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The Testimony

Vaasanthi

Translated by Sukanya Venkataraman

Rajib Chowdhury, ‘In the land of roses, apple trees and corpses’, Dry pastel and tea stain on rice paper pasted on mount board,
19.5 in X 29.5 in, 2016

Mother was taking a long time to lock the door.

The girl stood mute and inert, trying not to ponder why this simple act would need so much time.

She opened her handbag to check its contents one more time. The brownish yellow paper was there. Someone pulled her dupatta1. Startled, she turned. Her little brother, Chinna Thambi, was looking at her with panicked eyes.

“I do not feel like accompanying you. Both of you can go.”

“Why are you making such a fuss?” she asked slightly frustrated. “Behave responsibly. You are the only male in this house,” she said, patting his bony little shoulder.

“What is thambi saying?” asked mother.

She lost her cool.

“Nothing! It is getting late amma! Why on earth are you taking so long to lock the door?”

“I am not able to lock the door dear.”

Amma’s fingers quivered. She could not insert the key in the keyhole with her quaking hand.

“Give it to me. I will lock the door,” the girl said, taking the lock and key from her mother.

A few heads peeked out of the houses nearby. Some neighbours emerged. Amma covered her head with her sari2, almost hiding her face.

The girl held Chinna Thambi’s chilled hands and stepped out. An eerie silence seemed to smother the entire street. Stray dogs lifted their heads and gazed down again, without barking.  Birds flew by noiselessly. Even the sound of vehicles seemed absent. The fixed stares increased her apprehension. Her legs seemed to buckle under her. She felt like touching her mother’s sari and muttering, “I do not feel like accompanying you. Both of you can go.” It seemed like the whole street, including the strays, were frozen as they moved forward on weak legs. She expected someone to come forward like in the movies and boost their morale by saying, “You need not go. We will take care of this.”

“So, you are off?” asked the lady next door, in much the same tone as one might ask, “Is the body ready for burial?”. Coming closer, she added, “They say you must speak cautiously”.

The girl turned and spied the lady’s husband at the window. She felt buried in his glare which conveyed a thousand cautions. He had repeated the same words when he happened to see her, without his wife’s urging.

“They say you must speak cautiously.”

She did not need to ask who “they” were who said this.

She was familiar with every frozen person’s voice in this street and the next. They were the ones who had hailed her as a loving mate, one of their own, endearingly. Today, they believed their fate rested on her testimony. She could barely breathe when she felt their collective voices and fears crawl and climb rapidly onto her back. Even Amma and Chinna Thambi joined them, weighing her down. She felt weary, as if her back had broken.

For some reason, mother hesitated and stood still.

“Amma, get moving! Do not respond to anyone now!”

Amma followed her in silence. Chinna Thambi walked with her, gripping her hand tightly. They saw the old man who lived in the house at the farthest end of the street. He was sitting in front of the small corner shop and smoking a beedi3. It would be hard to avoid him, she thought. He had been visiting them every night for the past ten days to pontificate, including last night.

“Those who are gone, are gone forever. Can we bring them back? You should concern yourself with those who are alive,” he had said.

The girl wondered how he could talk to them that way, sitting inside the smoke-blackened walls. Amma sat in silence, staring at the wall. She then buried her head in her knees. Her back shook with her sobs.

“You will act with prudence if you consider the well-being of your neighbours, relatives and dear ones, of our community.” The girl controlled the waves of emotion rising inside her because there was no need to respond to this old man.

“What’s the point of my standing here and talking if you don’t respond?”

She erupted suddenly.

“Grandpa, what would you have done if you had experienced what we have gone through? What would be your thinking? Would you have let bygones be bygones?”

He was mildly shocked as he faced this question from a young girl, her eyes wide and chest heaving. He shook his head repeatedly as fear gripped the pit of his stomach. He trembled. He left the house in silence. He said something almost under his breath as he was leaving. She remembered the panic, helplessness and anger in his eyes.

“Your quest for justice might endanger all of us. It might endanger what’s left of your family.”

He took courage in her silence and continued.

“If you point out the ones who did it, will their hands be plucking flowers?”

“Grandpa, please leave.”

“Leave!” she shouted when the silly old man opened his mouth again.

She spat on the ground in disgust and cussed him for a long time after he left. She buried her head in Amma’s lap and cried hard when she remembered the helplessness and fear in his eyes. She could almost see the ash-white look of fear in Grandpa’s eyes. There was panic coupled with that fear.

She now walked with her head bowed. She was afraid that he would attempt to talk to her. It was easy to be unyielding within four walls. Weakness engulfed her as she walked along the street. She felt she could trip on a blade of grass. Sighting any police person brought on panic attacks. Her tongue had refused to cooperate when they had questioned her. She had no idea what going to the court entailed. She had never stepped into one before. She had no clue about who would defend her.

