Three pieces in this release of Out of Print themed around sexual and gender violence point to the use of rape as a weapon: Salil Tripathi’s collection of testimonies from the Bangladesh War, Neha Dixit’s essay on the Muzaffarnagar riots and Urvashi Butalia’s paper that calls attention to the silencing of sexual violence in the subcontinent and the culture of impunity that has been fostered around it.
As part of the blog series accompanying the issue, we feature Fire by Sucharita Dutta-Asane where rape is used a weapon of power and intimidation. It is set in a village that is built on mineral rich land. The villagers, led by an idealist and an activist, and his wife who is from the village, must counter multiple forces to fight for their existence. But, ‘[W]within a fortnight, the village began to look storm ravaged, uprooted trees and deep ditches lined its periphery; there were whispers of mass revolt everywhere. Dileep said the village came together to fight the day Bhola’s pregnant wife returned home bruised, eyes swollen with shame and pain, stomach deseeded.'
Like in Ajay Navaria’s Honour, a woman must fix on her strength and her identity to regain the future.
I saw Savitri for the first time one winter morning, fresh from her bath, swaying beside Dileep, whom I dearly loved. The sun’s fresh warmth was on her back and bare neck. She turned around and spat red and green on a tuft of yellow grass, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, only to smile and accept the handkerchief her companion offered. Her smile held no shame; his gesture no rebuke.
When he saw me, he laughed out loud. ‘O, ho! Sharat! Come, come. Welcome to our village.’ He enveloped me in a hug whose warmth I still carry.
Her smile was warm too, young and carefree, lips moist and red from paan juice.
When I meet her again, her youth has slid off her once-narrow shoulders and the parting in her hair is ashen.
I am back in the village, to track, once again, the story of land and ownership.
A fire rages in the fields, its flames crackle. The villagers stare at the fire, the flames etched in their forehead, their fields within those flames, the crops roasting before the plucking.
A figure disengages itself from the group, tall and gaunt but with that familiar swing of the hips. Savitri enters a hut. Flame shadows dance on its walls; human shadows crowd around a figure stooping before the kitchen fire, blowing at it.
I am meeting her for the first time after Dileep’s death. I hesitate at the threshold; she must have sensed my presence for she turns and asks, ‘What do you want here, Sharat babu?’
Savitri’s blunt question is disarming. ‘Come inside. Why do you stand there in the darkness?’ I enter and stand quietly. ‘What do you need?’ She raises a thick, shapely eyebrow.
‘Uh, actually, I wanted to talk. With you.’
‘Then stand to my right, my left ear is not much use.’
The iron rod had just about spared her left eye, or that too would have become useless. ‘You had a narrow escape.’
She smiles and I see a trace of that first smile. ‘They came for my husband, not me.’
Her words are hushed, so is the dance of the kitchen flames.
I sit down beside her on the cool mud floor, draw up my knees and wrap my arms around them. ‘A war has casualties.’
‘Yes, more than human casualties, much more.’ She turns to the woman kneeling at her elbow with a banana leaf plate and doles out rice and lentils. ‘They come for our minds. When we hold those back, they kill our bodies.’
The rich aroma of hot rice and dal spread out on fresh banana leaves fills the thatched room and reminds me of my own hunger. The men eat hurriedly and leave. They have work to do. These are no ordinary nights; these are nights of terror and of vigil. I have seen terror stalk the village in the initial days and heard the youthful discontent of that time: the land is no good if we have to die for it.
‘Our young understand money, Sharat babu.’
‘Do they support you now?’
‘My husband spent sleepless nights convincing them.’
‘You ask so much.’
‘Are you people united now?’
‘And why do you want to know?’
‘Why do you suspect me? I am only doing my work. Do you want me to leave?’
‘Aren’t you here now, whether we want or not?’ Her ebony skin glows in the light from the kitchen fire; her eyes search mine. Between us stands the ghost of her husband, Dileep, who trusted me.
