My mother’s first encounter with the word ‘rape’ was in the Home Science laboratory of her college in south Calcutta. She recalls it carved on a wooden chopping board, with what must have been a kitchen knife. Her immediate reaction was to throw away the board and run out of the lab. It is this relation between ‘Home’ (a science in her college laboratory) and rape that I found missing from most narratives emerging out of the horrific gang rape of the 23-year-old girl in Delhi. Meena Kandasamy, poet and activist, and a victim of marital violence, was one of the very few people to point that out in her essay How Do We Break The Indian Penile Code? Reading the wet-ink cathartic literature that’s come out in the last fortnight of December, one cannot but notice the near-exclusion of ‘home’ and its hidden machinery of rape in this discourse.
It is also interesting to notice the gap between the narratives inside the house and on the streets. In this literature of outrage, the Mother, custodian and censor, unpaid watch-woman of the male gaze, is the subject of many poems. But amid all the protests and pleas for the police and politicians and laws and legislators to change, did anyone notice a poster asking for the mother to stop playing patriarchy’s snakes-and-ladders game? Arundhati Ghosh, deputy director at India Foundation for the Arts, writing in Bengali, addresses a poem to the mother: Ma ke, ‘To Mother’. It’s the same decrying of the architecture of a woman’s space that we find in the collective call of ‘Claim the Night’ or the song Ma Nee Meri by SWAANG: ‘Mother, I will not fear/Mother, I will not become you’. Alaka Yeravadekar’s poem is also titled Mother, and it points out the mother’s complicity in the patriarchal safety code of looking, of hiding and covering: ‘Figures hurrying home—/men and women from work… /only a watchman… /what dress did she wear today?’
In poem after poem, the woman’s existence is only in the scopic. Moinak Dutta’s poem takes on ‘watching’ by pitting the wakefulness of ‘candlelight’ against the ‘shuttered windows’ of the bus in Delhi. What is repeatedly questioned and re-aligned in the poems and SWAANG song is the limits of urban space: the khirki, the raasta.
‘This is not the doing of cities, This was committed neither by the Day nor the Night, This is not the doing of lonely desolate streets, Neither are windows and curtains guilty of this crime...’
After all, it is darkness with which Honey Singh begins the (in)famous song:
‘Raat ko nikali naari/hui gadi pe savaari/par voh raat usko pad gayi bhari.’
It is entirely appropriate then that it is this very night, locked beyond possession for women, that the young poet Akhil Katyal claims for the victim in his poem Moments Before She Died:
‘This night refuses to rest/on little promises… /this night remains/like shell-shock… /this night hangs in the air/like the deserter/who has seen through the war/his world is now refusal… /and this night remains/because she has offered her sleeve to hold/but we are not bold enough/to reach.’
Arundhati Ghosh tells the ‘mother’ about claiming the night and the new vocabulary of looking. ‘Rajpothe tai namchhe tufan/Chorche gola, chharchhe ghor/Adhek akash dekhchhe obak/Adhek akash tulchhe jhor.’ Whether it’s the storm (tufan) at Rajpath or half the people looking at the sky and the other half raising a storm, the poem makes one thing clear: ways of seeing (peeking, looking, glancing, staring) and the woman’s relationship with the props of seeing—daylight and darkness—that construct a woman. Sudha Arora, writing in Hindi, uses the same trope, tweaking the tears-for-blood exchange (Manjul Bajaj’s untitled poem about the incident has three stanzas beginning with the word ‘cry’ as well) from a familiar discourse of nationhood into an eye-for-an-eye feminism: ‘Hum aansuo se nahi, apni aankh ke lahu se bolengey.’ Ravi Shankar’s poem, Architecture of Flesh, also accuses the eye: ‘Exhibit number one million one./The blood is not the thing./Nor the searing wolf bites./Nor the ripped intestines./It is the gloat in the eyes/that bore into the flesh/that day, this day, every damn day.’ In the end, ‘dented and painted’, made famous by Abhijit Mukherjee, is also a function of the eye. All this begs the question: would anyone be raped if men were blind, if we couldn’t see?
There is something about the violence involved, not only in what was meted out to the young girl—perhaps that old machinery of ‘fear’ that Aristotle mentioned about tragic heroes—that turned her an Everywoman. In Rita Bhattacharjee’s poem I, Woman—A Requiem, the Biblical ‘peace’ and ‘rest’ are turned out like pockets hiding patriarchal slush. In that mock-ecclesiastical space, Bhattacharjee serves ‘daily news’ instead of ‘daily bread’. Those who commit the trespasses are not men alone, but also the media: ‘They said I am an inspiration./When a nation devours fresh cadavers/served up on the daily news…’.
It is perhaps the same impulse that made Shabana Azmi quote from her father Kaifi Azmi’s poem Aurat during a protest march in Mumbai: ‘Uth meri jaan, mere saath hee chalnaa hai tujhe’ (‘Arise, my love, for now you must march with me’). Baisali Chatterjee Dutt’s A Few Threads talks about the rape of Draupadi (what else was it?), and again it is newsprint that becomes a shroud: ‘Maa, you cover me with sheets now,/and there is newsprint/where my gut once used to be.’ Perhaps at no other time in the history of Indian feminism has one woman’s body been claimed by so many as their own: ‘her bruise-gorged body now awaits judgment,’ writes Bina Biswas. And here is Ruma Chakravarti: ‘I am the history of rape/I am the history of the rejection of who I am/I am the history of the incarceration of myself/I am the history of battery, assault and war unlimited.’ The young poet Sana Menon, in Poems for my Raped Sister, writes about this sisterhood: ‘This winter without you, Sister, I also lie dying/I am writing my finest poem for you.’
