December 17, 2009

Crime Non-Fiction

IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY devoured every one of the three books in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, you have at least heard of it: the story of the girl with the dragon tattoo who plays with fire or kicks the hornet’s nest. She is Lisbeth Salander, abused child, accused adult and unlikely crusader along with Mikael Blomkvist of the magazine, Millennium.

Over three books, the story is one of a giant cover-up to protect a secret organisation within Swedish intelligence. It is about the blind eye that is turned upon a mafia dealing in, among other things, human trafficking; the involvement of those in power and the denial of a woman’s human rights just so that a long-forgotten secret can remain buried. The sub-text of the series – made clear through telling epigraphs to each section – is of violent crimes committed against women in the name of national security or in the interests of keeping up appearances. It is a tale in which the silence surrounding the crimes makes society complicit in them.

The Millennium Trilogy is fiction. There are protagonists whose lives align with the investigations they conduct with varying degrees of commitment and interest. They can stand against the State because it is in their interest to have the truth brought out into the light and written about. And because it is fiction, people will listen and are capable of examining their society afresh in light of the new facts they are shown. Justice is possible in crime fiction as it is often not in real life.

Consider now a story closer to home: Two women leave one morning and do not return. The older of the two is married to the brother of the younger. Because they live in a place where it is not safe to be out after dark, the man – husband of one and brother of another – calls up a search party to look for them. With the police, they search every place theyknow to until well after midnight but they don’t find the two women. The police promise to resume early in the morning. At 5.30 the family begins to search again and, an hour later, are joined by the police. Almost immediately,a policeman finds the bodies of the two women in a shallow naala – one woman’s body has drifted further downstream, but they are both there. The naala is in a well-guarded area, surrounded by manned and alert checkposts of various kinds. Nobody saw these women pass the previous day, and yet there their bodies are this morning, in a place the search party had checked earlier.

The police do what they do well: ruin the scene of crime by fishing the bodies out before photographing them as found, without cordoning the place off or collecting evidence from the surrounding area. The bodies are sent for two kinds of post-mortem: in one, a lung flotation test shows that death was not caused by drowning; the other post-mortem shows injuries and contusions to the faces; it also includes vaginal swabs that could have shown that the women had been raped.

Why the doubt? Either they had been raped or they had not. Surely forensic science has advanced even in India to prove rape without the shadow of a doubt?

In the days and months that follow, the doctors who did the post-mortem are either discredited or go back on their earlier testimonies; witnesses who say they heard women shouting from inside an army vehicle retract their statements. The family and elders of the place form an association to protest the course of the investigation.

Policemen are suspended; there are commissions and investigating teams; bails are applied for and granted; the bodies of the women are buried, exhumed months later and buried again. There is a lot of press, a lot of uproar. There are bandhs. Finally the investigation is handed over to the CBI.

Yes, this is Shopian. On the 14th of December the CBI filed its report in the J&K High Court, and not surprisingly, it said the women drowned to death in the naala they were found in. If their report contains answers to all the questions that people have been asking since May this year, we do not know it.

Independently of the CBI, in the knowledge that its report will say what it does, a group of women called the Independent Women’s Initiative for Justice went to Shopian to talk to the people concerned and came back with their own report, which they released days before the CBI report came out. Download the full report from here.

I was sent the report by a friend, with whom I was discussing this a few days ago, after reading a news report in the Hindu. He said, “There was a word used to sum it up: impunity. It’s not in the article.”

No, it’s not a word newspapers use, but it is one we are getting used to inferring in the context of any conflict.

In the first book of the Millennium Trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Blomkvist explains to Salander why Harriet Vanger ran away to Australia. Salander is angry and says, “If she had done something in 1966, Martin Vanger couldn’t have kept killing and raping for thirty-seven years.”

Among all the other troubles that have beset Kashmir for the last two decades, the ones that are least spoken about are the ones that the women have to bear: a proxy war that is fought through them and their bodies and the consequent loss of their liberty, their right to education, work and free movement when and where they please; their right, in fact, to a life lived without fear.

Inaction allows criminals to continue committing crimes with impunity: we know this; but we accept it more readily in fiction than in real life. This could be because in fiction we know someone else will take up the mantle of crusader on our behalf and justice will be done. Outside the pages of a book, it is never clear how an individual is to proceed and what, if anything, the outcome of any action will be.

Shopian is not Mangalore – we can achieve nothing, especially not ridicule, by sending anyone pink chaddis. What it could be is a test of our empathy and imagination, our ability to see ourselves in the women of Shopian and take action upon it because to remain silent would be to allow more such crimes to take place.

6 comments to Crime Non-Fiction

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>