A hint of a smile in her dark eyes. ‘You ask whether we are united. We say, yes, we are. Outside this village, they will say it’s not true, that everybody wants the money except a foolish handful. You ask whether we are united. We say no, we are not. They will say, so let’s divide them further...money, food, drugs, women. Go away, Sharat babu, watch and write what you will, don’t ask. But first, eat.’
The dal is good, fresh and salty; its aroma and taste mingle with that of the steaming rice and the warm leaf.
When I return to the hut after washing my hands, Savitri and a handful of men and women are huddled around a rickety table in the middle of the room, away from the door. Savitri looks up at me, her eyes two pinpoints of ember.
‘Go, Sharat Babu. We have work to do.’ Nobody disobeys that tone.
In the fields the flames lunge one last time for the moon.
As I walk into the darkness my thoughts wind slowly back to Dileep, idealistic, driven, dead.
‘The dalal came on his phatphati.’ Dileep’s voice rings in my ears. ‘We heard him before we saw him; what we saw was a cloud of dust, and then he emerged from it, white clothes layered with brown dust, sitting astride a black and red motorcycle. You should have seen his drama, Sharat. He got off his vehicle taking more time than necessary, extended a hand for his companion’s handkerchief, wiped grime from his forehead and face, then turned around and spat dust, took off his spectacles, wiped them. Finally, wiping betel juice from his mouth, he looked around like a lord of all he surveyed.
‘We were standing at a distance, a little confused. What did this man want? I must have stared the hardest.’ Dileep had laughed. ‘Anyway, he noticed me staring at him and shouted out with a dismissive wave of his hand. ‘Aiee!’ Dileep’s mouth had turned at the corners.
‘When he told us of his demands, I refused, along with Gopi, Bhanu and some others; those who crowded behind us carried the odour of fear in their sweat.’
‘What did he have to say?’
Dileep had turned around and pointed to the hill behind us. On top of the hill, coconut trees swayed in a gentle arc around a newly painted temple. ‘See all this? Mineral rich, this land, Sharat, gold.’ He had spread his arms, palms turned outwards, indicating the spread of hill, land, ponds, crops, in one sweeping gesture. ‘Why should we enjoy all this alone? That’s what he came to ask.’
We were walking along the river. In the monsoon months it would swell and sometimes wash over the land. ‘The dreams he tried to sell.’ Dileep chuckled. ‘Money, city clothes, air conditioned cinema, hotels, motorcycles...’
He suddenly stood still, wrenched imaginary sticks from the breeze around us and thrust his clenched fists downwards. ‘We are exhausted, but we haven’t given up. One day you might find my bullet-ridden body lying in some...
I had interrupted him that day, pushed away the image.
The motorcycle made way for much more. Slowly, a variety of machines lined up against the horizon, workers began to assemble in tin-shed hutments, armed guards grew in number, and billboards went up announcing the future factory and township site.
Villagers who were against the intrusion mounted their resistance, at first silently, then, with increasing and louder momentum. The village came under siege. Inside the village, policemen roamed free, searching, arresting, questioning.
Some of the villagers said they were being beaten up. On my trips to the village, I didn’t notice any such incident, but women had supposedly disappeared to reappear raped and tortured; children had dropped out of school.
Within a fortnight, the village began to look storm ravaged, uprooted trees and deep ditches lined its periphery; there were whispers of mass revolt everywhere. Dileep said the village came together to fight the day Bhola’s pregnant wife returned home bruised, eyes swollen with shame and pain, stomach deseeded.
I wrote what I saw, surmised what I didn’t.
One morning, as I was returning from a meeting with the policemen who’d set up camp in what used to be the primary healthcare centre, I met Dileep. ‘You should be away from women when they are angry,’ he said.
‘Don’t tell me you have time for domestic squabbles now.’ I laughed.
‘Domestic squabbles? Yes, of course, why not? Vasudhaiva kutumbakam– the whole world is one family, isn’t it?’ He smiled. ‘She thinks I am lying to our people.’
