Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The India I grew up in has gone. These rapes show a damaged, divided nation.

(Published in The Guardian, 17th April 2018)


A chilling leitmotif of Nordic crime fiction is a child leaving home to play, never to return. Detectives search out trails pointing to sexual violence and murder, and by degrees it becomes clear that the crime is not isolated: it is the symptom of a damaged community. The abduction, gang-rape, and murder in India of eight-year-old Asifa Bano reveals such damage on a terrifying scale. It shows that the slow sectarian poison released into the country’s bloodstream by its Hindu nationalists has reached full toxicity.

Where government statistics say four rapes are reported across the country every hour, sexual assault is no longer news. Indian minds have been rearranged by the constant violence of their surroundings. Crimes against women, children and minority communities are normalised enough for only the most sensational to be reported. The reasons Asifa’s ordeal has shaken a nation exhausted by brutality are four. The victim was a little girl. She was picked because she was Muslim. The murder was not the act of isolated deviants but allegedly of well-organised Hindu zealots. And the men who are accused of raping her included a retired government official and two serving police officers.

When the police in Jammu (the Hindu-dominated part of Kashmir) tried to register a charge against the men they had arrested, a Hindu nationalist mob threatened the few honest policemen and lawyers who were trying to do their jobs. The was a mob with a difference: it included government ministers, lawyers and women waving the national flag in favour of the arrested men, as well as supporters of the two major Indian parties, Congress and the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) – the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is in Britain this week to attend the Commonwealth heads of government meeting.

Nationalism can be benign as well as malignant: Tagore foresaw the malignant variant a century ago. “Alien government in India is a chameleon,” he wrote. “Today it comes in the guise of an Englishman … the next day, without abating a jot of its virulence, it may take the shape of our own countrymen.” Given the right political conditions, virulent nationalism creeps into every bone, every thought process. When it leads to the calculated mutilation of a child, ethnic cleansing does not appear too far distant. If the world has understood fascism better through Anne Frank, its understanding of contemporary India will remain incomplete unless it recognises the political venom that killed Asifa.

Asifa belonged to a nomadic Muslim tribe that herds its cattle 300 miles twice a year in search of pasture. In January, when the snow lies deep in their alpine meadows, these shepherds walk down to Jammu. Here they graze their animals in the little land still available to them. Asifa went one evening to bring back grazing horses, and never returned.

Recently filed police investigations conclude that a group of men imprisoned her for a week, drugged her, starved her, and took turns to rape her in a Hindu shrine. It was well organised. The hiding place was agreed, and sedatives kept at hand. The motive was to strike terror among the Muslim nomads and drive them from Rasana, a largely Hindu village. Tribal Muslims make up a negligible percentage of the local population, perhaps 8%. Even so, the Hindus there fear “demographic change”, and have been fighting to drive them out.

Absolute darkness begins imperceptibly, as gathering dusk. Reading of 1930s Vienna in Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist some months ago, I began to feel an uneasy sense of familiarity. At first, only a few minor problems befall Seethaler’s Jewish tobacconist. His antisemitic neighbour, a butcher, contrives through a series of petty offences to make life difficult. After each act of vandalism, the tobacconist replaces broken glass, swabs away entrails, opens his shop again. The vandalism is a feeble precursor of what is to come. Anschluss is a few months away and it requires little conjecture to know how the novel and its tobacconist end. 

Even as the details of Asifa’s death emerged, another crime came to light, this time from Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, also ruled by the BJP. The father of a teenage girl wanted merely to lodge a report with the police that his daughter had been raped over several days by a legislator and his brother. The father was arrested and died soon after in custody.

The thread that binds these crimes is the sense of invincibility that a majoritarian regime has granted its personnel and supporters. Manifestations of the newfound swagger include vandalising sprees after electoral victories, and the lynching of Muslims and Dalits (the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy). The general idea is to create a sense of terror and uncertainty, and in this the tacit support of the state pumps up the mobs – and they rampage with greater confidence. In swathes of rural north India, violating women to signal caste, religious and masculine supremacy is only an extension of such activity. The primeval divisions within Indian society have never been sharper. The BJP’s ruthless drive to consolidate patriarchal Hinduism has pressurised women about what they can wear, families about what they can eat, and young people about who they may marry. Parties in the opposition, envying the electoral success of the BJP, tend to speak out against this culture of sectarian hatred after first sniffing which way the wind is blowing, then gauging how strongly it is blowing.

