Recent reports state that Uttarakhand tops the Himalayan states in the number of rape cases.
Vulnerability certainly dictates choices and circumstances. For females from poorer households, even more so. Stamping futures forever.
Devki (name changed) was a beautiful girl in her late teens, when she came to the local village after marriage. The man she married was a known drunk. Her trauma went beyond that. A few days after her marriage, her husband’s elder brother tried to rape her. Tried being the operative word. She was saved from the ultimate humiliation just in time. Within days, she made sure her husband built a hutment away from the main house. How that would secure her in the darkness of night, only she could know.
For a few weeks, Devki was with me for domestic chores. Telling me other stories…about her sister-in-law, Kali (name changed). With her twinkling eyes, she once said, “Didi goes out all decked up every night. She returns in the morning, you know.” I said, “Well, where does she go?” “Oh, I don’t know…God knows…”, she replied. There was teenage-cum-smart nuance in that.
It turns out, Kali is a single mother with two kids. She has left her husband because of his drinking and daily physical abuse. Living in her “mother’s” home is not easy, with all the taunts that the family doles out. She needs to earn and has found a way. Soliciting sex work. It is common knowledge in the village, it seems.
Brijlal is a big-time local honcho, who commands respect and fear. Not just because of the priestly family he belongs to, but because of his known propensity to carry not one but two guns. He decided to make an unannounced, rushed visit to my house. He was accompanied by another male and a tall, beautiful woman. He introduced her as his wife. Brijlal does not belong to a world where he would take his wife around on social visits.
They barely sat for less than half an hour. All the time, the lady sat quiet, a film of tears in eyes full of fear and pleading. I kept wondering what she was trying to tell me. As they were leaving, I even mockingly told Brijlal, “She doesn’t look happy.” To which, he promptly commanded, “Hey, you. Come and tell her you are happy. She thinks you are not.” The lady looked at me and just kept quiet, trying hard to smile and failing completely
After they left, my sense of helplessness and discomfort lingered. I moved to the balcony. As I sat down, I saw Brijlal’s car on the opposite hill. It raced up and down twice, maybe thrice. I understood. The lady was here for a well-placed “client”. Wife or not, Brijlal was certainly soliciting her.
The stories of rape, individual prostitution, “illicit” living, are unspoken tales that remain wrapped in the village. Everybody knows and yet, everybody doesn’t really talk about it. The stories just take ugly turns down the line. Divorce, suicide, murder, you name it.
During Covid times, Nirmala (name changed), a domestic help, stayed back in the master’s house during the quarantine period. When she returned home, her husband turned ballistic. He got drunk, swallowed some poison (word is, it was pesticide) and died.
Nirmala is the female. She remains the butt of comment. Everyone holds her responsible for her husband’s death. Somehow complicit in the thought they share with her dead husband. That she had compromised herself by staying in the saab’s house at night for days on end.
Such and other incidents lead to an unbelievable number of single mothers, coping with growing children. Female, young, single mother—in a state not known for a flourishing economy and deeply rooted in caste-related traditions.
Alcohol and domestic violence are a recurrent factor. Parvati’s story (name changed) is not very different from scores of others. Her husband, Govind, was an alcoholic. As she says, “Without alcohol in his body, he was an angel. With alcohol, a demon.” He beat her for years and Parvati is no weakling—but could hardly withstand the demonic beating.
One day, Govind was happily celebrating the Holi festival of colours with his friend, Madan. The drinking didn’t stop. It was not long before, in desperation for a greater high, he frantically swallowed the toilet cleaner. Parvati was at work and had to rush home.
Govind was hospitalised in the nearby city, Haldwani, for two days before he died. Parvati had to “pull strings” so that a suicide case was not registered. That did not help her otherwise. Madan, the friend, was taking care of things and soon started living with her. It has been some years but the tongues still wag. That Parvati and Madan hatched a conspiracy to kill Govind, so that they could live together.
Parvati has a simple answer. “If I had to kill him, why would I have suffered at his hands and waited all those years? I should have killed him much before. Anyway, it is my life. I don’t care what people say. Did they come to help me when Govind died and my kids were so small? I am managing…and will continue to manage…Live my life my way…”
Her personal experience and what transpires around her keep Parvati in a charged defensive state to protect her vulnerability. The fear of rape made her over-protective of her daughter, Malti (name changed). Malti wanted to study in college but was married off soon after school. A weak, under-nourished, anaemic girl, who became a mother before she turned 20. One more future locked.
Recent reports state that Uttarakhand tops the Himalayan states in the number of rape cases. Alcoholism and drugs are the other “hallmarks”. How many associated murders, suicides, single mothers it leads to is anybody’s guess.
Neelima Mathur is an India-based Executive Producer, Researcher, Writer, Mentor and Trainer for documentary and NGO films. She is also Festival Director of the Lakeside Doc Festival.