Outrage, pain and prose

Sonia Faleiro talks to Apoorva Sripathi on 13 Men, a book on the alleged gang rape of a Santhal woman

March 27, 2015 04:23 pm | Updated 04:31 pm IST - chennai:

The Santhal village of Subalpur, in Birbhum, West Bengal. Photo: Sonia Faleiro

The Santhal village of Subalpur, in Birbhum, West Bengal. Photo: Sonia Faleiro

Sonia Faleiro remembers burying her head in her hands when she heard the news about a woman being gang-raped by 13 men, allegedly on official sanction in Subalpur village in West Bengal. This was in January 2014. The story sparked international outrage and was widely reported: the rape was allegedly ordered as a punishment for the 20-year-old’s relationship with an outsider — a Muslim. Sonia travelled to West Bengal to meet with the woman she calls ‘Baby’, conducted extensive interviews with the families of the 13 men, the villagers, investigating officers, lawyers, and local politicians to unearth a complex, multi-layered story that has now been published as an e-book called 13 Men .

The book is the fifth title published by Deca, a cooperative of global journalists Sonia co-founded, which brings intensely reported, long-form stories to life. Sonia discusses about the experience behind writing the book and her involvement with Deca:

What compelled you to take up this case as opposed to a more well-known one?

The case was one of a string of gang-rape cases that drew attention after the December 2012 Delhi bus incident. Like many other people, I found myself overwhelmed by the barrage of terrible news and wanted to make sense of it. There were so many conflicting reports in the media, before the story eventually died down, that it made me want to learn the truth for myself — to understand who the 13 men were and why they had raped Baby. What I discovered was that the case had been almost entirely misreported. To begin with, the tribal council did not sanction the rape.

Did you face any language barriers while interviewing the people of Subalpur?

I’ve been working in West Bengal for three years, and understand some Bengali. I don’t speak Santhali, but I was fortunate enough to be assisted by a Santhal activist who translated for me. The official documents were in Bengali, and I had those translated and worked from transcripts.

Why do you address her as ‘Baby’ in your book? Is that name a reference to something?

That’s a good question. As you know, I couldn’t use her real name under Indian law. I’m the only journalist who was allowed to interview her in the high-security government shelter where the West Bengal Government placed her and her mother, and I also met with her extended family. The name corresponds to how her family related to her.

So what’s Baby’s story?

She’s a young woman who wanted more out of her life — and when she was 16, she jumped at an opportunity to travel to Delhi and work there. When she returned home at the age of 20, she was different — worldly, urbanised. She started taking for granted what most modern women take for granted. She wore shorts. She bought a mobile phone. Her behaviour was seen as outrageous in the insular Santhal community of Subalpur, and her affair with a Muslim outsider annoyed them. So they asked her to break it off and she retorted, ‘Whom I love is my business’.

To punish her for violating an implicit tribal law against relationships with outsiders, the villagers broke down the door to her house while she was with her lover, dragged them both out, and tied them to a tree the entire night, ostensibly to prevent them from escaping ahead of the village council they’d planned to convene to try them for their “crime” of being in a relationship. But then the story diverged. Baby says that at some time in that freezing cold January night, she was untied and raped by 13 men. The villagers claim she’s lying at the behest of politicians who are using her to besmirch the name of the tribal councils. They say the politicians’ ultimate goal is to deny tribals control over their land.

How does this case, if it does, change the way justice is perceived here? Or even rape for that matter?  

Let’s see what worked. A young woman filed a case, the police investigated it, and even the Supreme Court took  suo motu cognisance. The State Government gave Baby financial support and a plot of land with a house. That’s more than what a lot of rape victims get. The trial was concluded within months. On the other hand, DNA and forensic samples submitted by the police didn’t come back in time for the trial and the medical evidence wasn’t conclusive. I think what we’ve learnt is that our systems for providing justice need to be more transparent. But we’ve also seen that the system can work, that rape victims can expect their complaints to be recorded and investigated in a timely manner.

Does it mean then that the December 2012 case might encourage some women (however, cruel it sounds) to falsely complain of rape?

I think there will always be people who attempt to game the system. It’s up to the police to investigate all cases fully and fairly. But while applying the appropriate scrutiny to complaints, we must be sure not to harass and stigmatise survivors of rape.

Did you see yourself getting too attached to the story?

I felt tremendous sympathy for everyone involved — there is not one victim, but multiple victims in this story. I felt sympathetic towards Baby obviously. But let’s also spare a thought for the families of the 13 men who are deeply poor and are struggling to make ends meet.

Is it any different then for women in the villages from those in the cities?

Women in rural India demonstrate a greater reluctance to lodge a complaint because they believe that the police will rebuff them and they will be ostracised from their communities. But the situation isn’t much better even in cities like Delhi and Mumbai.

Were photographs as important as the text? Did you go about thinking “these are the photos that I need to take, these are important...”?

I always take photographs, mostly to help me recreate the story and capture details I may forget to note down. The photographs I took reminded me of how many bars there were on Baby’s window (four) and what colour the walls of her hut were painted, and so on. But digital media also gives me the opportunity to share my photographs, video, and interviews with people via Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and Facebook and I do that as well because I think it enhances the reading experience and brings people closer to the story.

Can you tell us a little something about Deca?

We’re a group of 11 writers based in different parts of the world who came together to tell the necessary stories of our time in a long-form format and to publish them in the highest possible standards. We publish e-books as Kindle Singles that can also be downloaded as PDFs or bought through our app. We’ve so far reported stories from China, Bolivia, Italy, the Alaskan Arctic, and now India, and several of our stories have been Amazon bestsellers.

How relevant is Deca in a world where listicles and gifs are used to keep stories short and interesting? 

There’s place for all kinds of writing; we’re not in a one or the other situation. I don’t believe in the model of ‘everyone loves listicles’ so I’m going to give them only that. I believe in deeply reported, in-depth stories and that’s what I read and write every single day.

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