Onaatah of the Earth by Paulami DuttaGupta peels away at the psychosocial aftermath of a rape, and reveals the human being that is inside a sexual abuse survivor.
“But then in life we all have a permanent blindfold on and yet we pretend to be safe.”
It is lines like these that make Onaatah of the Earth an engrossing, sublime and enlightening read, which lingers in your mind for a long, long time.
When you pick up a book that narrates the tale of a rape survivor, you expect to be drowned in a pool of tears by the end of it and imagine yourself to be in a melancholic mood for hours after you have closed the book. For this very reason, there is a section of people who avoid reading books on this subject, because they feel they do not have the guts to stomach such stories.
But, what if I tell you that I had a broad grin on my face after I completed reading the story of Onaatah and felt a deep sense of contentment? Well, that is where Onaatah of the Earth stands out from all the other books dealing with the issue of rape, and succeeds in making a vital point without being preachy or gory or overtly dramatic.
Based on a National Award winning Khasi Film written by Paulami DuttaGupta, who has also authored this book, Onaatah of the Earth is an uplifting and relatable account of a rape survivor who stands up for herself in the face of adversity and emerges out of it, stronger and wiser.
Exactly 4 years back, I had begun my journey as a social activist and I interacted with quite a few survivors of sexual assault while working on their rehabilitation. Some of them are my good friends today and hence, this book hit close to home. As I read through Onaatah’s journey, I discovered a bit of each of those survivors in Onaatah.
Editors’ Note: This review may contain a few spoilers.
Onaatah is a young nurse who lives with her loving family, her parents and her younger sister, in Shillong. She is passionate about her work and carries out her responsibilities with utmost dedication and compassion. Preparations for her marriage with her fiancée, Peter, are on in full swing and she is looking forward to live the rest of her life with the man she loves. In a horrifying twist of fate, on a fateful day, she is sexually assaulted by a group of men, one of whom turns out to be her college batch mate.
This incident turns her world upside down and her family is crestfallen. Onaatah finds justice in the court but is let down by our insensitive and judgemental society which indulges in victim-shaming and victim-blaming, and looks at a sexual abuse survivor with contempt.
Shunned by even the people she loves, she reaches a point when she almost gives up, but destiny takes her to a village where she hopes to uncover a new world and be able to move on. Will Onaatah’s quest for her purpose in life end at the village? Will she find unconditional love and respect amongst strangers? Will she emerge as a survivor? The answers to these questions are what form the crux of the remaining part of the story.
Author’s treatment of the issue
The author deserves a round of applause for her deft and sensitive handling of the topic of rape. She neither underplays it nor sensationalizes it, and hits the nail right on the head. She comes straight to the point without much ado, with the rape incident occurring after a few pages into the novel. The scene is thoughtfully depicted with just enough information to give you a glimpse of what happened without being stretched gratuitously.
While most stories dealing with sexual abuse talk about the struggles of the victims in finding justice, very few talk comprehensively about the apathy of our society towards them. Miss DuttaGupta raises pertinent questions about our role in the rehabilitation of a sexual abuse survivor and this is what makes this book unique and worth pondering over.
Onaatah’s perpetrators are pronounced guilty in the court of law but does that really put an end to her miseries and feeling of despondency? I would like to quote the words of a friend of mine here. She is a rape survivor and this is from a conversation we had after the verdict of her case was out.
“It seems now that it was easier when I was fighting for justice. All my energy was focused towards it. Now that the case is closed with the culprits being punished, I feel empty. What now? Will I be able to lead my normal, routine life again?”
There is not even an iota of doubt about the fact that Onaatah is the soul of the story. Of course she is the protagonist, but the balanced and realistic portrayal of her character immerses the reader into her world completely. She falters but gets up; she displays grit and strength, yet is engulfed by her own vulnerabilities. She wants to look at life with optimism but is anxious about the uncertainty of what the future holds for her.
At various points in the narrative, Onaatah invoked deep emotions within me. I cried with her and laughed with her. I was right there cheering for her when she gave Peter a piece of her mind in the hospital and threw away the flowers he got for her. I was proud of her when she championed for herself against people who tried to belittle her and crush her spirit.
Story is free of clichés
It is impressive how the story runs its course devoid of the usual clichés. So while a group of dastardly men violate Onaatah, the ones who stumble upon her in her battered condition show immense respect and concern for her. They take it upon themselves to ensure she reaches hospital on time and pray for her recovery.
It was refreshing to find Onaatah’s family, especially her parents, standing by her like a rock and supporting her through it all, but at the same time clueless about how to put an end to their daughter’s ordeal. I was half expecting them to cry over their ‘loss of honour‘.