She could not understand when the lady next door asked, “Won’t you have a government lawyer to defend you?”

She was not aware of it.

“I guess I will have to talk for myself,” she had responded. She had received an inscrutable and strange glance in response.

“You are a young girl. What can you do alone?”

She had felt angry.

“Ask your husband to accompany me!”

Her neighbour stopped talking after that. However, the news that the girl had received a summon from the court spread like wildfire and impelled everyone to come to her house. She had already been disconcerted after receiving that brownish yellow paper summoning her to court. Now, everyone held forth. They preached. They warned. They blamed her for speaking to the police. They declared that there was no justice for those who were wronged. Their speeches had frightened her more than that piece of paper.

She sensed someone walking with her and turned. The old man spoke quickly, as if afraid she would escape him. “It seems that rascal has some big plan. He has sworn to finish us all off if you speak against him. The police and government are on his side. Think well and make a decision!”

He went back and sat on the bench without waiting for her response. She could have given a whiplash had he stood a minute longer, she thought.

“All of you can go to hell. You have not understood my grief. Who cares if you are alive or dead? I need justice. I am not a thinking human if I do not accuse the guilty person. Why else do we have courts and testimonies?”

She was unable to contain the waves of resentment rising within her. She walked on, breathing heavily. Her eyes misted and her face reddened. She realised that Amma and Chinna Thambi had become deeply discouraged after Grandpa’s speech.

“Amma, come on! That oldie can only talk like that – impotent bastards! Have you also forgotten what you witnessed? Has your anger dissipated?” Amma walked on, afraid to even respond. There was no bus or auto4 because of the curfew. They had to walk four kilometres to reach the court. They were all tired and sweating hard half-way through. They had been unable to eat breakfast that morning. Even Chinna Thambi had been unable to eat. They had each drunk a cup of tea and that was all. She became alert when Chinna Thambi tightened his grip on her hand and slowly turned. Ten or fifteen middle-aged men were following them. They had pulled their veshtis5 tight between their legs, as if readying for a serious fight. They might have been part of the mob the other day, she thought. “Why are you following us?” she wanted to ask but decided against it. Instead, she turned away and walked on in silence. Her tongue had curled into itself. “Why am I afraid when I should be angry?” she questioned herself.

“Hey little boy!” a man hailed, as if talking to Chinna Thambi. “Tell this to your sister: she should not increase her enemies if she wants to live in peace.”

Chinna Thambi looked at her. Her face reddened and she walked swiftly.

“Tell her to think well and speak,” said another man. “Otherwise, things might take a turn for the worse”. She felt like strangling all of them. Chinna Thambi started crying quietly.

“No, no! Stop crying and wipe your eyes,” she scolded him under her breath.

The crowd followed, heckling them. Her legs felt like rubber even before they reached the court. Her heart felt heavy with the sound of an axe resonating within. Her throat felt dry. She realised that Amma and Chinna Thambi had frozen for an entirely different reason. Kishorilal stood before her. He seemed to tower over her, covering heaven and earth, making it impossible for her to move forward.

“You have thought about what you want to say, haven’t you?” he asked in a low voice. “Do you know what will happen if you speak against us? You will cease to exist. The police have been bought. All witnesses are on our side now. Even your government lawyer has come over to our side.”

She felt hatred well within her and searched for the appropriate words to abuse him with.

Kishorilal looked at Amma and Chinna Thambi with narrowed eyes. “Pray that at least these two will live,” he told her.

*

There were numerous black coats hovering in front of the court. The summons said she had to present herself in the court at 11 a.m.

“Time to go to court. Leave my way,” she said.

Kishorilal moved aside. “Remember,” he said.

A black coat approached her and said, “Come on, come on. They are waiting for you.”

Amma and Chinna Thambi were asked to stand aside. The court was overflowing. She searched for relatives or acquaintances among the crowd. There were none.

“Who is the government lawyer?”, she asked hesitantly.

“That’s me,” said the black coat standing beside her.

She wondered how this lawyer, who had not even spoken to her until then, could possibly defend her. She remembered Kishorilal saying that this lawyer was on his side.

“Will our case win?”, she asked.

The lawyer stared at something distant. “Very hard,” he replied, shaking his head and pressing his lips together.

She felt angry.

“Why? Why will we not get justice? Will these heinous criminals not get punished? Isn’t there something called the law?”

The lawyer came close and spoke in her ear, “What can we do? The police and establishment are on their side.”

“Aren’t you too on their side?”, she wanted to ask but controlled herself.

