Aayat, the new Deputy Superintendent of Police of Manakpur, a small village near Bhind, jumped up from her chair and hurriedly sat in the police jeep. Two constables sat behind with Nanha, the man who had brought the news of another girl child dying within an hour of her birth. This was the fourth death within a week and Aayat was nonplussed as to why only girl infants would die; or be killed, as she was secretly told. The village was an hour away and by the time they reached the house, where the child was born and then died, she was informed that the child’s last rites had been performed. As per the practice, the body had been cremated.
Aayat, a young, dashing IPS officer, was already making waves in the police department. Her fearless and honest approach had soon become the talk in her field. Wherever she was posted, she would get the crime rate down significantly; and, as a fall out, would understandably ruffle many a feather. Then suddenly she would find herself shifted to a new place, with new challenges, but nothing could break her undaunting spirit. She would have to bear the wrath of many big wigs, and yet, that seemed to kindle a spark within her, which would soon turn into a flame.
Manakpur was sort of a punishment posting for her. Though a small village in size, it was known for its female infanticide. What made this village even more noticeable was that, it was said that the women themselves killed their girl children. They killed them with their own hands, within hours of their birth. Aayat could not believe when she heard this, after taking charge of the police station there. Since then she had given incentives to informers, asking them to get her proof of this unbelievably henious crime. There were times when she would get the information of a child dying, but by the the time she would reach there, everything looked like a normal ritual was being followed.
Aayat was determined that she would get to the crux of the matter. Because of the nature of her job she had been exposed to many forms of barbarism among humans. But yet, her mind simply refused to buy the fact that a woman could actually kill her own child. So she, that day, demanded to meet the mother of the child. Who could refuse the police? Lakhi, the mother, came out. She had covered her head with the saree that she was wearing, like mostly all the women in the village did. She came and stood, head bent, near the kuchcha wall of the house. Aayat went near her and asked her to uncover her face.
“No Ma’am, she can’t do that. We practise purdah, where the women will always cover her face in front of all the men, except her husband.” said Lakhi’s father-in-law, Bajrangi, a bit firmly.
“OK Lakhi, let’s go inside,” said Aayat, as she started to walk.
“ Ma’am, she has just lost her child, why do you want to trouble her?” Bajrangi tried to stop Aayat; but one stern look from her was enough to shut him up.
Aayat followed Lakhi into the room. Lakhi’s mother-in-law, Siwri, was sitting there. Aayat asked Lakhi to uncover her face. Slowly, Lakhi removed the cover and looked up to meet Aayat’s eyes. Aayat had never seen such eyes before; they were dead eyes! Or, was there something deep down ?
“I am very sorry to hear about your child, Lakhi,” started Aayat “but tell me, what had happened to her? I also heard that this was your second child and both could not survive, why Lakhi?”
Lakhi stood there motionless, without a word. No amount of insistence could bring out from her a single answer, to any of the questions that Aayat asked her. After a while, an annoyed and disappointed Aayat left the house. Her troubled mind was trying hard to decipher some thing out of the sad story in front of her. How could so many girls die soon after birth?
Aayat had only one thought in her mind; she had to solve this mystery of dying infant girls. Every other day she would get to hear about some such mishap. She went around talking to people of the village, trying to get some clue, but she got no success. One day she was on a round in her jeep and she had come to the outskirts of the village, when she came across a middle aged woman; dressed shabbily, with unkempt hair, this woman was rambling off on her own, sitting under a mango tree. It was a very hot afternoon. Aayat asked the driver to stop near the tree, so that she could drink some water from the well that stood next to the tree. As she neared the well, the seemingly deranged woman started muttering,
“ All my four daughters are inside this well. They are all sleeping, please do not disturb them; they are all sleeping, please do not disturb them.”
Aayat stopped and asked the woman gently, “Where are your daughters, Mai?”
“There, inside the well! Can’t you see them? They are so beautiful! They are all sleeping,” muttered the woman again.
“ But why are your daughters inside the well? Who put them there?” asked Aayat cautiously.
“Why, I put them there. With my own hands I threw them inside the well. See, see, with these hands I threw my daughters inside the well. They are all there, happy and safe! No one can touch them now, no one can beat them, force them to do anything against their wishes. No one can rape them,” she whispered as if there were others trying to listen in to what she was saying, “You know, when I would sleep, any day, any one would just walk in, drunk, and would make me go through hell. How I would scream, but who was there to listen to me? My own husband, drunk, would be doing the same to somebody else. In this village, every female is the property of every male. Males are lords; they drink and drink and drink and then they catch hold of anybody they can lay their hands on. No one is spared. It is hell, sheer hell, worse than hell. So when the women give birth to girls, they just kill them with their own hands. They cannot let the girls grow into a hell like this. They simply kill them. Whenever a woman is pregnant, each day, she fervently prays to God, not to grant her a girl child; but if a girl is born, she is killed within hours, for every passing hour makes it even more difficult for the mother to kill her own child. I too threw my four daughters, as and when they were born, into this well. I killed them, to save them from a life of hell. My daughters are happy out there. I can see them, I talk to them. Oh! How much I love them!” and she started sobbing, sitting under the mango tree.
