The Bengaluru incident served as a scary reminder that no matter what ‘precautions’ we take, women will never be safe. From little ones who are a few months old to senior citizens who’re in their 60s, women of all ages have been molested, brutally raped and stripped off of their honour, time and again.
So go ahead, read the story.
Warm droplets of blood tumbled and splashed onto the ruddy ground, creating a trail as they dragged little Krishna through the dried patches of what were once water holes.
‘Let me go, please!’ she pleaded, as tears gathered in the corners of her eyes, threatening to spill over.
Surrounding her on all sides, the men guffawed as her tiny shoulders shook and her hands hung low, making no attempt to wipe the blood flowing from her open wounds. The men had sinned before, several times, but today was different. The sky above had curdled into a mass of grey clouds, and instead of letting small shafts of light through they emitted a crimson glow. The men jeered at Krishna’s bloody face, but in doing so they had made their biggest mistake. What was to come would change the temple town of Ambavati forever.
Darpad, Kavi, Hari and Kanja are young men from Ambavati, a little town in central India; all four are in the prime of their lives—but have little or no interest in academics and lack a sense of purpose. Hailing from affluent families, they resort to mischief to pass their time—often at the cost of others. The men, all in their mid-twenties, missed classes by the dozen and skipped their exams, too. As a result, they had no option but to lavishly bribe the college authorities in return for good marks. Instead of studying, they spend their days lounging outside the local Ambavati temple, sometimes chasing stray dogs by pelting stones at them, and once even setting fire to the local priest’s scooter. Since Ambavati was a small town, the temple was at its heart and was the centre of activity, which made it a good vantage point for them to pass their time. But their misdemeanours did not end with stray dogs and scooters: On days when they had nothing exciting to do, they harassed the young women who walked in and out of the temple by passing lewd remarks, making the lives of these innocent people a living hell.
As the years passed, the men’s hunger for drama increased, as simple mockery failed to inflate their egos the way it used to. The temple elders turned a blind eye to their misdemeanours, calling them harmless pranksters, even though the authorities knew that their actions routinely went far beyond youthful hijinks. Kavi’s father, Sikander Gagan, was a powerful politician in town, as well as being a trustee of the Ambavati temple. The locals believed that it was Sikandar who got Jayankara, his political rival, murdered in broad daylight a couple of years ago. Although there was no factual proof to support the claims, it was beyond evident that the cold blooded murder that took place right in the middle of town could have only been Sikandar’s doing; and all this just so he could discourage anyone else from running against him.
Sikandar was the kind of man who would kill when necessary, and not lose a wink of sleep over it. In fact Kavi would often discuss Baba’s temper with his friends, often recalling that one incident from his childhood when he got slapped so hard for not finishing his meal on time. It had been an open-handed smack, leaving a red welt behind; and just below his eye was a deep cut where Baba’s ring had caught him. Kavi had staggered backwards, clutching his face, eyes watering and nose bleeding. He would never be able to forget that slap or Baba’s stony glare, which carved straight into his moist eyes. The town feared Sikandar and so did the four boys. Well-connected and politically influential, Sikandar donated huge sums of money to the Ambavati temple during the annual festival. The locals were certain that Sikander’s influence, political clout and donations were the reasons why the temple elders hadn’t taken action against the boys, despite the uproar they created outside the temple nearly every day. Why make a scene and risk losing the lakhs of rupees pouring into the temple treasury? They knew the century old temple would be unmanageable without Sikander’s money.
Kavi had been afraid of his father ever since when he was little. And while the entire town of Ambavati addressed Sikandar Gagan as Seth, Kavi fondly called him Baba. Sikandar was constantly traveling, but each time he returned to Ambavati he made sure he gave Kavi plenty of money to splurge and have fun. He didn’t care about what his son did or whom he met or hung out with. All he expected of Kavi was for him to pass all his exams, even if it was by the bare minimum. This was so he could boast about his son and his lineage during his political campaigns leading up to the elections, which were a few months away. The last thing he wanted to hear was that his son had failed college.
