No country for women, girls, babies…

Asifa and Unnao. Two names that are juxtaposed in the Indian media today. Two names that may or may not reveal anything to people the world over. But two names that reveal the disgusting socio-political, religiously perverted society that India has devolved into.

In the years that have followed the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey, Delhi’s ‘braveheart’ who resisted and fought her attackers to death, has anything changed? There was outrage and public outpouring of grief and demands for justice back then. There was an examination of how and why such incidents occurred. Yet little if anything did change. In actual fact, statistics show that instances of crime against women  increased! Naysayers can argue increased reportage but the fact remains that a largely indolent but frighteningly nationalist government, an increasingly patriarchal society and a lack of punitive measures has stealthily given rise to a culture that allows its womenfolk to be routinely harassed, attacked and sexually assaulted.

Yet Asifa was only a little girl. An eight year old child who was abducted, drugged and raped by a gang of men for days, till finally being killed by a blow to the head by a rock. Were they a paedophile ring targeting children? Vile as that maybe, the truth is even more chilling. Asifa was targeted because she was a Muslim girl belonging to a nomadic tribe that had the temerity to graze their flock in a Hindu area. This was an organised crime spearheaded by the custodian of a Hindu temple and involving lawmakers and law enforcers. Shockingly, when an attempt was made to register a case against them, a Hindu nationalist mob including government officials, lawyers and women protested in favour of the arrested men.

In a country that has become inured to violence, this was an eye opener.

The Unnao rape case occurred in June 2017. A seventeen year old girl was lured to the house of a MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) of Uttar Pradesh, by a woman on the pretext of securing her employment. There, she was sexually assaulted by the MLA. Despite repeated attempts to register a case against him, it was not till she threatened to immolate herself in front of the Chief Minister’s house nearly ten months later, was any attention given to her pleas. Meanwhile, her father having been threatened and beaten up by the MLA’s brother and other assorted goons, died in police custody the following day.

Asifa and Unnao. Two names that have become inextricably linked within the Indian consciousness. Two names that have once again led to nationwide protests demanding justice, a change in laws and culpability for criminals of all ilk and provenance.

Yet this is a malaise that has deep roots.

Power, Patriarchy and Religion. A malevolent triptych that holds an entire nation to ransom.

In a country that began its life promising to be secular, promising to house and respect all religions and faiths, India has seen some of the worst sectarian violence in its seventy odd years of Independence. Whether it is Hindus vs Muslims, Hindus vs Sikhs or even Hindus vs Hindu Dalits (the lowest caste), theistic fervour has given India the dubious distinction of being the fourth-worst country for religious violence, trailing only behind Syria, Nigeria and Iraq. In an increasingly nationalistic atmosphere that celebrates Hinduism and marginalises all other faiths, a Saffron Reich of zealots are police stating their way into people’s lives.

Those in command have risen through the ranks on the back of proselytising the youth to their agenda. Fanaticism is bred and encouraged. Bigotry, extremism and partisanship are the cornerstones of a government drunk on its own power and ideology. It is no wonder that in this atmosphere hostility and discrimination towards minority religions is alive and well.

Yet, a religion that ostensibly worships the feminine ‘Shakti’ (energy) as a Devi in her many avatars, has zero respect for the women or girls of its land. When an eight month old baby is raped by her twenty eight year old cousin in the Indian capital of New Delhi, does Hindutva proclaim him a criminal or turn a blind eye as it always does? When rape is viewed as consensual sex, does Hindutva hang its head in shame or turn its face the other way? When a girl is said to be tempting a boy by virtue of her femininity, does Hindutva defend her as a Devi, or let her be mauled by its minions?

Let me be clear: I am a Hindu by birth and by upbringing. To me, being Hindu has never meant kowtowing to rules created by a patriarchal priesthood that tells me what to eat, when to eat, what to wear or who to worship. These man made rules do not govern me. For me Hinduism has always meant being inclusive, respectful and considerate towards all. I do not recognise or associate with this brand of Hinduism that is a weapon in the hands of the powerful and the corrupt.

