The rape of Susan, a chubby tourist from Britain on New Year’s Eve, abruptly ended the tourist season for us. The incident set our lives on a path strewn with communal and legal dangers. It also provided SI Devan an opportunity to put us behind bars. Though there have always been stray incidents of someone groping a lonely foreign tourist, mostly when drunk or high on weed, there has been no major incident around our beach that has made its way to the front page of major newspapers until the rape of Susan, and before that the rape and murder of Lina near Kovalam Beach.
The case was picked up by some politicians and television reporters to promote their political agenda. It was discussed in the state legislative assembly, and the chief minister had promised to find the culprit as soon as possible.
Unlike Lina, a Scandinavian tourist, who was raped and killed in a remote, marshy area a few kilometres away from the beach, Susan was raped when the beach was packed with revellers waiting to ring in the New Year. The British High Commission has been making frequent phone calls to the chief minister’s office urging him to find the culprit.
You know, our chief minister is an old warhorse who has fought many battles within the party. He is a hero for many young comrades who still believe in the romance of the red flag and dream of revolution, but has left many old-timers disillusioned with his soft-pedalling attitude towards corporates, once a class-enemy of the party.
Party feuds are nothing new to him. In the north of our state, they kill each under the shade of political flags. As a young Communist leader, he has survived many wild swings of HRS machetes. He once walked into the well of the state legislative assembly waving his bloodstained shirt to show he had survived a murder attempt. But he was quick to learn that diplomatic face-off was an altogether different game. He has softened his approach towards businessmen as he would like to make our state investor-friendly. He is learning the tricks of power trade.
There are rumours of his nexus with the corporate world, and his political enemies point towards his children studying in foreign universities as a sign of his compromise. I can’t be certain if the rumours of his secret alliances with the business world were true but I think more than the official pressure what makes the chief minister nervous these days is the mysterious death of a foreign tourist in the capital city, followed by the rape of Susan at the Cliff.
A few months before Susan’s rape, the Scandinavian tourist, Lina, was missing for two weeks before her bloated body was found in a mangrove swamp near Kovalam Beach. Lina had come to spend some days at a beachfront Ayurveda centre as part of a course of treatment she was taking for depression. One day she walked out of the centre. For two weeks, the police searched the entire stretch of the beach but found nothing until two boys wading through the swamp stumbled upon her decomposed body.
The post-mortem report said she had been raped before being killed. The news of a foreign tourist’s death, alleged murder, travelled widely and the story was reported by international news agencies. The Scandinavian media picked it up, and played it up, despite our government’s efforts to brush it under the carpet as a stray incident.
Since our state survives on the tax money from selling booze, tourism, and on the millions of rupees sent from overseas, the chief minister was feeling the heat. If international tourists stop coming, we could go hungry. Salaries would be delayed. Incentives would be cut. The public works department would come to a standstill, with no money to pay the contractors. The tourists have to come and sun themselves on our beaches, like salted fish laid out to dry, swaying in hammocks in coconut orchards, enjoying the backwater breeze, and splurging on karimeen pollichathu and Ayurveda massages. We need them to keep our economy running.
The chief minister called senior ministers, bureaucrats, and police heads for a special meeting. The minister of tourism lost no time coming out with a statement saying that the state is as safe as our homes and warned the media against sensationalising an isolated incident. “This kind of irresponsible reporting will affect the tourism sector badly,” he told the reporters, looking glum and tugging at his freshly trimmed and dyed-black beard.
I don’t know why whenever there is news of tourists being raped or molested or killed, the police constables on duty on the beach would look at us with suspicion. SI Devan would drive by, poke out his ugly face, and yell: “Beware, bastards!” before driving away.
Lina’s rape and death has given Susan’s rape more public and political attention than a similar case would have received otherwise, and it has set our lives on a perilous journey.
SI Devan receives frequent calls from his superior officers, demanding updates on the rape case. When he feels the heat, he gets into his jeep and drives out of the station, heading straight to the Cliff, looking for us, to assure himself that we are still around, within his reach. Where will we run off to? Our feet are rooted in the sands on the beach, and our hearts are anchored to the waters of the sea. We were born here, and we will die here.
If the HRS sakha believes we are the “enemy within”, they are seriously wrong. We are as much part of the beach as the grains of its sand. Some evenings, we lie on the beach, watching the Cliff and the rows of restaurants and shops. At that moment, I wish I could hug the sky, embrace the air, and touch the soil. I love the way the waves tickle my feet and creep up my legs. This is my land, this is my country. No one can come between us. Neither saffron nor green can come in our way.
But, they try to.
One evening as I was sitting behind Father in our drawing room with my two warring sisters-in-law and grumpy mother in their usual places, watching television, the news of the rape of Susan came on. As the news anchor was reading, visuals of our beach, the Cliff, and foreign tourists and locals moving around were shown.
“There,” Rasheeda said aloud, “there, Moosa!” Everyone sat at the edge of their chairs and watched keenly. It was me and Florence, an Italian girl, strolling down the beach. Anyone who knew me would have recognised me. A long shot was cut to two brief close ones. I had no idea we were being shot from the Cliff. Florence was asking me where she could get some weed.
Immediately after my less-than-a-minute fame, Mother began a volley of expletives ranting about my wayward life with foreign tourists. “I can’t keep my head straight in front of my relatives,” she said, and rose to her feet. Father switched off the television, aware that once Mother gets started, there was no scope for anyone to do anything. You just sit up and listen.
“It’s because of you...my youngest son! Now people all over the world have seen how he lives.” When I was in prison for stabbing the Goan, Mother had told her relatives that I was in Mumbai doing a course in X-ray welding. Fortunately, those who had read the single-column story on the scuffle in the local newspaper were kind enough not to tell her that they know the reason why I was away.
As Mother began to pace up and down the drawing room, Father quietly went to the veranda and disappeared into the darkness outside. Rubina was smiling smugly. I could feel the vibes of pleasure swelling in her bitchy heart. I wanted to kick her. Rasheeda was, obviously, concerned. Mother went on and on for another fifteen minutes and concluded her rant with a severe lambasting of Father.
Though there was no concrete lead in the rape case, the season ended with an open question – who among the four of us had raped Susan?
Many police fingers pointed at Usman, but he denied raping Susan though he fantasises about making love to chubby foreign tourists. Rape is not making love, Usman would argue. His sentences are simple like the googlies he bowls – tossed up, loopy, and tempting.
SI Devan had kept Usman for a few hours at the police station but released him due to lack of evidence. He warned Usman that his investigation would, always, hover around us. So, even though the tourists have left and the rains have arrived, our lives continue to be turned upside-down by the after-effects of the rape. SI Devan is convinced it was Usman who dragged the girl to a shed and raped her. He also believes the rest of us are in the know but are protecting him.
One day, SI Devan drove by the wall on which we were sitting. He yelled out from his jeep: “I’m watching, you pricks! You can’t escape a smart officer like me!”
We understand the seriousness of the case, and strongly support the law-and-order system to protect tourists, no matter how stupidly some of them dress. We know it’s important to keep our state out of warning lists in tourist guides. But who is going to stand up for us against the stupidity of a police officer like SI Devan?
I want to spit at him, but I know that if I do, we would be in deep trouble. The elders of our village are right when they say that even a venomless rat snake can spoil your dinner! SI Devan is a rat snake, a dickhead, and the problem is, he is a dickhead in police uniform who can register a case against us, ensuring our lives would not be the same again.
Excerpted with permission from The Cliffhangers: A Novel, Sabin Iqbal, The Aleph Book Company.