However, for over a week now, the four men had been frustrated and restless. They were in trouble due to being denied their hall tickets, which meant that they would be unable to write their college exams. The administration in Ambavati Central College changed every decade, which had occurred in the past week. Little had the men expected that the newly appointed dean, Mr. Pradhan, was not someone who would succumb to monetary pressure. How would they write their exams? When the four men marched into Mr. Pradhan’s office with the intent of offering him a large bribe, he dismissed their offer even before they could make it, “I know why you’re here. You may write your exams next year; please don’t waste my time,” he said, firmly asking them to leave his office at once. Kavi, the most short-tempered amongst the lot, was about to explode when Hari grabbed his arm. “How dare you,” muttered Kavi under his breath as he glared at Mr. Pradhan. Seeing the four men still standing in his office, Mr. Pradhan warned, “Leave my room or I will be forced to expel you from the college for misconduct.”
Realizing that the college premises weren’t the ideal place for a confrontation, the four men suppressed their anger and walked out, slamming the door. How dare he speak to them like that? Did he know who they were? However, it didn’t matter to Mr. Pradhan who these kids were. Slightly shaken and angry, the four men stomped out of the college gate in disbelief; nobody had spoken to them like that but for Sikandar. In fact, the last dean even smoked cigarettes with them from time to time; they never had to even walk up to his office. Not that the men cared about writing their exams or even attending college, but Sikandar Gagan did. The Seth, who was out of town, was set to return in two days, which made Kavi both scared and nervous. What would he tell Baba? That he’s not writing any exam this year? No! He wouldn’t let that happen. Seeing Kavi get so nervous made Kanja, Hari and Darpad nervous too. The Seth knew who Kavi’s friends were, which meant he would take each one of them to task if he found out. Failing in an exam was one thing, but not being allowed to write the exam was an even bigger insult. The Seth would never approve of that. This was something the men had to solve themselves, come what may.
It was a quiet morning in the temple town of Ambavati. The early morning sun had already risen well into the sky, and the spring grass shone, as though it glowed from within. Durga, who was dressed in an elegant yellow saree, sat quietly as her husband, Adil, rode the scooter through the quiet roads of the town. Leaves dangled motionless from their branches, as if they had been painted there. Everything was still, utterly still.
Durga was five months pregnant. Durga had married Adil over three years ago, against her parents’ wishes, because she was convinced nobody could love her the way he did. They had met in their final year of college and married a year later in a quiet temple ceremony. The young couple had recently moved to Ambavati after Durga’s miscarriage; they wanted a change of scenery so they could start afresh.
After months of trying to find work, Adil had just received an offer, and today was his first day on the job. Although he wished to be by Durga’s side all the time, the pressure of having a child and being a responsible father had been weighing on him for the last few days, and he was more anxious and restless than usual. He was also aware that there would soon be a third member of the family and that the household expenses would increase. Adil wanted to reach his new workplace ahead of time and not leave anything to chance.
The previous night, Durga had sensed her husband’s anxiety and told him that she wanted to go to the temple before he went to work to pray for him. Therefore, the next morning, she woke up very early to cook a special meal for Adil’s lunch. However, an anxious Adil was ready to leave even earlier than planned. He checked on Durga to see if his lunchbox was ready, but she still hadn’t packed it. Uncharacteristically Adil lost his cool and screamed at Durga that if he lost the job, it would be due to her. Little did he know that it was taking so long because she was preparing his favourite dish—pongal.
The couple immediately left for the temple, and as an irritable Adil sped along the winding road, Durga sat quietly behind him, deeply hurt by Adil’s harsh words. However, Durga couldn’t help but feel guilty too. She wondered if the delay would actually cost Adil his job, and she chastised herself for not waking up earlier. As Durga looked up at leaves, drooping lifelessly above her, she secretly hoped that Adil would accompany her inside the temple to seek the Lord’s blessings, which would help to calm his nerves and allow him to shine at his new job. However, Adil was now extremely anxious about making it to work on time, and there was no way that he was going to accompany Durga inside. As the scooter approached the temple, Adil decided that he would drop Durga off and rush to work; she could pray on his behalf and walk home. He could always seek the Lord’s blessings the following day.
