Mother, Where’s My Country?

By Anubha Bhonsle

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After the night in the local hospital, D hadn’t stepped out of her house for nearly a week. She had lost some blood and felt flattened, mostly around her chest and stomach. She wept frequently, as someone used to crying herself to sleep. She slept day and night and often woke up with a throbbing, shifting ache. Sometimes she was unable to move, as if pinned down by an alien weight. She felt naked, despite her cotton phanek, her underpants, the sanitary napkin and the thick folded piece of cloth that covered her crotch, a third line of defence. It was actually meant to reduce the swelling. The warm compress soothed the skin but sometimes cold sweat trickled down to the purple abrasions on her thighs and made her wince. D never had enough energy to adjust the pack. She didn’t even have enough to make sense of the pain, where it started and where it went. All she knew was that down there was an open wound. She couldn’t believe it was a part of her, or that she had done anything through it or felt anything through it, ever.
The last sensation D remembered clearly was of a numbing force, not pain, a force that tore into her belly. She had feared her intestines would be pushed out through her mouth. She also remembered the miasma of male sweat that had mixed with the smell of wood, hair oil, alcohol, cigarettes and damp clothes. The smell was the worst thing, thick and dense in the air she was still breathing; there was no way to describe it. The first pain came when her toes smashed against heavy black boots, block-heeled, with thick soles. They rubbed against her shin, and with every up and down movement of the body the boots scraped her ankles, her toes, broke her nails and bruised her feet, over and over. D had walked on her heels after the soldiers left; her toes and fingers had seemed like blobs of jelly, squashed by the weight of two men, or were there three? Her body felt as if it had been rubbed with sandpaper. Her mouth was dry as ash, and her womb burned.
In the last few days, D had made a conscious attempt not to think of that day, but sometimes she wondered at the frames her mind threw at her. ‘Boots,’ she thought, ‘she remembers boots and bruised feet? Really!’ Recurring images crowded her head, spinning like a non-stop merry-go-round and she had no choice but to let them: boots, rain, frothing scum, she herself sitting amidst destruction, a dog running for hours, panting. Often the vision that broke this procession and brought her back to the moistness of the pack between her legs was that of the world mourning the premature death of a young woman. She would die eventually in her dreams. D would then wake up to realize that the panting breaths were her own.
D wasn’t sure what was happening. It seemed only sensible not to share it. Nothing ever came out of talking about some kinds of pain.

Hallucinations like these haunted some people long after the wounds had healed. But no one spoke about them, or analysed what they meant. Most fact-finding teams or human rights groups that worked in Manipur had enough on their plate managing the basics. Imagine if paperwork had to include pain and dreams.
Not that documentation wasn’t exhaustive or meticulous. Date, time, place, the act, the men involved, possible identification marks, ranks were all duly noted. Sometimes details of incidents by ‘unknown assailants’ were compiled from newspapers. And sometimes members of human rights groups listened to stories and drew up accounts. There were more than twenty-five kinds of torture that victims could identify: from choking, disrobing, pulling off nails or hair, sexual assault and assault on family to relatively minor violations like kicking, slapping and punching. Then there was the army of men in uniform who inflicted torture: the Indian Army, Assam Rifles, other paramilitary forces, the Manipur Police. Sometimes UGs—underground groups— also made it into the records of human rights groups, but this was rare.
The UGs are everywhere in Manipur, like the very air, like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). UGs and AFSPA are the two ubiquitous acronyms that come up every time there is a blur of gunshots and violent deaths. Insurgent groups fighting the State and, very often, targeting civilian citizens—either with guns or ‘demand notes’ or both—are UGs. The ‘State’ they fight is represented most prominently by the Indian Army, protected by the infamous AFSPA, which gives the armed forces—their junior officers included—the power to arrest and shoot a citizen on mere suspicion and to search a property without a warrant. It also protects them from trial and punishment without the sanction of the Central government. The full term, all five letters expanded to words, is rarely used; it is almost always AFSPA. When Kashmiris speak of the Act that has also ravaged their land, the letter ‘F’ almost bites onto their lower lip. In Manipur it falls easily off the tongue, smooth. Sometimes they strum guitars, beat mellow drums and sing, ‘AFSPA, why don’t you fuck yourself?’
In AFSPA-governed Manipur there are peace marches and public hearings—for the families of the victims of extrajudicial killings, for widows, for ‘gun survivors’, for the families of the ‘disappeared’—the euphemistic epitaph used for the ‘not-dead-so-far-because-we-haven’t-found-their-bodies-yet-butwe-also-know-that-we-won’t’. The rooms where these meetings are held are large and airy but chairs sometimes fall short. Rape victims stay away. They prefer to spend their days and nights at home.

