Have you noticed? How you will subconsciously stick to well-lit roads if you are walking home alone? How you will pull your bag across your chest in a crowded bus? How you will not look a man in the eye because you dont want to send him ‘signals’? Because in this world where the victim takes the blame, the onus of rape is on the woman.
Can we change it?
Tears of Shame
You are young and beautiful and attractive… They said. Men will lust after you… Its all your fault. And she cried tears of shame. Sometimes she jumped down a well.. Sometimes she kicked a chair. Then one day… They raped an old, wrinkled grandmother instead.
Look at how ambitious you are, when home should be your place… They said. Men will lust after you… Its all your fault. And she cried tears of shame. Sometimes she cleaned and cooked all day Sometimes she resigned the job she loved… Then one day… They raped a stay-at-home mom instead.
Look at the way you walk and laugh and dress… They said. Men will lust after you… Its all your fault. And she cried tears of shame. Sometimes she stifled the laughter… Sometimes she covered her legs. Then one day… They raped a baby instead.
Centuries of women have gone before us, and centuries more might go by before the dreams that they passed on to to us can become reality. But every woman who has had the courage to stand up in face of oppression, had the strength to withstand the pain, who fearlessly walked over coals… She lives on, because we carry her within us… like the song of a dream.
Let’s make sure, it is heard. We owe it to every woman, who will come after us.
Song of a dream
Her laugh echoed / long After the song / of Her dream Had frozen on her lips / and The words had / dissipated With the cold winds / Blowing Over crumbling walls / of Stifling dogmas / and Craggy chasms / of pain That stood powerless / now Against her laugh / resounding In / A thousand voices Uncontrolled Like / Frothy bubbles Spilling over
Aai and Fauzia, her Libyan friend from office had been talking in hushed tones in the women’s drawing room for over an hour, their conversation dotted with muffled sobs. When the tearful sounds subsided, muted words would fill the room. I wondered why Fauzia was crying. Just a couple of months back, she had seemed happy, effervescently announcing that she was to be married. Was she not getting married anymore? But of course it was not my place to intrude or ask.
I did steal a glance at the strikingly beautiful girl, while she adjusted the white farrashia before leaving. The thick chador fell like a tent around her, hiding her shape and identity. She kissed Aai thrice on the cheeks, and clutching the white cloth close under her chin, made sure that it completely covered her lovely face… all of it, except the kohl-rimmed left eye, with which she peered out at the world.
That was the last time I saw Fauzia.
Many years later, when Aai thought I was sufficiently grown up, she told me of the custom of the white sheet. The virginity test… the proof that groom’s relatives needed… the red stained white sheet on which the marriage is consummated. Fauzia had been returned to her father because the white sheet was not bloodied.
All these years, I thought of Fauzia as a proof of the subjugation of women in Libya. Until last week, when a news held my attention. A girl was sent back to her parental home and her marriage annulled by the caste elders in Kolhapur because she too had failed her virginity test. And it made me wonder…
Red, Stained with Good Fortune
I smear / the red In / the parting of my hair Wearing / proudly My streak / of good luck And fortune That is /mine Will be / mine Until The day / that I pray Will / never arrive When / they will wipe The red / out of my hair And Cover me / in A white sheet.
The numbers are climbing. People are dying. Old and young, alike. Everyone knows someone who is gasping for their next breath. Because the virus knows no difference of age, wealth, status. It just knows to invade a body. And when you get fever and chills, a cough, maybe pneumonia, unable to breathe… you can still make it… Maybe you will recover at home. Maybe you will need medical care. Perhaps, oxygen support. But such great are the numbers that hospitals are overrun. Crematoriums too.
And in the grip of a devastating second Covid wave, there are those, who are profiteering, making money off the dying. Extracting a pound of flesh. Scooping up the coins scattered around the dead. The irony is, what guarantee is there that they will survive to enjoy their ill-begotten money? Who guarantees that a number won’t become a name?
The nights are / the worst When / the silence of the curfew Is pierced / by the banshee wail Of white coffins / their Blue lights / announcing The presence of the / dying Encased inside / as they Race / on deserted roads But / no hospitals are Taking them in / no beds Mostly / but no oxygen Either / and definitely no Hope / as People die waiting / To suck in the next breath / in Serpentine queues.
The powerful and the wealthy are fleeing the Covid catastrophe that has seized the country… away from the scenes of gut-wrenching pathos. And while they, who could have helped fly away, it is the commonest of the commons who are reaching out, running around, and helping the gasping to draw in the next breath.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94 is considered one of the most challenging and ambiguous of all the Sonnets. But when read with a view to what’s happening around us today, you will understand what he wrote.
