Let’s talk about sexual violence
For every person who is heartened by how the public conversation about gender violence has changed following the December 2012 rape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi, there is an Indian who opens his or her morning newspaper and groans inwardly about the fact that it’s the middle of 2015 and rape is still a topic.
Perhaps we would be less voluble about it if not for the prurient global interest in savage Indian men and helpless women. Perhaps feminists and their lawyers are just looking for attention, so scarcely paid to women’s issues—real or imagined—otherwise. Perhaps it is journalists looking to create a sensation. Perhaps it is even anti-national interests conspiring to give our government a bad name.
At the bottom of these suppositions lies the often buried notion that victims of sexual violence are asking for it. This idea created commotion when one of the rapists convicted of the 2012 crime articulated it on camera in a documentary released earlier this year and banned here, but it is, frankly, a view so widely held that we may safely call it universal.
It lies buried below instinct; it comes after the layer of instinctual sympathy; past the flash of pity and recoil from the idea of violence, and through the elegant leaps of reason that put distance between a victim and a non-victim, all of which start with the conjunction “but”. But I was not drunk in a taxi. But I don’t wear jeans to attract the attention of men. But I am not poor and uneducated. But I am not transgender.
This good person, who likely felt real sorrow and anger for at least some of the victims whose stories come to light, but is ready to move on nonetheless, will find the premise of the latest issue of Out Of Print, dedicated to sexual violence, unattractive. In fact, the whole project—two young feminist writer-editors, Meena Kandasamy and Samhita Arni, a small operation that puts a volume of short stories online every three months for free—may seem unexciting to the everyday sceptic.
A book about gender and sexual violence is, indeed, a book about something we get plenty of in the press. To marshal a literary project around these subjects may seem simply like one more stroke in a collective act of flagellation for all the things that happen to, and by, and around us. Perhaps it is.
More to the point, I think, is what it shows us about our hive mind, and the ways in which we are constantly thinking of and fearing sexual violence. Usually, these are buried deep, in fairy tales about big bad wolves and horror movies about predators; even in item songs in which women sing—and dance—about being surrounded by predators and wolves. The distorting effect of a rape culture sometimes confuses them with sexual desire, which is why we end up with films in which “no” means “yes”, and men are admired for being able to communicate better with their fists than with words.
Out Of Print shows us what happens when writers cut through some of these devices and distortions, and write about gender violence—at least, of the sort directed largely at women and transgender people—without obliqueness. Some of the monsters wear very familiar faces.
Both Nishita Jha and Vrinda Baliga, for example, recreate intimate upper-class surroundings—the home, the apartment complex, the workplace and the school—in which predators are slowly and horrifyingly revealed. Zui Kumar-Reddy, Gayatri Jayaraman and Kuzhali Manickavel all do work that exposes the nerve scraped raw by misogyny. Farah Ghuznavi and Parvati Sharma’s stories are both short, pointed episodes in the lives of families trying to sweep secrets under the carpet—here Sharma’s piece, an excerpt of a longer novel, shines particularly for its quiet implosion: like a mystery in which any character could be the villain, and it turns out that all of them are.
These stories differ from each other in style and voice, but all of them deal in realism—each writer rebuilds and replays the conditions of sexual violence, filling in the sort of detail and tension, as well as the appeal to conscience, that cannot be typically captured in news reports. In this respect, no story in this volume is more successful than the magnificent Honour by Ajay Navaria, translated by Sudarshan Purohit.
A story about caste, mobile phones, aspiration and entitlement, Honour raises the hair on your arms from its first scene, and then chills all the way to the bone. To say more would destroy some of the story’s tension; suffice to say that it proves to us why Navaria is coming to be seen as one of India’s finest writers.
Out Of Print also includes non-fiction in its collection, wisely choosing articles and excerpts about the big picture—of sex ratios, histories of war and rape reporting—rather than individual stories, which would compete with fiction. These are fine pieces in themselves, and are written by very good journalists and researchers, but I do wonder if the anthology may not have been more effective in keeping its focus on the short story, which underwrites what we talk about in the public interest with the sharpness and intensity of the private imagination.
Perhaps it is telling, though, that so many of these stories are, essentially, complementary to our editorial pages. Indeed, the only one that comes close to fantasy is the retelling of a Tamil folk tale by Pavithra Srinivasan (called, ironically, The Good Wife, A Retelling), a dark, atmospheric story about retribution.
Of utopias, there is no talk whatsoever, as though no writer in India is prepared to imagine an alternative to our present, ongoing and eternal state of affairs.
Supriya Nair is an editor with The Caravan.