Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 25, February 2011
a short story by Subhash Chandra
I switched on the television Delhi, My Delhi. Breaking News: the smart-looking newsreader, with mascara and eyeliner in place (more attractive than many anorexic expensive models) was speaking primly: 'Two girls were murdered this afternoon by an unidentified gunman. He killed one and then went straight to the house of the other. The first girl lived alone in a rented room in Mukherjee Nagar. The second lived with her parents in Shakti Nagar. But the second girl was also alone at that time — her father had gone to his shop and her mother was away to her kitty party.' Then she added, 'It is a case of blind murders. Both the girls were killed in a span of twenty minutes, the time it takes to commute from Mukherjee Nagar to Shakti Nagar.' She went on with a barely concealed smirk: ''Delhi, My Delhi' is the first channel to report on this.' The running strip news at the bottom of the monitor announced at this time that the channel had received the Prabha Devi award for being the quickest in reporting Delhi events, and for investigative journalism. They had lived up to their slogan: Delhi, My Delhi: Fastest and the Sharpest!
I heard the news with the typical Delhi-ite's indifference. Such stories do not ruffle us. Life in Delhi is hectic. Long distances, commuting problems, soaring ambitions, searing jealousies. The newspapers and channels are full of crime stories, macabre at times. They are a part of life we philosophise and get on with the business of living.
But my cool was shattered soon, when the photographs of the dead girls were flashed. They were Dipika and Liango Shin – my first year B.A. English Honours students at Shaheed Lala Lajpat Rai College (SLLRC). Dipika was a Delhi-ite, the daughter of Punjabi migrants to Delhi after the Partition. Her father had earned good money in his wholesale cloth business. Shin was from the Northeast. A large number of boys and girls have been coming from the Northeast to Delhi for higher studies.
It was a Sunday evening. I had spent the day lazing around, reading a popular flick, Five Point Someone by Chetan Bhagat, a smart, shallow and enjoyable read. I had felt happy and relaxed. But now I was in a state of shock and confusion. Was it he who had murdered them both? He looked so gentle, soft-spoken and self-effacing. He didn't look the type at all. These were consolations I was inventing for my troubled conscience. But I knew; it was he who had done it. Was I responsible for their death? Morally culpable, even legally? While these questions wracked me, the police had work to do. However, they did not have a clue about the murderer, or the motive. I sat on the lead.
I was distraught and took a week's leave from the College. Two days had passed since the murder, and the police had not been able to round up a single suspect, and had not picked up any lead evidence. Fingerprints lifted from the spots were being examined and blood stains on the victims' clothes had been sent for forensic examination. But there was no solid starting point for the police. On the third day, there was a furore all round. Delhi University Students' Union declared a one-day strike in colleges. Girl students had gathered in protest with placards reading: 'Save Girls,' 'Girls Are Not for Killing,' 'Capital Shame,' 'Vice-Chancellor, Stop Sleeping,' and so on. The media was also mounting pressure – as usual calling the police inept and corrupt. They flashed statistics of unsolved cases of rapes and murders in the previous six months. TV channels asked the viewers to SMS answers to different questions: 'Should the Police Commissioner be sacked?,' 'Is Delhi Police competent to protect citizens of Delhi?,' 'Is there a Police-criminal nexus?' It was a tough time for the police. The National Commission for Women had intervened and wanted immediate results from the government. There was only one person who could help.
I went to Ramaswamy.
'What is the matter? You look a wrecked ship.'
'I actually am.'
'I want your advice.'
'The double murder of the two girls.'
He looked hard at me, but smiling nonetheless said: 'You have not done it, have you?'
'No, but I'm responsible, in a way. Maybe I'm an accessory to the crime.'
He became serious. And went quiet.
I thought he didn't want to get involved. But I was wrong as usual. I'm a poor judge of people. He was figuring out the right course for me, if I really turned out to be an abettor of crime.
'O.K. Tell me everything.'
'Shin was from the Northeast. The word Chinky hurts them no end. But that is what poor Shin came to be called.
'She was shy both by nature and by compulsion. She was lonely in the city and in the class. Not many made friends with her. She spoke wrong English, haltingly, with a different accent. I didn't know her much, though I knew my other students well individually. I generally talk freely, joke and laugh with them, and do a lot of counselling inside and outside the class. While teaching, I weave some message into the situations and episodes in the novels and plays I teach. But Shin, though respectful – she always greeted me in the corridors and smiled shyly – never opened up with me. Nor did I take any particular trouble to bring her out of her shell. I was no different from her classmates, who ignored her.
