About the book
Dalit-feminist writer Anita Bharti’s short stories – which blur the lines between fiction, fable, memoir and collective memory – explore how casteism implicates the bodies and being of Dalit women. Forged from her own experiences of anti-caste activism in urban and rural India, and building on her own embodied insights of living with casteism, Bharti’s stories tread the vivid terrains of caste, while being critically attuned to its intersections with gender, religion and sexuality.
Why the Selection Panel chose it
A fabulation of contexts, voices, grammars and bodies, grounded in Anita Barthi’s lived experience, this collection explores, with complexity and sensitivity, the experiences of Dalit women. Nikhil Pandhi’s translation of ‘Live Broadcast’, one of the collection’s stories, works to convey this artistically and politically important work from Hindi to English.
Awards and press
India Today – ‘Essential reading to understand the complexities of India’s Dalit and feminist movements’.
2,500 copies sold in the original.
Having taken one sip of his morning tea, he removed the rubber band around the newspaper and unfurled its rolled-up pages. The main headline announced the suicide of a young girl, Priyanka.
The report said that Priyanka had allegedly been driven to take her own life by a powerful bureaucrat. It added that the bureaucrat had demanded sexual favours from the young girl and that, when she had refused his advances, he had kept stalking her, making her life a living hell. Hounded by the bureaucrat, the young girl eventually decided to end her harrowing ordeal, and hang herself.
He read the report with rapt attention.
It disturbed him quite deeply. Evident from the photograph that was published alongside the report, the young girl, Priyanka, was from an educated, well-to-do family. With large, luminous eyes, and her hair stylishly arranged, the girl wore the uniform of an elite school.
The report went on: Priyanka had shown particular promise and potential as a student, and aside from her studies, also had a sterling record in sport. For an educated, talented and intelligent young girl with a bright future to be so cruelly coerced into taking her own life was something that made Bhaskar’s heart agitate and ache. Because, in that young girl, Bhaskar could see a sister or a daughter from any other family – from a social world just like his own. He sighed. Then anger swelled up inside him and, in that moment, he felt that, if only he could lay his hands on the bureaucrat responsible for the crime, he would drink the man’s blood.
Bhaskar turned furiously to the second page – to its reports from the city and its peri-urban margins. It was littered with sordid stories of murder, dacoity, kidnapping and skirmishes, all struggling with each other for some breathing space. Bhaskar slid his gaze through the clutter of stories and set it on a three-line report at the very bottom of the page: a young Dalit girl, Sunita, had been gang-raped and then burned to death by ‘upper-caste’ men in a village.
He sighed again, his head heavy.
He folded the paper and went into the kitchen to make himself a fresh cup of tea. While the water boiled, as he did every day, Bhaskar picked up the phone to call Ma. He greeted her and asked how she was feeling. Today, unusually, her voice was dripping with happiness.
‘Arrey, Bachua, how long will you keep living this solitary life? Roasting dry rotis with your own hands? All alone and wifeless?’ Ma was saying. ‘Now, I have found an excellent woman who will cook and care for you. The girl has just passed her master’s degree. She is fair-skinned – she will complement you. You will make a very attractive couple.’
‘Don’t worry, your uncle will discuss all the details of the customary exchange. I have told the girl’s family – told them very clearly – that our Bhaskar lives in Delhi, and wants to settle down there in the future too. So, think that now you are also going to settle your own daughter in the big city,’ Ma continued.
For the past few years, Bhaskar had been living in Delhi. Since childhood, for reasons best known only to him, Bhaskar had nurtured the dream of studying and settling down here. After finishing his twelfth-grade examination, he immediately joined a diploma programme in a respected media house and started his training at once. His uncle, Umashankar Dube, worked as the sub-editor of a well-known newspaper in Allahabad, and this meant Bhaskar had smoothly landed a job as a reporter with one of the capital’s leading dailies, Umang Times.
His column was a digest of the major news stories from the ‘crime circuit’ in and around the city, and the ‘Priyanka case’ and the ‘Sunita case’ were both potential lead stories. He knew that he would have to get cracking on both cases simultaneously. He calculated that, for the Sunita case, he could get the details from a source he had in the village, but, for the Priyanka case, he determined that he would personally conduct the enquiries in the field.