Ultimately, no amount of slogan shouting or banner holding can even begin to address the root of the problem. A country that is steeped in religion, tradition and dogma is held with a leash to its collar by ruthless demagogues.

What hope can the women of this land have?

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Turncoat

West Berlin

1976

Vasily had a toothache and Ilya wasn’t helping at all.

“You need to see a dentist,” he sniggered at him. Vasily decided to ignore this. One day, he promised himself, he would blow Ilya’s brains out. That day wasn’t today.

A shadow moved against the window, and Vasily straightened up. High time. They had been sitting in the car for over two hours. He looked through the binoculars but the figure had already moved out of sight. This was the worst bit of the job. All the sitting and waiting around, particularly with retards like Ilya.

“Vodka?” Ilya offered his hip flask.

Vasily shook his head sharply. He never drank on the job. It just made one sloppy. Ilya was proving to be a liability. He’d have to get rid of him soon.

He knew why Ilya had been ordered to accompany him. The bosses thought Vasily was becoming too big for his boots. That his 100% success rate meant he knew too much. Ilya was the watchdog. Keeping tabs on what Vasily did and how he did it. Not for long though.

The figure re appeared at the window. This time Vasily got a good look at him. Bingo! He motioned to Ilya and they slipped out of the car noiselessly.

They crossed the tree lined street one behind the other. For  passers by, they seemed like any other suburban commuters returning home: shoulders hunched, trench coat and hat protecting them from the mild drizzle. No one could make out the bulge of the holsters under their coats. Just as well. No witnesses.

Ilya knocked on the door. A gruff voice answered, “Yes?”

“Delivery.”

“I haven’t ordered anything.”

Vasily had already broken in soundlessly from the rear door.

Anton turned around, gun in hand. There was a weary look in his eyes. As though he’d been expecting this for a while. As though, all the running and hiding had been leading up to this very moment.

“The Dentist! Ah, I should have known they would send you.”

He lowered his gun. Vasily’s reputation preceded him. Besides, he was tired and ready.

“Make it quick, will you?”

Vasily did.

When Ilya walked in on them ten minutes later, Vasily was unscrewing the silencer off his gun.

“So, it’s done.”

Vasily ignored him, and pulled out his extraction forceps.

“It’s a bit psychopathic, isn’t it? This extracting of a tooth from a dead man. What purpose does it serve? He’s dead. He doesn’t care if you take his tooth. Aside of it being your signature, what does it matter?”

Oh, it mattered alright. Vasily hadn’t risen through the ranks of the KGB on the merit of his good deeds alone. He knew the psychological impact that a well thought out name, and a signature move had. It was not for nothing he was known as the best assassin in the world.

*

Anatoli leaned back in his chair, the cigarette dangling loosely between his lips. The file had ELIMINATED stamped in red on the front page.

“Such a shame. Anton was a good man. But when spies go rogue, they have to be…” he drew his finger across his throat.

“So, Vasily, another job well done. You got his tooth, I’m guessing?”

He didn’t wait for Vasily to confirm this.

“Third molar from the left, hey? What if they don’t have one? What if they have rotten teeth? Those Englishmen normally do. No, no. Don’t answer that. I don’t really care.”

“I have another job for you.”

He passed a file over to him.

“It’s Top Secret of course, and the material is sensitive as always.”

“No killing involved this time, unless absolutely necessary.”

Vasily skimmed over the information, and looked up at his superior in surprise. This was not within his usual remit.

Anatoli nodded. “Yes, I know it’s strange. But you were specifically asked for.”

When Vasily spoke, which was very rarely, people had to lean in to listen. His voice was no more than a whisper.

“I kill people. I don’t kidnap little girls.”

“She’s not a little girl Vasily. She’s eighteen and our top gymnast. She is also planning to defect to the West during the games.”

Vasily looked at the photograph in the file. She looked twelve.

He shook his head.

“Not for me. Give this one to someone else.”

Anatoli stubbed his cigarette out leisurely.

“You don’t get a choice Vasily. The job needs to be done, and it needs to be done by you. And Ilya will help.”

*

“What I can’t understand is why we are bloody kidnapping one of our own athletes? And asking for a ransom? Whose dumb idea was this?”

