sexual assault Posts

“Milkman” by Anna Burns

Man Booker Prize winner 2018 Anna Burn’s novel Milkman is about a nameless eighteen-year-old narrator, most often referred to as the “reading-while-walking” girl who prefers to read nineteenth rather than twentieth century literature because she does not like the twentieth century. Milkman is set in a nameless Irish city —-p robably Belfast just as the era is never confirmed. It is about the city caught in the battles between the IRA, the Renouncers and the British Army possibly during the 1970s judging by the clues peppered throughout the story. It is about the girl observing and commenting upon her neighbourhood. Unfortunately she begins to be stalked by the forty-one-year-old “Milkman” — not the real one. ( The IRA delivered petrol bombs in milk crates. ) Then to her dismay tongues begin to wag and even her mother is not willing to believe her — that there is no truth in the rumours being circulated. Immediately after winning the prize Anna Burns was quoted as saying “Although it is recognisable as this skewed form of Belfast, it’s not really Belfast in the 70s. I would like to think it could be seen as any sort of totalitarian, closed society existing in similarly oppressive conditions … I see it as a fiction about an entire society living under extreme pressure, with longterm violence seen as the norm.”

Milkman was many years in the making and is the stuff literary legends are made of. The fifty-six-year-old Anna Burns acknowledging the fairy tale Booker win said “‘It’s nice to feel I’m solvent. That’s a huge gift’” It is an extraordinary novel for very early on in the story it is as if the reader is an invisible companion to the narrator observing the proceedings with insights into how they think. There are large portions of the narrative that are running text, a single paragraph that runs across pages, which at first may seem daunting to read but is not so. Very often Milkman is being referred to as being Beckettian but Anna Burns clarifies in her interviews that she only read Samuel Beckett once her novel had been written. Whereas in fact it would be worthwhile to notice how the form of her prose, the fluidity of it, the mildly digressing style while observing and reporting incidents dispassionately, and at other times conveying neighbourhood gossip and events as is, in a detached dead pan manner, without any analysis is ultimately a very womanly quality.

Milkman is much like the commentary many women inevitably internalise. The novel merely makes visible that which is mostly kept out of public spaces for women as it would be mostly perceived as idle chatter. It is also remarkable how effectively Anna Burns portrays a reading-while-walking girl who is in all likelihood absorbed in her book but is also able to observe the landscape and people around her as she walks past. There is violence which she acknowledges in many interviews post-Booker win were because of the Ireland she grew up in. There is a particularly horrific and violent scene involving the butchering of dogs and left in a pile. In The New Statesman interview she says:

… I remember seeing that as a child. It was down the bottom of our street. I was seven or eight, so I don’t really know how high the pile was, but it did look like a mound of dead dogs, with their throats cut – I couldn’t see any heads, so I thought all their heads were missing. It was one of those images that stay with you.

The remarkable effect Milkman has upon its readers is for its relevance to the #MeToo movement is purely coincidental as Anna Burns has reiterated this novel was completed in 2014, well before the movement began. At the same its powerful impact is for its visibilisation of the silences most women are trained to inculcate. Most often women across cultures are socially conditioned to keep their opinions to themselves and conform to what is expected of them. Also their word is very likely dismissed especially when it involves as in the case of a creepy, older man, a stalker, who also happens to belong to the IRA. So the young narrator gets pushed more and more into a corner with everyone including her mother disbelieving her about the false rumours being circulated about her and the milkman. Also by resorting to use the interior monologue style of writing for most part of the novel Anna Burns makes the reader privy to the innermost thoughts of the girl thereby stripping away any pretence the narrator may “normally” have adopted in real life.

There are so many portions in the story that will resonate with women readers while being revelatory to male readers. As novelist Idra Novey points out in her Paris Review essay “The Silence of Sexual Assault in Literature” ( 4 Oct 2018) it is the silences that are critical in literature — what is glossed over and that which is hidden from view.

