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In the name of search, women are groped and molested. Even lactating mothers are not spared. They are told to prove about breastfeeding their toddlers by baring their breasts.
Our Muse of the Month series this year focus on stories that pass the Bechdel test, and are written on inspiration from a new prompt every month. This month, the prompt was “Just Living Is Not Enough…”, and the story should pass the Bechdel Test, that is, it should have at least two well crafted, named women characters (we differ here slightly from the classic Bechdel test, in that we require these characters to be named),
The fifth winner of our August 2018 Muse of the Month contest is Sonia Chatterjee.
Mukti confirmed the late running of the train with the coach attendant. Keeping the Miss Marple novel on the tray in front of her seat, she dialed her father in frustration, “Baba, you can reach the station by 10:30 p.m. The train is late by an hour and I am not even halfway through my journey yet.”
After hanging up, she felt bad for her father who was staying up late tonight to escort her back home. With the rising incidents of crime in her hometown, she had stopped pretending to act indifferent and chose to exercise precaution instead. She was considering a call to her boyfriend when the train screeched to an abrupt halt.
Suddenly the AC compartment had an inflow of goons carrying lathis, rods, and sickles. They started scanning the faces of the passengers, especially that of the ladies.
Mukti was scared to death. She had started dreading the annual trip to her native Bhirugram of late. The town with more than fifty percent of the tribal population of Adivasis had seen a marked rise in Maoist activities. Despite the fact that her house was far away from the jungle where the Adivasis resided, people in her locality had also started getting affected by the ongoing tussle between the police forces, the State Government and the Adivasis labeled as Maoists.
Her father, a school teacher in Bhirugram had been disappointed at her decision to move to Mumbai for her doctorate but chose to stay supportive. She had been pestering her mother about their relocation to Mumbai since her father was due to retire in less than a year, but her pleas went unheard.
Looking at the goons hidden behind the masks of hoodies and mufflers, she started getting jittery. The goons were getting impatient as their prey seemed to be absconding from the scene. The tall man who looked like their leader and spoke like the Bollywood villain Amrish Puri took out a poster-size photograph of a middle-aged lady and barked aloud, “If any of you see this lady on this train or outside of it, you are supposed to inform us on this number 80*****280 immediately. You need to know that she is the mastermind behind the recent killings in the Bhirugram jungle. She managed to escape from the clutches of the police but we have news that she is planning to make the return tonight to create a ruckus at our leader’s rally in the town tomorrow. We will not let that happen. Am I clear?” Satisfied with the collective nods, the hooligans moved on to check the next compartment.
Mukti ransacked her brain trying to recollect the name of the lady in question. Mukti remembered her being a decade senior to her in school and for her fiercely outspoken nature. Despite being shunned by her peers and society for her radical views, she had refused to bow down. Mukti’s father was extremely fond of this rebel and encouraged her to give wings to her thoughts. Despite a brilliant academic career, she took the road less traveled to become a social activist. She had been working towards the upliftment of the downtrodden women in society. She appeared to make recent headlines through her tireless efforts in bringing the plight of the Adivasi women in front of the media.
She had soon become a deterring factor for the Government. News channels and papers exposed that one of the top ministers in the State had instructed the police to frame her on the basis of false murder accusations. With the help of her well-wishers, she went undercover without a trace. And all of a sudden, her name flashed in front of Mukti’s eyes – Tarini, whose unique way of putting her signature really stood apart. The bold lettered T resembled the shape of an umbrella but if the paper was held upside down, it looked like an inverted lamp.
Mukti’s chain of thoughts was interrupted by the middle-aged woman in the adjacent seat. She wanted to plug-in her charger on the socket near above Mukti’s seat. Mukti looked at the thick-spectacled bulky lady with graying hair and skin that showed visible signs of aging. Her body seemed to be covered in three layers of woolen clothes. She smiled at Mukti, “Thanks. You are perspiring despite the AC. Even now you seem to be quite nervous.”
Mukti wiped her face with the handkerchief. She felt embarrassed by this statement from a lady who clearly looked unperturbed by the unexpected turn of events.
“I was thinking about the worst that could have happened and can’t seem to get that out of mind now.”
The lady looked amused, “Your name Mukti means freedom but you seem to be chained in the custody of your thoughts.”
Mukti was taken aback by the fact that the lady knew her name though this was their first interaction. The lady continued, “I’m assuming your name is Mukti. After all, that is what’s engraved on the cover of your novel, laptop case and trolley bag though I think that looks a little tacky. Now before you start addressing me as Ma’am or aunty, you can call me Tista.”
Over the next one hour, Mukti and Tista spoke as if they had known each other forever. The unmarried Tista was working as an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Ranchi College. She loved traveling and after recently losing her parents death, she had decided to dedicate her life towards education and social causes. She was traveling to Ramodagram, a stop after her destination Bhirugram to attend her youngest cousin’s wedding.