Vasily wished Ilya would shut up. He didn’t like the plan himself, but if the powers that be had decided this was the way to stop the defection and make the West look bad, then so be it.

They were booked on the morning’s Aeroflot flight to Montreal via Paris, and Vasily wanted a good night’s rest before they embarked on this hair brained scheme.

*

It was easy enough to identify the Soviet team in their blue jackets. They were all crowded together at the airport, talking excitedly amongst themselves.

Not so easy to locate a slight figure with blonde hair and blue eyes. Ilya spotted her first. He nudged Vasily in the ribs. Vasily moved away casually and looked in her general direction.

She was tiny. A miniature human being who could perform magical things on the uneven bars. He had been reading up on her. She was the Soviet’s brightest hope at the Olympics. Just then she looked up and caught his eye. There was a quizzical look in hers, and he looked away uninterestedly.

They were five rows behind the team on the plane. Ilya was snoring loudly next to him. Vasily looked at him disgustedly and went back to reading Pravda.

At Montreal when her luggage went missing, she was accompanied by her coach to the Lost Luggage counter, while the rest of the team made their way out. They stood at the counter pretending their bags had not arrived either. Ilya filled out his form alongside her coach Yuri. She stood to a side, nervously rocking on her feet. The Aeroflot employee had been paid well, and disappeared long enough for an uneasy silence to descend on the group. Ilya with his customary garrulousness decided to cuss out his national airline.

“Cannot believe how incompetent they are. Losing our bags is one thing. But to lose a team member’s bag!”

The coach clucked in sympathetic annoyance. Soon Ilya and he were engaged in an in depth conversation.

“Is he your son?” she asked suddenly.

“Ilya?” Vasily was startled. Ilya was young, but he wasn’t young enough to be his son.”No, just a business associate.”

Vasily examined Ilya with fresh eyes. He supposed to an eighteen year old girl who didn’t see any of his flaws, he might appear quite handsome.

As for himself, he knew he was so ordinary looking that it made him instantly forgettable. A huge asset in his line of work.

“Which sport do you do?” he asked, feigning ignorance.

“Gymnastics,” the pride in her voice was evident.

“Looking forward to the competition then?”

“Yes, of course! It’s what I’ve spent my entire life preparing for.”

The cynic within him applauded her performance. She seemed every inch a naive, eager sports girl determined to find her place in the spotlight. Not a cold, calculating turncoat, ready to abandon her country for a cushier existence in the West.

The bags finally made an appearance. By which time the Soviet team had already departed for their accommodation.It wasn’t hard for Ilya to persuade Yuri to share a taxi with them.

*

She was spitting nails the next morning. He’d tied her hands and feet together, but left her lying in bed so that she was, at the very least, partially comfortable.

“You bastards! Why the hell have you kidnapped me?! Where is Yuri?”

Poor Yuri would soon be found wandering the streets of Montreal, with a killer hangover and no recollection of where he’d misplaced his star gymnast.

“He’s safe,” Ilya spoke from the couch munching on his potato chips.

“Why? Why…” she spluttered incoherently.

Vasily opened the file in front of him.

“Your father is Boris Petrov?”

“Why am I here? You know I’m representing my country in the games. How can you do this? You will pay for this!”

Vasily looked at her patiently till she calmed down.

“Your father is Boris Petrov?”

“Yes,” she muttered, sullenly.

“Related to David Petrov, or David Peters as he is known these days?”

She looked confused.

“Are you telling me that you don’t know that your father’s cousin is a Canadian citizen? Or that he’s a multi-millionaire?”

She shook her head. “I have no idea what you are talking about! Please release me so that I can participate in the games. My team, my family and my friends must be so worried.”

“Nice try sweetheart, but you’re going to stay with us just a bit longer,” chuckled Ilya.

*

There was an International outcry. For a sportswoman to be kidnapped on the eve of the Olympics for no good reason made headlines everywhere.

They stayed holed up in the Motel where no questions were asked as long as cash was provided upfront.

