One day in November, the staff of the Dindoshi sessions court complex in Mumbai cleared people out of the sixth-floor court room. Except for a couple of lawyers and two police men in plain clothes, everyone was asked to leave so that one of the main matters of the day, the recording of evidence in a rape case, could commence.

When a rape survivor gives evidence in court, proceedings have to be held “in-camera”: only those directly connected with the case may stay. Rape survivors are allowed anonymity under the criminal justice system to protect them from the stigma associated with sexual violence.

All this was as per standard procedure for a rape case. However, this case posed a unique challenge for everyone involved: the rape survivor was hearing- and speech-impaired, with no formal education in the Indian Sign Language, the standard signing form in the country.

On December 31, 2013, the woman was allegedly raped by a scrap dealer. A complaint was lodged at the MHB police station in Borivli and later transferred to the Crimes Against Women cell under the Mumbai police.

This was one of the first few cases to be handled by the special cell created in March 2013 to investigate sex crimes following the December 16, 2012 gang-rape in Delhi.

“It was my first case of this kind,” said Mathura Patil, the investigating officer who took over the case after it was transferred to the Crimes Against Women’s cell. “Without expert help we would not have understood the survivor.”

According to the prosecution, the woman was near the accused’s shop when he forcibly took her inside and raped her. He took advantage of her helplessness, the judge noted while refusing to grant him bail in 2015. Since then, he has remained behind bars, and the trial has been ongoing.

Task cut out

The November proceedings were one of five or six occasions when the survivor was brought to court to record her statement. She was testifying via an interpreter, Mehtab Zia Shaikh, a teacher with more than three decades of experience at the Bombay Institution for Deaf and Mutes. For Shaikh too, this was a first – she had never assisted in court in a rape case. And it was not going to be easy.

The woman was not educated and did not speak Indian Sign Language – the standard signing form – taught in the majority of schools for the hearing-impaired. She could neither read nor write and could barely sign her name.

That’s where Shaikh’s experience of over three decades with speech and hearing impaired children came in.

“I can communicate through both informal and formal sign languages,” said Shaikh, 57, when this reporter met her at her school, a more than 100-year-old institute nestled in a leafy corner of Byculla in Mumbai. “That is my strength. I can read facial expressions; 33 years of experience is no joke. I can look at children’s faces and recognise what they need.”

Shaikh learnt how to sign informally when she joined the school as a crafts teacher in 1985. There were no formal courses on Indian Sign Language at the time and she picked up ways to communicate with young people with disabilities on the job. She later did a formal teaching course through the Ali Yavar Jung National Institute of Speech and Hearing Disabilities in Bandra in 2003.

But working as an interpreter in a rape trial was no easy task and the special assignment called for a special effort.

Shaikh was first called upon as interpreter when the survivor recorded her statement before the magistrate’s court. She then went several times during the course of the trial, which began in 2014, creating a channel of communication with the survivor through a combination of fine-tuned instinct, improvised gesturing, repetition and by building a rapport.

“I had to go so many times because she did not know standard signing so what she was saying, I had to first properly understand,” said Shaikh. “Later I had to tell the police, lawyers and the judge to make them understand.”

Each statement from the survivor took longer than usual to record. For instance, when Shaikh wanted to ask her the colour of the clothes that the alleged rapist was wearing, she had to point and gauge using objects in their immediate surroundings. “If you asked one of my school students about signs for colour, they could tell you,” she said. “But this woman could not.”

For instance, Shaikh said, though the word “man” in the Indian Sign Language was signed by stroking an imaginary moustache over the upper lip, the survivor used a made-up sign and extended the stroke far longer. Still, it made sense.

Shaikh also demonstrated to this reporter the sign for punishment: by hooking her index and forefingers of her right hand and resting them in the open palm of her left hand. However, Shaikh said the survivor used her own instinctive gesture: lifting her right hand with her open palm as if to strike someone. Moments like these required thinking quickly and relying on experience, given there was no form book.

Mehtab Zia Shaikh illustrates the sign that the rape survivor used to describe the word
Mehtab Zia Shaikh illustrates the sign that the rape survivor used to describe the word "punishment".

Beyond language

This meant every act of interpretation required a painstaking effort, with Shaikh covering the same ground more than once to make sure she was understanding and interpreting correctly.

“I felt I shouldn’t make a mistake in my understanding or explaining,” she said. “Where there isn’t standard signing there will be a doubt. Am I explaining properly and understanding properly? That’s why it took time. I had to be sure. I had taken an oath, it was the question of someone’s life. That’s why I kept asking again and again: is this how it happened?”

When she was sure about what the woman was saying, she would articulate the sentences in Hindi to the court, to be put on record.

Interpreting in court was one thing, but building a rapport with the survivor was equally crucial. Shaikh knew she had to get to know the survivor and get her to open up to be as accurate as possible when interpreting. The process, no doubt, affected her.

But there were also times when no language – neither spoken nor signed – was required. When the accused was brought face to face with the survivor in court, she started crying. All Shaikh did was put an arm around her to calm her down.

The trial is now drawing to a close. The woman’s testimony is over, and with that, so is Shaikh’s role.

For Shaikh, that the woman came forward to register a complaint and pursue the case was in itself an act of valour. The survivor told Shaikh she hoped that the accused would be punished and prevented from harming others. And that though he might have assumed she would never be able to narrate what had happened to her, she would not be silenced. Shaikh is glad she could help tell that story. “I am proud that god has made me capable of doing this work,” she said.