When Mukti spoke about her humble background and journey from Bhirugram to Mumbai, Tista looked impressed. She spoke encouragingly of Mukti’s choice of Sociology for her postgraduation, and was even happier to know that her research topic in the doctorate program that she was pursuing currently was that on the living conditions of Adivasi women. She had shared her despair with Tista about her father’s decision not to relocate from this town. But what Tista said stumped her.
“Mukti, your father seems to be a man genuinely attached to this town. This is home for him. Why would you want to uproot him at the age of 62 and take him to a place where he doesn’t have any friends or relatives? I personally feel that your research gives you ample opportunity to spend quality time with your parents here. I am sure this belt with a huge target group population for your thesis is helping you to understand the atrocities the Adivasi women face on a daily basis.”
Mukti remembered her research guide’s perplexed reaction at her refusal to include this belt in her hometown as the target segment for research. She had chosen a calmer Adivasi area near Mumbai instead. She had reasoned that the accessibility factor and less travel time that allowed her to stay focused and give better efforts. Tista wasn’t convinced though.
“That sounds very lame. Do you have any idea about the kind of issues the Adivasi women here face every single moment? When the policemen deployed in this supposedly Maoist belt fail to nab the men, they take turns to rape their women instead. If these women speak out a single word about this, they are murdered or their kids are kidnapped and trafficked. In the name of search, women are groped and molested. Even lactating mothers are not spared. They are told to prove that they’re breastfeeding their toddlers by baring their breasts. Girls as young as five and women as old as seventy are nothing more than mere bodies for pleasure and revenge for these men.
After struggling with such daily humiliation and safety, they have the next set of obstacles to cross for survival. How would meet the basic necessities of food and shelter? Do you know in certain areas, these Adivasis eat ants to stay alive? Can you even imagine what it might feel like to use leaves for soaking blood during menstruation? And the worst part is that the groups of people who torture changes from police to locally hired goons by the political parties but the fate of these poor people never improve.”
While working on her paper, Mukti had come across most of these incidents and heard some of it from her father too. But she had turned a deaf ear because of the wall of indifference that she had built around her. Her father had always wanted Mukti to research the truth, but she was focused on a peaceful life as an academician. As she heard this middle-aged woman speak with so much of compassion today, she felt the layer of indifference vanish.
Suddenly she was ashamed of her stance but decided to cook up one last excuse, “You might be right, but how can a research paper bring any difference in their lives? I will only be jeopardizing my career by writing that.”
Tista gave her a look filled with sympathy and frustration, “Every effort counts Mukti. Any research that can bring out information about the harsh realities and hardships of these women will eventually help their voices to reach outside the jungle. When voices scream out the same conclusion in unison, the people on top and those that deal with human rights have no option but to notice and take a stand. Only then can we create a sustainable change in their lives.”
Mukti looked at Tista with a new found respect. The lady spoke like someone who had seen the agony of these women at close quarters.
And then she realized that her destination was the next stop. The two had lost track of time while conversing. Mukti got up to use the washroom. After returning, she was surprised to find Tista’s seat vacant. Assuming that Tista had also gone to the washroom, Mukti started putting her items back into her bag pack. As she lifted the novel, a piece of folded paper inside her novel fell down. She picked up the off-white sheet of recycled paper and opened it to find these words.
Apologies for leaving without letting you know. But I don’t really have an option. There will be a pack of wolves waiting to pounce on me at the railway station and I can’t afford to fall into their trap. The voice of my Adivasi friends needs to reach the right places.
I could feel you identifying my picture because the spark in your eyes was hard to miss. Your father who I still consider as my biggest Guru used to say that Tarini was Goddess Durga’s other name that meant savior. I owe my life to him for that unwavering faith in my ability to become a savior of humanity. When I refused to adhere to the norms, the society labeled me as a rebel. But he convinced me about our individual capacity to bring about a difference in the society. However small the impact it might create, he taught me to constantly strive towards achieving it. Today I am merely passing on his ideologies of living life to you.
Though I know that it is for you to decide but I genuinely hope that someday we meet again in the same trajectory of life doing a little more than just living by the definition of society. You will eventually realize that true living is only through the way of giving back to the society.
Until we meet again,
Mukti folded the paper and kept it safely inside her purse. She had failed to identify Tarini in her disguised form but the alphabet T signed at the end of the page was going to be carved in her heart forever. Tarini had shown her the destined path through an enlightening discussion. It was now Mukti’s turn to venture out on this new journey path that gave her a purpose for living.
Sonia Chatterjee wins a Rs 250 Amazon voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the top winners at the end of 2018. Congratulations!
Image source: alchetron
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With two post-graduate degrees and eight years of corporate experience, I quit my banking
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