The girl grew more and more uncommunicative. She ate at regular intervals as if to keep her strength up. The rest of the time, she retreated within herself. Vasily admired this trait. He knew how much self discipline it took to keep only one’s own company.

Ilya, on the other hand, had no concept of self discipline. He ate, he drank, he snored and he farted with impunity. The rest of the time he regaled them with stories from his childhood. When he ran out of those, he started to sing tunelessly.

Many a time Vasily wished it was Ilya tied up on the bed, and the girl his companion.

*

The ransom demanded was a mere 2 million Canadian dollars. Not too much for a multi-millionaire uncle to dole out for the safe return of his celebrity niece.

They turned the television on to listen to the news.

Tearful appeals from her parents, from her team mates, from her coaches. Nothing from David Peters.

“Is this plan actually going to work?” asked Ilya on the fourth day.

Vasily shrugged. 

“What plan?” her ears perked up.

Vasily changed the channel to the games. He saw her sit up straighter. A part of him felt bad that she couldn’t fulfil her dream, but at least she’d live. None of his previous hostages had.

On the seventh day, they had a breakthrough. David Peters agreed to pay the ransom.

*

“It’s a simple matter. We collect the ransom and hand the girl over to the authorities. At that point, her profile is so high that she cannot simply melt away and defect as she was planning to do. She will be surrounded by the highest level of security. Russia will get her athlete and her ransom back.”

Even as he mouthed these words, Vasily felt discomfited. Could it really be as easy as they had made it sound? There were risks. But then, there were always risks. He had been in stickier situations before, and each time, managed to walk away unscathed. What he relied on every single time was not just preparation and nerve, but his gut.

His gut was telling him something wasn’t right.

From the doe eyed girl on the bed, to his bumbling companion, to this entire kidnapping/ransom scenario he was trapped in, something felt amiss.

Maybe it was time to retire. Time to spend those millions squirrelled way in that numbered account in Geneva. Maybe it was time for him to melt away just like the girl had planned to.

*

Notre-Dame church was crowded with tourists. Vasily moved along with the tour group half listening to the guide describing the stained glass history of the city. Pew 11 wasn’t hard to find. He sat in pew 12, discreetly observing all that were looking for him. The money had been placed in a hassock of his choosing. Now they were waiting to arrest whoever picked it up. As if.

He closed his eyes and let his head drop, looking for all intents and purposes, a man engaged in prayer. He had decided that this would be his last job. He would mail his collection of molars- 38 in all- to Anatoli anonymously. A novel resignation even if he thought so himself.

The minor explosion outside the church created exactly the sort of panic he had envisaged. He walked out with the hassock in his rucksack, with no one the wiser for it.

The Motel room smelled stale. Food, cigarettes and body odour mingled together in an odorous union.

“Did you get it?” Ilya asked eagerly.

Vasily nodded.”Check it.”

He looked at the girl on the bed. “We turn her over to the authorities tomorrow.”

“I’ll tell them it was fellow Russians. I’ll tell them everything,” she declared.

“My dear,” he whispered, “By the time they recover you safe and well, no one will care. By the time they care, you will be back in the Motherland.”

She hissed at him then. “You’ve taken everything away from me!”

“Cheer up, there’s always 1980 to aim for. And no sly defection ideas the next time around, you hear?”

“I’m afraid that’s not really the plan Vasily,” Ilya spoke softly behind him. He had the gun pointed at Vasily’s head.

*

The crowds were cheering on television as Nadia Comaneci got the first ten ever achieved on the uneven bars.

On the floor of the Motel room there was a different kind of ten. The man’s figure lay stretched out straight and the girl was curled up like a ball next to him. Their bodies were stiffening up with rigor mortis.

The television flickered in the background, noise fading in and out. They wouldn’t be discovered for another week. At which point their bodies would be sent for autopsies.

The man would have the third molar on the left missing. A fact that would go unnoticed in Montreal.    

THE END

 

©Poornima Manco 2018

  

    

  

  

Sweat

‘Horses sweat, gentlemen perspire and ladies glow’. An old quote that wandered into my mind quite suddenly today. You see, I had an interesting and rather illuminating conversation with a colleague yesterday. He had just finished reading my book of short stories, and I asked him how he liked it. He chuckled and said something that made me stop short, mentally flip the pages of my book and begrudgingly, but laughingly agree with him. More on that in a minute.

