Three Indian Women: Fearful Symmetries

While it is difficult for women who face violence to speak out in real life, it is indeed quite possible to use literature as the abused women's voice.

In July this year, Meena Khalkho from Surguja village in Chattisgarh was shot and killed by the police during their “prolonged encounter” with Naxalites. She was 16.

By Swati Chanda

Meena’s murder barely registered in the news here; I read about the incident with impotent rage over a month later. And the information was both meager and confusing: ballistics and forensics contradicted official statements about the encounter; her brother has been given a job; the family has been awarded Rs. 2 lakhs as compensation; there will be a judicial probe into the killing; there have been accusations of rape; there have been counter allegations that the 16-year-old had “habitual sexual contact” with many men; there are claims that she was shot at close range and that the severity of her wounds would have lead to almost instantaneous death; there are conflicting claims that she was taken, wounded, to a hospital where she succumbed – after naming some Naxal accomplices…

In the middle of this plethora of allegations and counter-allegations some facts remain: Meena was killed. By the police. In an encounter. She was 16.

For me, this killing fits right into a long tradition of our country’s quotidian violence against its women as well as into the obverse of the tradition: the invisibility of that violence. The news does not shock. It does not anger. It does not surprise. In fact it is not news at all. It only revokes a nagging question: how long as a society shall we continue to reserve our worst violences for ourselves? Not just the violence of the murder, but the violence of complicity. Of connivance. Of intimidation. The violence of the abject and absolute impossibility of recourse. The violence of forgetting.

Most often the violence enters and departs our consciousness with equal speed. Only once in a while does the horror remain alive even decades later. 

Most often the violence enters and departs our consciousness with equal speed. Only once in a while does the horror remain alive even decades later. As on March 7th this year, a day before Women’s Day, when the Supreme Court had passed judgment on the petition seeking euthanasia for Aruna Shanbaug, the KEM Mumbai hospital nurse who in 1973 had been strangulated with a dog chain and raped in the hospital basement, asphyxiated and left with brain stem damage, cervical cord damage, cortical blindness, paralysis… but alive. On March 7th we remembered Aruna once again in the context of discussions on euthanasia and the right to live and the right to die. But even as the horrific details about the attack, rape and incapacitation were dredged up, Aruna’s comatose body again became a bookmark in the tale of our society’s response to the unimaginably virulent depths to which attacks on women can go.  (Aruna’s rapist and attacker, convicted for assault and robbery, was released from prison after seven years.)

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The stories of Aruna and Meena are just footnotes in a saga with thousands of unnamed protagonists. We are simply experienced spectators to violence against women. But while real-life events seem to offer nothing to silence our outrage, we can, fortunately, sometimes turn to literature for the gratification. To dwell on the fearful symmetries we discover there.

Aruna’s reduction to death-in-life began in the 1970s, a heady decade worldwide for civil rights and feminism and the same decade when the Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi published the explosive Draupadi, the story of our war with the enemy within, who is killed and/or raped in an encounter, like Meena supposedly was.

Draupadi is the story of the landless peasant Draupadi Mejhen. She becomes a wanted rebel after participating in the killing of a landowner and is eventually betrayed by her erstwhile comrades, captured and raped.  The story ends with Draupadi’s unforgettable challenge to the Establishment. It emphasizes the binary opposition between male leadership and female subjectivity; it remains emblematic of our country’s continuing war on its feminized Other. A war which the Other has always lost because she does not have language. Sometimes, like Draupadi, she speaks a tribal language incomprehensible to others. And sometimes she is literally unable to speak – when she is choked with a dog chain and rendered partially comatose and speechless, like Aruna Shanbaug was.

Can the subaltern never speak after sexual violence has been brutally perpetrated? In life,no. But in literature, unforgettably, yes. After Draupadi has been raped repeatedly, she is summoned before the authorities. She stands up, naked. The nervous guards trail behind. She walks, head held high. Two breasts, two wounds. Her ravaged lips bleed as she begins laughing. She shakes with an indomitable laughter that they simply cannot comprehend. She pushes at one of the men with her two mangled breasts, and for the first time he is afraid to stand before an unarmed target.

In life, the abused body of a woman is largely hidden from view. Shame, complicity, desperation and fear ensure that…In literature, the subaltern’s nakedness is tragic, triumphant, terrifying.

In life, the abused body of a woman is largely hidden from view. Shame, complicity, desperation and fear ensure that.  Aruna Shanbaug has been out of sight and memory for over 30 years. Meena is already forgotten.

In literature, the subaltern’s nakedness is tragic, triumphant, terrifying.

When can the female body become an unwelcome sight rather than the site of masculine desire and control? When does it make the shift from Object to Subject? When does it challenge patriarchy instead of being its fetish? When does the female body become a weapon When once in a rare while she thrusts her naked, bleeding self into our vision. Then, inured as we are to violence, we become reduced to stone in front of this Medusa, unable to look away.

If the mark of a country’s civilization is how it treats own people, what does our report card say?  The epidemic level of violence against women remains an irreconcilable contradiction and a challenge to the self-image of a democratic or civilized nation. We have become experts at the art of looking away, but somewhere, Aruna, Meena – and Draupadi – remain bookmarks reminding us of where we are.

About the Author: Swati Chanda has taught English Literature for a number of years at various colleges. She currently works in the field of education research. She writes on gender and culture.


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