Thwack… his right fist made contact with her left eye socket and created a squelching sound rather than a bone breaking thud. She uttered a light cry of pain… not too loud so the neighbours would hear, for she had learned from bitter experience that a loud yell would invite a second and harder punch.
She lowered her blurred gaze to the dirty bunched rag in her hands… a rag stained with her own blood. But, not blood from the wounds on her face – or those concealed on her breasts – but her own natural menstrual blood.
It was the week in the month she feared more than any other- it was always the week when her husband drank more than usual and took out his rages on her.
She hated him with all her spirit, but as a woman in rural India, she knew she had no option but to obey and suffer.
This is a bleak snapshot of life for many women across India.
The world’s second most populated country is at the cutting edge of new technology, earning vast material wealth for thousands.
But, anyone who has seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire, will know that under that veneer of prosperity, many within its 1.2 billion population live in abject poverty and total squalor.
The abuse of women is part and parcel of that poverty.
And it is the treatment and degradation of women which underlines how far India still has to travel to reach a more humanitarian norm expected elsewhere in the developed world.
While Islam is often criticised for its hardened treatment of women, only 13% of the Indian population are Muslim.
The overarching religion, which both promotes and ignores the abuse of women, is Hinduism, practised by a staggering 81% of the population.
Traditional Indian society is defined by social hierarchy.
The Hindu caste system embodies this social stratification to a greater extent than any class system in western society. Indian social classes are defined by thousands of endogamous hereditary groups, often termed as castes, where those at the bottom are treated worse than livestock.
Family values are important in the Indian tradition, and multi-generational patriarchal joint families have been the norm in India for hundreds of years.
Even today, an overwhelming majority of Indians, have their marriages arranged by their parents or other elders in the family.
Marriage is for life, and the divorce rate is extremely low. As of 2011, just 1.8 percent of Indian women were divorced. Child marriages are also common, especially in rural areas; many women wed before reaching 18, which is their legal marriageable age.
Female infanticide and female foeticide in the country have caused a discrepancy in the sex ratio, as of 2005, it was estimated that there were a staggering 50 million more males than females in the nation.
The payment of dowry, although illegal, remains widespread across class lines. Deaths resulting from dowry, mostly from bride burning, are on the rise, despite stringent anti-dowry laws.
But India is also a nation bubbling with humanity, wisdom and love… and these three tenets underpin everything.
- Saumyata Bisht
Now a 23 year-old Hindu woman is making her publishing debut with the most amazing story of love and romance set in a society where women are degraded and abused daily.
With her first novel Gauri: A Sin Between My Legs, Saumyata Bisht has joined Anita Desai, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai and Anita Nair as a fresh and powerful voice for women in the Indian subcontinent.
Her book is a Shakespearean tragedy in 12 parts, guaranteed to engage the reader with both its sublime storytelling and its poetic style.
We were cardamom and mint and wanted to seep down and disappear…
but, we had it in our destiny to float and put a show for the world to see.
(Gauri: A Sin Between My Legs)
Saumyata is the daughter of a college principal and since early childhood taught herself English and immersed herself in English literature, slowly observing the suppression and abuse of fellow Indian women.
“I was very imaginative as a kid and had this weird fascination with the English language,” she explains. “Weird, because most people in my town don’t speak English.
“So I would teach myself new words, their pronunciation and usage. I had started writing at around seven years of age. I would make up characters in my mind and write short stories about them.”
Saumyata sees herself as a writer, a poet, a storyteller and a messenger rather than a campaigner or activist for emancipation.
Yet it is deep indignation at the society in which she was raised, which ignites her storytelling passion.
“There’s no denying that we still are grappled in the webs of patriarchy,” she says.
“We are advancing of course. But the notions remain the same, coaxed in promises that carry the same essence.
“Women are still expected to follow a certain path and protect her ‘sacredness’.
“And while there is appalling poverty in cities like Delhi and Kolkata, the urban masses aren’t the ones that are bearing the brunt of the brutality against women… the rural masses are!
“Most girls are uneducated. They even soak their menstrual blood with rags and dry leaves. And even falling in love with a man from a different caste is considered a sin, for which punishment is severe.
“Many girls from rural areas are married early. Many more are beaten by their husbands and his family. Rapes happen, but are silenced. Only the brutal ones find some light, but most rapes are never even mentioned.
The definitions of my relationship with everyone changed and took dreadful lanes. Every man became Hisa’s uncle, even my father, even my beloved Shyam.
Just because one man was desperate, one man was evil, one man burned in desires, one man was lewd and disgusting.
Every man became the same for me. A beast ready to tear my flesh and feed on my blood.
(Gauri: A Sin Between My Legs)
- Saumyata: Life and any chance of love for many women in rural India is in total suppression
Although written as a novel – a vehicle to protect the identities of people she knows – Gauri: A Sin Between My Legs is a gripping insight into a world rarely seen in the West.
At times the book reads like a brilliant work of romance and self-evaluation and in places is poetic in a metaphysical form that John Donne or Lord Byron would recognise. And above all else it is a tale of purity, love and romance in a world gone wrong.
It is almost Blakean in its beauty as an innocent young girl is corrupted by men into a world of experience.
“The beauty of life, the purity of love, the rawness of nature and subtle nuances in the human character warms my spirit and moves my pen to capture them,” explains Saumyata.
We just breathe, until someone takes the breath away.
Our hearts just beat, until someone makes it jump.
Our blood is just thick water, until someone runs the warmth of love within it.
Until then we are just flesh and blood, dragging ourselves through the years… because everyone does.
After all, isn’t that what life is?
But suddenly meanings change, the world is a different place and you are a new person with dreams on your back and you live your life running to catch them.
Suddenly everything is so beautiful.
The sun has more orange and yellow, the winds are softer and the sky is telling stories that you have never heard before.
Suddenly, god has left a piece of heaven for us to see.
(Gauri: A Sin Between My Legs)
But Gauri: A Sin Between My Legs is much more than just poetic romantic novel.
The love, romance and beauty is splintered with abuse, rape and degradation, murder, mysticism and pregnancy and childbirth, in a style that is impossible to ignore and hard to put down.
It explores in depth the enforced sanctity of virginity before marriage (so-called being ‘Sacred’) and then the absolute desolation of a woman’s sacredness by rape and violation – often by a husband, uncles and friends of the husband. And women who become untouchable if they fall in love with a man from a lower caste.
He became just like his mother and brother. Burned her hands, cut her hair, crushed her fingers and broke her teeth.
Every day she prayed to god Golu for justice.
She prayed for the infertility of our lands and death to our animals.
For generations to rot. For the men in our family to die or suffer a fate worse than death.
She cried and urged to god Golu each day. Until one day she was burned alive by her husband and mother-in-law.
(Gauri: A Sin Between My Legs)
“Wishes that are crumpled, the voices that are silenced, they stir an indignation in me and provoke me to write,” says Saumyata.
“So I want to speak for the silent, shout for them with my words.
“I don’t know if someone notices that, but there’s a lot of wrong happening in the world.
“I just intend to make a tiny contribution into correcting it,” she adds with innate modesty.
“I think passion for life itself is very important to me. To live and die for a purpose. To use that purpose for a higher good and to enlighten millions of other humans by being honest and sacred to my purpose.”
Gauri: A Sin Between My Legs is certainly a life and death work, and given a chance this love story may well begin to enlighten millions of people around the world.
- Gauri: A Sin Between My Legs is set for worldwide publication on 10th January 2018… watch this space for more information.