Rape And Kill – Applaud And Ladoos
Happy birthday India
I land in Mumbai on a very soggy morning, after a very turbulent flight from Dubai, buffeted by clouds that are heavily pregnant with monsoon rain. I am returning after a year, prevented by other pressing worldwide CAI projects and doodoo protocols. Nobody asks me for vaccine certificates or tests and I am out of the airport about thirty minutes after I land. Mumbai has not changed – unruly traffic hooting incessantly, deadly potholes concealed by rainwater, metro under unending construction, and gloomy unpainted building facades made glummer by all the rain. Sarfaraz, my driver, relates to me of a man riding to his sister’s house for Raksha Bandhan in his best clothes when a passing vehicle unknowingly hits a pothole and splashes mucky rainwater on him. The poor guy is so incensed, that he decides to protest uniquely. He takes off his shirt, buys washing soap from a streetside vendor, and washes the soiled shirt with the offending water, all in the middle of the busy street. It does not clean his shirt but does bring a lot of fame in a video clip that goes viral.
India will be 75 years old in a few days. I used to love visiting India. It was a country for everybody once, relatively free, and fair, with incredible people, culture, vistas, and foods. My ties to India run deep – it is my ancestral home, I speak Gujarati and Hindi fairly well, and most of the foods I eat are corrupted versions of Gujarati cuisine, the religious lecturers at the mosques come from Lucknow or Hyderabad and Bollywood played a huge part in my upbringing. The country has changed dramatically in the last 25 years, of course. It has gained a lot of wealth and progress, and might, at the expense of much human liberty, minority religious freedoms, and free speech and press.
People are asked to fly the Indian tricolor flag from every building for the birthday celebrations, a Har Ghar Taranga initiative. It’s an enforced suggestion, so all buildings must have a janda over them, except the poor flags are so soggy with the rains their flutterings are half-hearted at best. August 15 is another soggy day and the skies outside my hotel are dark and sullen, ready to drench and flood the city; I stay put. I’m done with my annual medical and now must wait for the final test diagnosis from the experts. I follow the Independence Day celebrations taking place in the capital New Delhi on TV. The Prime Minister gives a rousing speech, though a bit long and boring for me. My ears perk up when he talks about women’s rights and their dignity. It all sounds so wonderful and the optimism in me is rekindled; perhaps there is still hope for this country after all. This buoyancy is short-lived, however.
Women’s rights and dignity
On March 2, 2002, 4-month pregnant Bilqees Bano is ambushed, her 3-year-old daughter is torn from her and her skull is smashed on the ground, killing her instantly. Bilqees is then gang-raped, together with her sister and cousin. One of them has given birth a few days ago; this infant is killed as well. Bilqees is left for dead but she survives and identifies the animals. It would drive any woman who is raped, no, gang-raped and her child’s skull split open in front of her eyes, instantly insane. Bilqees survives and perseveres. She braves the glaring media and attention, goes to court and 11 men are eventually convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. On the very day that I hear the PM speak and guarantee women’s rights and their dignity, these 11 men are released from prison on a technicality. To rub mirchi to Bilqees’s still raw wounds, the men are facilitated and fed ladoos and other sweetmeats by officials of the governing party. The core reason for this blatant cruelty and disregard for justice? Bilqees is a Muslim.
I’m quite familiar with Bilqees’s miserable saga since I have researched the 2002 Gujarat riots in-depth for my novel the Chief Minister’s Assassin and read up on all subsequent developments. If it’s still painful, for me, reading them after all these years, what must the poor woman be going through?
Accompanied by CAI partner Shaida Hussain Bhayani of TRS, I am off to inspect and audit CAI school and orphanage projects in UP, India. We fly to Bareilly and drive about 3 hours to Sirsi where CAI has facilitated a massive school, 2 orphanages, and about 200 homes for the homeless. Meeting with the orphans and seeing them progress is always a pleasure but the new ones always twitch my heart in pain, like 5 years old Khadijah who promises to make me hot chapatti for dinner we’ll eat together the next day.
We visit CAI-funded school and housing projects at Phendheri on day 2 and then drive 14 hours to visit the Sikandarpur and Halwana schools on day 3, ending up in New Delhi. I feel my behind has been ironed out from all that sitting and bumping on the inevitable uneven roads all across India. Although most of south Asia is teetering with flood woes, the rains have failed in Uttar Pradesh so it is sizzling hot. We drive through all the little villages made famous by Bollywood – Muraghabad, Noorpur, Bijnour, Ramghar – once pretty, idyllic, carefree villages, now dreary, busy, smelly, and polluted towns. Sad.
It is in Hallour that my spirits start to mend somewhat. To reach this town bordering Nepal, we fly to Gorakpur from New Delhi and then drive 3 hours to Halllour through busy roads with the driver intent on honking us to hearing loss. It is 113F outside and the relative humidity is 75. The driver, a very pudgy man, has so many near misses weaving the vehicle between cars, motorbikes, bicycles, people, and cows, I am forced to close my eyes and keep them shut.
Hallour is still quite rural and picturesque, with lush green rice fields as far as the eye can see. A river cuts through the village, which is teeming with water from heavy rainfall last night. Buffalos and cows take a dip to cool off, now that the sun is back with a vengeance, and children join in to splash around in the murky waters for carefree fun. The school CAI constructed about 5 years ago is booming, with about 500 children, mostly from poor peasant families, getting a quality education. I am very buoyant about this school; it gives me good vibes. It has been maintained fairly well, it is clean and the management has a can-do mindset towards progress. Floor tiling, a library, and a computer lab are next on the cards. Soon insha’Allah.
There is only one decent hotel we can stay in, riddled with power cuts; it smells of a 2-star motel on any US highway rented by the hour. It is only for a night so we’ll survive. Fakrul ul Hassan and his clan feed us enough yummy buffalo and chicken biryani, and curries to last us months. After lavish lunch at his ancestral home, we head back for another harrowing drive to the airport for the flight to Mumbai. Just as we are leaving the village, I notice, at a trash dump overflowing with rotting garbage, a massive buffalo defecating a ton of poop. Right next to him, not more than 10 feet away, a boy child squats, squinting against a glaring sun, staring as we drive by, a look of stress on his face as he strains to excrete as well.