His editor was very clear in instructing Bhaskar that he should channel his energies into the Priyanka case. The reason was simple: ‘high-profile’ cases always capture the public’s attention, and usually have a long hold on them. Bhaskar was assured by the editor that Priyanka’s suicide would be given pride of place on the newspaper’s front page, and that the daily news reports on the case would all bear Bhaskar’s bylines.
He was delighted. This was a golden opportunity – the kind that journalists often wait years for. He was determined that, through his reporting on the Priyanka case, he would establish his name as a crusading journalist, committed to impactful reportage, in the true service of social justice.
But before all that, Bhaskar knew there was the Sunita case to deal with. He called Ranjana, a college friend from many years ago, who these days lived in a village and ran an NGO called the People’s Action Forum. She picked up at once.
‘Ranjana,’ he said, getting straight into it, ‘a few miles from you, a young Dalit girl has allegedly been gang-raped. The name of the village is Chinaura. Might you be able to send someone from your office and get more details? I would go myself, of course, but I urgently have to go to Chandigarh – for an equally important story.’
‘It’s good that you called me, Bhaskar,’ Ranjana responded. ‘Yes, I know about the case. I’m going to Chinaura today, for the People’s Action Forum. Go to Chandigarh. Don’t worry. I’ll get you the whole story.’
In moments of crisis like these, Ranjana had often earnestly gone out of her way and helped him. He knew that she would leave no stone unturned – that she would excavate the many layers, the myriad nuances, of this young girl’s story.
So Bhaskar practically stopped thinking about the Sunita case, throwing all his weight and wherewithal behind Priyanka’s story. And from his sources and tireless fieldwork, he began to unearth new details every day – some novel, breakthrough dimension that would win him the prime news headline of the morning. Because, when it came to navigating the gunge and grime of crime reporting, Bhaskar was truly considered a very capable journalist, whose reach and reportage ran deep.
One day, in a shrewdly calculated move, Bhaskar took his photographer Pritam and landed outside Priyanka’s doorstep. There, he met several of Priyanka’s friends, whom he interviewed in-depth, assembling a vivid report about her everyday life, then painstakingly corroborating the details through interviews with Priyanka’s family. Having won the trust of her kin, Bhaskar and Pritam were given access to their personal photographs, in which Priyanka could be seen smiling, laughing, enjoying life, bearing the ardent ambitions and aspirations of a young girl.
The next day, the newspaper ran the headline, Priyanka: The Murder of India’s Daughter.
In his report, Bhaskar detailed the stories of Priyanka’s personal life, painting her as the very incarnation of middle-class India’s daughters and sisters; a young girl who had an abiding passion for life, the earnest desire to achieve her dreams, scale heights, become a doctor and serve those less fortunate than her. Until, one bureaucrat, drunk on power, became the savage predator who destroyed it all.
In Priyanka’s Death, Dreams of India’s Countless Mothers and Sisters Smothered, was the next day’s headline.
Through her longstanding work in the region, Ranjana knew the local headman of Chinaura, Chaudhary Malkhan Singh, and happened to have his number. She called him up.
‘Pradhan Ji, this is Ranjana here, from the People’s Action Forum. I believe, yesterday, near your village, a young girl named Sunita was gang-raped by some men and then burned alive. I am sure you are aware of the incident–’
‘Arrey, Madam, such incidents are commonplace in the villages around here. They happen practically every day. Why are you bothering yourself about it?’ Malkhan Singh interjected. ‘Anyway,’ he continued, ‘there is nothing special about this new case, Madam. The truth is, those low castes don’t know how to rein in their daughters. The moment their girls go out of hand and something untoward happens, then they all want to go to the police.’
Ranjana silently listened.
