Masked and Unanimous: Lacerated Skins and Likely Stories
This happened. This is probably happening as we speak.
It was in the poorly ventilated, sunshine-deprived, noise-free annex of a British era bungalow. Right across from a small “casual kitchen” that was used mostly for making tea or heating up food. The main kitchen was on the ground floor. I remember the room. It always smelled of a damp dish rag. The floor was cold even with sweltering heat outside. Parts of the grayish white walls had a few bald spots as the paint had chipped off. The moldy ceiling was speckled black and wet. The residents often discussed treating it with tamarind water, but never did. There was a bed with sheets and pillows, but no one slept on it. There was a desk with books and bundles of paper, some with termite shelter-tubes shooting out of oblivion and running across like veins mocking bare trees. It was not a guest room. It was not a study. It was in use, but not used. It was the perfect place for a five year old to play in. You could turn it into anything you wanted.
It was this room that excited me about visits to this house. It almost stood as a foreboding oracle. Right now, it almost feels like fiction. I sometimes wished it was.
It was here one day, while I was reading on the bed pretending I was on a houseboat, that he came in. “Ki koro? Lukachuri khelba?” (What are you doing? Want to play hide and seek?). I didn’t want to. I wanted to keep reading. He switched off the light. I was extremely annoyed. I had often felt adults treated children like toys or circus monkeys. Whenever I articulated that, I was dotingly mocked even more. You see I was the pakna one.
“Ai! Dekhte parina kichhu!” (Hey! I can’t see!) He didn’t respond. Before I knew it, I felt someone arched over me. He must have been on fours because I felt a shadow, something closing in, but I did not feel weight. I felt two streams of warm air on my forehead. It felt like it was coming from two narrow nozzles. Must have been his breath. He started to kiss me. All over.
I was, and continue to be, an affection-hound. Somehow this did not feel like “aador”, though he claimed it was. “Shoro,” (move) I said, “aami jete chai” (I want to leave). He asked me to wait. He wasn’t done giving me aador. “Shoro stupid!” I yelled. I was often (called) a beyadob, so he was unfazed. The last thing I remember of that room is that he kissed my nipples. I had never received aador on that part of my body before. One more thing I remember. While my stomach churned and I felt pain in ways alien to me, I felt guilty of ingratitude.
The next thing I remember from that afternoon is vomiting in the master bathroom and my mother bringing me a glass of lemonade. I snapped at her, “Khete chaina! Bashaye cholo!” (I don’t want it! Let’s go home!) and started crying. I wasn’t sure why I was so upset. That upset me even more. A female relative said, “jei shob meyera beshi jid kore, oder maa more jaye” (when girls throw tantrums, their mothers die). My mother tried to explain/defend/understand me: “Na ashole ore baba jokhon trip a jaye, o khub miss kore dekhe bodmejaji kore” (Whenever her father is away, she tends to be cranky because she misses him). Meanwhile, the fear of losing my mother, especially because of something I did, possessed me. I replaced bawling with sobbing. Eventually hiccups took over.
I met her at a guest house run by a missionary couple. I was working for a researcher who was staying there. She worked there as a “chhuta”. For days we didn’t speak. We just exchanged smiles and went on to our jobs. One day as I was transcribing interviews, she had come to sweep my office floor. She asked me what I was working on, where I lived, if I was married, etc. I asked her what her name was. She didn’t answer. She said she hoped one day her six year old daughter would be educated enough to work in English and converse with foreigners. I asked about her daughter and who took care of her while she was at work. She told me her daughter was in a boarding school away from Dhaka because the city was not safe for her. As soon as she finished she said “jai” and left the room.
She came back a few minutes later and said “I am hiding my daughter from her father.” Then she walked closer and told me her story. She was born into a Christian family in a small village in Barisal. Due to harassment from the locals they moved to Dhaka about a decade ago and took shelter at her aunt’s. As was the plan, she started going to school and working in a sewing factory, while her father tried to set up a business. On her way back and forth from work, she used to be harassed by local goons regularly. One day, as she was returning home from work, they kidnapped her as per their “leader’s” order. She was taken to this leader’s cousin’s house and locked up in the kitchen for several days where she was raped regularly.
One morning she was told that she was to get married that day. Seeing no way of escaping, she gave in. Meanwhile, her family had disowned her thinking it was her decision to take-off with the guy. Throughout their marriage, her husband would come home drunk every night, frequently with other women, and she was regularly subjected to all kinds of violence. Amidst all this, they had a daughter. One night, when the husband hit their three-month old daughter, she decided to run away. Her parents had by then, moved to the village.
Meanwhile, in order to get her back, the husband had filed false cases and trapped the family in a complex and vicious legal case. Their house was burnt down, and her parents were regularly harassed by the husband’s lackeys. They moved to another village eventually. She sought refuge with several people in the city and sent her daughter off to a missionary school in Faridpur, while she worked and took classes at the Open University. She eventually finished her degree, got married and managed to bring her daughter back to live with her.
I have never met them. I don’t know what they sound like.
