The wooden cot was where dreams took shape. Lying on it, under the thatched roof that dripped a steady trickle during the rains, the two sisters would discuss their hopes and fears. The elder sister would mostly listen as the younger one talked about the man she loved and her career dilemma, “lawyer or police?”. Together, they would talk of leaving their village and earning more money, of how they would one day bring down their house, with its mud walls and that leaky roof, and build a new one in its place.
Then, one day last year, the dreams stopped and the nightmares began. On December 12, 2018, the younger of the two sisters was allegedly raped by two men, one of them allegedly the man she loved. Then, on December 5, as the family fought the case in Rae Bareli, the 23-year-old was waylaid by five men, two of them allegedly her rapists, and set on fire. A day later, she succumbed to her burns at a hospital in Delhi to where she was airlifted.
“Woh wakeel banna chahti thi (she wanted to be a lawyer)… not just for herself, but to fight for other girls like her. I would sometimes accompany my younger sister to Rae Bareli for the rape case. That’s when both of us decided we want to be lawyers,” says the elder sister, sitting with other members of her family beside the mound that marks her sister’s grave. “She was closest to me. We are the only two graduates in the family. There was so much we wanted to do… study further, travel…” says the 25-year-old, the sixth of seven siblings — five sisters and two brothers — with the victim being the youngest.
The money the two sisters got from stitching kurtas and blouses for women in the village was mostly pooled in with what their father earned from his blacksmith job.
Their elder brother, who dropped out of school and now works in a factory in Ahmedabad, says, “These two girls knew everything — they would tell me what to wear, say I should wear jeans and jackets to work. The younger one… she would always tell me that I knew little about the ways of the world.”
Still sitting near her sister’s grave, with women from the neighbourhood around her, the talk veers round to the day the victim was buried and how the entire village had turned up. The 25-year-old takes out her phone, which has a red cover, and shows them videos from that day — the surging crowds, the slogans and her sister being laid to rest in their field, beside their grandparents’ grave.
Back home, their father plugs in his phone, a basic black one held together by a rubber band, and leaves it for charging in a depression in one of the mud walls. Nearby, a bunch of bangles, covered in dust, hang from a nail on the mud wall.
“I ensured my two girls studied… they were my hope for the future. But look at the way things have turned out,” says the father, his face clouded with grief.
About half a kilometre away, at the degree college from where the two sisters graduated with BA degrees some years ago, a group of girls walk out of the gates, most of them walking beside their bicycles. The girls say BA is the most popular course here, also because none of the colleges offer commerce. “So if you don’t want to pursue science, BA is the only option,” says one of the girls.
Isha Singh is the only one in the group who has taken up science. “I took up Biology because I want to do General Nursing and Midwifery after my graduation. One of my relatives is a nurse. I have heard it is a good course for girls, easy to get jobs. I also go for coaching classes in the neighbouring market. My parents want me to study well. They bought me this bicycle so that I don’t get tired with all this studying and travelling,” she says.
While Isha’s father is a farmer, her friend Anamika Singh’s father is a factory worker in Ahemdabad. She wants to be a teacher and hopes to do her teacher training course and “move out of the village”. After school, she goes to the neighbouring market with a friend for a “computer typing class” that they have enrolled in.
In this village in Unnao and in neighbouring ones, these are difficult journeys for girls to make — the bicycle ride for a basic computer coaching class or the run through kuccha village roads as they train for selection in the armed forces. Aided by the high-speed 4G network on their low cost smartphones, they speak of their “bade sapne (big dreams)” — of someday leaving the village, of building careers. In their aspiration for bigger things, the girls have left the boys and men, who mostly work as labourers in other cities, far behind. But every once in a while, the girls are warned of their limits, the lines they can’t cross — the rape of the 23-year-old and the grisly events since then only the latest such reminder.
“We have been told to move in groups, go straight home from college. And that if someone teases us, we must not react, just put our heads down and keep walking,” says Priya Shukla, whose father is in Oman, working as a labourer. Shukla, the only girl among three siblings, dreams of clearing exams to the Staff Selection Commission. “I cycle 16 km to get to my SSC coaching class. Yahan kuch nahi hai (There is nothing here). No roads, no drinking water, no electricity and no jobs. If you need a job, you need to get out of here, go to Rae Bareli, Kanpur, Allahabad or Lucknow…,” she says.
One of the ways to get “out of here” is the railway station, where slow, lumbering local trains from Kanpur, Lucknow, Rae Bareli and Allahabad stop in the mornings. It was on her way to this station that the 23-year-old was waylaid and set on fire.
One of the eyewitness, who owns a paan shop near the station, and who claims to have seen the victim after she was set ablaze, says, “I can never forget that sight — of that girl in flames. I have a daughter in Class 10 and I send her to a neighbouring private school. She is our hope, but now I am scared for her. Her mother goes with her to school and picks her up,” he says.
Among the elders in the victim’s village, this narrative of “aspiration”, “hope” and “dreams” is replaced by more familiar talk — indignation and disbelief that a girl from a Lohar family “can even dream of marrying a Brahmin”.
Sitting on a charpoy near the victim’s house, a group of women talk about “all that has gone wrong”. “Nichi jatan mein to ho jati hain apas maa…Pradhan pati hi karaye rahe, par Bahman ke sath nahi hua kabhi. Woh jid pakar li thi (We lower castes marry among ourselves… The pradhan’s husband has himself facilitated some of those, but no one has ever heard of a Brahmin being married to a lower caste. But we hear she was adamant),” says one of the women.
Some distance away, is the house of the accused, the man the 23-year-old had hoped to marry and who allegedly raped and murdered her. With his father working at a garment shop in Kolkata, the accused, the only child of his parents, stayed with his mother who ran the household with the earnings from their agricultural land.
The accused’s mother says the family was aware of his relationship with the victim, and that they tried to persuade him to “forget about her”. “I do not know how they met or got to know each other. Even after he agreed to stop meeting that girl, she would force him to get married and would also ask for money,” she says, adding that both the accused and his friend wanted to join the armed forces.
A few houses away, at his friend’s house, his mother, who has been gram pradhan for 15 years, says, “He has three sisters — he wouldn’t do anything of that sort to another girl.”
The friend is also accused of raping the woman, and his father, who is among those who allegedly set her on fire, are now in police custody in Unnao.
Here too, despite the anger and gloom over the events of the past few days, the girls in the family talk of wanting to do more. All three of the second accused’s sisters are preparing for competitive examinations.
“Yahan kuch nahi hai (There’s nothing here),” says the eldest of the girls. “I was preparing for my teacher training exam when all this happened. I also want to get into the CISF. I have even cleared the physicals. I would go running every day before the physicals. Par teaching examination clear ho jata to jyada behtar tha, ladkiyon ke liye thik rehta hai (It will be better if I can clear the teacher training exam. It’s a better job for girls),” she says. On her phone are ready videos of online classes of a coaching institute in Allahabad. The three sisters share one smartphone among themselves.
Still sitting by the 23-year-old’s grave, which is marked by marigold flowers, the elder sister remembers her last words. “She told me, ‘Didi, ab hum bach nahi payenge. Didi inko phansi ki saja dilwana (Didi, I won’t survive. Make sure my killers get death)’,” she says, before adding,
“After I ensure that, I will pursue my sister’s dream, and my own, and become a lawyer.”