Radhaben Garva, from Kutch, has been painting the Indian women’s movement for the last 20 years in vivid, layered sketches. I was thrilled when Granta.com asked me to do an essay accompanying the artwork from her book, Picture This!
In another of Garva’s paintings, Malji, a sheep rearer, thrashes his young bride Sarli; she lies on her side, her mouth turned downwards at the corners in dismay and pain, cartoonish drops of blood staining the earth as the cows watch. She is in colour, her assailing husband and the silent cows in outline; and so are the two women who watch and who will go back to tell the rest, three splotches of vivid pink and leaf green connected by the thread of gender and solidarity.
Alternatively, many of the happiest sketches are about the journeys the KMVS women make once their movement has grown apace. The women are depicted leaving the village, riding on the back of a tractor, their red and green odhnis and wide skirts and the blue of the tractor’s sides providing a vivid splash of colour in an otherwise brown and white sketch. ‘Wherever we went,’ Garva writes, ‘we stared and were stared at – for we were now claiming spaces that were not considered ours.’
That girl, the one without the name. The one just like us. The one whose battered body stood for all the anonymous women in this country whose rapes and deaths are a footnote in the left-hand column of the newspaper.
Sometimes, when we talk about the history of women in India, we speak in shorthand. The Mathura rape case. The Vishaka guidelines. The Bhanwari Devi case, the Suryanelli affair, the Soni Sori allegations, the business at Kunan Pushpora. Each of these, the names of women and places, mapping a geography of pain; unspeakable damage inflicted on women’s bodies, on the map of India, where you can, if you want, create a constantly updating map of violence against women.
For some, amnesia becomes a way of self-defence: there is only so much darkness you can swallow. They turn away from all the places that have become shorthand for violence beyond measure, preferring not to know about Kashmir or the outrages in Chattisgarh, choosing to forget the Bombay New Year assault, trying not to remember the deaths of a Pallavi Purkayastha, a Thangjam Manorama, Surekha and Priyanka Bhotmange, the mass rapes that marked the riots in Gujarat. Even for those who stay in touch, it isn’t possible for your empathy to keep abreast with the scale of male violence against women in India: who can follow all of the one-paragraph, three-line cases? The three-year-old raped before she can speak, the teenager assaulted by an uncle, the 65-year-old raped as closure to a property dispute, the slum householder raped and violently assaulted on her way to the bathroom. After a while, even memory hardens.
And then you reach a tipping point, and there’s that girl. For some reason, and I don’t really know why, she got through to us. Our words shrivelled in the face of what she’d been subjected to by the six men travelling on that bus, who spent an hour torturing and raping her, savagely beating up her male friend. Horrific, brutal, savage—these tired words point to a loss of language, and none of them express how deeply we identified with her.
She had not asked to become a symbol or a martyr, or a cause; she had intended to lead a normal life, practicing medicine, watching movies, going out with friends. She had not asked to be brave, to be the girl who was so courageous, the woman whose injuries symbolised the violence so many women across the country know so intimately. She had asked for one thing, after she was admitted to Safdarjung Hospital: “I want to live,” she had said to her mother.
We may have not noticed the reports that came in from Calcutta in February, of a woman abandoned on Howrah Bridge, so badly injured after a rape that involved, once again, the use of iron rods, that the police thought she had been run over by a car. We may have skimmed the story of the 16-year-old Dalit girl in Dabra, assaulted for three hours by eight men, who spoke up after her father committed suicide from the shame he had been made to feel by the village. Or some may have done something concrete about these things, changed laws, worked on gender violence, keeping their feelings out of it, trying to be objective.
But there is always one that gets through the armour that we build around ourselves. In 1972, the first year in which the NCRB recorded rape cases, there were 2,487 rapes reported across India. One of them involved a teenager called Mathura, raped by policemen; we remember her, we remember the history and the laws she changed. (She would be 56 now.)
Some cases stop being cases. Sometimes, an atrocity bites so deep that we have no armour against it, and that was what happened with the 23-year-old physiotherapy student, the one who left a cinema hall and boarded the wrong bus, whose intestines were so badly damaged that the injuries listed on the FIR report made hardened doctors, and then the capital city, cry for her pain.