Though the story [Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People”] was published over sixty years ago, the sick abuse of power is disturbingly similar to any number of testimonies that have emerged this past year. O’Connor artfully elides what exactly the Bible salesman does, or doesn’t do, to Hulga in the barn. That elision evokes the roaring silence that she will now endure, returning to this horrifying experience within the solitude of her mind.

It is exactly this silencing of the women that has remained quietly hidden away from the “public” view —- a view that has been mostly defined by patriarchal codes of conduct. Although these sorts of conversations, thoughts and ideas being expressed freely now in literature are and have always been familiar to women.

Milkman is a powerful book that begs to be read widely.

To buy the Milkman on Amazon India: 

Paperback

Kindle 

26 Oct 2018 

 

“No Touch” A picture book on child sexual abuse ( CSA)

Not a day goes by without the morning newspapers reporting the horrendous sexual attacks upon children. It is frightening and deeply disturbing. In a manner of speaking CSA ( child sexual abuse) has replaced the news about dowry deaths which used to fill the papers in the 1980s.

It becomes extremely difficult to discuss child sexual abuse particularly in a society like India where any conversation remotely linked to sex is considered moral taboo. It is not uncommon to hear of young couples getting married and clueless about how babies are born! In such a scenario teaching a child to recognise and articulate uncomfortable scenarios which are probably in the purview of CSA becomes challenging. Hence a picture book like No Touch published by Scholastic India is relevant and useful.

In fact an innovative way of getting this book read has been by having copies of the book dropped off by book fairies on the Delhi metro.

Child sexual abuse is absolutely horrific and what is truly alarming is the perpetrators are mostly known to the children abused. There have been many concerted campaigns such as this animated video on child sexual abuse made in English and Hindi by CHILDLINEIndia. In 2014 noted filmmaker Pankaj Butalia published Dark Room: Child Sexuality in India with the hope to open this conversation outside of the specialized, academic circles. Another brilliant attempt was made by Scholastic India author Ken Spillman in his short story “A bubble of shared knowing”. After the December 2013 dastardly act of raping a young girl in Delhi the conversations about child sexual abuse and rape opened up and for the first time these filtered into public spaces and collective consciousnesses. As a result the case of writer and rape survivor Sohaila Abdulali who had been gang-raped in the 1980s began to be discussed once more. In fact she was brave enough to write about the incident in an NYT article “I Was Wounded; My Honor Wasn’t” ( 7 Jan 2013). A few months later she co-authored a forceful article in the Guardian asking for children to be made aware of rape and sexual assault, the discourse must be brought home. ( “To protect our children, we must talk to them about rape” 26 April 2013).

No Touch a picture book is a step in the right direction. The book needs to be read, shared and disseminated widely. These difficult conversations must be had in every household and schools.

No Touch published by Scholastic India. Hb. 2017 

3 August 2017 

“Do you remember Kunan Poshpora?”

41DEZH1RXvL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_In the week when Kashmir is burning after the death of twenty-one-year-old Burhan Wani or as he is being referred in Indian media as “the poster boy of new militancy” ( http://bit.ly/29BWjgf ) it would be sobering to read Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? Published by Zubaan in March 2016 it is about the mass rape of women and the brutal sexual torture of men in the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora by soldiers of the Indian Armed Forces. The book also includes the text of the confidential report of the then Divisional Commissioner Kashmir Wajahat Habibullah (along with the deleted paragraphs). Since the book was published there were more developments in the case but could not be included in the publication. 

I am posting extracts from the book. The sequencing is mine.

