The scene: a sunlit panchayat building, un-plastered walls, dusty window panes on rusting frames, a ceiling fan rotating desultorily, a few folding aluminium chairs on which sat, a little apart from the rest, the review team of two women, freshly arrived from a metropolis to monitor in their official capacity the proceedings of a women's court on domestic violence in an apparently sleepy village.
Sitting near Sonal, Sushma struggled with her chair which wouldn't open fully, so she sat in a stiff forward bend, her thin body adjusting to the chair’s half-open jaw. The local animator, Anandi busied herself with the logbook, entering details of the case, adding to its earlier sessions already rife with a documentation of indecisions and decisions. The room filled up quickly with the dust and noise of people from the community. Except for the fact that the disputants sat in the front on a matted rug, they were indistinguishable from the people who heaved behind them, women sitting cross-legged, men on their haunches or propped up against walls.
A hush descended as soon as Anandi was ready. She stood backed by the brick wall, grey cement zigzagging at the joints. Though middle-aged, her face was wizened, skin sallow and eyes that looked out of small hollow caves. She smiled and the smile lit up the caves with light that flickered uncertainly for a moment, then dispassionately. To Sonal, this was a breakthrough sign after years of training and practice - from a shy, reluctant weepy widow to a confident mediator who stood before forces of social turbulence that were out.
From a sheet of paper, she read out the details of the case: Gulabi, aged 34, had first come to the women's court on the advice of neighbours. She had registered a complaint against her husband Ram Prasad, aged 40, for beating her regularly without cause. Her complaint also included abetment by her mother-in-law, Meena Devi, aged 60. This was the fourth hearing of the case. In the last session, Ram Prasad had, under pressure from the community, signed a stamped affidavit that he would not beat up Gulabi nor shut her out of the house under any circumstance. After our follow-up visit to their home in their village, we recommended that the family come for another session of this court so matters could be discussed before the community. Anandi folded up the paper with slow deliberateness before pushing it into her shoulder bag, hanging heavily at her hip. She beckoned to Gulabi to come to her. Her dark hollow eyes beamed out light encouragingly.
Gulabi stood up slowly. She did not turn to the audience but removed the sari end that covered her face. A shaft of light from a broken pane brightened her worn face for a moment before she moved unsteadily towards Anandi to half face her community. One side of her face was swollen, a brown patch on the cheek breaking the pale rise of flesh.
Anandi's beam held her in its intensity. Gulabi touched the brown patch almost absently and spoke as if only to Anandi.
'He still beats me without any reason. But it is less.' A murmur of approval ran like a ripple through the women present. The men looked taciturn but alert. Sonal glanced at the husband and his parents who sat together in a defiant huddle.
Gulabi kept her back to the family as she spoke. He now beat her with cause - if she had forgotten to bring his water for the night or if the food wasn't tasty or if she answered back, she said. Anandi motioned to her to raise her voice.
'It's different now,' she said. 'He calls me abusive names.'
'Like?' Anandi said.
Gulabi hesitated then blurted, 'Like kuttiya, randi, daayan. If I am late at the hand pump, he says I am seeing someone. He says this so many times, he believes it. He says I am too good looking for my own good.'
Sonal marvelled at the processes unleashed which gave courage to a village woman to speak publicly of her own husband’s casual accusation about her fidelity on sexuality. Anandi allowed this to sink into the audience. She did not address Ram Prasad directly but spoke to the larger audience, 'When we talk about violence, we don't just talk about beating and kicking and whipping and thrashing. It is not just about broken bones. It is about verbal abuse and mental violence also. This does not show but the hurts go deeper. Would you all agree to sign an affidavit against this? Who will take up this responsibility?'
Slouched against the wall, a man in his sixties with a bidi in his mouth croaked, 'We know how to put our women in their place. Physical, mental and all that doesn't matter. They must obey, not answer back, not go astray like this.'
