments on his motorcycle pending, prospects for work were non-existent, and no one from extended family came to check on him and his brother.
In time, his friends started pitching in. One secretly organised a video shoot for Yadav in her classroom, another helped him with a lawyer. Others have kept his morale up.
After his story was reported in the Hindustan Times on 25 March, Yadav was flooded with offers of help. Unknown people messaged him offering financial aid, some offering him a work upgrade—one social-media user offered him a job as a construction worker, with a pay hike over his last job as a plastics worker. A popular Mumbai-based comic raised a loan to help him meet expenses to tide him over until he found work. A Hindi film actor offered him a job managing her social-media accounts.
Yadav is grateful but not overwhelmed. He knows he is meant for bigger things.
(Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist.)