She died early this morning, in a Singapore hospital where she and her family had been dispatched by the government for what the papers called political, not compassionate, reasons.
The grief hit harder than I’d expected. And I had two thoughts, as across Delhi, I heard some of the finest and toughest men I know break down in their grief, as some of the calmest and strongest women I know called and SMSed to say that she—one of us, this girl who had once had a future and a life of her own to lead—was gone, that it was over.
The first was: enough. Let there be an end to this epidemic of violence, this culture where if we can’t kill off our girls before they are born, we ensure that they live these lives of constant fear. Like many women in India, I rely on a layer of privilege, a network of friends, paranoid security measures and a huge dose of amnesia just to get around the city, just to travel in this country. So many more women have neither the privilege, nor the luxury of amnesia, and this week, perhaps we all stood up to say, “Enough”, no matter how incoherently or angrily we said it.
The second was even simpler. I did not know the name of the girl in the bus, through these last few days. She had a name of her own–it was not Amanat, Damini or Nirbhaya, names the media gratuitously gave her, as though after the rape, she had been issued a new identity. I don’t need to know her name now, especially if her family doesn’t want to share their lives and their grief with us. I think of all the other anonymous women whose stories don’t make it to the front pages, when I think of this woman; I think of the courage that is forced on them, the way their lives are warped in a different direction from the one they had meant to take. Don’t tell me her name; I don’t need to know it, to cry for her.
(Note: There are so many ways for a city to exclude its citizens. Yesterday, talking to the police who were there to prevent this small, sincere band of protestors from marching up to India Gate, I asked a few how they felt about guarding the Gate from us–all 300 or so of the women’s rights activists, young students, men who had come out to register their protest along with the women, everyone who had showed up to ask for more freedom, more rights for women.
“Kya kare,” said one cop. “Waha VIP movement hi allowed hain aaj kal.” (“What to do, there’s only VIP movement allowed at [India Gate] these days.”)
The architecture of the India Gate area is classically imperial–the statute of George V used to look down that long vista towards Rashtrapati Bhavan. The Emperor of India should have been able to see the dome of the seat of power, except for an error in the plans by Baker and Lutyens; as you walk up Raisina Hill, a walk that every citizen was freely able to take not so long ago, before security barriers began to define Delhi, Rashtrapati Bhavan dips out of sight, the dome of power disappearing.
Some of the policemen were shyly embarrassed when they realised that the might of the state had been brought out against a scant 300 citizens. There were few political parties–the organisers had asked politicians to refrain from using their banners, not to use Gandhi caps or national flags, and not to make speeches: in the face of these restrictions, the party support for women’s rights melted away remarkably fast.
Some cops were angry, like the policeman who was talking into his phone as I passed by, passing him, passing the four trucks that held the water cannons: “There is a city beyond India Gate, and who’s supposed to police it,” he was asking, “when all of us are here? Guarding what?” What they had been brought to Feroze Shah Road to guard was the immaculate emptiness of Rajpath, that blank space at the heart of Delhi.
If these protests are to go beyond the immediate cries for “justice”, a justice that veers between being the rough hanging justice of a mob as violent as its targets, and a more idealistic justice that asks only for women to be treated as equal, free citizens (yes, that enormous, preposterous demand), then it needs to abandon this city’s empty heart.
It feels so strange, to be told that Rajpath does not belong to its citizens; but through years of shifting its citizens around, to Welcome in the Emergency years, to Bhalaswa and Najafgarh in the slum-clearing years, Delhi’s had a lot of practice at telling its citizens that they don’t belong in many places. Perhaps the protests need to go to the many Delhis that never make it to the media glare, because they’re outside the zone of power and comfort: to Shahdara and the slums of Kusumpur Pahari and Bhalaswa, to Dwarka and to Shakarpur. Those Delhis matter more than Imperial Delhi; and they have a tolerance and a space for citizens that Imperial Delhi has long since forgotten.)
On survivors and victims: the language of rape: Talking Rape