I loved that Onaatah found peace and love in a village, subtly indicating that education does not necessarily make someone emotionally intelligent. The uneducated village folk who are deprived of access to even basic amenities are shown as fairly more progressive in their mindset as compared to the so-called learned city community. There is a scene in which Oritaah, Onaatah’s younger sister, is ranting to her mother about this and what she says is something we all need to brood over. We need to look at re-defining the way we are educating the next generation.
“I keep hearing every other activist go up and talk about how education will change the world. What has it changed? Joe is educated. He got a first class. Did it teach him to respect her? All those famous men who maul and rape and sexually harass women, does education teach them anything?”
One of the biggest strengths of this book is the way in which the various relationships have been marvellously handled by the author. Be it Onaatah’s rapport with her parents and the idealist Oritaah, or the friendship between Duh, Charming and Dariti, you will feel connected to all the connections between the different characters in the story. They will warm your heart and stir your soul. For instance, when Onaatah’s father voices the below dialogue during a poignant tête-à-tête with her, you can sense the depth of his emotions, his pain and the firm resolve and unwavering support of a father.
“What is the use of locking those bastards in jail when you have given yourself a death sentence?”
The bond between Duh and Onaatah has also been beautifully sketched sans any melodrama. There is no place for preposterous dialogues like “You have been raped but I accept you”. It is pure, unconditional love and admiration that binds two souls.
Strong supporting characters
The supporting characters have been well-outlined and every character has a key role to play in Onaatah’s life. I was reminded of the Bollywood classic Sholay which is celebrated for its memorable characters, even the ones who had a miniscule contribution towards the movie’s plot. Likewise, I cannot imagine this book without any of its characters because each of them weaves a yarn to fix the ripped pieces of Onaatah’s life. For instance, the cab driver who takes a stand for Onaatah against her acquaintance has only one scene in the whole story, yet he manages to leaves a mark.
Well-captured essence of the locations
The author creates a vivid imagery of the locations in which the story has been set. The city of Shillong and then the village in the latter part of the story are characters in the novel and elevate the reading experience. I felt like I was there, soaking in the surroundings and unearthing a new place I have never visited before.
The beautiful transformation
It’s a knotty task to effectively show the transformation of a sexual abuse survivor through words. The scars are so deeply inflicted that it takes an immense level of astuteness for one to truly understand what the survivors go through. Miss DuttaGupta has been able to successfully tap into the fears, insecurities and ambivalence in the minds of sexual abuse survivors.
After the horrifying incident that shakes the core of her being, Onaatah starts getting scared of the dark, so much so that she finds it difficult to walk up to the kitchen in her own house in the night. There are many paragraphs in the book which bring forth the emotional struggles of Onaatah, like this one in which she is worried about her sister Oritaah who is leaving the house after dusk and then in an instant she also starts feeling responsible for causing agony to her family.
“‘No…You are not going out. One of my girls went out in the evening and here we are suffering…’ Oritaah let out a gasp and Onaatah slowly got up and walked to her room. She had wanted to stop Oritaah too. But why did it hurt so much now? Why did it hurt when her mother spoke out? It was the truth. Hadn’t her family really been forced into all this? And wasn’t she responsible for all of it?”
The gradual transformation from this state to making peace with herself has come across delightfully in the tale. I personally feel travelling and being in the lap of nature can be very therapeutic, and both of these aspects play a major role in Onaatah’s healing, of course apart from the people she meets in the village.
One of my most treasured parts of the story is Onaatah’s crucial moment of realization during her interaction with Dondor. It is true that sometimes it is necessary to get a peek into the challenges faced by others to appreciate what we have got.
Easy to decipher language
The language used is simple, which goes perfectly with the ethos of the book. The author effortlessly conveys profound thoughts and creates magic with words. Quoting my favourite line from the book which displays the author’s prowess as a wordsmith –
“The day giving way to night, and then the night giving way to the day gave her a sense of hope. There must be something like this about life too, life couldn’t be static.”
It is also interesting how she has sprinkled the tale with humour. The funny portions in the story don’t seem out of place at all and are effective in making one chuckle.
There are a few typographical errors which pop up at places, but they certainly do not take away from the reading experience. Also, towards the middle of the story, I felt the pace slacken a bit, but it soon picks up swiftly after the narrative shifts to the village. From here on, the graph of the story only moves upwards.
Onaatah of the Earth shows us a mirror without getting judgemental. The book leaves it to us to figure for ourselves if we are doing our bit towards humanity. It is that kind of book, which grows on you with time, and you discover new perspectives every time you get your hands on it. To me, the story of Onaatah is path-breaking and has the potential to reform the society. I shared this book with a rape survivor and I would like to conclude my review with her thoughts about it.
“At various points in the book, I forgot I was reading about Onaatah and felt like I was reading my own story. Onaatah is an inspiration and everyone must read this book. I want to thank the author for writing this book and I hope this goes down in history as a revolutionary story.”
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