In the India where I grew up, memories of Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru were strong; the necessity of secularism was drummed into us. We knew that our politicians were largely venal, but it was still a country in which morality and humanity mattered. Now, journalists and writers who speak up against the undeclared war on Dalits, Muslims, poor people and women are trolled by cyber-mobs. – if they’re lucky. The most publicised murder last year was of a dissenting journalist shot dead outside her home in Bengaluru, in south India.

Modi, renowned as a demagogue, is coming to be even better known for what he chooses to stay silent about. Sympathy for the suffering individual, many have noticed, is not among his most distinctive traits. When the student Jyoti Singh “Nirbhaya” was raped and killed in Delhi in 2012, it took several days of massive public outrage to stir Sonia Gandhi and her ruling Congress party, from their mansions. In the aftermath of Asifa, the current prime minister, perhaps quicker off the blocks, took a mere three days after the details of the eight-year-old’s killing were released to understand how much he stands to lose by saying nothing when the whole world is watching. The times are such that even so little so late from Modi has been seen as an acknowledgement, however reluctant, that India’s constitution requires him to ensure justice and equality for all its many communities.




No More Calmly Sailing By


Published in The Wire, 13th April 2018


Who among us today, if we were born Hindu, does not have at least one relative or acquaintance who hates Muslims? Who among us does not have friends – men and women thought to be moral and humane – that have closed their eyes to the brutal amorality of the ruling regime, seeing it instead as the political road to India’s salvation? Will they be able to carry on unchanged even now, after the people they voted in have sprung to the defence of the rapists and murderers of an eight-year-old? Will they fail even now to see that a girl of that age is neither Hindu nor Muslim but only a child?


The barbarism of victorious armies was meant to have been over and done with, and the founding of the League of Nations after the First World War came with the liberal belief – shattered by the Nazis – that civilised life was more or less inevitable. In the India where I grew up, the exploitative British regime was over, it was post-Nehru, a country peopled with liberal myths and socialist dreams. There were riots, the country did simmer and boil off and on, but in the end, it was agreed, the state and the judiciary would follow the Western institutions on which they were modelled. Until the early 1990s, when the Congress Party grew unbelievably corrupt and turned a blind eye to the Babri destruction, medieval brutality was, I thought, over: political enemies would no longer be poisoned, women and children would no longer be savaged as a matter of course to signal the conquest of a victorious army.

After their giant electoral victories, the new, democratically elected armies of the Hindu Right have proven the opposite.

I was about to catch a flight when the details on Asifa were published and as I tried functioning with the normalcy and efficiency airports demand, it became a steady drum beat inside me: when you were taking a train down from the hills, a voice inside me said, they shoved two pills down her throat to drug her; while you were making yourself toast, they shoved themselves into her: grown men took turns forcing themselves into a child; while you were walking into the airport, they bashed her head in with a stone; they raped her in a temple; they hid her under a bed; they strangled her with her own clothes.

After that, one of them joined the search for the missing girl. Because he was a policemen. Kashmir’s lawmakers then marched to save the policemen from being charged with rape. Women too marched to defend the rapists: because they are Hindu and the child who was gangraped and killed was the daughter of a Muslim goatherd. It is impossible, when this level of mental sickness and brutality have coalesced, to do anything more than fall into the silence of absolute despair. Until, that is, an overwhelming rage sweeps away the despair.

Around me, at the airport, a woman argued over why they had given her chicken noodles when she’d asked for veg noodles. A group of little girls were planning a movie outing on their first day of travel. I drank my lassi wondering why I had that strangely disjointed, disembodied feeling you have when someone close dies, as if there is a fuzzy glass between you and normal life. But nobody close to me had died. This was a child I had never known, a little girl who went out to bring back her family’s animals and then was drugged, imprisoned, raped, and tortured for a week before her head was battered with a stone.

A long-ago poem by Auden came back to me, sounding curiously anaemic now. “Everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster . . . and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/ Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky/ Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” That poem is about obliviousness, not indifference. The dogs who “go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse [who] scratches its innocent behind on a tree” have no idea there is someone being tortured, a boy falling to his death.