‘You see, I told them banks rob people in the cities.’
He thumped me on the back. ‘Na, na! I didn’t say that, it’s what they want to believe.’
‘Have you seen the sky during monsoons? We wait for the clouds to appear, celebrate when they do, full of faith. The clouds are the promise of a better time, but they are clouds and can be whisked away by the next gust of wind. Do those clouds lie?’
‘Why is she angry?’
‘Timir, Kailash, Aarto, most of the younger men want money for land. How long will that last, Sharat, how long? What will they do afterwards? Pull rickshaws? Wash other people’s vessels? Live ten to a room in dirty hovels? Money vanishes from banks, not from land.’
Dileep died the next day, or perhaps that night; his body was found the next afternoon, spread-eagled at the river’s edge, one foot bobbing in the water.
In the evening, the village congregated in his house, offering sympathy to Savitri, talking of fate, power, the need for submission. Savitri sat by her husband’s corpse, dry-eyed, the parting in her hair still vermilion-bright.
By the time we left, she had ruled out submission.
Sunrise is hours away. What is happening in the lamp lit room?
In this village among the jungles and hills, power supply is erratic, water supply confined to rivers and ponds, and the roads, whatever’s left of them, have been cut off by the villagers. I can move around at will but am suspect on either side of the divide. So what am I doing chasing this story? I don’t know – except that other stories reverberate in my mind, my father’s stories, tales of losing land, of losing identity, of regretting that loss, the eternal pining away of souls.
A slight sound, a whip crack in the heavy night.
I swivel around from my uncomfortable post where I must have dozed off at some point. Figures move about quietly, flitting through the moon’s light and shadows.
The village seems active. Leaves and tender branches tremble in the breeze. All around me I sense urgency. I stand up and take two slow, quiet steps, careful not to make any noise. A hand clamps over my mouth, a disembodied voice whispers in my ear. ‘Go back to your room at dawn, no snooping today.’
My tape recorder and digital camera are in the room. I count the hours, knowing well enough that the first movement from my place could be my last. I was commanded to be quiet and have no desire at this haunting moment to interrupt whatever is going on in the village.
At dawn, I head for my hut. Stillness pervades the air, a silence that brooks no intrusion; the leaves beneath my feet seem too noisy, the roosters too loud.
A sudden movement above me. I look up into the eyes of a child. A slingshot across his bare chest, arms akimbo, bare feet placed apart on two adjacent branches, head shrouded with leaves, he looks down at me with eyes that freeze my soul.
…I never forget them, day or night:
They beat on my head for memory of them;
They pound on my heart and I cry back to them…
Lines from Sandburg’s ‘Killers’ out of the blue, out of hazy memories of coffee smoke and nicotine stains, out of nowhere in particular.
I hurry to get my recorder and camera; another row of huts and then mine. Where are the babies and the old?
Something seems to hit my head, over my right ear. I turn to my side and fall, slowly, as in a story, into the soft beds of paddy that frame the mud tracks, not knowing for long seconds what’s happened to me. Another ear splitting crack and my senses return. Bullets! But who? Where? The villagers don’t have guns, but these are bullets whizzing past.
Do you have guns in the village?
Crazy, are you? Guns? Who will buy them for us, Sharat babu?
The police think you do.
The police think many things.
Something slices the air right before my eyes, and then a stifled scream. I get up, crouch, and run for cover to the nearest hut.
The men who camp along the outer periphery, in the panchayat office, in the school building, the market shed, don’t believe me.
‘How are they fighting us without arms and ammo, sir? Who are you with?’
‘You forget, I am only reporting.’
‘Your paper has blanked out all the noise. So for whom do you report?’
A constable looks from me to his senior. ‘We have to protect the villagers, sir.’
‘Shut up! Want to get transferred to a non-family posting, do you? Or do you want these people to sit beside your wife and sister and issue their orders? Protect, he says! Just do your work.’
The village lies low. Provisions and supplies must be running out.