While I was composing this blog post noted human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover posted on Facebook the following: 

Our silence, as young protestors are being killed in Kashmir and many severely injured, is suffocating me.
Kashmir is a political dispute and needs a political engagement. We must protest and demand an end to this militarisation. After the 2010 killings of over 112 persons by security forces in Kashmir, 4 of us – Sukumar Muralidharan, Bela Somari and Ravi Hemadri and myself – traveled across Kashmir visted the families of those killed and the wounded. We documented the excessive and indiscriminate use of lethal force against unarmed protestors that led to the grievous loss of life; the pellet gun and catapults that caused blindness and multiple organ injuries; the hospital in Patan that was attacked by the CRPF where injured were being treated and a child shot dead in the hospital premises; children like Tufail Mattoo and Sameer Rah were killed. No FIR was ever lodged and no one was held accountable for these killings. https://kafila.org/2011/03/26/four-months-the-kashmir-valley-will-never-forget-a-fact-finding-report/
Death has rolled its dice again.”

“We knew that if we remained silent, they would do it again, if not in our village then somewhere else.” — A survivor 

 

This book is that you are about to read is unusual, special and quite extraordinary. It spans, traverses and tracks a long passage of time — 24 years — during which the truth of the mass rape of women and the brutal sexual torture of men in the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora by soldiers of the Indian Armed Forces, was sought to be distorted, denied or buried by the Indian state and its many agencies. When a truth of this nature and magnitude is thus treated or suppressed, the quest for justice is boosted not only amongst the victims / survivors but also amongst large sections of the population; women and men, none of whom is unscathed or untouched by the mass violence surrounding them. They are in fact, witnesses.

Many have grown up in the midst of this violence; the myriad forms it takes, the fear and terror that it unleashes on a daily basis, the lies and lawlessness of the state; be it on a street or one’s home — it is their lived experience. So it is with the five young authors of this book. They were either not born or just born at the time of the ‘incident’ in early 1991.

When I met these young women in the summer of 2013 ( at the office of JKCCS, the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society) in the course of my own work on sexual violence and impunity in J&K, each one of them was poring over various documents in English or Urdu in files that were scattered open; these were the documents that told and corroborated the ‘story’ of the mass rape in Kunan and Poshpora that JKCCS had accessed through several RTIs ( right to information) that they had filed in different government departments. There were also records of the victims’ / survivors’ testimonies that these young women had procured over a period of time. I was struck by the number of documents and the amount of information that was there, it reminded me of how different it was compared to fifteen years ago when hardly any information was available, either official or unofficial, particularly regarding sexual crimes/rape. Silence and fear had prevailed then but here were these young women fearlessly articulating the problem and determined to fight the state authorities for justice and accountability.

I was curious to know what had inspired them to look into a ‘case’ that took place so many years ago, even before some of them were born. What prompted them to take on this arduous journey, to undertake their frequent travels to Kupwara where these two villages are located? How did they manage to gain the trust and confidence of the victims / survivors such that they were willing to share their stories yet again, this time with a group of young, concerned women? One of them voiced it poignantly and succinctly: when a young woman physiotherapy student was gang-raped in a moving bus on the streets of Delhi in December 2012, the outrage among people was such that the entire country erupted into militant protests that demanded justice for the victim and punishment for the accused. How come the frequent rapes in J&K by the armed forces do not move the same Indians to protest this crime, not even when it is a mass rape of women as in Kunan and Poshpora? ‘We decided’, she told me, ‘that we have to raise our voice and wage our own struggle against such crimes. If we don’t, no one else will.’

This sentiment is reflected in the book when the authors ask: Is rape in India punishable but rape in Kashmir justifiable when committed by the men in uniform, the protestors of India’s honour in Kashmir? Is this the typical ‘face’ or attitude of the Indian authorities — of burying the truth and denying Justice? ‘In Kashmir, Justice is a hard thing to find’ say the authors at one point, reminding me of what a Sri Lankan woman in one of the IDP camps had once told me, ‘Justice is a dark room for us’.

The authors thus began to excavate the truth, by sifting it through a web of lies and botched-up investigations, by painstakingly building a bridge of trust and hope between the victims / survivors of Kunan Poshpora and the various courts of law where justice is meant to be dispensed.

