Film-maker Debalina. Photo courtesy: Jayita
Film-maker Debalina. Photo courtesy: Jayita

The Love Issue | Love struck Juliet

In rural West Bengal, where Swapna and Sucheta ended their lives, suicide pacts are not uncommon. We visit the phenomenon chronicled in Debalina's documentary '...Ebang Bewarish'

“It is a letter that is addressed to you too," says film-maker Debalina, who prefers to use her first name. We are sitting at a café in Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, mulling over the suicides of lesbian lovers Swapna and Sucheta in February 2011 in Nandigram, West Bengal.

Their death and the subsequent degrading of the dead—their families refused to claim the bodies, which the local police cremated; their final wish, as noted in Swapna’s suicide letter, to be cremated together, was consequently not heeded by the families—is the subject of Debalina’s 62-minute Bengali documentary, …Ebang Bewarish (…And the Unclaimed).

It is nearing twilight and amid the chirping of birds homing in, there’s a carefree huddle of university students around a guitarist’s acoustic strumming nearby.

A still from her film

The film-maker rues not documenting the “chilling warning" that the aggressive Nandigram society sends out to supposedly social deviants like Swapna-Sucheta. A police photograph highlighted in …And the Unclaimed shows that Swapna was wearing jeans when the two bodies were discovered. Debalina later saw a photograph published in The Indian Express, taken when the bodies were being loaded into a police van. In that photograph, Swapna was wearing a salwar.

“Now think about it. Not only did their society not claim them, but someone manipulated by making the dead body wear a salwar instead of the jeans and in keeping with the normative frame of femininity," says Debalina.

Bobby Saha too loved wearing jeans. Bobby stopped wearing skirts and salwars at the age of 10; she cut her hair short into a bob a few years later. “We tried persuading Bobby, but she wouldn’t wilt till we started gifting her jeans and shirts during Durga Pujo," her aunt Chitra Saha tells me. From around 2008, Bobby was seen solely in the company of Puja Mondal, a girl in her semi-rural neighbourbood of Boral, a little beyond Garia in southernmost Kolkata. Though otherwise introverted, both would chat endlessly, spend time in the shade of trees, buy flowers, go to movies and melas, share food and solitude. They were generally inseparable and happy for the three-odd years they were seen together.

A Sappho stall at the Kolkata Book Fair in 2013. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

They left no suicide note; their death was the message. “We didn’t know about same-sex relationships earlier. Only after their death did we realize," admits Chitra.

Sappho for Equality—the Kolkata-based support and rights-based activist group for lesbian, bisexual women and transgender communities and the producers of …And the Unclaimed—keeps records on ill-fated lesbian love. It is, they declare, a list based largely on news reports; a majority of them relate only to West Bengal. Yet, between 2002 and 2012, there have been 11 instances of lesbian suicide pacts and one instance of an individual committing suicide. A total of 23 women have forfeited their right to life when up against society’s forfeiture of their right to love.

I’m at the Sappho office library-resource centre on the evening of 28 January, when the Supreme Court refused to review an earlier ruling that recriminalized homosexuality in the world’s largest democracy. A couple of television reporters are recording sound bites, there is a distinct edginess among Sappho members, and tempers are frayed. The pink walls welcoming visitors to Sappho seem a shade duller; the benign smile in the photograph of the late Bengali film-maker, Rituparno Ghosh, a homosexual, seems out of place.

The wider implication of Debalina’s statement on Swapna’s suicide letter being directed at me too is clear. I belong to and represent the mainstream, acknowledged and heard majority—and our majoritarianism decrees that social and gender minorities will remain unacknowledged, unheard, and of a criminal bent of character. At the office, there is Sumitadi, a poet and gender activist whom I’ve known for a long time. She remains cold to my male presence.

The film’s shoot in progress

Indeed, Sappho’s documentation of lesbian suicides shows people like Rukmini and Kalpana, Kajali and Aparna, Anima and Bhanuruptan, Nisha and Nisha, Nishi and Benu, Rama and Pramila, have all been victims of humiliation, stigmatization, ridicule, and the wider feeling of being hemmed in from all sides by an uncaring world. In 2004, two women from Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district exchanged rudraksh and got married at a temple before choosing the same holy precinct to commit suicide by poisoning. They were holding each other’s hands when their bodies were found.

“It is only when a woman realizes her sexual orientation that the real struggle begins: with family, friends and society. It’s not that I have been ostracized, but our dream is to be accepted," says Titli, 45, a government employee who has been living with her partner at a Kolkata apartment for six years. Originally from the suburbs, Titli says she came into her own in the city, and in Sappho’s supportive atmosphere.

Sappho, the core organization, was born when three lesbian couples, led by Malobika and Akanksha, came together after being inspired by Deepa Mehta’s 1996-released film Fire—today Sappho for Equality has 300-odd members and organizes film festivals, carnivals, marches, campaigns and seminars, and publishes periodicals and books, besides conducting women’s rights-based advocacy with the police and administration.

Titli refuses to disclose her surname; her sexual identity isn’t known at office. Debalina, who worked in television, talks about how the women participating in a lesbian talk show stayed back after the recording to dictate the exact degree of pixelation of their faces. Insecurities, even in liberal urban spaces, remain.

Yet Sappho vibrates with a dare-you poise; here, they live off each other’s success stories. Many have emerged in public too—in print, on television, in documentaries, at tea shops and on streets where, on occasions like the annual Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk, the women hug and lock lips.

The trickle-down effect of what are essentially humane narratives can be felt in Boral too, once the bucolic shooting site of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. Here, Chitra’s voice trembles when remembering Bobby and the tragic love affair with Puja. It is late afternoon when I visit and young “straight" couples gather around the locality’s many ponds and fields. When I enquire about Bobby’s uncle Gautam Saha’s house, a volunteer at the local temple gives me directions. But when I mention Bobby, the volunteer feigns ignorance.

“I wouldn’t have supported their formal marriage, since marriage is an institution that expects progeny," Chitra says. “But personally I would have had no problem if they lived together. After all, their love couldn’t have harmed anyone."