She was out with her younger sister tending to her family’s cattle one afternoon. She was collecting herbs near a police camp where he saw her. He dragged her behind a bush, assaulted her right arm and leg, and raped her. He left her there. She managed to return home later, still bleeding.
She is an 11-year-old girl from an indigenous community in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. He was a police constable.
Her mother went to police camp to file a complaint. The duty officer offered her BDT 1000 (USD 12 approx.) instead. She contacted the local village head. A local student forum came to know of this and mobilized. Villagers had also gathered at the police camp and demanded arrest of the rapist. Owing to the pressure, the authorities declared that they had withdrawn the alleged rapist from the police camp and sent him to a police barrack. The people continued demanding arrest of the policeman, which is yet to be seen through.
It was around 2 p.m. She had gone to a hillock, where he was hiding behind a bush. He grabbed her from behind and raped her. She lay there unconscious while he fled. Her husband set out to look for her. He found her a few hours later with bruises all over her body.
The Dighinala police took her to the Khagrachhari Sadar Hospital for a medical examination of the alleged rape. She was released after a week of treatment. The investigation concluded that the medical examination report does not prove rape. That is not an unfamiliar conclusion for a non-bengali in the CHT, especially when sexual violence is often a weapon of the state. The family has reason to believe that the reports were manipulated.
The rapist roams free.
A few weeks earlier we had danced in the rain on the lawn in front of Dhaka University’s TSC building. A few months before that we had spoken of getting married. We would go to the Sundarbans for our honeymoon and in a few years find a way to move to Costa Rica.
I came home and took a long shower, but did not feel better. Then I dry-heaved for while. Aside from watery eyes and a few streams of bile, I wasn’t free of anything. I remembered I hadn’t eaten all day. I fixed myself a plate with bits of everything I could find in the fridge- rice, lentils, vegetables, fish, pickles, meat, jam, bread, yogurt, cucumbers. I came back to my room and ate in silence. Earlier that evening, he had forced himself on me after I suggested we split up. As I recounted what had happened, trying to decipher whether it had actually happened or not, I felt hungry. I fixed myself another plate. Then another. I ate several platefuls until I felt I needed to belch. I ended up purging.
That felt good.
I decided, he had not forced himself on me and even if he had he would not do it again. No one had loved me the way he had.
But he did it again. And again. Each time I found a reason. It’s the drugs. It’s the illness. It’s the love.
It’s not him.
I had gone for a walk while the rest of the crew was resting after lunch. One of the reasons I look forward to leaving Dhaka is the possibility of walks, of uncluttered spaces. I found myself on a fairly large piece of land. No construction, no palisades, it was lovely. Living in Dhaka instigated in me a craving, almost like a fetish for solitude. But that was usually impossible. Loneliness, yes. Solitude, not so much. I was about to sit down on the grass when I saw a woman, very obviously panicked, coming towards me. “Have you seen a girl? About 17/18 years old?” I hadn’t. Soon after one of her travel companions arrived. Probably a family member. They had come for an overnight stay at some bagaanbari nearby they said. They were about to leave when they realized their kaajer meye was nowhere to be found. She was apparently a bit of a flight-risk. They set off to look for her again.
About half an hour later as I was walking back, I saw a white mini-van and a group of people. Among the crowd I saw the woman. I walked over to ask if they had found the girl. She pointed at a man who had found her hiding in his cow-shed. Apparently he had found her a few hours back. He had even interacted with them before, but did not mention that to them. When they were contemplating involving the police, he told them he knows where she is and he would bring her to them in exchange for some money. They wanted him to bring her first.
I stood there waiting as he went to get her. I wondered why no one went with him. I was not speaking to them. I could palpably feel they were uncomfortable with my presence, but I didn’t care. I am shameless that way. I wanted to see how this unfolds, so I waited.
I saw scar tissue and scabs on her face and hands. I knew why she was a flight risk. When they arrived, I could feel my hands shaking. I just knew. I knew from the way her hair was ruffled, she trembled every now and then. I knew from the way she did not say a word and he did all the talking- inconsistent, but confident. I knew from the way she glanced at him a few times- completely terrified. I could tell the terror was not about having to go back to what she was trying to escape. At least, not only of that.
I also knew that everyone else knew. They nervously made nice with the man, gave him some money and prepared to take off. I whispered to the woman “ok mone hoy kichhu korse. Lokta jete diyen na.” She could not make eye contact with me. Her voice trembled as she quickly said “na na kichhu hoy nai kichhu hoy nai.” She quickly pushed the girl into the vehicle got in herself and they drove off.
I want to tell stories and I want to hear yours.
There is nothing I can say that has not been said already. What is there to analyze? What opinion can I impart? What can I tell you that you don’t know already? I could write poetry. I could intellectualize. I could show you my frustration, my angst. My proficiency with lexicon. But my face is a weak hook from history of carnal terrorism to hang from. My words are spent. Just like you, I know when a new incident comes to our attention, we will rant and chant. By all means we should. It’s not our occasional appearances I lament, it’s our consequent disappearances. It begins at home. That’s where the rallies need to begin too.
Justice, rights and all that good stuff. Rapists must be punished, yes. But why should there be rape to begin with?
Kweenbodonti is no longer confused. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.