The headman carried on: ‘On the margins of our village are the ramshackle jhuggis of some wage-labourers. One Bansi’s daughter went out late at night to relieve herself, and in the fields, the girl came in the way of some men who stopped her – wanted to speak to her. She chided them, started arguing with them. Next thing, the guys got offended that the girl had grazed their egos, and then this incident happened. I ask you, Madam: what was the need for that young girl to assert herself and argue with those men in the first place?’
Ranjana knew it was a spin. She put the phone down and began to think.
Sunita had definitely decided, Ranjana thought, to fight back against the men who had tormented her, rather than just submit to their ultimatum. The young Dalit girl had resisted her oppression by the ‘upper castes’, she thought, until the very end. But, sitting so far away, it was difficult for her to piece together fully the intricate truths and facts of the case.
Fully immersed in the throes of the Priyanka suicide case, Bhaskar’s investigations were breaking new ground. He went to Priyanka’s school, interviewing her teachers, and then following up with some of her neighbours. They all, unequivocally, described her as a cultured, refined and virtuous young girl. Bhaskar even managed to arrange for her report card to be shared with him and, after carefully analysing the records from her school life, Bhaskar produced yet another headline that would appeal to the readers.
India’s Daughter Pays the Price for Being a School-Topper!
He had arranged for a scan of Priyanka’s sterling report card to be exclusively printed in the newspaper, her grades highlighted with a red circle. The editor accepted his story and published it verbatim.
Ranjana had travelled to the village. After arduously looking around, she managed to trace Sunita’s parents to their jhuggi on the margins of the settlement, a half-constructed hutment with a sagging straw-roof, cracked walls and uneven floors hand-plastered with clay. Two rickety cots were sat within, and on them lay two threadbare quilts.
In one corner of the hut, across a frayed piece of rope, a crumpled sari hung next to a soiled pair of pants with haphazard patches sutured all over them. Right in the middle of the bare mud-wall was a solitary photo: Sunita, big beaming eyes, and a strange radiance that animated the young girl’s face, the unassuming school uniform she was wearing. Inside the small bedroom hung another photo of her. She was standing beside a bicycle, clutching its two shining handles with confidence. The guiltless countenance of the young girl moved Ranjana deeply.
When Ranjana asked about Sunita, the hut immediately erupted in a wave of wailing and mourning. The girl’s mother, Rambatiya, who was feebly repeating her daughter’s name, began beating her breast. ‘Oh bibi, where did my golden girl go to so suddenly? My golden doe. My daughter, my Sunita!’
Struggling to hold back her tears, Ranjana tried to calm her, asking, ‘Kaki, which grade did Sunita study in?’
‘She was just going to take her tenth-grade examination,’ Rambatiya mumbled, continuing to weep. ‘My daughter was such a studious girl. Early in the morning, when her father and I would leave for our labouring, Sunita would study on her own, and then after coming back from the school she would do all the housework by herself. She always insisted, didn’t ever let us touch a thing. She would sometimes even teach the other children of the village.’ Rambatiya stopped talking and started to wail again.
Ranjana was crying now, too. She couldn’t help it. But she controlled herself, wiping Rambatiya’s tears. ‘Kaki, tell me, how did all this happen?’
Rambatiya began to narrate the incident through her tears. ‘When Sunita returned home from school that day, she told us that, on the way, the village headman’s son, Mukesh, blocked her path and taunted her – “Arrey, oh, Indira Gandhi!” he said. “Do you think you will study and become the Prime Minister one day? Chamar, slut! You’ve studied too much. Now, come to me and I’ll teach you a few things.”
‘She shouted back – “Yes, one day, I will become the Prime Minister. Tell me, what you will do about it! And remember, the day I get there I will ensure that men like you are beaten black and blue with sticks, so that you never dare talk to a woman like this.”
‘Sunita came back home, and when she told me all this, I said that it’s better to stay away from such people, to not even engage them. That they are upper-caste, after all, and we are low-caste. That she should try and focus on her studies. But when Sunita and two other girls from the village went to the fields to relieve themselves in the night, the headman’s son and his minions pounced on them.
‘Those men maimed and dishonoured my girl. When she tried to escape from the clutches of those monsters, they threw kerosene on her body, set her on fire, and burned her alive. Oh, my golden girl, my doe! May those savages burn in hell!’