“They that have power to hurt, and will do none, That do not do the thing they most do show, Who, moving others, are themselves as stone, Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow …”
And in an ode to the Master of Words is my limerick… Power.
They / the rich and wealthy / holding power untold They / who run the world / with all their silver and gold Have hearts of steel / But not the strength to feel / Their souls / they have / to the devil sold /
It used to be a charming, little city, with old trees lining its sleepy roads. A sense of familiarity floating in the air, and a genteel, if predictable, demeanour of modest living.
Where has that friendly place – which could listen with equanimity to the voices of dissent and to the voices of reason – disappeared? Who are these rowdy, greedy, intolerant fanatics that have ripped apart the civilized serenity that lived in my city, once?
Once was my city
This city Which was once my city Now Feels like a stranger I bumped into At one time He would have Gathered his papers And I My purse and specs and the keys From the ground A gentle apology Exchanged Before we went away Now I will be wary Of airing my thoughts even In this city Which was once my city Lest They bump Into someone And he whips out a gun And Silences The voice of reason Just because He doesn’t like The sound of it Reverberating Through this city Which Once was my city.
Take a moment, and let those words sink in. For far too long, there has been a misplaced notion that no matter what a woman verbalizes, she is actually indicating a willingness to go along with your sexual thoughts about her, and that in fact, that is how women express their consent.
Nothing could be more repulsive than the advances of a man who doesn’t have the comprehension power to translate a No into a No. And no matter how suave you are, if you lack the power to understand, it is time we took you to task.
No. Don’t. Stop. I hadn’t shouted out But I did say it Firmly Over and over again Pushing Your hairy paws away With All the strength My thin shoulders Could muster But you… You thought It was a yes? You thought I was being coy? That it was Just the way A woman consents? And So you pursued me Unrelenting Unashamed Brazen Just like In the B-grade movies That you like to watch And use as Your Dummy’s Guide To all things girls? So tell me Which part of what I said Or what I did Made you think that You could Stalk me Harass me Touch me Which part Made you think that It was okay To make my life hell? The part where I said No? Or the one where I said Don’t Or was it Stop? The problem isn’t with me Never was It is YOU Who needs to cull Your bigotry And accept That No means No And it can never mean Anything else.
The summers have stretched far too long. The boiling sun has bleached the sky, burned the earth, and turned the trees a deathly brown. Parched lips murmur quietly, praying to the rain gods, appeasing them with promises of bountiful homage.
But will the rains, when they come, bring the promise of life with them, or a deluge of destruction?
The thatched straw roof Is no match For the thick ropes of water That are lashing the earth And huddled in a corner Cradling his head Between knotted bony knees He curses the day He prayed for rains Incessantly it pours Now The earth is a muddy mess
As a child, every time Grandma told us a story from Ramayana, Kaikeyi was unfailingly described as the bad woman. The description was so strongly stamped in my mind that years later, when I revisited the stories from the epic to tell my son, I would often find myself using the same words for another mother.
It was only recently, while sifting through mythology, that I began to wonder how the women who glisten in black are always the ones who have exercised their will, expressed their thoughts, sought to satisfy their desires, and in the process crossed the lines etched in stone by men. And by erring on the wrong side of these boundaries, they are reviled in perpetuity.
Kaikeyi is a character who often pops up in my mind, when I think of how we expect daughters, wives, mothers to be. She was given away in marriage in a faraway land by her father. She saved her husband’s life on battlefield. She was devoted to the welfare of her offspring. Is her entire life of being a meek and dutiful woman negated by one act of asking her husband to live up to his promises? I would rate her as naïve for taking the promise of his promises at face value. But I don’t see that as a reason to vilify her. No one is perfect. And she was just human.
Stoic I stand here As I have done For centuries Despite the abuses You have hurled at me I shall never accept The tags of The flawed woman Or the vile mother Although I am the Scorned Queen.
Unyielding And unrepentant I have no excuses To offer Nor any forgiveness I seek What was my fault Except to believe Naïvely That two boons were Mine for the asking Any time that I liked.
Judge Me if you must Like so many others Before you have And more to come Shall too But tell me In all your honesty How would you Have labelled me Were I a man Making a calculated move?
Being woman Now that is a price I must pay forever And more The unbearable burden Of expectations Of virtue Of untold sacrifices And toeing the line Mutely Be it drawn by father, husband Or son.
Handed Out in lieu of Protection For my father’s kingdom As second wife To my husband Although second I was to none The tragedy of Being woman complete When I was forsaken By my own son.