Meanwhile, Darpad, Kavi, Hari and Kanja had been angry and restless ever since they had left Mr. Pradhan’s room the previous afternoon. Not only had Mr. Pradhan humiliated them by asking them to get out, he had also made it extremely clear that he wasn’t going to give them their hall tickets for the exams. Then Hari received a call at 6:00 a.m. the next day from Velu, who informed him that Mr. Pradhan would be visiting the Ambavati temple at 7:30 a.m. Velu, who owned a tea stall outside the temple, was a trusted aide of Hari’s dad and always kept a watch on the boys and helped them in any way he could. The way in which Mr. Pradhan had dismissed the boys was fresh in their minds and had dented their egos. Frustrated and angry, Hari decided to teach Mr. Pradhan a lesson, and he knew that his best chance would be when Mr. Pradhan was visiting the temple alone. After putting the phone down, Hari called Kanja, Darpad and Kavi and told them of his plan.
It was a beautiful morning and the little town was drenched in honeyed tones. As Adil maneuvered the scooter into the temple lane, his feeling of remorse grew. Although Adil was anxious about getting to his new job on time, he regretted having lashed out at Durga at home. Unable to find the right words of apology, he had remained silent throughout their journey. When they reached the temple, Durga immediately hopped off the scooter, not wanting to irritate or delay Adil any longer than necessary.
Consumed by guilt, Adil leant forward and gently touched Durga’s face. “I’m sorry…” he whispered.
Durga immediately placed her hand on his, and pressed it to her cheek. She said, “I’m sorry, too…” Her eyes moistened.
Adil continued, “You know I didn’t mean to scold you, right?”
Durga’s lips curved into a small smile as she nodded slightly. “But it still hurt,” she chuckled as she dabbed at her eyes.
Adil heaved a sigh of relief. “I’ll see you this evening then? Maybe we can go out for dinner,” he suggested, as he looked down at his watch.
Durga squeezed his hand. “Why don’t you come inside, Adu? It’ll only take two minutes. We’ll pray quickly!”
Adil tenderly tucked Durga’s hair behind her ear. “Not today sweetie, I don’t want to be late! I will seek the Lord’s blessings tomorrow,” he said.
Durga took a deep breath, “I’ll pray for you; everything will be fine,” assured Durga, as she hugged him tightly.
“Love you, stay safe,” he whispered, looking straight into her eyes before he sped away on his scooter. Durga stood outside the temple, waving her hand until Adil’s scooter disappeared from sight.
On this new day, a fresh, gentle breeze caressed Durga’s skin. As she walked down the steps to enter the century-old Ambavati temple, Durga thought that it seemed even more deserted and lonely than usual at this early hour.
At the same time, in another area of town, Hari, Kanja, Kavi and Darpad were meeting at the edge of their neighbourhood to decide how they were going to confront Pradhan in the temple. The discussion was unproductive, but nonetheless, the boys left for the temple. Kavi had been angry ever since Mr. Pradhan had ordered them out of his office the previous afternoon. His father, Sikandar Gagan was scheduled to return soon and he was worried about how to answer Baba, if and when he questioned him about his exams. Kavi, the most anxious of the lot, took his frustration out on Darpad, accusing him of not trying to help his friends. Darpad’s late father, Mr. Dhindra, had once been the dean of Ambavati College and therefore he felt that if Darpad had really tried, he would have reached out to his father’s former colleagues to help resolve the hall ticket issue.
Kanja and Hari had defended Darpad, saying that there was not much he could have done, particularly as Mr. Dhindra had been such an honest man. They felt that Mr. Dhindra’s friends would have been as honest as he was, and therefore wouldn’t be of much help in this situation. That said, they both understood Kavi’s nervousness and fear, but managed to convince him that it would be best if they focused their energies on threatening Pradhan instead of blaming each other. The four boys were just a couple of miles away from the Ambavati temple and had worked up the worst temper of their lives.