The women chop vegetables, deftly, steel in their hands. I sit at the door to the hut, listening to their conversation, writing.
‘Sharat Babu, why are you still here? Don’t you have enough fodder for your paper?’ Savitri looks at her companions, then back at me. ‘We want to know…are you with us?’
I nod vaguely; she jerks her head at me in an unexpectedly awkward gesture. ‘Come with me.’
‘I’ll trust you, Sharat Babu, for your friend’s sake, in his memory. Stay near me, not too close, but don’t give yourself away. Batuk will accompany me.’
‘Why do you need me around?’
‘If something happens, somebody should know. You go everywhere, nobody will suspect you.’
‘What are you up to, Savitri? There may be search operations again. What will you do?’
‘You’re thinking of your work, Sharat Babu. You can go, we’ll manage.’
‘No! Wait! I didn’t mean it that way. I’ll be there. Tell me the time and place.’
‘Tomorrow night. Batuk and I will go to town.’
She turns away.
The tamarind tree seems to grow out of the well beside which it stands. The water in the well is sweet and cool. In our childhood, we would listen to countless stories about ghosts living in tamarind trees. In the silence and dull moonshine, I wait like a spectre under the tree and recollect those stories.
Leaves rustle in the light breeze. After a while two familiar shadows appear on the red path between the burnt paddy fields.
Savitri knows myriad ways around this village where she first came as a young bride, perhaps better than anybody else; Dileep and she have crawled through its depths chalking out courses for their fight, setting traps, identifying alternative trails. Is this the reason she’s making this trip, not the men? There is so much I will never know.
‘What will you do if they take away what is ours, Savitri?’ Dileep had once asked her. We were sitting by the river where he would one day die. ‘What will you do?’ she had asked. ‘Fight to the end.’
‘Then why ask me?’
‘You are weak before the double might of their power and brute strength…
‘I’ll wrest it back from them. Live up to my name.’
Dileep had laughed. ‘Name! In this day and age! Even you can be foolish.’
Their weapons, the ones I had seen, were relics; arrows, a poison vat, spears, hatchets and axes, hammers, clubs, mashaals. And yet, I’d heard bullets whiz past, felt their aftershock.
At first there was the flurry of daily newspaper reports, and then, the media suddenly deserted them, moved on to other stories. It confused them; it also helped them in a way, I think, to fight in a more cohesive manner, the unity of feeling deserted by the world.
The shadows move on; I follow almost involuntarily, three ghosts flitting through the remains of crops.
All of a sudden, I stop short, stagger into Batuk’s back; he has halted, suddenly, right behind Savitri who extends restraining arms towards us.
A solitary point of light shines in the dark, among the trees, moving surreally from one position to another. I can barely discern Savitri push back at Batuk, step back, crouch, one palm over her mouth.
Slowly, she turns around and places her forefinger and middle finger in a V at her mouth.
The pinprick of light is being passed around from one mouth to another, one set of fingers to another. As the two glide away from the spot, I stumble along behind them, at a distance. It’s a long walk towards the river bank. Under cover of darkness, a boatman waits, a trusted fellow no doubt, but why this mode of transport?
And then I remember, the roads are cut off; mainly the handiwork of the villagers. What remains is under the command and surveillance of their opponents – and they do not fight with antiquated weapons.
I often feel convinced that the village has its own cache of arms, gifted by the people who had initially supported them. When they withdrew support did they take away their gifts too?
We whisper for a while, instructions for their return, instructions in case of no-return, and then Savitri and Batuk disappear down the slope towards the river, the gentle splashing of oars the only sound that trails their existence through the darkness. They will return tomorrow at the same time, under cover of darkness. In the meanwhile I am to cover their tracks.
Slowly I retrace my steps, the soft swish of the oars, barely audible, sounds loud to my ears as I look for the signs I’d left behind, subtle indicators only I would notice; a half chewed bit of gum, a piece of paper stuck in the bend of a tree, a trail of stones.
