In the recently concluded India Journalism week organised by The University of Chicago Center in Delhi, the Chicago anthropologist William Mazarella threw a curveball of a question to a panel on literary journalism. Should one be allowed to see form and beauty in books that are weighed down by the ethical and political urgency of their subject? By the traumatic nature of their content? Would that be seen as a responsible act, or one of impossible aesthetic decadence?
It was all Arunava Sinha’s fault. Sitting on the panel and following an issue raised by speakers Nilanjana Roy and Supriya Nair, he lamented that nonfiction books were often reviewed purely for their content, without any attention to style, composition, or the aesthetic or affective structures that make them a book. As a co-panellist, I’d responded to Sinha by saying that this went right to the heart of the question of authority.
Who had the authority – perhaps even the right – to review a particular book? The question gathers urgency with nonfiction but remains relevant to any book. Should it be an expert on the “subject” of the book? Somebody whose identity – personal, political or anything in between – makes them part of the subject, or closely involved in it? Does that “expertise” set the tone of the reception of the book? Why would someone worry about matters of style or structure once the fundamental importance of the subject takes centerstage?
Does it even matter that it is a book? Or is it just a conveyer of content?
Mazarella had directed his question at this set of issues. He’d brought in the question of the “high-stake” book, the book with ethical or political content so devastatingly urgent that it was almost irresponsible to remember that it is a book – that in fact, it was anything but a conveyer of a pressing narrative about a pressing subject. I was tempted to respond that the mark of success in discussion/launch events of such books is how quickly you forget about the book and dive headlong into the “subject” for which the book merely provides a context; in classrooms, I know, such books simply become the pedagogical vehicle for exploring issues, usually urgent to our lives, be it the environment, the economy, or education.
That’s not what I said, however. Instead, I mentioned a recently released book that I’d picked up at the launch event. I finished it by 3 am that very night after returning home. Yes, it was a fast read – it was essentially long-form journalism contained in a book. And yes, the stakes were high.
It is No Nation for Women: Reportage on Rape from India, the World’s Largest Democracy.
Every chapter of this book by the journalist Priyanka Dubey is an account of a rape, spread out across different parts of the non-nation, India. It ranges from the “Corrective rapes of Bundelkhand” – corrective to the gall of women who “dare” to resist the lust of men – to the ceaseless abuse of tribal and low-caste women by upper-caste men in the heartland of this non-existent nation state.
It goes from the story of the Badaun children, Kavita and Ragini, raped, mutilated, and murdered, “hanging from the mango tree – slowly swinging in the burning afternoon winds of a North Indian summer” – all the way to the 17-year-old girl from West Bengal whose “body was found half-naked, lying by the flowing water of the canal...slit from different points” with “deep blade marks slashed all over, as if ‘someone had peeled her skin off like we peel onions at home’” in the words of the dead girl’s mother.
It ranges from “Rape and Sexism inside the Indian Police Force”, of accounts of misogyny and violence directed at female cops – to rapes that happen in custody, right inside the precincts of police stations; from rape as a statement of caste supremacy to the sale and trafficking of tribal girls for the pleasure of older men. The violence of the book is not merely in the act of rape itself, but the social violence that empowers the act and establishes the network of support, indeed, of legitimation around it.
Every act of rape in this book is an act of gang rape, even when the physical perpetrator is one man.
Suddenly, reading this book in the dead of night, you face a passage as this one:
“NASA’s official website describes a ‘black hole’ as ‘a place in space where gravity pull is so much that even light cannot get out…This can happen when a star is dying. Because no light can get out, people can’t see black holes.’
I feel that the situation of women in India is like these black holes in space: dying stars. No one can see these black holes because no light is allowed to pass through us.”
Does this sound exaggerated? Dubey asks. Then imagine yourself as the mother of the 14-year old girl who has been brutally assaulted and killed right inside the precincts of a police station. “You run around the village looking for your missing child and when you find her, her body is hanging from a tree standing in the police station compound.”
That’s when, Dubey writes, you feel the blind well closing on you. You feel you are going to die. But then you hold the body of your child and try to escape the blind well. Little do you know that there is another blind well waiting for you.
As you run in circles longing for justice, people around you reveal their fangs. They complain you’re being too loud, that you’re asking “too much,” going out too much and meeting “too many men” on the pretext of seeking justice for your daughter. Your own husband, the father of your mutilated and murdered child, start to cast shadows on your character and then the neighbours join in a noisy chorus.
“You again feel that you are going round and round and round and round and round in another blind well. There is just no escape.
No light is passing through us. So nobody can see all this happening to us.
That is why, we are all black holes. Facing one blind well waiting for another.
Dying stars. What is true of the heart-breaking pointedness of the metaphor is true of the entire book. No Nation for Women flows with haunting lyricism, one born of pain, suffering and violation it is hard to believe one human being can inflict on another. That this incredulity is also the sad predicament of the urban, educated, Anglophone reader arrives as a biting reality check from frontiers far beyond her world, where such violations happens with regularity before they become black holes of denial and oblivion. The light that this book shines on them is both beautiful and unbearable.