'With due respect, Trivediji, showing a woman her place is different from crushing a woman,' said Anandi. Her hands worked as if at a grinding stone, each rotation of the wheel bringing humour to her eyes. The tension defused. She waited a few moments before gesturing to Gulabi to continue. Sonal moved her chair closer to the two women as did the local project workers.
'It is harder for me at night. He..' Ram Prasad rose threateningly to his feet. Anandi gestured with her eyes for him to sit. The tension rose as some women began shaking their heads and covering their faces.
Gulabi's face swelled with fear. She said, 'He knows I am afraid of that ram....his.... his horns. He brought him to our room at night, kept him there till I screamed and screamed. He threatened to lock him in with me. All because I was late at the hand pump.' A murmur of disapproval ran through the hall, women protesting louder than men. Ram Prasad stumbled as he made to sit. The huddle tightened.
Anandi kept her gaze on Gulabi whose face had twisted with fear. She bit her lower lip to hold back tears. I have nowhere to go.....with two children....my parents are old, they live with my brothers, there is no place for me, she murmured.
Sonal glanced around the room. The atmosphere pulsed with differing emotions: a knowing suffering quality, a defiance, inurement, dullness. A crackle of energy moved like a tiny wave at the back. A girl in her late teens rose to her feet, her eyes aglow, her body wavering. Next to her was a woman crouched to the ground, head resting on her knees.
‘"Abusing all the time, criticizing all the time is not good. It makes a woman a vegetable. It breaks her spirit,’" said the teenager. The crouching woman looked up suddenly. Pulling down her sari over her face, she yanked the girl down by her plait. The girl trembled with hurt.
A man with chipped brown teeth roared, ‘"Hold your girls in harness. Young hussies. It is not their place to speak. Call out Ram Prasad. Let him speak. He has been sitting like a woman all this time.’"
Ram Prasad swaggered to the wall, glared at Gulabi before turning to the audience: 'Do you see her eyes? How they are.... like a demonness'. She glares, she answers back with those eyes of hers.... she deliberately disobeys me, my mother - her own mother-in-law. Imagine. She burns the rotis, jan bujh ke.' He wore a brown kurta which matched his mottled red-brown skin, his large nose quivering with indignation. 'All of you here must hear what she did the other night: she knows I drink water from a copper glass. But what does she bring - water in a mug made of glass? She comes, she glares with those eyes and deliberately drops the mug next to my bed. She runs, leaves all that glass on the ground when she knows my shoes are outside.'
A man, slightly drunk slurred, 'Didn’t you make her dance on the broken glass? Like daku Gabbar in that film.... what’s the name?' A grinning young man proferred....Sholay.
The hall broke into a melee of noise, women protesting as volubly as men. Anandi raised her hand for quiet, then clapped loudly. The light had gone from her eyes, her face wizened as she stood between the disputants. She let the turbulence die on its own. Ram Prasad had lost his swaggering stand. Gulabi had covered her face.
The quiet, when it came, bristled with unease. As the drunken man began to loudly hum the Sholay song, 'Mehbooba...mehbooba', the chairperson of the village council, Snehaben, rose to her feet, her thick lenses glinting in the light of a refracted sunbeam. She had been elected to this seat reserved for women less than a year ago. She had worked tirelessly to increase clean water sources in the village. This issue of violence was new for her, her expression uneasy. She looked down at her husband who stood up slowly. She groped for his arm. The light flickered back in Anandi's eyes. 'Let there be a new affidavit on stamp paper. Let Ram Prasad and his parents sign an undertaking that Gulabi will suffer no violence - physical or mental. No abuse. No gaali galauj. Council members will visit the family regularly,' Snehaben pronounced softly, her eyes roving over the women councilors.
