Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Meeting Bhanwari Devi

This was something I’d waited for, for many years.

While staying in a sanstha (what do you call that in English?) on the outskirts of Jaipur, as I set out to hunt down a cup of morning chai, I got a chance to speak to Bhanwari Devi.

I don't think I'll ever forget the scene; it's like a postcard in my head - five women sitting on a charpai, lips sticky with extra-sweet-all-milk tea, gossiping in a shady grove, under a just-dawned sun.... Bhanwari Devi is a beautiful woman, despite the the dry wrinkles around the eyes, the tightening round the mouth, the depth in her eyes - that mixture of resignation and calmness and bitterness and resilience and determination on that face. It is a face that's been lived.

It is my second guilty cup (the EGA campaign yatra is very hard-pressed for cash; poor people have donated a rupee, two rupees, anything they could afford... given to the yatra, so the activists could eat, drink chai and get on with their work… therefore, my guilt at a second cup.)

I have always wanted to ask Bhanwari Devi many questions. Now, sitting beside her, I find that there is nothing to ask. No, nothing I want to know. I do not want to know how she coped... I do not want to ask whether she ever wanted to set fire to the law-courts, or considered nuking the universe... I don’t want to know whether she’s healed, or whether she still has somebody’s love and loyalty in her life… anybody’s?

I just want to sit here and listen. She speaks very little about the past… she's laughing as she recalls how frightened she’d been when the fat ladies from Delhi came to visit her - "One social worker, she was so fat, I got scared. I refused to meet her. But Roshan didi persuaded me… she was good to me, Roshan didi."

For a minute, as her eyes fill up, we sit silently wondering - where is Roshan didi now?

Then Bhanwari began telling us about a young girl who had come to interview her, recently. On her way, the girl was attacked by a man from the same village.

The girl fought back; she fought long and hard. Eventually, hearing her screams and sounds of a scuffle, a villager - also a woman - rushed to the girls’ rescue. The man fled, and rape - as defined in legalese - was prevented.

The girl was hurt badly, nevertheless and it took a while before she could speak, and find her way to Bhanwari’s house.

A furious Bhanwari Devi was all set to file an FIR, but was immediately deterred by… oh, by just about everybody. Some said, "Ladki ki zindagi barbaad ho jayegi" (the girl’s life will be ruined) and some said it would mean the beginning of a hellish experience, not the end.

Bhanwari Devi was not one to let the matter go, however. She immediately collected the villagers and got the girl to identify her assailant. Then, the rapist (near-rapist, if you like) and his family went down on their knees and begged that the police not be called.

So, the village panchayat collectively decided that Bhanwari Devi could punish this man as she chose.
To begin with, all the women took off their slippers and gave the man a sound beating. Then, he was made to address the girl as ‘sister’ and swear off any further attempts.

Later, I heard Bhanwari Devi talk of aanganwadi workers and their abuse of the government rations. "The small kids are given gruel that even dogs refuse to eat. What’s the point? It is better to let the mothers cook the ghugri (gruel made from ‘daliya’ and ‘gur’)".

While I was busy admiring her - still fighting for the right in her village, for people who made her go through such hell - someone else tells me that the same villagers have been giving her grief about drawing water from wells, or getting flour from the atta-chakki.

Thirteen years down the line, almost nothing’s changed. And yet, Bhanwari Devi finds the courage (no, not courage; the humanity, the large-heartedness) to keep up her social work, to talk of rights and change and laws...

I want to meet this kid, too

The mood changed when Anita, one of the other activists from Delhi, began to tell us about the brave kid who’d made headlines. "She was barely thirteen or fourteen… comes from Bihar. There was a huge furore in the local papers when she bobbitized a man, when he tried to molest her... her panchayat told her to keep up the spirit."

Apparently, this kid had carried an ordinary blade - the kind you might use in a razor, and which children often use to sharpen pencils - ever since she grew up to realise the dangers inherent in just being a girl.

Afterwards, she reportedly said, "Let any son of a *&%* try anything with me… I’ve been waiting a long time."

All of us laughed and applauded her with cries of ‘Shabaash!!’ (well-done). I'm wondering what her name is, and what she's upto these day.

I came back to find this report... at first, the report made me a little uncomfortable because I don't think 'womanizing' is a good enough reason to chop off a man's organ. Later, in a more detailed report in the Asian Age (which I cannot find the link to, on the web) it was reported that the husband had also doused his wife with kerosene, threatened to burn her if she didn't behave, and ha been in the habit of regularly beating his wife.. in which case, I guess she was perfectly justified.


R. said...

Wow. This is one of the half a dozen blogs that ive come across today tht have made me think. This i no way belittles the impact of your blog. Bookmarking this page.

Would love to meet Bhanwari Devi, probably to learn a few social values that we seem to have lost.


Anonymous said...

Some times I feel that these separatists in India can do a better job, if they can kill even a single rapist in their lives.

Amit said...

Sanstha -> Organization

Tweets by @anniezaidi