She howled, exhausted and broken. Shivering, palpitating, choking on her tears, she collapsed on the ground. The women from the village, who had gathered at the sound of Rambatiya’s grief, rushed to her and splashed water on her face.
When she came to, Ranjana tried soothing her – ‘Kaki, please stay strong. Try to have faith. Have those men who did this to Sunita been caught?’
‘No, bibi. They are still roaming free. And the police are threatening us, saying we shouldn’t even file a complaint – that if we report the case they will kidnap my husband. They even took away Sunita’s prized bicycle, the one she rode to school.
Ranjana held Rambatiya’s wrinkled hands and pressed them. ‘Be patient, Kaki,’ she said. ‘I know a very good journalist in Delhi. I will give him each and every detail of what Sunita had to endure. I will tell him that all the men who committed this ghastly crime are roaming free, and that, instead of assisting you, the police are harassing your family.’
In the evening, Ranjana called up Bhaskar. ‘It is a very tragic case, Bhaskar. Sunita was a courageous girl. A smart young girl. She did every possible thing to resist the indignity those ‘upper-caste’ men heaped upon her. I know that if Sunita was not Dalit, she would not have been assaulted, raped, and burned to death. It was the fact that she was educated, pushing back against the constraints of her caste-ridden world, that the ‘upper-castes’ could not stomach. That’s why, before burning Sunita alive, those men gang-raped her in the dead of night – to warn others that, if any ‘lower-caste’ ever dares to dream about liberation, the consequences will be dire.’
She told him what Rambatiya had recounted to her. She paused, sighed. Then she added, ‘Bhaskar, make sure you include all the details, and write such a powerful story that the men are caught and convicted immediately. On behalf of the People’s Action Forum, I will go to the police station and speak to them, too.’
‘I will try my level best,’ Bhaskar replied, ‘to make sure my report carries the same weight as what you have just said’. Before he put the phone down, Bhaskar added, ‘Although, Ranjana, you also know that it is ultimately up to the editor how much weight he gives to each story.’
After hearing what Ranjana had said, Bhaskar believed that, in reality, Sunita’s story was just an ordinary one; in the parlance of their fast-paced media world, it was a ‘low-profile’ case. Incidents like this were so rampant in the villages. How much longer would the newspapers keep reporting their mundane details? Had Sunita’s rapists been some bigwig politicians or bureaucrats, it would have been viral news. Had that been the case, Bhaskar truly believed that the journalist inside him would also have felt the fire of waging a crusade against brazen injustice.
The news story Bhaskar ultimately wrote and submitted to his paper about Sunita was a forgettable one. Hardly over a hundred words long. Even if it had found some breathing space, buried beneath the other screaming news items on some page, it would have been because of a huge favour on the editor’s part. Having filed it, he once again unwaveringly threw himself into Priyanka’s case.
There was no doubt about it: Bhaskar was counted among today’s most competent, progressive and liberal journalists – those whose minds worked to master the myriad details of any crime, at the speed of light. Bhaskar thought hard about what kind of report he should file. He eventually decided to call Shruti, who ran a large feminist charity in the city. Shruti had invited Bhaskar to a few of her events, and so he had got to know a little about her and her work.
‘Shruti ji, this is Bhaskar here, from Umang Times.’
‘Bhaskar ji! What made you remember me today?’ Her voice sounded excited.
‘I would like your statement in the Priyanka case,’ Bhaskar said seriously. ‘I would also like you, if you were willing, to give me the names of a few other crusading feminists like yourself, who have been tirelessly working for women’s welfare. If you can provide the names by this evening, that would be great.’
The next day, a big headline was splashed across the newspaper’s front page: Feminist Organisations Stand Together and Demand Justice for Priyanka. The report contained the statements of six representatives of leading feminist charities.
His editor was delighted with Bhaskar’s efficiency. Readers were now calling every day, tweeting, praising Bhaskar’s focused and forceful reportage on the Priyanka case.
He wanted to do something even more impactful next. So he called up Shruti again. ‘Shruti ji, is your charity planning any agitation regarding the Priyanka suicide case?’