Upset that Adil hadn’t accompanied her into the temple, a strange sense of discomfort engulfed Durga as she walked through its seemingly never-ending hallway.
The temple hallway was broad and straight like the old canal that cut through the town, only instead of watery greens overhung by new foliage, it was covered with intricate carvings and ancient scriptures. The floor shined like the water in early morning, brought to a high polish by the temple caretakers.
Once she reached the main temple, Durga stepped in with a puja thali and bowed her head in prayer. The silence of the temple caressed her skin like a cool summer breeze, smoothing out the jagged edges of her soul. It had been a rough morning; not only had Adil screamed at her, but she was also guilty of delaying him. What bothered her most was that she was unable to bring Adil with her. However, when Durga bowed her head to the Almighty and started praying, she felt a huge sense of relief within.
Tears ran unchecked down her face and wetted the shiny floor as images from her past consumed her heart and mind—her traumatic miscarriage, the faces of her elderly parents, Adil lashing out at her—but the longer she stayed inside the temple, the better she started to feel. Within minutes, positive images started flooding her mind. She remembered the doctor telling her she was pregnant for the second time; she recalled the first time Adil had confessed his love for her. She was even reminded that she would be going home to see her parents at the end of the month.
As Durga opened her eyes after praying, she saw the old temple priest, Bappaji, approaching her with the prasada. The corners of her mouth were gently lifted in a smile.
“Where’s Adil?” Bappaji asked in a gentle tone.
Durga bowed down and accepted the prasada from the priest. “He was late for work Bappa, but he’ll be here tomorrow,” she said in a defensive tone.
The kind old priest had always been fond of Durga and Adil, who were frequent visitors to the temple. Not seeing Adil by Durga’s side today, Bappaji placed his hand on her head: “Bless you my child; may the Lord be with you both!”
Before walking away to offer prasada to other worshippers, Bappaji made sure to give her Adil’s share of the prasada. Feeling grateful for Bappaji’s kindness Durga stepped out of the main temple with the prasada; her steps now felt lighter and for the first time in the morning she tilted her face towards golden sun which had now turned from yellowish brown to golden. It was okay that Adil hadn’t prayed today. She would give him the prasadam, and it would all be fine.
When Durga was preparing to leave, Darpad, Kanja, Hari and Kavi—had just reached the Ambavati temple. Hopping off their bikes hurriedly, Hari and Kanja decided to barge straight into the temple to look for Mr. Pradhan, while Kavi and Darpad stayed outside to keep an eye out for him.
“That son of a bitch,” Kanja muttered under his breath as he started running down the temple steps with Hari.
In the meantime, Darpad pulled out his phone and started calling Velu, while Kavi started walking up and down the street restlessly, looking for Pradhan.
With one hand resting gently on her belly and the other clutching the prasada thali, Durga had just stepped out of the hallway, heading out of the temple. Feeling low on energy from her early start, she was looking forward to getting some rest once she reached home.
As she looked down at the floor and slowly walked towards the exit, Hari and Kanja collided into her with a huge thud. Her body was assaulted with a thunderous jolt, and her prasada thali was flung into the air. Though Durga was still standing, she was stunned from the collision. She saw the prasada thali lying on the floor, its contents strewn across the ground. Annoyed and angry, Hari and Kanja whipped around immediately—only to see Durga glaring at them.
Durga had really hoped to give Adil the prasada, but that wasn’t going to happen anymore. The careless men had just collided into her with a thud, strewing the contents of the thali across the floor. Durga’s eyes narrowed as Hari and Kanja stared at her like it was her fault. They were well built and could take her down easily if they wanted to, but that wasn’t going to stop her from speaking her mind.
‘Bloody idiots!’ she screamed as she looked at the fallen prasada on the ground.