S would say, ‘If you carve meat with a dull blade, it’s going to be hard and painful and messy. And a long-drawn affair.’ Her friend was right, D thought. This was going to be a longdrawn affair. Just like S’s was.
S was much older but D always thought of her as a close friend. The stout mother of three had a convex belly, like a big bowl, from her difficult pregnancies. D often joked about the long, tight elastic knickers S wore under her wraparound phanek like a corset to hold in the layers of belly fat. The first man who had pinned S to the ground had struggled to remove them. He had cut them open with his penknife and with them, her belly. The gash wasn’t deep but it was long, running from her upper abdomen, where the tight knickers started, to her navel and almost cutting down to her vagina.
S had been conscious through it all; she had fought them in the first few moments, clawing at them. Two had watched, laughing and egging the one on top of her. S had shouted, using all the strength in her veins to move and get his weight off. But he had sunk into her, like a boulder, his hand on her face, sealing her mouth. Barely a squeak escaped her. Even as she caught the rhythm of her breathing after he was done, another one was on her. The second, she remembered, had used her phanek to clean himself. The faces were blurred; in fact, S never believed she saw any of them clearly. She had shut her eyes tight through it all, as if that would be enough to defeat them, make them disappear. But every now and then the outline of a jaw swam before her eyes, or a pair of shadowed eyes, mostly when she took a bath and her hands ran over the faint remains of the scar on her belly. It was a scar of defiance, but it was fear that had become the central thread of her life. S hadn’t told a soul. But the remnants of that day lived inside her like a tumour.
Some evenings D would accompany S as they went shopping for vegetables to the market. At the Ima market, as in many other bazaars in the city, women sat and sold their produce. It was like a fair, chattering women-sellers would call out to buyers, asking them to smell the fish, caught just that morning from the Loktak Lake. Everyone knew everyone here. Housewives bargained and lifted fish, alive and silver, from big tubs. Fish of all kinds came here, the big and small, the almost alive, and the peacefully dead. The silver scrapings turning dark grey littered the ground. While S bought fish, D would sometimes eye the other corner of the market where silk stockings hung and perfumed cosmetics and goods from Myanmar were sold. It seemed like two ends of the world. The concentrated stench of life, the sharp, sour smell of vegetables, fish, fruit and sweat, thinned out at the far end of the market and soft, powdery smells filled the air. As S examined the fish, D would often walk to the other end to luxuriate in the pleasant whiffs of potions and powders. It was on one such evening that S overheard that two people from a human rights group were expected in their village the next day. They were coming to talk to women who had been victims of abuse or torture. In this part of the world the presence of human rights groups or armed groups wasn’t unusual, but it did generate fear and suspicion and there would be whispers but only for a few days, and then people forgot. Violence was generally expected here, and accepted as almost inevitable.
Later that evening, after they returned from the market, without any preface, S told her young friend D her story.
The next morning, the Nambul was flowing as it always did, silent and smooth, but something had changed for S. After the children had gone to school and the man for business, she walked to the market on the banks of the river. She had decided she would meet the human rights team and ask them to come home. D wasn’t sure what this would achieve, so many years later. But S was insistent. ‘Sorrow is better than fear,’ she told D. ‘And I have lived with both.’
When they arrived, D remained outside, sitting in the courtyard. Inside, S quickly made cups of red tea. The two human rights workers were young, perhaps of D’s age, a man and a woman, both in jeans. They had left their shoes outside and walked in to S’s house carrying sheets of papers and a diary each under their arms. S had shown them to the brown sofa, flipping the cushions to hide the foam peeking through small tears in the velvet cover. But they had avoided it, instead picking up the bamboo stools lying in a corner. The woman had put her diary on the floor; the man had put his on his lap.
S sat a little distance away. She hesitated for a while, unsure of how she was going to begin, or even why she wanted to do this and how far this could go. Outside, D could hear her half-hearted chatter with the two youngsters: how she had often told her husband that the door needed repair but he ignored her.