Ram Prasad glared at her with rage as did his mother. A protest began to rumble. The teenager stood up straight, ignoring her mother's tugs. Anandi turned her gaze to her organization’s project staff - field workers, teachers, a counselor, an animator - bringing the count of the standing to eight women and a man. The community of women were the first to struggle up to their feet. Snehaben's husband motioned his male cronies to rise till enough rose. Anandi scanned the room to summon appropriate witnesses as signatories. The whole gathering milled around the table where signatories were called to assemble.
The guesthouse room smelt musty and unaired. It felt better in the covered verandah that ran along the row of rooms facing the overgrown garden. The sound of crickets made me drowsy. Sushma had disappeared into the toilet for what seemed like an endless bath, so I savoured these moments - the crickets, the fragrance of the magnolia that glowed like yellow bulbs in the dark. Sushma's mobile rang constantly in our room. I wondered about her. We hadn't travelled together in a long time but it was only here that I saw how quiet she was and how thin. At work, her passion for the cause had clearly declined but there was nothing perfunctory about her work. Her field reports and recommendations were valued for their insights. This, despite her distracted sort of withdrawal. She seemed not to be listening, yet she heard..... strangely..... self-absorbed.
A mosquito buzzed persistently in my right ear. I slapped it hard and watched its blood dry slowly on my middle finger before I rubbed it off the side of the cane chair. I wondered how much he had made Gulabi bleed, that Ram Prasad, the monster. I had seen so many Gulabis, the children of Gulabis who cringed at every act of violence as if it was happening to them, till dullness set in, then callousness. I rubbed my right foot against my left sole. Callous… callus - hard, rough, nasty. Like Rohan. Such a bully but that's because as siblings, Papa made sure we were equals. If anything, I enjoyed the special privileges that came with being bright, assertive, opportunistic. Papa provided these generously: books, discussions, museums, plays, movies, concerts, lectures. Rohan made up later, again with Papa's help, who somehow knew what to do when. Saw his interest in aerospace, helped build his love for the galaxies, airplanes, calculus, numericals. Rohan found his calling earlier than I did. With a Master's in aeronautical engineer from Ann Arbor, he married Paula and settled happily with his family in the US.
It was Papa's spirit that built people. He built us so we built back. I had to work for this unbuilt community of women - so shattered, so conforming, so unrepresented. We had won some space but not enough, not enough to make a difference, but keeping at it appeared the only answer.
The wire mesh creaked open. Sushma emerged in a long faded housecoat. Her hair was wet and wild. She ran her fingers through it to tamp down the graying wetness. Her mobile rang shrilly. She turned abruptly, the mesh door squeaking shut behind her.
I ordered a vegetarian dinner. Sushma emerged only when the waiter appeared to jauntily set down our dinner from an aluminum tray with a broken handle. We ate in silence. The day felt as indigestible as the food.
‘Do you think these affidavits make any damn difference?’ I started. ‘I mean how does one define mental cruelty? Like he shits on her a few times less in a day? I mean how does one define the crushing of the human spirit – daily crushing? The ganging up, the fear, day and night,’ I said.
Sushma looked intently into her coffee cup, pushing to the side a brown web of congealed cream.
‘We need shelters for women,’ I asserted, ‘not the terrible ones we have for destitutes and orphans – but for women with courage who dare to re-build their lives. Shelters for long-term rehab with vocational training. Without vocational training, it’s a no-go. We need subsidized housing, especially for women. Our own workers can help with all sorts of other things - medical aid, legal advice, filing police complaints. But can our own district office provide shelter beyond a night or two? I mean, where will the women go? Surely, they must have rights in their own parents’ families?’
‘Anandi did well today,” said Sushma. ‘She built up community support. What’s more important……she allowed nasty things to come out into the open….that’s something.’
‘Ya, but these affidavits won’t make a difference, Sushma. And the community pressure may work for a while but things will go back to square one.’
Sushma did not reply. She struggled to smoothen her hair, still holding her coffee cup. It was such a nervous gesture, I wished she’d put the cup down.