But what of those who do know?

I remember the preternatural hush that hung over Delhi after the Nirbhaya rape and am old enough to remember the countrywide horror over the Sikh pogrom following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. There is no horror any longer. These things happen, they happen somewhere else, they happen to someone else. At the airport there was no inkling of a national crisis. If you are affluent enough to fly, if you are not Dalit or Muslim, you are forever in a bulletproof, air-conditioned cocoon. But what is it like not to have the cocoon?  

I went to a Muslim school in Hyderabad where most of my childhood friends were Muslim. At that age, I had nearly no awareness of my minority Hinduness, nor had my playmates much inkling of their Muslimness. I have a sense of where these friends are now: they are silent somewhere. They are feeling cornered somewhere, besieged by the sense of hunting dogs coming after them. This is not the country we grew up in together, the necessity of secularism drummed into us. The venality and cynicism of politicians was ordinary, normal, an unworrying aspect of how politics was done in our part of the world. It was still a country in which parents were more likely to teach you about morality and manners, not sheer human survival.

What can you do as an ordinary citizen trying to survive in a country run by criminal gangs? Mafias on a scale so large that they seem to exist beyond anyone’s reach. Mafias so clever at manipulating belief that millions believe their every lie? What can you do when you see your protectors turn into killers? And what can you possibly do as a solitary writer?

Everyone in wartime is not a soldier, nor can everyone in times such as these be a lawyer or activist. Masons, plumbers, teachers, doctors are still needed; there are still houses to be built, children to be taught, leaking taps to be fixed. For a long time I told myself my usefulness lay in doing my own work. Is this true or is it merely a way of legitimising my desire to somehow carry on living only as I know how to? I don’t have the answer.

Other writers say much the same: that the work of the writer is to write books that make people think, which alter their world even if for the few days they are reading that book. Writers are not investigative journalists, and for a writer of novels it is especially difficult to respond to events that are current, volatile. “It’s dangerous for novelists to point a plot at a moving target,” says Lionel Shriver. It is also true now that novelists are more usually valued when they write novels that are overtly political. They have always to bear the burden of being literary activists – how else, in this kind of country, can a writer remain relevant? Is it possible to construct perfect paragraphs while your house is burning?

In my small hill-town I teach spoken English to a girl of nine. She is a goatherd. She goes to a government school which teaches her quite little. She dreams of being an actress. After school, in the evening she sets off to bring back her family’s grazing cattle, waving a switch, walking into the deep forest with nothing but two dogs for protection. I walk with her for a part of the way and we talk, she in halting English, I correcting her pronunciation and tenses. Then I turn back and she carries on alone. Our town is safe, we say, she has only wildlife to fear.








Turning Seasons


(The Telegraph, Wednesday April 25th 2018)

On the morning of 24th January we woke to white: it must have snowed steadily through the night for the trees to be so laden and for our surroundings to acquire such a hushed stillness. From our windows we could see that every range between us and the Trishul and Nanda Devi had changed colour. It was the first snow of the season, and the first sign of any moisture in months.

Two days later, walking in the forest, I came upon a rhododendron scarlet with flowers. At the foot of the tree was a hollow with snow still ankle-deep, as were many sheltered parts of the forest that saw little sun through the day. To find rhododendron in flower in deep winter is as strange in these hills as sighting a peacock. Soon, reports began to appear about the early flowering of the Rhododendron arboretum all over the western Himalaya. It appeared that my tree-in-a-hurry was not the only one to bloom ahead of time, rising temperatures meant that trees were flowering prematurely in many places.


The first blossoming of the buransh, as rhododendron is called in the Kumaon, is followed by one of the more picturesque festivals of the hills, Phooldeyi. Children appear in the morning bearing steel plates with peach, plum, and buransh blossoms that they scatter on doorsteps, in the hope of a little pocket money. It is a festival that marks spring by saying, “Winter’s over”.

In rural areas the flutterings of climate change are swiftly apparent. Someone points out it has been a year since we saw the raven, which used to be a common sight. The pushy grey pigeon of the plains has been making determined moves to oust our whistling thrushes from their nooks and the thrushes are too elegant, too understated, too musical to win crude power games. From our windows, through December, we could see that as days passed without winter rain, the sides of the high peaks darkened: what we were looking at was not ice but black rock. There was a scattering of white only at the very tops of the peaks.

