Poet, Author, Editor, Creative Writing Consultant

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Different Kind of Encounter-Of Life and a Death

‘What is truer than the truth? The story.’ ~Old Jewish saying.

I have to write this.
It was triggered off by the news of the death of the 15 year old niece of my Bengali cook, Jharna, who comes every morning to make lunch for my family and departs. A few days ago, she told me that her 15 years old niece died suddenly. Naturally, I needed to know how.
These are the sordid details. The girl was the fifth of six sisters. Four before her were married, out of which, one had died in childbirth at the age of thirteen. Yes, thirteen. One of them is beaten every day. The family knows it but can/will do nothing. One of them is ‘alright’, so I was told. The fourth one, they don’t know about because she is not living anywhere close by and they get no news of her. Perhaps no news is good news in this case. So this niece was the fifth. What follows is the story of her death, in short.
She, let us call her Sonali, was married six months ago to a forty year old alcoholic rickshaw puller. When asked, I am told that they did not ‘know’ that he was alcoholic. The girl was fifteen, but considered quite grown up by their village standards (they live in Delhi but village rules apply here ), and needed to be married off. The man was forty, very eligible by village standards?
Two months after her marriage, she swallows acid. She says it was by mistake, in the hospital when she is questioned. She can talk, but cannot take in food. She cannot swallow her spit. She goes back to her parents place, and she is fed through a pipe. The doctors say that after four months, they will operate again. She survives in this way and is with her parents.
After four months, they take her to the hospital. The doctors say they cannot operate. She has become like a dry stick, no blood in her body. This is what my maid, Jharna, Sonali’s aunt, tells me, when I asked her why the doctors did not operate. She says that perhaps they realized that it would not help. The girl and parents return home.
A few days after this, the girl slips in the bath and dies. That is the story of Sonali. And of her sisters.
And of women in our world.
One of them is still in line, waiting for marriage or a scaffold around the neck?
I learn later from Jharna that she herself was married at the age of 12. Died almost at childbirth at the age of 13! She is perhaps 24 now. She is married to a sickly fellow who cannot work and is double her age. Looking at her and the way she goes about her work, you would not know it. She survived. Shall we say she is lucky because her husband is not an alcoholic and does not beat her, though he earns nothing and is sick most of the time? She has not left him, like a man would have done a woman in the same condition…
I have been intensely disturbed by this. I know, we read about these things, but I have been affected by this particular happening.
And on that very day, I read a response to someone‘s blog of a 16 year old Bihari girl who used to run when her forty year old or so husband approached her. Why? Because he would ask her to become a ‘murga’ (chicken) for his pleasure or for her punishment, one does not know. Becoming a ‘murga’ is an uncomfortable and demeaning position in which one crouches, puts one’s hands under from behind the legs and brings them out forward to hold the ears.
Correspondence with that writer revealed that she knew that the man had a wife and two daughters of the same age who had left him and gone away. This 16 year old girl was his second ‘wife’. Another true story.
It made my stomach churn.
I watched Isabelle Allende speak on creativity and writing and she, being a feminist, also spoke of the rape of young women in Africa. So whether I liked it or not, once again I was, during this period of agitation, made aware of the condition of women, nay, girl children, in another part of the world.
I am trying to learn how to write plays properly. Towards that end, I read ‘Kanyaadaan’ yesterday (Vijay Tendulkar’s famous play), and there again, the girl, Jyoti’s, life is put on stake, as an ‘experiment’ by her socialist father who is very proud of her to have married a dalit, a proof of his having brought her up with the right values of not differentiating between castes, and when that experiment fails, it costs him his beliefs and his daughter her existence(almost). She sorrows at having been blinded by her father’s values about finding the ‘goodness’ in man/men and bringing it forth. She said the beastliness was a part of man and he would never leave it. These were among other issues that Tendulkar brings out in this seminal work, and I speak of this particular one because I read it yesterday and it seems to be just another thorn that is scratching my skin, making me bleed.
I had a discussion with a friend and he said that men are closer to nature and beastliness and education helps in making them less so. I do not agree. I think education has nothing to do with this. It is only the person’s willingness to respect another human being. And this respect seems to be lacking in men, even the ‘educated’ ones. So are we to admit that given a free reign, men will loot, plunder, violate and abuse? And that they do it more often than not, that there is only a very fine line that keeps them in check.
And young girls will be the ones who will suffer in some way or the other at the hand of the beast. We may say, what about the mother here? The mother is just another such victim, surviving and trying to keep her home together, perhaps her being there prevents her husband from raping his own children?
Yes, those stories are also there.
The cynics will shake their heads and say, so what’s new? What’s new is that despite our so called progress, these are the times we live in. What’s new is that we need to awaken the world to this with voices that do not merely want to get the eyeballs for their media channel. What’s new is that we need not be so blasé about it. What’s new is that everyday we have to fight such injustice. One way to do it is to speak out if you are hurting. I am hurting right now.

This is in memory of that unknown Sonali. May her young soul rest in peace.

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