‘This problem runs top down,’ I said. ‘You know what happened with the Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament. Twenty years and so many attempts later, it still hasn’t got passed in the Lower House. Those male legislators just won’t give up their seats. They will oppose their own women leaders, few as they are – join forces on this one issue with men from other political parties whom they would otherwise happily kill. Unless we have more women representatives – politically – how are we going to get women-friendly policies in?’
Sushma’s coffee spilt onto her brown housecoat. She watched aghast as the liquid blended into the cloth. Her phone shrilled from inside. She jumped, pushing the saucer onto the table’s edge and spun around to the door.
The chirping of the crickets had been relaxing. The mosquitoes now buzzed around my head, wings whirring noisily. Inside, Sushma was hunched over the phone on the edge of her bed near the window. Her voice was low and muffled. Two tube lights on opposite walls shone unnaturally blue. The air conditioner had a black cable sticking out of it as if hacked, leading nowhere. Luckily, the windows had wire mesh. There would be fresh air.
The inside of the toilet was wet. Sushma’s clothes were bunched damply on the counter. The washbasin had strands of her hair. I was surprised that I picked them off, one by one, without irritation. I looked at her clothes – a pale pink blouse, a dark pink petticoat. I reached for the door peg to hang them up.
She was already asleep when I came out of my bath, her body bunched up, facing away. Only the tube light over my bed shone, making the green bedspread gleam synthetically. I needed to work on an analysis of the day but felt suddenly restless. After a while, my eyes adjusted to the dark, my body to the heat. A strange mewling sound kept me awake. It came from the window. A cat. Cats frightened me. I felt compelled to move, to peer out of the window at the still black thickets. The sound stopped. I could see nothing, just feel the dry brown stillness of the night. I returned to my bed, to a pillow lumpy as a sack of potatoes. The mewling started again and stopped only in the wee hours of the morning.
The train drew into the platform leisurely. When it finally stopped, I saw Abhijit through the tinted glass standing right outside our compartment, eyes and beard alert. Sonal acknowledged him brightly but refused my offer to drop her home. I watched her surge into the crowd. At the staircase, she turned back to look at me and waved. She smiled uncertainly, then heaved her strolley slowly up the steps.
Driving home, he gave me no time to assimilate the contrast between the village we had just left and the passing sights of the metropolis.
‘Why don’t you pick up the phone, damn it?’ he growled.
‘I did. I was in the bath.’
‘This woman, Sonal. Why is she playing so chummy? Does she…’
‘You know what I’ll do to you if you squeak’, he spluttered.
I knew but chose silence. Answering back whether with logic, rightful anger, hurt, bitterness – all brought predictable reactions. Since his retrenchment from work a year ago, even responses to silence could no longer be predicted. I earned, I held on to my job despite all odds, I paid the monthly instalment on the housing loan, the boys’ boarding school fees, bills….we scraped through….I barely scraped through…..still the silences could lead to anything. I could tell those national level family surveys a thing or two: Sole earner – more volatility. Dual earners – less.
‘What was the project about?’ he asked.
‘Training project. Building teachers’ skills.’
‘What skills will you build?’ he snorted. I looked at him from the side of my eye. His beard looked alive and prickly like an animal’s. His hair was slicked down with oil but the beard grizzled.
‘Worst skills in bed,’ he added. I thought of the roughness of his beard against my face. There was no question of resistance. It was a feast for him – he feasted slowly, thoroughly, then slept as soundly as a drunk. The aftermath was my think time but the same thoughts – the boys, the bills, job transfer, separation, the boys, hitting back, escape, the boys, the bills – led nowhere.