And then there were the names: Damini, Nirbhaya, Amanat, Braveheart. ‘For most of history, Anonymous was a woman,’ said Virginia Woolf. In taking this up a century later, Nilanjana S Roy infuses the ‘name’ with a sub-national feminism: ‘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.’ It is interesting that both Roy and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, in his essay In Memory of the Unknown Citizen, are looking back to literature of approximately the same time: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, first published in 1929, and WH Auden’s The Unknown Citizen, published in 1939. Auden’s poem carries an epigraph that is a parody of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a grave for unidentified soldiers killed in World War I. Sengupta, in using Auden’s phrase, is thereby turning the young girl into the equivalent of a casualty of war, a killing by the State.
Keki Daruwalla’s poem Death Took Awhile, with its slapping rhymes, is, at the beginning reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s Because I Could not Stop for Death. Here are the first two stanzas of Dickinson’s poem, and reading it with the knowledge of the bus stopping at Munirka brings a chilling resonance that Daruwalla invokes purposely:
‘Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me; The carriage held but just ourselves And Immortality.’
‘We slowly drove, he knew no haste, And I had put away My labour, and my leisure too, For his civility.’
Daruwalla moves the action from the bus to the people, from blood to water: tears fill his poem. ‘People are crying/let them cry/the salt-dew is good for the eye.’ He conflates the death of the girl with the death of the year, the word ‘death’ leaving blood trails all over the poem, appearing seven times in this 24 line poem.
Monosyllables fill the poem like a chant, the poet’s inquilab, until ‘her’ becomes ‘it’, from the death of the ‘daughter’ to that of the ‘year’ to ‘it’, a neutering of gender for sure, but also of agency: the nouns change from ‘people’ and ‘fortnight’ to ‘wind’ and ‘candles’. Isn’t that how protests die?
It is also neutering that we encounter in the Bengali songwriter-musician Kabir Suman’s songs about rape. In one, he calls the rapists ‘impotent’. By attributing metaphorical impotence to the rapists, Suman, like several other poets, most of whom are against imagined experiments like ‘chemical castration’, seems to perform exactly the same operation in this poem. The difference between the poet and the public remains only an imagined one.
Several of these poems have the name ‘Damini’ in the title. The name references the central character played by Meenakshi Seshadri in a film of the same name. Damini, in the Hindi film, fights for justice for her house help, a woman raped by her brother-in-law. The media, by transferring the name ‘Damini’, meaning ‘lightning’, from one woman to another, is quick to forget agency: an upper-middle-class woman fighting for a rape victim, in a relay race of naming, now becomes the rape victim fighting for her life in hospital. What allows that cultural reference to proliferate? Ampat Koshy, Tapeshwar Prasad and Manzar Imam are three among many who have titled their poems Damini, Imam taking on Sushma Swaraj’s ‘zinda laash’ comment in the line ‘Tu zinda thhi, zinda rahegi aur zinda hai’. It is the easiest penny trick in the patriarchy magic book—wrong them and then leave them feeling guilty.
In the last fortnight, there’s been an architecture of quotations on Facebook that forms a memorial to the 23-year-old by itself. Trina Nileena Banerjee, poet, actress, academic, put this up as her status update on a day my Facebook Newsfeed was filled with calls of Azaadi (Hum Kya Chahate Hain Azaadi/Raat mein bhi Azaadi/Din mein bhi Azaadi/Daftar mein bhi Azaadi/College mein bhi Azaadi/Hostel mein bhi Azaadi/Schoolon mein bhi Azaadi): ‘Chal Dhanno, aaj teri Basanti ki azaadi ka sawal hai!’ Referencing Hema Malini’s character from Sholay, I thought, was a brilliant poetic gesture, one that took the patriarchal trope of the woman on a horse, familiarised to us in myths, poetry and paintings, and gave it an escape velocity that has been denied to the woman out on the road. Arunava Sinha, writer and translator, posted his translation of Anita Agnihotri’s story The Peacock, which have these telling lines: ‘Gradually he directed his mind, his eyes, his sense-organs towards the beautiful parts of the young woman’s body. And tried to keep his attention trained on those parts. For instance, her hair had not been burnt—as he plaited those long, thick tresses, the young man tried to imagine—what if she were someone else.’ Ananya Vajpeyi, writer and historian, quoted from her father Kailash Vajpeyi’s poem Tarsey Huye Desh Main, a parody of Rabindranath Tagore’s Where the Mind is Without Fear, ending with the self-pitying and self-indicting cry, ‘I am ashamed to be an Indian’. It is the same impulse perhaps that made the writer Tabish Khair post the song Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par from the film Pyaasa, a self-mocking gesture.
Mihir Vatsa, in his poem 12/16, writes, ‘Yesterday was the anniversary/of Leda’s rape and Ahilya’s truth. Today,/the gods walked the shady streets,/swinging their hands, whistling Chikni Chameli’. It was this that my cook—whose daughter, a girl of 17 who joined a protest march organised in Siliguri and changed her Facebook profile photo to a black dot like many of her friends—reported a few days ago. The first line of the Chikni Chameli song goes ‘Bichhoo mere naina badi zehereeli aankh mare ...’ (My eyes are like scorpions, they have a very poisonous wink). A man at the protest march winked at her daughter and sang these lines. If men went blind, we’d all be safe, she said confidently. In her words I found condensed almost the entire literature of outrage of the last two weeks of December.