The Panch Kanyas—Draupadi, Tara, Kunti, Mandodari and Ahilya—were five extraordinary women, all of whom faced terrible adversities, mostly at the behest of men. But for centuries, each morning millions of Indian homes have heard the family elders chant these names as cleansers of the soul, Mahapaatak Naashanam.
The women are still remembered because they stood up for truth. Draupadi, wife to the five Pandav brothers, was humiliated repeatedly by their cousins, pretenders to the throne who lusted after her. She never let anyone forget that, even if it meant fighting a fratricidal war. Tara was the wife whose husband’s twin kidnapped her and kept her confined. After her tormentor was killed, she rose to be a powerful and a just matriarch. Kunti was the hapless widow of an impotent king for whom she bore five brilliant sons by invoking various gods. After the king died and she and her sons were banished to the forest, Kunti saw to it that the brothers stayed together and never forgot they must one day reclaim what was theirs by right. Mandodari, wife of Ravana, Lord of Lanka, was appalled when her husband kidnapped another’s wife and kept her a captive in his gardens. She pleaded for Sita’s release and failing, bluntly told him that he was doomed as he had lost his dharma. The grace of a sage’s wife, Ahilya, provoked the mighty Indra into transforming himself into her absent husband so that he may sleep with her. When caught in the act, the husband cursed the bewildered wife to turn into a stone. She bided her time for years and thawed only when Ram, visiting the forest as a banished prince, vouched for her purity and bowed to her.
Five extraordinary cases of injustice, followed by humiliation suffered over long years. Yet, all the Panch Kanyas demanded that they be given a fair hearing and their honour be restored. No wonder they are memorable.
Last week, as one looked into the eyes of Neelam Katara, mother of the young murdered Nitish Katara, there was no mistaking those Panch Kanya eyes. For more than six years, this lone school teacher struggled against a political don of Uttar Pradesh whose son and nephew murdered her first-born as he was dating their sister. She attended more than 400 court hearings while one witness after another turned hostile, her husband died of a debilitating illness and insinuations flew thick and fast against her and her sons. On 28 May, when a Delhi court convicted her son’s murderers, she looked straight into the cameras and said that now no mother need face what she did. The verdict, she said, should be a lesson to those who think they can murder the law because they are so powerful.
Compared with the fiery Neelam, at first Bilkis Bano of Dohad in Gujarat appears nondescript and demure. But make no mistake, she is pure steel. On 3 March 2002, she lost her three-year-old daughter, her mother and her sisters in communal riots and was then gang raped. But Bano dug in her heels and fought for six years to get justice. After the case was transferred to a court in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra, on 18 January 2008, a sessions court in Mumbai convicted 11 of the men accused in the case.
Then there is Sabrina Lall, sister of Jessica, a model who was shot dead in a posh New Delhi restaurant in 1999 by the inebriated son of a powerful leader of the Congress party to whom she had refused to serve liquor after hours. By the time Sabrina filed the case, the local police had messed up the forensic records, planted bullets, removed valuable evidence from the scene of the crime, insinuated that her sister was “one of those types”, and the accused told the media that she was lying. In court, most male witnesses turned hostile or disappeared. The female owners of the restaurant who testified against the accused and the Lall family received threats and were openly ridiculed. Sabrina also lost her father. Yet she plodded on. Finally, after nine years, she managed to send her sister’s murderer behind bars. On television, she looked tired and worn out, but triumphant.
The passage of time has touched Neelam Krishnamurthy’s face. Ten years ago, on 13 June, she lost both her children, 17-year-old Unnati and her 13-year-old brother Ujjal, to a fire that broke out in a cinema hall and killed a total of 57 people. The owners, a powerful family of builders, dodged charges for years, while Krishnamurthy gathered the members of bereaved families and urged them to fight the case jointly. Finally, early this year, the courts booked the owners of the cinema hall for gross negligence of safety norms.
Twenty-five-year old Indu Jalali is a friend of Priyadarshini Mattoo, a beautiful young student who was stalked and later killed by Santosh Kumar Singh, a classmate and son of a high-ranking police official. For years, the murderer dodged the case filed by the dead girl’s father and Indu. He continued to study law and in a cruel travesty of justice, became a lawyer. His police connections helped him, like Manu Sharma in the Jessica Lall case, to get vital evidence destroyed, red herrings planted and witnesses to disappear till the case was all but lost. Meanwhile, Priyadarshini’s father developed severe health problems. With some help from a section of the media and a few friends, Indu fought on and finally managed to get Singh convicted and put behind bars. Her face as she lit a candle in her friend’s memory was serene, like Bano’s, like Krishnamurthy’s, like Sabrina’s.
Such grace, as Valmiki said about Ahilya, must be bowed to, even by gods.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org