'But then came a surprise. A couple of times Dipika sat by Shin's side. Dipika was the total opposite of Shin. She was talkative, giggly and full of life – absolutely uninhibited. Sometimes, she even joked at my expense in the class. But then I had allowed that liberty to my students. I laughed at them and they laughed at me. That made teaching interesting and easier. I gelled with them fine. And as I learnt from peers, I was liked as a teacher. My students were fond of me. Generally they did well in the papers I taught. In the third term of the session, Dipika and Shin had sat together for just two days and then they were inseparable. They began to always sit together. They kept a low chatter going throughout my lecture. This kind of thing irritates, even angers me. I do not allow it. If the student persists, I send him/her out. Sometimes, Dikipa and Shin snickered at the neighbouring boys and girls. Shin looked happy. I turned a blind eye to their chatter.
'Why did I ignore their act of indiscipline? I was prompt in penalising everyone else, if they talked during my lecture. I don't know. There was suddenness in their closeness. I guessed things.'
'You're muddling the sequence.'
'Once, while teaching The Quilt, a story about lesbians, by Ismat Chughtai, I was walking between the rows of desks, reading the text and explaining and commenting. It was only from time to time that I looked up from the book and at the students. As I turned back at the last row, I happened to look up. Dipika and Shin were sitting pressed against each other, their bodies welded together. This was nothing unusual in the class, when two students shared one book. But they had a book each. Their faces were flushed – crimson and joyous. They saw me looking at them and knew I had understood. There was a slight movement in their joined hands. But they noticed no disapproval in my gaze. From then on they sat holding hands most of the time in my class.
'Clearly, I knew what was happening. They looked like bloomed, fragrant flowers, with faint smiles on their pink faces. I should have known the Indian cultural mindset. I should have remembered the violent protests on the screening of the film Fire. In this milieu what chance did they have to consummate their bond?. But I had put a stamp of approval with my smile. I had given them the courage to think that what they were doing was right and worse, possible. A teacher had sanctified their relationship. So I had fuelled their passion. Why? I don't know.
'At my age and having taught for decades, I should have known better. I should have warned them of the consequences. A bit of counselling right in the beginning would have done the job. I might have saved their young lives, and the anguish caused to their families. Or I might have failed. Who knows! They might not have listened to me. Passion knows no restraint. It is deep and stubborn. And they were at that age when one can take on the world and death holds no terror. But if I had talked to them about it, I would at least not suffer from guilt.
'And then I made matters worse! After I finished the story, there was a discussion, as usual. A chapter, or a poem, or a story was always followed by discussion in the class, in which I was a participant. I encouraged students to speak. Expectedly, the issue of homosexuality was debated from the point of view of morality. A majority of students thought it was immoral and unnatural. The purpose of humankind was procreation and perpetuation of the human species. If lesbianism and gayism spread, the society would come to an end. An agitated student got red in the face and spoke in faulty English: "Sir, excuse me saying, if all are homosexual, none of us would come in this world – you, I, and this whole class, everywhere everyone." He was trying to beat his government school background. He was ambitious and was working hard.
'Quite a number agreed with him.
'I smiled and said: "Let's talk about the story."
'From this point on the discussion was picked up by a boy with public school background who said, "It is an obscene story. It would corrupt students' minds. Wasn't Chughtai charged with obscenity in The Quilt when it was published?"
'"But she won the case and the charge was dropped by the Court in Lahore. It was not considered an obscene story. Today, in any case, in the open and liberal atmosphere when condoms are advertised on the television at all times of the day, and parents watch them with their grown-up sons and daughters, this story cannot be called obscene. Ads about sanitary pads go into such details as showing each drop being soaked by the so-called improved version. In this context, the story can't be called obscene."
'He said, "Begum Jan is mentally sick. She is abnormal. She does not spare the child, when Rabbo, her maid has gone away. She must get her fill of sex, either from her husband, or any other man, and if that is denied to her, as it is in the story, then from Rabbo, or any other woman or even a child. Her behaviour with the child is despicable, as her adoptive sister had left the child with her in trust. She fondles and squeezes the girl to get her I mean, causing fright in the child who cursed her mother for having left her with Begum Jan. She wished to run away. It fills me with revulsion, as it did the child."
