A Letter to My Ghost Mother

Dear Mother,

I am writing this to you with a heavy heart. I am filled with anger and forgive me for saying this, but I don’t know if I love you any more. In fact, in this moment, I feel hatred for you. But I also wonder if this white hot rage in my bones comes from a place of love? I cannot say. Not yet.

I was perhaps six when I first defended you to other six-year-olds. There used be a kid called Sajad in my kindergarten glass. And one time, we were playing Chor-Pulis (Cops and Robbers) when he said it would be more fun if we played Hindustani-Pakistani as opposed to plain old Chor-Pulis. I told him that was a bad idea. I was a Hindustani. I couldn’t possibly play a Pakistani in the game. He offered to do it. But I had the same argument for him. He was a Hindustani too. How could he play a Pakistani either? But he retorted back with that smart mouth of his and said, ‘I’m not a thief either but I am always asked be the chor.”

I was too young to understand back then the intricacies of our internalized, communalized identity. Ultimately, we ended up playing Pakdam-Pakdai (Tag) and the discussion of what it means to be a Chor was forgotten. Later, during the lunch break, he told me the boys from section B called him Pakistani all the time because he once revealed to them he was Muslim. Again, Sajad did not know why that was a big deal. But from then on, they stopped sharing his tiffin, stopped offering him theirs, and yes, stopped him from ever being Pulis. Not to mention that now that they had a Muslim in the group, they could easily ask him to be a Pakistani instead of a Chor— all for the sake of fun. A moment later, he offered me a bite of his soggy, clumpy Maggi noodles. I wanted to say no because I hated cold, congealed noodles. However, I didn’t have the heart to refuse. I took a bite because I didn’t want to be like the boys from section B. And Sajad’s ketchup-smeared toothy grin was well worth it.

I was really mad at those other boys though. How could they ask Sajad to be a Pakistani? Didn’t they know Pakistanis are not nice. I had seen how they wanted to kill us all in Border.

It did not occur to my young mind that movies are not exactly real, that maybe somewhere in Islamabad, some kids were discussing how all Hindustanis were really bad and wanted to kill them too. I also didn’t question why the section B kids would lump Chor and Pakistani together as the quintessential villains in games of pretend. It also did not cross my mind that this would come to haunt me later, year after year… because somehow, the boys from section B had already painted Sajad as someone other than themselves, someone incapable of playing the ‘good guy,’ more importantly, someone who couldn’t be allowed to play the ‘good guy’ because that was a role reserved only for them. And by that logic, Sajad had to be bad… always bad.

And good people do bad things to bad people.

I do not know where Sajad is now. I can only hope that he is okay. Because, dear mother, you don’t protect the likes of him– just like you refused to protect Safiya*, just like your own people raped and murdered her in your name, just like they are shouting your name in the streets to prevent her rapists and murderers from facing justice.

I would be the last person normally to politicize and communalize an atrocity such as this. When I first saw Safiya’s big, bright eyes staring at me from the screen, something yelped inside me. I am old enough now to be the mother of a young daughter and it hurt to think that Safiya’s mother is feeling the sort of pain no mother should ever have to go through.

I was talking to my sister last night on the phone and with a wobble in her voice, she asked me if I remember our family’s connection to Kathua. I did. Our late grandfather was born there and this is how he stated it always, “I was born in Bani, District Kathua, Jammu.” He was proud of where he was from. Those valleys and forests were forever etched in his memory even as he was forced to breathe in the smoggy, polluted air of Delhi in his final years.

My grandfather bled for you. He lied for you, spied for you, made countless enemies, put his children in mortal peril, allowed his own house to go up in flames– all because he was committed to serving you. But today, he would have been aghast at you. Oh, he might still have defended you by saying that those rapists and their protectors, those lawyers and politicians are not really representative of you.

But he would have known the truth inside his heart. Just like I do. You cannot deny that Safiya and he share a connection through the land they were born in and which tied them to itself forever. You have failed them both. The tricolor that my grandfather held in such high esteem is being used as a shield to protect the criminals who violated her and threw her body in the forest like nothing more than trash.

“We searched for Safiya* everywhere but we did not look in temple as we know it is a very sacred place.” — Safiya’s father

But you know she was not trash. She was a child with hopes and dreams and aspirations. She loved playing in the meadow. She loved her goats and her ponies. She loved the smell of the forest. She was the darling of her family. And while they searched and searched and searched for her, you were hearing her screams and cries of terror quite clearly. your were watching the barbarity that was being committed upon her small body. You were, perhaps unknowingly, waiting for her unending tears to dry up of sheer exhaustion and shock.

Do you know what they did to her, my dear mother? They kidnapped her on the pretext of helping her look for her lost pony, took her to a temple, drugged her, beat her, gang-raped her multiple times to the point that her young ribs were crushed, her tender uterus was twisted, and her skin was mottled with bruises and burns. They strangled her twice in the space of three days and finally bashed her head with a rock.

And do you know who they were? A retired revenue officer called Sanji Ram who was also the custodian of the Devisthan temple where Safiya was held. Sanji Ram’s 19-year-old cousin whose name we don’t know because he claims to be ‘underage.’ His son Vishal Jangotra who was invited to come all the way from Meerut to “satisfy” his lust. Deepak Khajuria, a Special Police Officer who asked to rape her one last time before she was killed. And Parwesh Kumar, a friend of these criminals who was invited to join them in their debauchery.

Say their names, mother. Say them. They did this because they wanted to frighten the Bakerwal community into leaving the area. But let’s face it, they are now taking cover under your name because they knew you agreed with them somewhere deep down. And why wouldn’t you? In the past, you have allowed similar things to happen to Delta Meghwal, Tapasi Malik, and scores of Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi, and Muslim daughters who you don’t really see as your own. Your hands are so bloody. And you cannot wash these stains away from your tricolor either. They are ingrained in the very fibers of your homespun khadi.

They say we come from you and we return to you.You give us a place to sleep in your arms eternally once we are done living.

Well, you should know that little Safiya was buried 10 kilometers away from where her family wanted to bury her. Turns out, even this cold kindness of yours is conditional and subject to the whims of these people who call themselves your sons.

Mother, you have become wretched. You are sick. You need healing. But before that, you need an amputation.

Are you willing to cut off these cancerous parts of yourself to save your life?

Note: Using the name of a rape victim is prohibited by law. At this point, we all know who Safiya is but out of respect for her and for the law that seeks to protect victims of sexual violence, her name has been changed here. Her family has been forced to flee to Samba. Her lawyer is being threatened by the Bar Council of Jammu. Donate here to help Safiya’s family in meeting the legal costs of fighting her case.

Note: Cover Image by Orijit Sen

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