When you are an unknown writer, trying to find a foothold in publishing, you lap up any kind of feedback. Most of that comes from your immediate circle of your friends and family, or perhaps the slightly wider circle of your work colleagues or distant acquaintances who have been kind enough to buy your book. I have to say, by and large, most people have been very charitable in the sort of feedback they’ve given me. Amongst the criticisms I have encountered (all true by the way) was the fact that I used language and references that were not immediately transparent to the reader. For instance, how many non Indians would know what Rooh Afza is? How many outside of Delhi would know where Khan Market is? Some of my readers had to google certain terms or words. So, maybe, the next book should have a glossary of terms? Maybe. Or maybe not.

I remember reading a book where half the page contained the story, the other half explanations of the words contained in the story. I found that terribly distracting. So, perhaps, I’ll just carry on being a pretentious (and rather lazy) writer and hope that the context will explain the content.

The second more valid criticism that came my way was that there was no central theme binding my stories together. Yes, the location is India. The stories are all quite dark. There are a few deaths and other horrific stuff, but aside of all that-  what is the leitmotif of the tales?

Admittedly, I hadn’t thought this one out. Remember, this was my taster book. The one I published before I published THE ONE. Rather like the first fling before your proper boyfriend. Except that this fling’s taken on a life of it’s own.

I digress.

I wasn’t really thinking themes when I put this book together. For me, it was more of a journey. A journey to India through my characters, and their distinct personalities and situations. So, when this was pointed out to me I made a mental note that my next book would definitely contain a thread that runs through all the stories. (Yes, it is another book of short stories, and yes, I am working on it right now).

Back to my colleague then.

What was this observation of his that had me chortling? He simply said, “You do rather have an obsession with sweat, don’t you? All your characters sweat, and you describe it in such vivid detail.”

There you go. Theme found and nailed. Sweat is the central theme of my book. Never let it be said that my debut collection had no cohesive or unifying idea. All my characters sweat, whether gently or vigorously, whether literally or metaphorically.

So, if you like sweaty stories, look for Parvathy’s Well & other stories on Amazon worldwide. Any other incisive observations you might have post reading will be welcomed with relish!

 

Crushing

My 14 year old has introduced me to K pop. For those not in the know, that is Korean pop. More specifically to a group called BTS, a bunch of androgynous pop stars that jump around singing incomprehensible lyrics and looking girlishly cute despite being young men in their 20’s. She and her 17 year old sister have already picked out their crushes. How they can tell them apart is a mystery to me. All I see is a blur of neon colours, toothy smiles, hyperactive bodies and mops of hair.

I guess I should feel fortunate that my girls have no problem sharing their various crushes with me. Whether these are remote celebrities or boys they like at school, they insist on inflicting these videos or pointing them out at Parents’ evenings. I try my best to look interested in the former, and not look like a pervy Cougar at the latter. I stay non committal most times, knowing full well that the shelf life of these crushes is 6 months to a year, tops.

My own teenage crushes, which were very many, started with a black and white film that was made in the 50’s. I guess my hormones had just started their teenage dance when I saw this movie and promptly fell in love with the hero, who at the time of my watching this film must have been in his dotage. I would make up time travel scenarios in which I would travel back to his time and he would sweep me off my feet singing a melodious number, and we’d skip into a (black and white) sunset. That lasted all of a month.

Oddly, the next crush was as result of this very hero. When a senior boy at school stood behind me singing a song from this actor’s movie and looking pointedly at me, the transference of affection was a natural consequence. The song, roughly translated went, “Give me your heart, give me your heart, give me your heart honey (dil deke dekho, dil deke dekho, dil deke dekhoji)”. Subtle it was not, effective very much so.

I nursed this  school crush a lot longer. It never came to more than looking at each other in assembly, or deliberately hanging out in the same place at lunch times. He was too scared to make the first move, and I was too shy. One day he found a proper girl friend, and I a slightly bruised heart.