It was the young woman who broke the hum of casual conversation, leaning forward and asking S straight, ‘What happened and when? Tell us everything.’ The young man had his pen ready.
‘It was long ago,’ S began. ‘My first son must have been two or three years old—1990, I think, or 1991.’
The young woman and man looked at each other from the corner of their eyes. Perhaps it was already clear to them that something that had happened so far back was going to be useless unless there were specific details. But they did not stop her. In the 1980s and early ’90s, army and police operations were frequent in all of Manipur. So were ambushes, midnight knocks, taking away of men, ransacking of homes. Sometimes men draped in heavy woollen shawls, hiding guns, would ask for shelter. There was no choice; the women of the house then cooked for them. Security forces on search and combing operations would put cross marks on doors to indicate the houses had been searched, lest another group of soldiers come for the same purpose. S had been witness to many knocks and had opened the door many times to armed personnel in search of members of underground groups. Many nights on hearing gunshots they would all duck and lie low.
It was on one such night that the unspeakable had happened.
‘No one was at home. There was a knock, many men came inside and searched around, using the butt of their rifles to knock pots and pans, throw off the bedding. They searched every nook and corner, their mud-soiled boots stamping the floor. After a few minutes of mayhem they went away, just as they came.’
Barely a few minutes passed, S said, she had only just locked the door, when there was another knock and three men were at the door.
‘Were they part of the same group?’ the young woman asked.
S wasn’t sure. Once again, D, sitting outside, wondered why her friend was doing this. S was thinking the same. As she spoke, sadness and pain overwhelmed her. She stared at the floor, but continued speaking, recounting all she remembered.
S offered to show them the scar. They politely declined, saying it was not needed and maybe they should all take a break. The two of them went outside. Perhaps they wanted to confer as to what this would achieve. Yes, she remembered details, but she knew no names, no ranks, and no faces. For a moment S sat still in that room, alone, she wanted to tell them more. Veiled by the distance of time her memories had come out as bare-bone notes. ‘It simply wasn’t “meaty” enough,’ the young man said to his colleague. A few months into the underrated and painstaking work of documentation he was certain there wasn’t enough here to classify this as a violation. This was not even documentary evidence, forget courtroom testimony.
S came out of the room, into the courtyard, part cranky, party angry, saying in the loudest tone she had used so far, ‘I am not tired. I wasn’t even when the three of them pounced on me.’
The human rights workers came back into the room and took their seats again, but S recoiled from the memory now. This was common too; whenever victims went back to a dark place they had been unable to escape, anger followed. Doors were shut, people walked away. Sometimes they returned to complete their stories; sometimes they did not. The young woman and man collected their belongings and left. They broke for lunch at a nearby rice hotel and discussed what they had got.
Almost as soon as they had left, S realized the enormity of what she had done, and she began to cry, and laugh.
S’s case never reached closure. Later, S admitted to D that she didn’t expect it to. Simply raising a voice would not shatter the inhuman silence at the other end, where brute power lived. And yet, pain, violation, fear had to be articulated coherently. After your name, village and the date of the incident, you had to recount the act clearly, the clearer, the better. You could leave out details of how the day started or how you were feeling that day. The act was important. The uniform, your clothes, physical features, marks and bruises, all went into the documentation. Hair pulling, being slammed on the floor, heavy hands shutting out your screams—all were documented. Vaginal wounds too. There was no place in the reports for broken nails or the buckle of a belt that dug deep into your abdomen or the fever that came from a terrible urinary tract infection that lasted for months or the oppressive smell that never left you.
‘Haven’t you learnt anything from me? Let’s call the police, tell them all you remember,’ S was telling D while gently patting her hair.
‘The men who did this will be punished,’ she added.
To D that sounded like an afterthought. She turned her face away.
There must be time for sorrow to spend itself, D thought, before it can overcome fear.

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