The boatman’s oars must have been a little too loud in the silence, the trail Sharat left behind a little too obvious, the men at the village edge a little too practised when they jump him the next evening. The blackness of the afterhours is all he remembers when confronted about the incident.
Savitri is on her way back. Her heart jumps a beat at not finding Sharat by the Mahua tree near the rocks. The river had given her anonymity, she is on land again; she shouldn’t have allowed Batuk to stay back in town but it is too late to regret that decision.
In the distance the panchayat office seems like a dull white smudge; she has to keep low, stay close to the broken wall that circles the party office. She carries only one bag but it is heavy, it slows her down. Fifty metres away from the panchayat office, she stumbles on a lump, steadies herself and moves on.
She walks ahead and stops, retraces her steps till she reaches the object over which she has stumbled. She stoops low to touch it. Soft. The thick smell of human blood! She kneels beside the body.
Is it somebody from the village? Nobody has reason to venture out, not till she and Batuk return with the provisions, not till Sharat conveys the all-well message.
She doesn’t have time to think or to draw back the sack cloth that covers the victim’s face.
A thousand moons wax and wane, then wax again and wane before Savitri can wrap her torn garment around her trembling body, draw herself up to her feet and stagger out of the low-roofed building that was once the village school where her husband used to teach, the only cement and brick house in the vicinity, now in the hands of the land mafia and their political bosses.
Pain gnaws at her body and mind, a numbing rawness envelops her, but she stands straight and stiff under a moon that shines listlessly around her on the fields, disappears in the bushes, and emerges on the other side in the water that glistens.
‘Tell your women. We’ll come for them!’
One of them kicks her in the stomach, lightly, playfully, their toy for the night, their open challenge to the village. Their laughter spills out behind her.
Her mind claws its way forward, inch by painful inch, trying to grasp all that has happened in the past few hours...how many? She has lost count. The rawness and the blood coagulated on her body remind her that humiliation is not countable.
Their laughter and their warning follow her through the black green jungle and fields. Sweltering, throbbing, she walks. She thinks of the women and girls of her village, of the sickle she has lost, and feels its curved sharpness against her heart.
Standing in the open fields, she inhales long and deep and reorganises the shreds of her garment. In her mind, she hears the clamour of a thousand rebellions, those of the past, the present, and those yet to come.
She stands in the open field surrounded by the burnt remains of their labour and ululates.
In the village, the people hear it and come out of their houses.
In the school building behind her, the men hear it and stand still for a few moments before looking at one another, their eyes white in the dark.
In the makeshift police station where Sharat is held captive, he hears it and looks up at the torn piece of sky through a slit in the wall, sees the moon change shape behind a cloud.
Savitri stands alone in the middle of a vast openness with the stars and a cloudy moon above her. She shuts her eyes, tired, and thinks of the men who’d violated her. She remembers shutting her eyes in agony, then opening them again to look at their faces in the flickering bulb-light. She’d watched the expressions flit across their faces, the faces change, replace one another, seen them concentrate on her body, not on her, seen their triumph.
She inhales long and deep, her mind already far away from what they have done to her body, focussed on what needs to be done.
Sucharita Dutta-Asane is a writer and independent editor based in Pune. In 2013 she received the inaugural Dastaan Award (Papercuts) for her short story Rear View. In 2008, she received Oxford Bookstores debuting writers' (second) award for her anthology, The Jungle Stories.
Her short stories have appeared in various national and international anthologies such as the Africa-Asia anthology Behind the Shadows, 2012 and Zubaan’s, Breaking the Bow, an anthology of speculative fiction based on The Ramayana, 2012. Her articles, book reviews, short stories, and a novella, Petals in the Sun, have been extensively published across print and electronic publications, including Unisun Publications’ anthology Vanilla Desires, APK Publishers’ anthology of short stories by Indian women writers, Asian Cha, The Four Quarters Magazine, and the Out of Print blog, among others.
Besides writing, Sucharita edits fiction and non-fiction manuscripts with independent authors, publishing houses, and literary agencies.