These women were instrumental in re-opening the Kunan Poshpora case and demanding that it be re-investigated. They mobilized nearly a hundred women from different walks of life including a few women from their own families. Fifty of them joined these young women to file a PIL ( Public Interest Litigation ) at the lower court in Kupwara in 2013, even though the case had been closed as untraced by the JK police in 1991.

( From the ‘Preface’ by Sahba Husain. pp xxiii – xxvi)

The Sexual Violence and Impunity Project ( SVI) is a three-year research project, supported by the International Development Research Centre ( IDRC), Canada, and coordinated by Zubaan. Led by a group of nine advisors* from five countries ( Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka), and supported by groups and individuals on the ground, the SVI project started with the objectives of developing and deepening their understanding on sexual violence and impunity in South Asia through workshops, discussions, interviews and commissioned research papers on the prevalences of sexual violence, and the structures that provide immunity to perpetrators in all five countries.

Our discussions began in January 2012, when a group of women from South Asia came together in a meeting facilitated by a small IDRC grant, to begin the process of thinking about these issues. We were concerned not only at the legal silences around the question of sexual violence and impunity, but also how deeply the ‘normalization’ of sexual violence and the acceptance of impunity, had taken root in our societies.

It became clear to use that women’s movements across South Asia had made important contributions in bringing the issue of sexual violence and impunity to public attention. And yet, there were significant gaps, …

Over the three-year period since this project began, there have been amendments in the criminal law of India and the definition of sexual assault has expanded, we have gained considerable grounds in our understanding on impunity for sexual violence and consequently are better able to speak about it and fight for justice. It is noteworthy that during the recent targeted violence in Muzzafarnagar in India in 2013, seven Muslim women who were brutally gang raped and sexually assaulted by men belonging to other communities, filed writ petitions for protecting their right to life under Article 21. In a landmark judgement in March 2014, recognizing the rehabilitation needs of the survivors of targeted mass rape, the Supreme Court of India ordered that a compensation of INR 500,000 each for rehabilitation be paid to the women by the state government.

The ‘Occupy Baluwatar’ movement of December 2012 which some see as the ripple effects of the Delhi protests against sexual violence and demands for justice, had sexual violence and impunity at its centre. One of the major outcomes of the movement was the 27 November 2015 amendment broadening the definition of rape, bringing same-sex rape and marital rape into the ambit of law.

In Pakistan too, small steps forward were taken in the shape of a parliamentary panel approval in February 2015 of amendments in the anti-rape laws, supporting DNA profiling as evidence during the investigation and prohibition on character assassination of rape victims during the trial. …

The eight volumes ( one each on Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, two on India, and two standalone books on impunity and on an incident of mass rape in Kunan Poshpora in Indian Kashmir) that comprise this series, are one of the many outcomes of this project. The collective knowledge built on the subject through workshops, discussion fora, testimonies and interviews is part of our collective repository and we are committed to making it available to be used by activists, students and scholars. …

( From the Introduction by Urvashi Butalia, Laxmi Murthy and Navsharan Singh. pp ix – xviii)

*The nine advisors are: Ameena Mohsin, Hameeda Hossain, Kishali Pinto Jayawardena, Kumari Jayawardena, Mandira Sharma, Nighat Said Khan, Saba Gul Khattak, Sahba Husain, Sharmila Rege and Uma Chakravarti.

Essar Batool, Irfah Butt, Samreena Mushtaq, Munaza Rashid, & Natasha Rather Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? ( Introduction by Urvashi Butalia, Laxmi Murthy and Navsharan Singh) Zubaan Series on Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia co-published with IDRC, Zubaan, 2016. Pb. pp. 250. Rs. 395 

11 July 2016 

 

Novoneel Chakraborty “The Stranger Trilogy”

Amazon homepage on 6 June 2016 shows Novoneel Chakraborty’s book being amongst the top 25 bestsellers.