'"But what Nawab Saheb was doing to her – was it normal?" I said.
'"That's not relevant to the point I'm making. I'm talking of the child's response to bring out the abnormality in Begum Jan."
'He was on a stronger wicket, I realised, but I continued ignoring his point and, misusing the position of the teacher. I said, "Having married her, Nawab Saheb deposits her in the house as a piece of furniture. And he himself is gay. Begum Jan was withering away. Dying. And then she entered into a relationship with Rabbo. What happened then? She regains her health and sense of humour. Her skin gets a pink glow. She is pulled back from the brink. Can a relationship, which gives life to a dying person, be unnatural or abnormal? Normality is contextual, culture and time-specific. It's a construct. Homosexuality was considered abnormal throughout the world until two decades back. Now seven countries have legalised same-sex marriage. It might someday be legalised in India too, who knows."
'"Seven countries, out of how many, Sir?"
'I learnt later that he was a debater and had won a trophy for the College in an inter-college competition.
'Dipika and Shin were all ears all this while. They did not bat an eyelid while I was speaking. They had disengaged their hands. Both were leaning forward on their desks – their eyes riveted on me. Their cheeks glowing and an invisible smile playing around their eyes. Both of them looked so beautiful at that time. They had an aura like the saints in pictures have. Or was it my worked-up imagination? I was carried away by my own rhetoric. I admired myself, when I spoke with fluency, and force, and felt the total engagement of my students with my lectures. As a teacher I felt exhilaration, but this time round, I had been irresponsible. I had succeeded as a teacher, but failed as a guardian. I had put a hush on the whole class. The duo slowly regained their consciousness. There was a sparkle in their eyes. I had done the damage, I guess. The bell rang, and, smiling benignly, without answering the question, I walked out of the class.
'Their hand-holding and low chatter in the class continued. I didn't stop them. I ask myself repeatedly: why? At some level, I liked the tender oneness of their bodies and souls. They had merged into each other. It was difficult to tell who was who. Each looked like the other, or as usual was I imagining it?. Was I being altruistic? Or was there a voyeuristic motive? I was all mixed up and felt no guilt. But that was then. Now it's different.
'Then one day I was rushing to my class. I saw them entering the junk-room, in which broken furniture and other useless items were stored. This room was always open. It was unlit generally, because no teaching was done here. I immediately knew why they had gone into the room. They were absent from the class. On my way back, I saw that the door of the room was still closed. I paused in front of the door and felt like knocking on it, but moved on. I wish I had.
'Phulwati was on the prowl, on one of her extortion rounds. She collected good pickings every day, both in cash and kind, from the tutorial rooms. With a dusting rag in hand several times in the day, she would suddenly kick open the shut door of a tutorial room and surprise and frighten lovers. She would then pounce on the boy and the girl, often caught in a compromising position. Her appearance was so sudden, and her figure so forbidding, with her pock-marked dark wide face, that the lovers were thrown out of their wits. Sometimes, ruthless as she was in her business of improving the morals of the young generation, and incidentally also supplementing her income, she would prevent them from zipping up. At times, she seized crucial incriminating evidence, that is, the condom, to scare the life out of the pair. Having disposed of her victims, she then used the condom for amusing some prurient elements in the office and also to gain leverage against the Principal. She would go from table to table holding aloft her trophy and giggling all the while and saying, "See what is happening in College?" She would finally part with her prize only after she had dangled it in front of the Principal, the first thing in the morning, when he entered his room. Once, she held up to him and showed him the semen filled condom and said gingerly: "Do you expect me to clean such rooms, which are littered with condoms? I am a woman and I cannot do such work. Make me a Daphtari. Give me a bit more status."