For most people in the plains, the hills come alive in summer. Many who live here – those who are not hoteliers or taxi-drivers – dread its arrival. Winter is a time of icy cold and utter calm, of walks through empty forests, trees laden with oranges -- and water in our taps. The bliss ends in summer, when pleasure-seekers thunder uphill in their four-wheel drives to hotels that will suck all the water out from the town systems to feed their flushes and showers.

Summer is for water wars. Not only is there less water to go around, it is an open secret that the hotels make offers to waterworks employees that they cannot refuse – and soon after, our supply dries up. Days can pass without water and every conversation begins with the words “Paani aya?” Around communal taps you can see a queue of assorted water-gathering vessels from plastic jerrycans to buckets and pitchers that are stand-ins for their human owners. The bucket queue, though inert, pulses with potential for wrecking the peace. Buckets that have somehow acquired life and gone up or down the queue illegally can ignite blood-feuds.

In Capetown, as they approach Day Zero when municipal water supplies cease and people are limited to 25 litres of water a day, the South African cabinet is drawing up plans to deploy police at the water collection points. This dystopian scenario does not seem too far-fetched in Indian hill stations. Squabbles and intrigues over water conjure up more conspiracy theories than bank frauds.

The spindly, alcoholic waterworks clerk charged with turning taps on and off becomes the most sought after man in town. Once, having searched for him fruitlessly for more than a week, I spotted his familiar bald head just below the dip in a slope and rushed towards him with a grovelling “Namaste” only to find that I had interrupted him at a critical point in his al fresco ablutions. We did not have water in our taps for several days after that.

Other than news of water, the bush network remains alive through the summer for news of fires. After a winter as dry as this one has been, the hills crackle like heaps of kindling waiting for one carelessly tossed match or cigarette -- or for arsonists involved in timber smuggling, as some allege.

Bush fires in California and Australia are fought aerially, with water and fire retardant sprayed from helicopters. Here the fires have to be beaten out and fire-lines created to prevent their spread. There are evenings when we stay up hypnotized by the slow approach of necklaces of flames that creep closer and closer. The air is dense with the smell of smoke. For the firefighters raking firelines across the slopes it is even harder to breathe than it is for us. Most terrifying of all is to see ridges covered with chir pine burst into flame. And down in the burning valleys around us, there are wild animals with no escape routes.

Ironically, one of the prized features of hill holidays for well-off metropolitan tourists is the “bonfire dinner”. Most hotels offer it as the cherry on the package tour cake, so that at the height of summer when the snow peaks -- or whatever remains of them – are hidden in a dust haze, people gather around blazing bonfires and sing and drink their stress away. Owls hoot and foxes call unheard as the antakshari competitions hit their high notes. It is unusual to find tourists in the hills who come here to walk or climb or birdwatch. Instead, we are often stopped by cars that pull up next to us, after which a window slides down and someone demands: “Yahaan Place-to-See Kya hai?”

Since Ranikhet is resolutely lacking in “Place-to-Sees”, the administration cleared away a substantial stretch of mixed oak and kaphal forest some years ago and created an artificial lake complete with duck-prowed boats and a nylon rope-bridge for “adventure tourism”. If Nainital and Bhimtal have famous lakes, could Ranikhet afford to be left behind – even if there were no water in the taps? This pond of brown, largely stagnant water is now featured in tourist brochures as “Rani Jheel”. Park benches circle it and signs lead the way to it, including one on a road above the lake that points to the “First View of Rani Jheel”.

And so the buses and 4X4s come and go, leaving trails of Lays and Bingo. I recently read about a Swedish way of exercising called Plogging, which simply involves picking up the trash while jogging. We have been doing this for years. Once a week every summer, when we walk, we leave home with large bin bags and carry on for as long as our energies last and our bags have space, picking up trash dumped by picnickers. I now have an intimate sense of the consumption patterns of metropolitan Indians. They love eating, specially junk that comes in foil packets; they love drinking alcohol, especially super-strong beer and Old Monk rum. They consume quantities of gutka. And they drink bottled water.