A cruel sneer formed on Hari’s smooth face and he stepped forward, his eyes boring straight into hers.
‘What did you just say?’ he asked in a calm tone, the sneer now evaporating from his face.
Durga’s hands twitched and she could feel a vein pulsing in her forehead.
‘Bloody idiots!’ she screamed again defiantly, looking straight into their faces. ‘Are you blind? What if I had fallen and something had happened to my baby?’ she yelled, her eyes now turning red with rage. ‘This is a temple, not your dad’s playground!’ she added angrily, her jaw tightening.
Kanja, who was two steps behind Hari, tried to pull him away but it was too late. Hari was the most short-tempered and impulsive of the four boys, and nobody in Ambavati had spoken to him like that, not even Sikandar Gagan. Durga and Adil were new to Ambavati, and therefore they were unaware of these four boys and their questionable activities. As she looked at Adil’s prasada strewn on the ground, her eyes became moist. Durga was the kind of woman who would often swallow her retort, smile and move on. However, today was different. She hadn’t had the best start to the day because of her fight with Adil, and now it had only gotten worse, with these men colliding into her. What if she had fallen down and something had happened to her baby? Another miscarriage? No! Never! All these disturbing thoughts and the built up rage that came with them consumed all that she was.
She looked up at Hari, her moist eyes now blazing with anger. ‘You’re lucky nothing happened to my baby…’ she warned, her body shaking with rage.
Every word she said only fuelled the fire that now burned inside Hari. Every condescending phrase was like gasoline on that fire, and Hari’s fists began to clench as he stepped closer. Kanja, somewhat irked by the quick turn of events, followed closely behind Hari. However, when Durga raised her finger to warn Hari, it was the last straw.
As the men inched closer, Durga looked around and suddenly realized she was alone in the temple courtyard. Overcome by rage and still upset from the events that had transpired earlier that morning, Durga had just insulted two unknown men, who were now seething with rage and stood only inches away from her. Her deepest fears clawed at the base of her throat and buried themselves in her chest, quickening the gentle thud of her heart. Even if she screamed at the top of her lungs, nobody would hear her. The main temple building was far away.
As Hari closed in on Durga, she stumbled backwards only to collide with Kanja, who had crept up from behind like a serpent and was now wielding a huge knife. ‘How dare you?’ She screamed as she turned to look at Kanja, but before she could even move an inch, a furious Hari had grabbed her face in his strong hand and spun it around, almost dislocating her jaw. ‘Shut your mouth or he’ll stick that knife right through your stomach!’ he threatened, gesturing with his eyebrows to Kanja, who now held the knife inches from Durga’s pregnant belly.
The moment he mentioned her baby, Durga froze and her expression of anger melted away into that of a desperate mother. ‘No! Not my baby! Pl-please don’t do anything to my baby… pl-please!’ she begged. Hari’s grip was stony, sending a bolt of pain through her head like ice-cold metal, but she didn’t stop pleading. ‘I’m sorry, I’m re-really sorry’ she gasped. The sky was darkly foreboding, and there was only one sound to be heard; the sound of her own pulse throbbing in her ears. Her feet soon began to tremble, and her legs twitched, fighting the impulse to whirl around and sprint back into the temple hallway. Sweat now covered her body, and her heart thudded against her chest like a ticking bomb.
Kanja slid the knife across her stomach, gently, almost caressing it. ‘Blind idiots huh?’ he questioned. ‘No! Dad’s playground, remember?’ Hari mocked, as his hand pressed against her stomach and slid upwards, making her want to throw up. ‘Liking it?’ Hari mocked, caressing her body as if he owned it. She tried to shove his hands away, but he was too strong. His fingers dug into her skin mercilessly, leaving bruises on her arms. ‘Pl-please st-stop…’ she cried. But Hari continued, ‘I’d love to, but you see, you’re too pretty to let go that fast’. He smirked.