Aayat, as if, had turned into a stone. This deranged woman also was a woman like her own self, wasn’t she? Was this really the twenty-first century that they were living in? Was this a dream that she was dreaming? Did the mothers of this village really had to kill their daughters to save them from a life of inhuman barbarism? She peeped into the well. Could she really see pretty faces of the girls inside? Who now will she put behind bars? These most unfortunate mothers, who had to snuff out the lives of their own daughters to save them from the men? Humans? Her heart wrentched and twisted and shuddered to see this plight. All her courage, determination and fearless spirit dwarfed, in front of the mountain-like courage of these illiterate women of this village.
It took a few minutes for Aayat to regain her control. A sea of thoughts was jostling to surface through the turmoil going on in her mind. She had to do something to change this utterly inhumane ecosystem thriving in that part of remote society. She drove back home and while on her way, called her college friend Niyati, who ran an NGO in Delhi. Niyati’s NGO ‘Uththan’ worked for the upliftment and empowerment of the women, the ones mostly exploited, having alcoholic husbands, abusive family members who would hurl all types of abuses at them, and subjugate them in all possible forms. ‘Uththan’ worked at explaining various ways to fight such situations and empower these women, mentally, psychologically; and teaching them ways to be financially strong, the most effective way to empowerment. Aayat spoke at length with Niyati, explaining the unimaginably piteous plight of women there, and asking her to help. A moved Niyati promised to be there the following day.
After a prolonged discussion between the two friends, they developed a plan. Niyati got some of her team members to come over to the village of Manakpur. They started a big advertisement campaign, claiming to teach vocational skills to the girls and the women of the village so that they would be able to generate money. The men generally were non-working, and would keep drinking most of the day. So the idea of generation of more money, quite appealed to them.
‘Uththan’ started off in a small place, in the police station compound itself. ‘Uththan’ members started visiting each home to persuade the women to join. It took a while to help them shed off their inhibitions, but then they joined the center one after the other. At the center, basic reading and writing, as well as vocational skills such as handicrafts, making pickles, making envelopes, etc. were taught. The stuff that they made would be taken to Delhi, and would be sold off at various handicrafts exhibitions. In no time, the women started enjoying and they gained confidence at their ability to earn. The men also were happy at the inflow of money. Gradually, and a bit subtly, ‘Uththan’ members started initiating conversations on their personal lives. They broached questions such as, how happy they were in their lives, with their husbands and with their families, etc. etc. This exercise took a long time because, understandably, the women took time to open up to the ‘Uththan’ members. The sensitive handling by them, though, could make a breakthrough and slowly, in bits and parts, the village women started pouring out their woes to them. The atrocities by the menfolk that the women had to go through, shook the members to their very core.
After having gained their confidence, the members started talking about how the women could react, how they could stand up, against these atrocities. Initially the women were shocked at the very suggestion that they should react! How could they? The men were the lords, and if they threw the women out, where would they go? The deep-seated conditioning of the minds was not easy to change but the relentless efforts made by Niyati and her members, along with Aayat’s assurance of her support all the time, slowly started yielding results. It was explained to the women that they were equal to the men in all respects, and it was their duty to stand up against the wrong. They were supposed to see that their children got a safe and happy society to live in. Killing them was not the right solution. It was a sin. All of this, started making sense now to the women. Having become financially superior, they were a lot more confident now. The fear of being thrown away was no more there. Now they were ready to stand up and fight. ‘Uththan’ members suggested that the women should always carry a pair of scissors, hidden in a pocket of their attire, with them. They were asked to say ‘No’ firmly to any uncalled for advances from the men and, if the men did not pay heed to them, to use the scissors as a weapon to ward them off. This plan showed commendable results.
At the same time, ‘Uththan’ members launched an intense campaign to educate and counsel the men of the village. Now, this was a herculean task! The men always know everything! And what they know, is right! That is their conditioning of mind that needed to be worked upon. They simply refused to even listen to any suggestion that they were doing many things, wrong. Here Aayat wielded her power, the power of the police, and joined the campaign in counselling the menfolk. Both Aayat and Niyati received many a threat to their lives but they kept on fighting, unrelenting, and with steely determination. It took a long time but very slowly the menfolk started becoming receptive to what was being explained to them. influential men from the cities were called upon to join the campaign, and help ‘Uththan’ in their endeavour.
Gradually, and slowly, the winds of change could be felt. It took almost two years of intense work, to see a transformed Manakpur. Aayat and Niyati were driving in Aayat’s jeep, when Aayat received a phone call.
“Hello, yes Nanha? What? The Sarpanch’s wife has delivered twin girls and the wife is calling for us? Oh My God, the Sarpanch’s wife is calling for help! We are coming, Nanha, just tell her, we are coming. Driver! Rush to the Sarpanch’s house,” ordered an anxiuos and angry Aayat. In no time they reached there and both Aayat and Niyati almost jumped out of the jeep and ran inside. They were taken to the room where the new mother lay. They enterd the room but were taken aback by the new mother sitting up on her bed, all smiles, holding one of the babies. Her husband, the Sarpanch, held the other in his arms and smilingly said,
“Come and meet our littles stars, Mesdames. Meet our little Aayat and little Niyati!”