At any rate, I discovered the delicious joy of crushing on a boy that realistically could never be mine. From Morten Harket of A-Ha fame to the boy in the neighbourhood who wore high waisted jeans and turned up his collars, I was a sucker for a good crush.

Having a crush had a distinct advantage over being in a romantic relationship. For one thing, I never got into trouble with my parents for not focussing enough on my studies. To them, my sitting at the study table meant I was studying, not whiling away hours dreaming of these various boys/young men. Secondly, there was no chance of discovering that my idols had clay feet. Exchanging looks or sighing over posters gave me no insight into their personalities or characters. Which was just as well, because then I could use my over active imagination and make them into whatever I wanted. And finally, I could pick and choose whoever I wanted, whatever colour or nationality or geographical location, without having to worry about any kind of reciprocity.

Of course, as I grew out of my teenage years, I also outgrew these crushes. But what a wonderful time it was, while it lasted.

Therefore, as obscure as K pop seems to me, and as alien as these pop stars appear, I am heartened by the healthy response my girls have to them. If the price I have to pay is listening to an unfamiliar brand of music, it is no more than what I subjected my poor parents to.

With ‘Take on Me’ playing on a loop, and me staring moonily at Morten’s picture in a magazine, my mother did the only sensible thing she could. She shut the door on me.

The subtle art of Humble Bragging

Once upon a time, I knew a woman who had elevated boasting to an art form. You would never know it, but ever so subtly she’d slip in details of her latest designer purchase, or her lunch out at a talked about hot spot or how ‘in’ she was with the people that mattered. She was careful not to over do it, and combined with what seemed to be a self deprecating sense of humour, most people acknowledged that she was lovely, and undoubtedly had an enviable lifestyle. I thought so as well. In fact, I considered myself lucky to call her a friend. The only hiccup was that every encounter with her left me feeling slightly diminished. Sub consciously I felt that I was lacking and that I needed to keep up.

It was not till a childhood friend pointed out my recently acquired obsession with expensive bags and shoes, that I realised that I was behaving totally out of character. Sure, I liked the good things in life too, but I had never been so preoccupied with hoarding labels before.

When that woman finally exited my life, and all ties were severed, I realised what a psychological number she had done on me. In trying to fit in and be accepted, I tried to be like her and buy like her. Ultimately, it was patently obvious to the both of us that the very foundation of our friendship was weak, built on the quicksands of want and need and social proximity. It also took time and distance for me to realise that she must have had multiple issues and insecurities of her own, to have the incessant need to flaunt her lavish modus vivendi, however skilfully and insidiously she went about it.

I am sure that most of us have been guilty of the occasional ‘humble brag’. Where we really want to call attention to something we are proud of, but rather than openly and loudly (and off- puttingly) boast about it, we call attention to it in a roundabout manner. Where people think, “Oh, how modest he/she is about his possessions/accomplishments”. I know I certainly have indulged in a ‘humble brag’ or two. Yet, each time, I’m left feeling a tad bit dirty, like I’ve done something not very nice or befitting.

Living in the UK, most people do not indulge in self aggrandisement. It’s just uncool. If you’ve got something to be proud of as an accomplishment, the general rule of thumb is, you shut up and let others talk about it on your behalf. If they so choose to do. If you are lucky enough to be blessed with La dolce vita, then showing off is unnecessary and in very poor taste.

In the US however, self publicity is seen as no bad thing. Entire industries are built upon it. Look at QVC. Look at the Kardashians. They are shameless in their self promotion. Loud and proud is the motto that brings the greenbacks in. The argument is: if I’ve got it, I will flaunt it and the world be damned.

So what is right? The former attitude or the latter?

I think there really is no clear cut answer to this. Feeling happy and proud and announcing something to the world and his wife in an enthusiastic manner is rarely misconstrued and normally well received. On the other hand, being a braggadocio and showing off loudly and constantly is obnoxious and distasteful.

Worse however, is cloaking it all in a garb of humility. People eventually cotton on to the humble bragger and the insincerity of their self deprecation.

Subtle or not, drop the act or be prepared to lose all respect in the long run.