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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

There is no poetry of rape ’cause there can be no poetry in rape

xactly a day before a 14-year-old Manipuri girl was raped in Delhi, a 19-year-old girl asked me to read a poem that she had written. She was my student, studying to be an engineer. From the poem I guessed that she had been through a harrowing experience during an overnight bus journey from Calcutta to Jalpaiguri. The man who had sat next to her had harassed her through the night — she had catalogued some of his actions in her long poem. She had never written a poem before — this was her first. And so she explained to me why she had needed to use so many verbs in the first few stanzas (to describe the man's actions) and how she had switched to adjectives in the last stanza.

She had come to me with two specific questions. First, could she use this poem as an FIR to lodge a complaint against the man? Needless to say, I was unprepared for this question. It was not the difference in our disciplinary training, mine in literature, her's in the engineering sciences that moulded our expectations from a poem alone. I did not know, given my extremely limited knowledge of jurisprudence, whether one could lodge a complaint in verse. I thought this an unfair privileging of prose over verse that one could complain officially — legally — only in verse.

The second problem was with the title of the poem: she hadn't found one. She had "Googled for poems on rape", she said. Two "poems" from an English Literature syllabus had caught her attention: Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece and Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock. The poems had made no sense to her, she said. "After turning a few pages I found that there really was no rape in them, rape as we understand it today. And so I thought these poems useless."

"Is there a Literature of Rape?" she asked. Another uncomfortable question. I teach at the Department of Humanities in an engineering college and the course curriculum, controlled as it is by a governing university, pays almost no importance to literature. The girl's question probably had to do with ignorance, but it was the nomenclature that unsettled me. It was not the fact that there was no literature of rape but that there should be a literature of rape at all; and rape at all.

y student mentioned to me a series of incidents of rape that had been reported in the Indian media. "I wasn't raped like they show in the movies. But there are new rape laws now. I was tortured the entire night. Isn't that ...?"

After I had spoken to her parents and asked them to assist her in filing a complaint with the police (she had the man's address from his bag tag, she confirmed), she came back to report to me that the man had crossed over into Nepal (we were in Jalpaiguri, from where the porous Indo-Nepal border is a two hour journey by bus). She also reported something else: "I still don't have a title for my poem."

I was reminded of the difficulty I had faced in finding the title of a poem for an anthology edited by Charles Fishman and Smita Sahay. Fishman and Sahay had titled their proposed anthology Veils, Halos and Shackles, one which would "address the abuse and oppression of women." The rape of a five-year-old girl in Delhi, inside whom bottles had been inserted, had given birth to my poem. Even after I'd submitted my poem, I continued to be unsure about its title.

A few of the boys in her class had found her poem and turned it into a song. They had given it a title too: Rape Rap. It was not the semantic or typological difference between "rap" and "rape" that unnerved me. A "senior" had told her, "Now that you know the literature of rape, when will you discover the mathematics of rape?"

Now the world seems increasingly connected only by violence and its similarities of genre. There is little to distinguish the news on television and newspapers from our daily conversation. A few days ago, a close friend sounded exactly like a television news anchor when he informed me about the rape of a six-year-old girl inside a school building in Siliguri. I only remember the silence that followed. "You must write something about it," he prodded, like many do when they discover that you "write".

After I got back home, I watched Eleonore Pourriat's short film, Oppressed Majority (Majorité Opprimée). In the world of this film, a man is sexually abused, taunted, ragged by women, a gendered mirror opposite of what a woman has to face every day. By turning the pocket of the everyday sexualised discourse inside out, the film shows the continuous sexual harassment a woman is subjected to. I sent the link to my student adding a note, a reaction to the news of the girl from Class Two raped by two men in her school. "See how there are no girls anymore? Everyone is a woman," I wrote.

Her reply was prompt: "The last few days, I read many 'rape poems'. Ma'am, there is a Literature of Rape. But there is no Poetry of Rape. There can never be. Because there is no poetry in rape."

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