I deliberately slowed down to keep pace with Pushpanjali Panda as our group began to walk away from the Believers Church, Santinagar, in the Kandhamal district of Odisha. I wanted to absorb some of her energy. Leave something from me with her.
After the emotionally charged meeting we had just had in the church premises, there was a sense of relief at stepping out under the blue evening sky. I asked for her phone number and typed it into my phone. I called the number I had saved and when the mobile phone in Pushpanjali’s hand buzzed, I was assured that she now had my number too.
“What do you do here?” I asked Pushpanjali as we walked along a row of small one-room homes, each sharing its walls with the other.
“I am a tailoring instructor,” she said with a wide smile.
“Will you show me your sewing machine?” I asked her. I was immediately interested.
Pushpanjali and I broke away from our group and took a detour to her home. As she opened the lock, I commented on the many keys she had in her key chain, considering the home was just a one-room tenement with a kitchen. She laughed and made an explanatory gesture.
As soon as the door opened, a shaft of light led my eye to the photographs on the opposite wall. Here was the story of Pushpanjali’s grand love, as well as its devastating loss—represented in two photo frames balanced on an unpainted cement wall.
I instinctively stepped closer and tried to straighten the photograph of her husband, Dipesh Singh Digal. Along with his name, I read—Date of birth: 1970. Date of death: 2008. The second photograph showed Digal and Pushpanjali as a young couple, posing together in a studio.
Digal had been a pastor. He had been hunted and killed by a mob during the violence committed by Hindu groups against the Christian community in Kandhamal in 2008. It struck me that he had been just a little older than me. Pushpanjali must be a few years younger than me. Their only daughter, Monalisa, was now 20 and working in a garment factory in Chennai. A family torn apart, struggling to stay together.
Santinagar, where Pushpanjali now lives, is a small clearing by the highway in Kandhamal, where the district administration has allotted space to a few families who were among the 60,000 people forced to flee their homes to escape the violence in 2008. More than 5,000 homes had been destroyed and displaced families are still being warned against trying to return to their villages. Their fields and land have been usurped. Witnesses have turned hostile and victims have little access to either justice or compensation for their loss.
Two weeks ago, I had reached Kandhamal with a group of volunteers of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat, a civil society initiative committed to seeking justice for victims of hate crimes and building peace between communities. We were enabled by the presence of Father Manoj Nayak and Ajaya Singh, both of whom are from Kandhamal and work amongst the survivors despite threats to their lives. At Santinagar, we spent a few hours meeting with the community, sitting together on the floor of the newly built church.
“We are here to break the silence around hate crimes,” says Harsh Mander, each time he introduces the Karwan-e-Mohabbat in a new place. “We will tell your story to others. We will collectively seek justice.”
When Pushpanjali narrates the events of her life, she starts from the beginning. With a shy smile that widens immediately, she tells us that she is from a Brahmin family. Her husband was a Dalit. They fell in love and she married him against the wishes of her family. She moved to Kandhamal with him.
Pushpanjali speaks about her inter-caste love marriage as if it is a living story. As soon as this thought crossed my mind, I pressed pause on it. Of course her story is alive for her. She is alive, isn’t she? Just listen to her. Be present.
Ten years ago, when a group of men came to Pushpanjali’s home looking for her husband, the pastor, she told them the name of the neighbouring village where he had gone. She had no idea that she was speaking to men who would kill him. Her lips tremble as she recalls the brutality with which Digal was lynched and his body mutilated. His head was crushed with a stone, and his body burnt with petrol and thrown into a ditch.
After killing Digal, the mob had come to their home. Pushpanjali locked their nine-year-old daughter and herself inside and refused to open the doors despite threats from the mob that they would burn down the house. Then she recognized some young men in the crowd.
“I called them out by their names and spoke to them. I asked them how they could become our enemies like this,” she recalls. For some reason, this seemed to inhibit the men from further violence. They spoke to others in the mob and said, “Let’s leave from here.”
Pushpanjali’s life events reminded me of a news story I had read about a Hindu woman in Gujarat in 2002 who had run towards a mob that was attacking her Muslim husband and tried to protect him with her body. Somehow the woman’s decision to face up to danger and intervene physically in the violence has stayed with me as a visual memory.
Pushpanjali’s tearful narration also evoked the desperate courage of Sikh women during the anti-Sikh violence in 1984 who had struggled to hide their young children even as they heard the screams of the men in their family being attacked and burnt alive in the streets outside. We had met many of them when the Karwan had spent a day in Tilak Nagar, Delhi, last year. Thirty-four years later, they were still holding their families together despite crushing poverty, mental health crises and state apathy.
None of these women had meant to be so heroic. They had risen from their trauma because they could not afford to be defeated. They are women who have so much to give even when they have been left with nothing at all. They have the audacity to start anew.
They don’t need a Women’s Day salute to honour them. They need space in the narrative of our society and country. They need justice and validation. Their share of the earth and sky.
(Source: LivemintNatasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.)