‘We don’t have any such plans immediately. But if you want, I am sure we can initiate something.’
He gave her an idea: ‘Can your organisation collaborate with the other charities to undertake a candlelight march for Priyanka? If that is possible for you to organise, I will also inform all my journalist friends. We will all take part in it. The entire event will get lots of good coverage.’
Public Outrage Deepens Over the ‘Priyanka Case’, Candle-Light March Tomorrow. The next morning, the front page of the newspaper glimmered with Bhaskar’s headline, and his byline next to it.
In the lead-up to the march, Bhaskar and his journalist friends managed to galvanise strong support on social media. He came up with the amazing idea of using a drone to take aerial photographs and video footage of the entire event – which at once went viral. The march was a resounding feat: ultra-modern women marched alongside young students, NGO activists, housewives and the middle classes. There was a vast contingent of journalists carrying large placards with slogans and photos of Priyanka, which they placed at a public memorial that Bhaskar and Shruti had helped to erect near Jantar Mantar, in the heart of the capital. All the roads to central Delhi were blocked by the police; in every direction, men, women, children, the young, the elderly stood vigil through the night, holding candles and praying for justice for Priyanka.
The wake continued through the next day. The number of people gathered at the India Gate had swelled. They were lighting candles and holding large banners demanding swift and substantive action against the criminals. The echoes of the Priyanka case were now resounding widely and vociferously.
The public ritual of the candlelight vigil spread from Delhi across the country. Each day, protests in some shape appeared somewhere new. News reports, photos, visuals and videos made it to the front pages of all the leading newspapers, and even the primetime television shows.
People were united in demanding punishment for the powerful bureaucrat who was pressuring the courts and justice system. For Bhaskar, what stood out most of all was that the entire media world was being extremely sensitive and sympathetic in their handling of the case. And eventually, the same media managed to secure justice. The bureaucrat responsible for stalking, harassing and abetting Priyanka’s suicide was sentenced to one year of rigorous imprisonment.
For playing a pivotal role in organising the media’s mass-mobilisation during such a widely followed case, Bhaskar and his newspaper were now receiving praise across social media. In the ensuing euphoria, it was soon declared that the state government would confer an award on him for his efforts, geared towards socially conscious, inclusive and impactful journalism.
Ranjana found herself sitting before the television. The programme on air was about the media’s contributions in obtaining justice for Priyanka. It particularly highlighted Bhaskar’s role in the case. In the middle of the panel discussion, the anchor announced that they would now cut live to the award ceremony where Bhaskar Dube, the outstanding journalist–crusader, was going to be felicitated by none other than the Chief Minister himself.
Bile was rising in her throat. Her mouth tasted sour, and her eyes and ears were beginning to throb and tingle. And then Ranjana’s phone rang.
‘Madam ji, since the day we lost our daughter to those killers, nobody except you has come to listen to our story.’ The voice on the other end of the phone was speaking through tears. ‘I have been begging everyone near the village. But those who murdered my daughter are threatening me, saying I must not venture out. Behind our backs, they are all saying that my daughter’s character was tainted. We don’t want anything anymore, Madam. We have decided we will not say anything to anyone.’
‘I hear that the police are afraid of the press. But you are well-connected with so many people, Madam ji. If you can, please ask a newspaper or television reporter to do just one thing – to help us get our daughter’s bicycle back. It was her most prized possession, the one thing that will always remind us of her. We don’t ask for anything else.’
The voice was Sunita’s father’s. A ‘low-profile’ daughter’s ‘low-profile’ father. A ‘low-caste’ being, whose expectations from the world were forever lowered.
Ranjana’s eyes fell back on the television. Ministers were garlanding Bhaskar, handing him the award and animatedly shaking hands. Cameras stationed all around them were flashing furiously. The newspaper reporters were scribbling away, jotting down every detail of the dazzling event. The television reporters were thronging the stage and scrambling to get bytes from the Chief Minister and Bhaskar. From the capital city, the media’s pageantry and veneration of its master was broadcast live.