'One day, as I was sitting with the Principal in connection with a shortage of attendance case, Phulwati entered with her trophy. Before she could start on her monologue, he took out a letter of complaint from his drawer: "Do you know, Phulwati, almost the whole of the teaching staff has complained against you that you don't clean the rooms." Any mention of teachers incensed her. She threw the condom on to the carpet in his room, stood arms akimbo and began: "What face do they have to complain against me? I tell you half the rooms are empty in every period. There are some who come to college only on Mondays and then sit in the staff room, gossip and drink many cups of tea, before leaving. That is the work they do. I can name a few who come only once a month. Students keep weeping. I have overheard them. They abuse some of the teachers. And you tell me that the teachers have complained against me? Please do something to make them work. They corner fat pay packets every month without breaking a straw. You should get out of your AC room and take rounds to see things for yourself. I'm a poor woman, so you take their side and you can scold me."
'The Principal had hardly raised his voice or spoken a harsh word. "I request you to take action against me, but then don't blame me if I expose everyone in the College. Your Babus, who take beer bottles from students, and your respectable teachers, who are defaming the sacred profession of teaching."
'"Please, pick that up. What have you done?" But Phulwati had not yet enacted the last act. Ignoring the Principal, she started weeping suddenly and walked out of the room, dabbing her eyes with the uplifted hem of her shirt, revealing a part of her hanging stomach and leaving her find right where she had thrown it, as a mark of protest. 'That day she noticed that the door of the junk room was closed. She sensed victims, as the door, like the tutorial room doors, was always open. Broken furniture and discarded stuff lay in the room. When Phulwati suddenly opened the door, she stumbled on to a sight that really horrified her. She forgot about the money that generally awaited her on the other side of the door. She began to scream at the top of her pitch. Her voice was loud and raucous even in her normal speech, and her screams brought the roof down. Shin and Dipika who were without their T-shirts were scared to death. The unexpected and sudden bursting in of a huge and ugly female monster made Shin nearly faint. Even as Phulwati was screaming, she snatched the T-shirts lying around and began to shout: "Arre, look at these shameless hussies! You know what they were doing when I opened the door for cleaning?" Pointing her accusing finger at Shin who had covered her face with her hands, she said, "This one sorry, can't go on this is Kaliyuga!" and she looked towards the heavens.
'I looked in, snatched the T-shirts from Phulwati and gave them to Shin and Dipika: "Put them on, quickly." They were disoriented and could not understand what was happening. When they saw me, they put on their tops. Shin was sobbing. Dipika was downcast. It cost the college heavily to hush up the matter. Phulwati was a Daphtari now.
'I recalled the day, when Dou visited me at my home the first time. He was Shin's brother, who had come to me the day Shin had joined college. He was apprehensive for her. Delhi was a city of predators. She was not safe here. Would I take care of her at the College? "But what about outside?" I asked. "I have told a boy from our area to look after her. He is a nice guy and a close friend. She is so innocent, so ignorant. She would be an easy prey for anyone showing even false love. She has a sweet loving heart. All of us, all the neighbourhood back home, love her for her affectionate nature. But please take care of her at the College, so that she does not fall into the hands of a calculating sex maniac. Delhi is full of sex maniacs, who only want flings. And they refuse to marry the girl they have taken to bed. They keep on pestering the girl for sex. If she does not give in they break the friendship and break her heart. She cries, sheds tears and then carries a scar inside her, which does not heal. We have had cases of girls, who left their studies uncompleted and returned home from Delhi heart broken. We people are different, Sir, we people from the Northeast are strong and hardy bodily. But emotionally we are vulnerable. A sign of love or tenderness can win us over. We cannot playact. Delhi is full of actors. So I request you to please be her guardian. If you think, a boy she is moving with is not right, just warn her. Tell her not to mix with him. Thank you so much, Sir. I know, you are an excellent teacher and a wonderful human being. I have collected all this information before I came to you." And then he folded his hands, smiled and left.
'But this visit was different. He looked sad, even depressed. But I couldn't gauge the intensity of his sadness. He tried to look calm, but his disturbance was palpable.
'The next day I heard the news. Having killed them, Dou had gone back to his hometown, Mawsynram, in the Northeast. No one had seen him near the house of the victims. I did not inform the police of his visit to me. He was far out of the needle of suspicion. The police kept telling the media that investigations were closing in on the trail of a suspect and that they would be able to apprehend the killer soon. "We have some clues, which we cannot reveal at this stage. It would hamper investigations."
'But actually they were clueless. They couldn't find any motive for the crime, which could give them the first lead towards possible suspects.
'I kept quiet all this while.'
Ramaswamy said in a quiet but firm voice: 'You know what you have to do.'