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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

The objects of a punishing love

s young lovers, my friends and I found it difficult to believe that there could be people who had never had lovers. But even more outrageous than that remote possibility was the discovery that there were people who thought of themselves as lovers, but when not loved back, they returned that hurt with "acid". For, reciprocity is the staple of a teenager's expectation of the fork-and-spoon version of love that inhabits popular consciousness. Sitting with a sociologist in a shop where "wholesale" acid is "distributed" in a far-flung locality of Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal where I live, I sat listening to two kinds of narratives about "acid-attacks", both unsurprisingly moral. The businessman said he wasn't a saint and couldn't be held responsible if men thought "acid was the equivalent of their hormones". "Business is business," he clarified, "We have to even sell poison, such is the nature of business. I am only selling acid, sister."

I did not know the sociologist, but I soon realised that his single aim was to convert the Indian nation to the kind that existed during the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar. "Tell me," he said, as if addressing a rally, "Is there a single mention of any kind of acid attack on women during the reign of Akbar? Do you know the name of the first acid attack victim in India?" he quizzed me.

Of course I didn't know. I had only come to this particular shop to speak to the proprietor — the nineteen-year-old daughter of our cook had been threatened by a boy with an "acid attack". The boy worked in this shop. No one wanted to go to the police. Of course, in the narrative of denial by which we construct our middleclass safety zoos, these things happen to other people — sexual harassment, rape, acid attacks. I saw that again on the faces of those who heard me speak in the shop that morning. The sociologist asked me to speak to Laxmi.

axmi was 16 years old when her friend's thirty-two-year old brother threw acid on her face in New Delhi's Khan Market. This was nine years ago; Laxmi had refused to respond to the man's "romantic advances", reports a newspaper. Since then, Laxmi has been actively associated with a campaign against acid attacks on women in India and was recently awarded the International Women of Courage award. At the function, Laxmi, her face still bearing the marks of the attack, read out a poem that she had originally written in Hindi:

You hold the acid that charred my dreams.
Your heart bore no love. It had the venom stored.
There was never any love in your eyes. They burn me with caustic glance.
I am sad that your corrosive name will always be part of my identity that I carry with this face.
Time will not come to my rescue. Every surgery will remind me of you.
You will hear and you will be told that the face you burned is the face I love now.
You will hear about me in the darkness of confinement.
The time will be burdened for you.
Then you will know that I am alive, free and thriving and living my dreams.

There were other poems by victims of acid attacks that I found on the internet. In one titled "Acid Attack Survivor", the woman writes:

I was a joyful little girl in Bangladesh,
Playing, good in school, happy with family.
When in my late teens, a man wanted me to wed.
My family was interested; I was not.
I continued to resist. He was angry.
He said if he could not have me, no one would
One night, when I was sleeping, he entered the window.
I jumped up when I heard the noise. Then, the horror began...
He sprayed acid in my face, and I screamed in terror.
The pain was excruciating. It was a living death.
.... When they gave me a mirror, I was horrified, in shock.
The girl I used to be had become a disfigured monster.

I find one common thread running through most of these poems — of course there is the pain and the shock and the horror, the refrains of ugliness and the terrible realisation of what it means to have been a girl and the object of such love, but it is the comfort of being part of a collective that brings hope and "freedom from fear". The Bangladeshi girl writes: "Then, a Foundation gave me hope. I met other victims. I was trained for work. I slowly moved forward."

Banoo Zan writes in Persian about the powerlessness of the attacker. He has disfigured her once and for all, he has taken away her "sight", taken away her "beauty", but can he bring it back? In this, the women in these poems seem to find a comfort in the powerlessness of these men —

The fall from deity to demon
is inalterable
Even if I fear
I shall not surrender

"I cannot write poems, Didi," Puja tells me when I show her these poem, "but I will also not surrender." Sapna, her mother, who did not go to school, shakes her head and says, "I have heard that in ancient times lovers wrote poems. Now they throw acid?"

 
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