Book Review: ‘13 Men’
Sonia Faleiro’s new book, about a gangrape in Bengal, is narrative non-fiction at its most powerful
Baby was modern. This was the first problem.
Baby was all the things they say about women who are raped.
She was modern, too modern; Baby wore glass bangles on her hands and flowers in her hair. She was the only girl in all of Subalpur who had her own mobile phone. “Why did she even need to have a mobile?” the people grumbled. She was ambitious, even audacious; an illiterate village girl who travelled as far as Delhi from her home in West Bengal looking for work as a teenager. She was fast, people whispered, the whole village knew about her affair with Khaleque Sheikh, an older married labourer from a nearby village who came to work on the construction of Subalpur’s first high school. Sheikh was not a Santhal tribal, like Baby. He was an outsider. Worse, he was a Muslim.
With the money she earned, Baby bought a small plot—two-thirds of an acre—making her one of Subalpur’s few landowners. In a village of desperately poor tribals, Baby—with her patch of land and mobile phone—was considered “indecently wealthy”.
As she navigates the story of Baby’s rape by 13 men one year ago, Faleiro’s writing is haunting, beautifully crafted and manages to tell a disturbing story without any sensationalism or judgement.
The villagers of Subalpur warned Baby to end her affair with 38-year-old Sheikh, but she refused. “Whom I love is my business,” she insisted. Her brazenness, the villagers would claim, was no longer acceptable. If Baby wanted to live among the Santhals, she “would have to live like them”.
The safety of India’s 600 million women has fostered non-stop media coverage and debate since the heinous 2012 gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi who came to be called Nirbhaya, and thankfully so. In an environment where a woman is raped every 30 minutes, Faleiro’s choice of subject is deeply important. Baby, a poor, disenfranchised tribal who was invisible to society before her rape, was even more unseen afterwards. She was not bestowed with a meaningful nickname, nor was she the subject of recurrent television news shows. In 13 Men, Faleiro examines not only the issue of sexual violence against women but also how it often, and easily, bleeds into the uncomfortable realms of purity, economics and politics.
The Santhals are one of India’s 700 indigenous tribes and, Faleiro writes, have been exploited throughout their history, first by British colonialists and later on by their own governments. Their repression and exclusion, by which they are denied access to the most basic of amenities—especially justice—lead the Santhals of Subalpur to rely on village structures over those of the state. It was the shalisi sabha, or village council, that condemned Baby for her bold defiance of local traditions, tying her to a tree with her lover on the night of 20 January 2014 to await her ultimate sentence. It was that night, according to Baby, that she was taken into the kitchen of the village headman’s hut and gang-raped until the early hours of the morning.
Faleiro was the only journalist who was given permission to speak with Baby; she spent months researching the case and also interviewed the families of the men accused of gang rape.
13 Men is the fifth offering from Deca, a journalists’ cooperative that Faleiro helped found. Once a month, Deca digitally publishes a non-fiction story from around the world. A refreshing initiative in publishing, Deca has so far covered China, Italy, Bolivia and the US, and it is with Faleiro’s book that they turn their gaze to India.
Baby’s story does not end with her assault, and Faleiro moves deftly between the rape and the mystery that quickly encircled Baby after she decided to fight her alleged attackers. Had she been viciously gang-raped or were there larger forces behind her accusations? Was Baby, as some maintained, a “pawn in a political game”, levelling her charges on behalf of people seeking to dispossess the Santhals of their tribal land? Those who would accuse Baby of lying—an educated woman publisher, a Santhal “uplift” activist—should have been her natural allies, and only a writer as skilled as Faleiro can steer her prose so elegantly around such a complex story.
13 Men is narrative non-fiction at its most powerful. Faleiro is endowed not only with a compassionate eye but also a natural voice that lends light to her subjects rather than herself. It is a bruising, urgent read.
Author Fatima Bhutto’s latest book is Democracy, published as an e-book by Penguin Books.
For an excerpt from the book, visit www.livemint.com/bookexcerpts