Novoneel Chakraborty is a successful commercial fiction writer who is known for his psycho-sexual or romantic thrillers. He is now a screenwriter for television too. He began writing in 2008 but since then has had phenomenal success with his books. He obviously has a knack for knowing what the readers/market desire and caters to it exceptionally well. His books are selling extremely well as testified by Amazon India’s banner on their homepage in June 2016.

His “Stranger Trilogy” consists of

 Marry me, Stranger;

All yours, Stranger

and Forget me not, Stranger. These are being sold as a boxed set.

This trilogy has been creating a buzz for a while. The stories are written in first person by the protagonist Rivanah Bannerjee and have a lot of sex. The stories are ostensibly about the mysterious identity of a stalker who regularly sexually assaults Rivanah and she assumes its her boyfriend. The trilogy comes across as very uneven writing. The sex scenes are written very confidently and quite bold but always seem as if they are strongly influenced by international thrillers. It would not be so evident if it were not for the “bridges” between the sex scenes that is actually the narrative. It crawls like a typical contemporary Indian novel written in English which relies considerably on mundane conversation. There is little in terms of psychological thriller that makes these stories distinctly their own except for the mysterious identity of the stalker and reasons for stalking. A blue-blooded psychological thriller is packed with details, working in layers and the suspense building slowly and steadily sometimes even with multiple perspectives embroiling the reader into an emotional space that teeters between empathy and curiosity and horror. Unfortunately “The Stranger Trilogy” does not quite meet the mark.

It is also distressing to discover that a book written in the first person by a woman incorporates the male fantasy gaze “appreciating” if not at times fantasing about the sexual acts that would otherwise be seen as a rape. It is disturbing to have such literature being published and obviously rapidly finding a readership/market because somewhere it is catering to these bizarre fantasies. In terms of creative licenses every author has the freedom of expression to write on any subject they like and in any manner. But this? Given the current scenarios of the horrific rapes and stalkings that are constantly being documented in India. Who can forget the rape of the young girl in December 2013 or the recent one in Kerala of a Dalit girl in April 2016?  Alas these two young women did not survive the horrific assaults. In 1983 Sohaila Abdulali had written about her experience of being gang-raped in Bombay and the article was published in Manushi. Here is the link: http://bit.ly/1r9YCMH In the past few weeks two very powerful posts by rape survivors have gone viral on the internet. They are extremely moving for the manner in which these women have survived their assaults, had the immense courage to write about the experience even though it must have been very painful to recall details and put it down in words. The first is by Jessica Knoll whose debut Luckiest Girl Alive smashed all bestseller charts for its story. (Reese Witherspoon has optioned the film rights.) Weeks after the book was published Jessica Knoll wrote this article in Lenny Letter  for the first time acknowledging being gang-raped as a teenager. ( http://bit.ly/1UCLhGR ) On 4 June 2016, the rape victim of a Stanford swimmer read this letter out aloud in court after the rapist was sentenced to a mere six months in jail because a longer sentence would have “a severe impact on him,” according to a judge. The letter was published on Buzzfeed. (http://bzfd.it/213lAkL ) And who can forget the Steubenville High School rape case on the night of August 11, 2012, when a high-school girl, incapacitated by alcohol, was publicly and repeatedly sexually assaulted by her peers, several of whom documented the acts on social media. The news exploded on social media creating a cyber-storm across geographies with widespread condemnation.

These rape cases highlight the horror of the act and that sexual assaults are a serious crime. Cultural collateral such as book products are an integral part of a complex social ecosystem. Presuming such stories exist as standalone entities meant solely for entertaining is unacceptable. These acts may be the fantasy of many and products peddling such sexual fantasies sell well even in the book market but The Stranger Trilogy is irresponsible publishing especially by a reputed firm.

Novoneel Chakraborty The Stranger Trilogy Random House India, Gurgaon, 2015. Pb. pp. 250. Rs. 175 each. 

6 June 2016