Though my mother knew, I often thought of asking her for help. What could her tired refined eyes say, plead….for she had gone through the same, the same violence, the same emotional brutality, the same…..I thought of talking to one of the counselors at work - so many worked in the field, trained by our international consultants. I thought of Sonal….forthright, committed Sonal, wonderful, assertive colleague ….. it was the shame of it that blazed like a fire in my blood. To tell would be to first dishonor myself – beaten and helpless on the inside, dishonor the boys who wouldn’t want to be seen any different from others, my family, his family name, him. How would it help? He wouldn’t undergo any counseling, his manhood would be disgraced. He may turn more violent.
I unpacked and allowed the cold shower to enter deep into my exhausted body. In the cramped kitchen, I warmed up the lunch the part-time cook had left in the microwave. I broke the silence: ‘Any news of the boys? Ashu was to go on a trek to the Nilgiris.’
‘No news’, he said.
‘Listen’, he said suddenly. I waited, my body on red alert.
‘Stop all this traveling. I have worked much longer than you, so I know. It’s not necessary. You can always send younger colleagues, especially into these villages. It’s just vagabonding, not necessary.’
I knew what was behind this. Once, he had spent half a night going through my phone, my contact list. He had deleted the names of all male work contacts.
‘It’s part of my work, Abhijit. Without field travel, we can report nothing meaningful on our projects. It’s work.’
He picked up a full glass of water and brought it crashing to the floor. ‘Then do this work first – clean up, woman, clean this.’ I stared at the shards of glass glistening in a puddle, still forming. My eyes pricked, tears coursed hotly down my throat.
The idea flashed at me at work, though it could have flashed earlier too. During a de-briefing session with project staff, Sonal held forth on the need to help women during crisis. She talked about crisis centers, emergency centers. She spoke about long-stay shelters with vocational training, support groups, subsidized housing for single women, working women’s hostels. That was it. A working women’s hostel. I had been to one – large and established with a warren of rooms on several floors – impersonal, safe. I would have to download application forms. There was one walking distance from the office. Was it this simple? He would hunt me down of course, but it would not be easy to make an issue in a large place. He wouldn’t stalk me at work, he wouldn’t. I had done everything to protect the shame of it….here.
‘Sushma’, someone said. The faces were a blur but my face felt the heat of attention.
‘Yes, I agree, Anandi, I agree,’ I blurted.
The blur turned into a series of polite smiles, titters. Sonal looked away.
At night, I waited for my think time, listened to his steady breathing for a while before tiptoeing out to the boys’ bedroom with my laptop. I drew the curtains to shut out the light but left the door ajar. I opened my laptop. There were working girls hostels with signatures needed from parents/guardians agreeing to take wards away during illness or distress, requirements to be filled of identification marks, disability, chronic illness, skin disease. I smiled, despite myself. I stopped at one website that offered what looked like a composite form that asked for preferences: category of room desired (single/double/triple share - A.C./water-cooled/Non A.C.), rate category, location desired, contact details. It looked so simple, so accepting.
The curtain moved. He stood in the doorway, staring. Such a normal thing to be working at night. But years of violence had alerted me to the danger signals. I felt like a hunted animal. In my panic, I snapped the laptop shut and stared back, pulverized. In one powerful lunge, he reached for my laptop. I ran to our bedroom and shut the door. The banging started a few minutes later and went on endlessly. Frozen, I watched the picture on the wall tremble, then fall to the ground, bringing down a large chunk of plaster. I fumbled for my phone and scrolled. I stopped at Sonal, scrolled down, scrolled back. In her photo display, Sonal smiled, her untidy top knot smiled. I pressed the red caller button and let it ring, then disconnected. Four rings. I didn’t know the time. It didn’t matter.
The morning light filtered in through the net curtains. I bathed, still unmindful of the time. I sat on the edge of a chair, waiting for the maid’s doorbell ring. When it came, I opened the bedroom door. He was sprawled on the sofa, his eyes half-shut in a doze. I ran to the main door.
In the hallway stood Sonal with two counselors, Aparna and Harsha. Her eyes looked like Anandi’s, beaming light, seeking consent. I stood aside to let them in.