In June 2017, Gulistan’s father-in-law, Usman Ansari, had been attacked by a mob which accused him of slaughtering his own cow, though the cow had died a natural death. Ansari and his wife, Amna Khatoon, are dairy farmers. Before they were attacked, they had eight cows and bullocks and a small plot of farm land. With their savings over the years, they had opened a grocery shop in the road-facing room in their home. Their sons worked in nearby cities as masons, or raj mistris.
Gulistan was newly married when she witnessed the terrifying mob attack on her father-in-law. Her mother-in-law had run towards the attackers to plead for her husband’s life. She suffered a fractured arm. The mob turned towards their home, doused the walls in kerosene and set it on fire, destroying goods worth a few lakhs of rupees. Gulistan and her husband Salim Ansari had found themselves trapped in a room at the back. They feared that if they escaped, they would be lynched, and if they stayed hidden, they would be burnt alive.
“My husband and I were trying to breathe through the thin slit between the back door and the wall so that we could get some fresh air as the room was filling up with toxic fumes," Gulistan had shared with us last year. “We were nearly fainting when the police arrived and someone broke open the back door to let us out."
The case of Usman Ansari’s family is one of the few instances of cow-related violence in the last few years in which the local administration has intervened to save the victims. When human rights activist Harsh Mander and a few members of the citizens’ initiative Karwan-e-Mohabbat first met Ansari in 2017, he was a broken man, both physically and in spirit. The fractures on his arms and thigh were yet to heal and the wounds on his head and back were still raw. The family was in hiding, not knowing when and if it would ever be able to return home.
A year later, in September 2018, I was part of a bigger Karwan team that visited the family. They had recently moved back. After losing all their cows, the elderly couple had acquired two cows and goats. Their field was lying fallow. Amna had been appealing for help outside the mosque every Friday to pay for Ansari’s medical needs.
Despite the grief and shock, meeting the young daughter-in-law had been the high point of our visit. In her mid-20s, Gulistan’s innocence and steely resolve to emerge undefeated shone through. As she led some of us women towards a toilet with three walls and a door curtain fashioned out of a used sari on the fourth side, she had many questions for us. Eventually, we were laughing together like friends, exchanging phone numbers and taking photographs together.
I will be honest, I had begun to try writing her story in my head even as I followed her around, taking pictures of charred walls and ceilings and destroyed doors.
I hadn’t known then that I would be back exactly one year later, this time with the intention of filming the testimonies of the family. My colleagues Afzal Anis and Abdullah Zakaria accompanied me and it would not be an exaggeration to say that we witnessed the miracle of what healing looks like.
Gulistan was holding her 10-month-old baby in her arms. The infant was soon transferred to his grandfather—the same arms that had no strength last year were now balancing a smiling grandson. Amna and her husband were not on talking terms on the day we visited and it was almost endearing to witness their ongoing spat.
Gulistan and I chatted a lot but she only spoke when her mother-in-law was out of earshot. Yet all three of them hovered near each other as Anis and I took it upon ourselves to counsel and coax them back into declaring a truce.
This time, there were three healthy cows in a new makeshift cowshed. A couple of goats grazed nearby. For the elderly couple, the cows are like an essential extension of the family. Amna wakes up before dawn to milk the cows and sell it to other families in the village. She points to a cluster of houses in a distance, showing me where her customers live.
“How do you take the milk to sell it?" I ask. I can’t imagine her as a milkwoman who provides doorstep delivery. I want to know what the missing link is.
Amna silently leads me to a closed room. It is a garage. She opens the door to reveal a scooter with two extra wheels at the back and a sticker that says “Disabled" on it. This sari-clad grandmother has bought a vehicle on instalments to enable her independence. Amna had fought like a tigress when her husband was being attacked, she put herself out in the world to raise funds for his rehabilitation and she has now taken it upon herself to rebuild her autonomy as an individual.
Gulistan, on the other hand, is nurturing her baby, taking supplements to ensure that she doesn’t become anaemic again and taking care of her in-laws. “This is my home, I have to rebuild it," she says.
The farmland still has wild grass growing all over because none of them are fit enough to till the land yet. They have given two rooms in their home on rent to two Hindu families. The tenants’ children play with Gulistan’s son, carrying him around and talking to him in the gibberish that entertains babies and makes them laugh.
“We are afraid to live alone in this house," says Gulistan. “With the tenants as company, I sleep better at night." All the young husbands in the three families live in nearby towns where they can find work.
The trauma of being attacked by those who were their neighbours will not heal overnight. The nightmares return without warning, but their dreams also flourish side by side.
Gulistan Parveen and Amna Khatoon may not be on talking terms every day but they are both allies with a common goal. They are peace-builders. They are restorers of love and autonomy—the essential building blocks of a dignified life.
As they rebuild their lives, these women are also mending the society we are all part of. This smiling, trusting infant in his grandfather’s arms is the future we need to secure collectively. Usman Ansari’s beaming smile is the healing we are all capable of, that India is capable of.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of the books My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.