“What will the poor judge do?”, the lawyer lamented. It seemed like he was sorrier for the judge than for her.

The court was packed. It seemed to cast a hostile glance at her and say, “This woman is the one who should go to prison.” Gandhi smiled a toothless smile framed on the wall behind the judge’s chair6.

*

The trial commenced. Witnesses testified one after the other. Some lived in her street and had witnessed the incident. They came and stood in the witness stand. The lawyer mentioned that only forty four out of the seventy-three witnesses had come in.

Many insisted that they had been out of town on the day of the incident. Others said that they had only heard about it and had not witnessed it. She looked around, confused. Kishorilal, the accused, stood with his gang and thousands of other Kishorilals. The judge and Gandhi behind him had all turned into Kishorilals. Someone called her to the witness stand.

Her body moved but her soul was afloat somewhere in space.

They asked for her name, where she lived, her father’s name, her mother’s name, the names of the living, and the list of the dead. Total number dead: 14. Her tongue twisted when she uttered their names. She felt sick and faltered remembering their names. The court laughed. So many? In the same house? Yes. They were a large joint family, all living together. Husband, wife, and kids. Was 14 improbable? A man in the crowd uttered something lewd. The crowd jeered. She looked at the judge in confusion. Kishorilal was sitting in the judge’s chair.

“Did you witness the incident?”

The incident. She felt dizzy just thinking about it. She had to remember and string words together to describe the incident… the murderous gang entering the house at night… how they smashed everything inside … how they set fire to the house… how they dragged her father and elder brother into the street and set fire to them… How she, Amma and Chinna Thambi escaped to the terrace in terror… what she witnessed from the terrace, weeping and devastated… how everyone in the street looked on in silence… how the three of them hid on the terrace until dawn. And how they came down and screamed in agony when they saw the fourteen blackened corpses…

The judge spoke.

“Why are you not answering? At least answer this question. Are your mother and younger brother the only remaining ones in your family?”

She looked up with a start. She wondered if she would be able to provide the right answer.

“Yes, Sir.”

“Where were you when the violent incident happened?”

“On the terrace…”

“Did you witness the incident from there?”

Her stomach lurched in the dead silence of the court. Something powerful rose inside her and strangled her throat. A mix of fury, sorrow, and helplessness hit her like a raging hurricane, suppressing her nerves, her very being. She could only feel air when she tried to open her mouth.

“Speak up! Did you see what happened downstairs?”

The girl bowed her head and was worried what words she would frame. They seemed to slip from her memory. “Are your mother and young brother the only remaining ones in your family?”  Who asked this and why? She felt dizzy.  She opened her mouth. It seemed to speak of its own volition. Separated from her body.

“No, I did not.”

She was astonished by the stunned silence around her. She felt surprised, as if she too were an observer among the crowd watching her.

“You have informed the police that you witnessed the incident. You have also informed them that these are the accused.”

The mouth spoke, “I lied. Please forgive me. Forgive me.”

The court erupted, making her feel breathless and almost knocking her down. She freed herself from the din and came out of the court. The government lawyer had disappeared somewhere among the crowd.

Amma and Chinna Thambi were waiting for her. She wondered what to tell them. Grief overwhelmed her. She stood, her head bent, totally defeated.

“Let’s go home,” Amma said. Chinna Thambi grasped her hand.

She could feel the sense of relief in Amma’s voice and her brother’s touch.

She wanted to beat her breasts and wail, ignoring the fact that she was in a public street.

 

Read the Tamil original here.

[1] A length of material worn as a scarf or head covering, typically with a salwar, by women from South Asia.

[2] A garment consisting of a length of cotton, silk or other material elaborately draped around the body, traditionally worn by women from South Asia.

[3] A type of cheap cigarette made of unprocessed tobacco wrapped in leaves (In South Asia).

[4] A motorised version of the pulled rickshaw or cycle rickshaw. They are known by various terms in different countries including auto, baby taxi, pigeon, tuk-tuk and so on.

[5]A length of cloth that is wrapped around the waist or passed between the legs and tucked in at the waistline. This garment is chiefly worn by men in India.

[6] In India, the photo of Gandhi, who spearheaded India’s independence from the British, can be seen behind the judge’s chair in all courts of law.

Vaasanthi is an award winning Tamil writer. She writes in English too and her books include Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen [Juggernaut], Cut-Outs, Caste and Cine Stars [Penguin], The Lone Empress [Penguin], and Karunanidhi: The Definitive Biography [Juggernaut]. She was also the editor of the Tamil edition of India Today for nearly ten years.

Sukanya Venkataraman is an accomplished Communications Professional with more than two decades of experience. She is also a proficient writer who has written extensively as part of her international development career. She specialises in Tamil to English translations.