(Excerpted with permission from ‘After I Was Raped’ by Urmi Bhattacheryya, to be published by Macmillan.)
Meera shuffled around the earthen perimeter of her home, offering an eager tour while Manju didi, who had already been here multiple times during the course of her interrogations, took a seat at the foot of Meera’s cot – the only tangible piece of furniture they had in their one-room living space.
I was surprised to see a thin, blue tarpaulin sheet – instead of a solid wall – serving as the only defence against the elements along the back edge of Meera’s cottage.
‘Don’t you get snakes and reptiles in the monsoon?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ she told me, ‘but we never even had a sheet before.’ She’d put this one up, she told me, the day after Jeevan accosted her in her own backyard.
Meera could remember walking to the fields to relieve herself, one evening, weeks after her rape; the subsequent police custody of Jeevan and his eventual release. ‘He was waiting for me right there,’ she said, pointing to a gap between two sizable hedges. ‘I had barely lifted my saree, tiptoeing on my haunches, when he towered over me and threatened that I take back my complaint.
“Sign a maafi nama (a letter of acknowledgement/atonement of/for a crime or injury done to another) and accept Rs 25,000 from me; consider that the end of all this trouble,” he told me.
But I don’t know what got into me that day. I shouted “No!” and ran back to my house. I wasn’t afraid of him anymore.’
‘Felt a Hand Clamp On Her Mouth’
Meera’s fear, even for her, was a memory, but one she could remember vividly, almost palpably, as she painted me a word-picture. We whispered, because as she told my companion and me, she couldn’t risk her voice travelling across the wall to him and his family, lest the latter stirred up fresh trouble.
‘I remember the fear I felt when I first felt his hands on me,’ she said, and pointed to a spot a few inches away from where we were sitting, at the foot of her cot.
‘I sleep there, on a mattress on the floor. It was where I was sleeping that night.’
Meera was alone on the night of 9 May 2011 – her husband and her three sons had left for a wedding, earlier that day. ‘My brother’s daughter was getting married, so the men in the family had gone to “fetch” the groom. It’s a tradition in our parts.’
She had been sleeping only a few hours, when she felt a hand clamp down on her mouth. ‘He must have entered through the back,’ she recalled. ‘There was no doorway to speak of.’ Meera immediately knew who it was. She had been seeing his face, contorted in rage, and hearing his voice, garbled in anger and contempt, for a year since the family moved into the house. He wasn’t happy, she recalled, that a neech jaati (someone from ‘a lower caste’) was going to be living in such close proximity to him, upending the foundations of his perfectly compartmentalized life.’
Woh oonche jaati ke hai (he belongs to a higher caste),’ she offered by way of explanation, introducing into the conversation the vagaries of privilege that the paradigmatic and utterly discriminatory Hindu caste system accorded to its constituents.
‘But we had worked hard to earn our way into this house. Why should we have to move away?’
The bitter feud, fuelled by the occasional hurling of verbal imprecations across the wall and whenever Meera’s family went to the village temple where Jeevan officiated, continued for a year – culminating in the night he allegedly visited her at the house.
‘I woke up to feel his hand on my mouth and I struggled to get free. He began to hoist up my clothes.
I used to sleep with a scythe under my pillow and I frantically got hold of it to use against him.’
Her attacker, however, was allegedly too quick for Meera and he pinned the arm that had grabbed hold of the scythe, causing her to press down on the blade and bleed profusely. Meera cried out, but her cries were stifled under the hand that muzzled her face.
‘Summoned Energy to Just Run Out’
She screamed and continued to hit back, until he allegedly wrested the scythe from her and hit her on the head with its blunt end. Meera could, in her copious retelling of the story, remember two things: the cold, sick sensation of utter powerlessness and the smell of warm, fresh blood pouring out of the wound on her forehead, where the scythe had hit her. It was a deep cut, and it blinded her.
By this time, Meera had stopped struggling and Jeevan had allegedly stopped raping her.
‘I don’t know where I summoned the energy after that, but I did – just enough to run out of the house like a madwoman. I could hear him shout after me and then shout out to his henchmen in the village to stop me, but I didn’t look back. I didn’t stop. I kept running across the fields in pitch darkness. I remember wondering later how I could have remembered to put my chappals on,’ said Meera.
‘All Night She Waited...’
Meera didn’t stop until she reached a thana in Dewas district, where she half-collapsed on the steps. She remembered it being close to 3 am when she stumbled in and told the cops what had happened and that she wanted to file an FIR.
‘All night I waited. I remember there were three cops at the time – I remember that part vividly – and they just heard my story indifferently and asked me to wait on the bench until they could call me in. I sat on the cold hard bench outside one of the sub-inspectors’ rooms, holding my bleeding head in my hands.’
None of the policemen present, Meera said, tended to her injuries or asked her if she wanted anything. ‘I kept pleading with them – any time one of them passed by me – to write out my complaint; I told them that I was alone and that the men could catch up with me any time, but no one seemed to hurry or listen to my plea.’
Meera’s fears weren’t unfounded, however, as according to her, Jeevan’s brother and a few of his friends soon reached the police station, looking for her. ‘They didn’t enter; perhaps, they were scared. But they taunted me from outside and spoke loudly enough among themselves for me to hear: “She has come to the cops. If we had waylaid her on the road, we could have killed her.”’
The men left soon after, but no one came for Meera. Soon, it was daybreak and she could remember more cops pouring in, some with chai and naashta for the rest of the men, chattering and milling around, not throwing so much as a second glance at her.
While Meera sat there and bled, trying to stem the force of the blood with her hands, the cops reportedly dawdled and ate their meals, and finally called her in to file her FIR a little past 9 am. It was while she was recounting the events of the night that her husband walked in.
‘Some of our neighbours who had seen and heard what was happening filled him in when he returned from the groom’s house, and he immediately came down to the police station to find me,’ she said.
Till date, Meera hasn’t forgotten or forgiven her neighbours for not coming to her aid. ‘How can it be that no one heard anything? We live in kuchcha houses and sound carries easily. Even if they didn’t hear anything, they must have seen me running away from my own house!’ she often asks in anguish.
(Urmi Bhattacheryya is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.)
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