She tried to push him away, but nothing seemed to work. ‘Ah! She likes to fight!’ He smiled showing his crooked teeth, while Kanja got closer, making sure she had no way to escape. Hari’s searching hands crept up her chest slowly and nipped at her tender skin. Her skin bruised so easily, she knew it would make a mark. It seemed like Hari knew it too. ‘You won’t mess with Hari again, right?’ he said menacingly, as they began taking turns groping her. Durga stood there silently, stifling a million screams in her tiny heart. ‘I didn’t hear you! You won’t mess with Hari again, right?’ he screamed, squeezing her chest with his coarse fingers.
Warm tears dripped down Durga’s face as she nodded quickly, ‘No, no… I wo-won’t…’ she stammered, sucking at the air like it had suddenly become thick and was now almost too difficult to draw in. ‘You’re a woman, stay within your limits!’ Kanja growled, smacking her head from behind. By now Durga had become numb to everything around her, and had completely withdrawn from her previously tough stance—she was now offering them more than they had asked for in the first place.
Had she not been pregnant, she would probably have slit their throats or died trying, but she couldn’t do that now. She was going to be a mother soon, and all she cared about was the safety of her unborn child. She had already lost one baby, and the fear of losing another made her numb. Each passing second seemed to go on forever, as she stood there silently, feeling the hands of two unknown men slide across her skin as if she were a piece of meat waiting to be devoured. Durga’s heart pounded incessantly, but her body wouldn’t move. Once again fear found her. It spoke to her in its crackling voice, ‘You don’t want another miscarriage do you?’ It told her legs to weaken, her stomach to lurch, and her heart to ache, and Durga obliged.
By now Durga was emotionally drained, and all she hoped for was that they wouldn’t hurt her baby. Seeing her beg and weep gave Hari and Kanja the ego boost they needed. They had been irritable for the last couple of days, particularly after Mr. Pradhan had denied them their exam hall tickets. To add fuel to the fire, Durga had called them blind idiots! A woman had insulted them! A stupid pregnant woman, and they were going to make her pay for it. Hari had always been like a ticking time bomb. Always. Any provocation, no matter how small or insignificant and his temper would flare.
This wasn’t the first time he had touched a woman inappropriately. A few months ago he had slapped a woman so hard that her own teeth almost cleaved her tongue in half. Kanja, on the other hand, wasn’t as cold or heartless as Hari but the four boys had done everything together since childhood. So come what may, he would support his friends. That’s what friends were for! As Kanja looked at Durga’s trembling lips, he almost felt guilty for what was happening, but then fear took over his mind and body like a parasite, feeding on his insides. He was afraid that if Durga screamed, he would get into trouble. So, letting his primal instincts take over, he stood there with the knife pointing at Durga’s slender neck, as Hari continued to feel her up to his hearts content. “She’s liking it!” Hari chuckled, as he reached for the top button of her blouse.
But before he made any further advances, Kanja heard voices coming from the temple hallway. “People are coming out!” warned the anxious Kanja, but Hari ignored him, and continued to touch Durga’s stomach as though the child inside her was his. When Hari didn’t stop, Kanja appealed to him again.
“Hari, let’s go! It could be Pradhan!” When Hari heard the word Pradhan, he turned towards Kanja. “Pradhan! That son of a bitch!” he said in an angry tone, and then looking back at Durga and grabbing her shoulders firmly he asked in a menacing tone, “Did we trouble you?” Kanja inched the knife closer to Durga’s stomach. “Did we trouble you?” Hari asked again grabbing her by the hair, to which Kanja responded, “Of course we didn’t! She’s just tired and hungry… Right?” Durga now understood what the men wanted her to say. “N-nobody troubled me… I wo-won’t tell anyone…” she gasped. “Smart!” quipped Hari, to which Kanja responded, “It won’t take us long to find out where you live… Now get out before I stick this knife in your gut!” Durga stood still, feeling like a worthless piece of meat as tears continued to drip freely from her eyes. “Get out!” Hari said angrily, giving her a forceful push, making her stumble backwards.
TO BE CONTINUED….