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After 60 years, shame still burns

“I would rather die than talk about the shame again…. Even after 60 years, it keeps coming back. Will it never go away'”

Four harrowing hours of January 9, 1943, have never left Kananbala Maity. The bloodstained memory of the British police and army officers raping 46 women in some Midnapore villages is hard to erase.

It was a morning of revenge. From 8 am to 12 noon, British forces, including some men Indian by birth, exacted their “revenge” on a community that had been growing in resistance to foreign rule.

Overpowering the men, they raped and even gang-raped most of the women in Masuria, Dihi Masuria and Chandipur. Some of the women took their own lives thereafter, most lived on. At least five women — well into their 70s and 80s — are still trying to forget.

The morning, too soon forgotten, is being resurrected in Lajja, a docu-feature made for Doordarshan, to be aired on Saturday, 9 pm. “On whose head should this ‘lajja’ (shame) be, and who is living with the scars' That is the question we wanted to ask through the film,” says director of the 25-minute film Pritha Sarbadikary.

A small memorial has been built on the main road — the only pucca road in sight — cutting through the villages, around four hours from Calcutta, in East Midnapore.

A pale-green statue of a woman has a marble plaque at its base, beginning with the words “Vande Mataram”. It commemorates the brutal acts perpetrated against 46 “mothers and sisters” of the villages, giving the violated women the “highest respect” for not losing their “revolutionary fervour”. Another tablet describes the act as one of revenge against the revolutionary activity, which had grown in urgency in the Tamluk area during 1942.

It was dangerous times in Tamluk in the 1940s. Both men and women had organised themselves into militia. The women were warned not to leave their homes alone, trained how to use weapons and taught martial arts. Now the few survivors wish only for some peace of mind in their final days.

Around the village, the survivors are called “candidates”. Ten years ago, the women started receiving a state government pension. In those days, there were more women alive.

“Though some died earlier, most have passed away in the last three or four years,” recounts a villager. State officials had come to assess who was eligible for the grant, and then began to send them around Rs 150 a month, which has now grown to around Rs 900.

But suddenly, 15 months ago, the money stopped. The families, who are farm hands or run small businesses, lost crucial income. Amrika Maiti, mother of 10 with seven surviving children, has no one to look after her. The son she lives with no longer works after injuring his hip, and of the two grandchildren she has, one is still studying.

“We used to get a letter every month and someone would go to the Haldia treasury to pick up our cheque. Now, no more letters are coming,” laments the widow. Though two other survivors have received their arrears this month, they are not sure that the monthly stipend will resume.

There is a temple in almost every home in Masuria and the surrounding paras. The brightly-painted brick-and-mud huts are spotless. But all this is lost on Tukubala Bera. “All I see is smoke,” says the woman, who lives with her brother-in-law’s family, ever since her husband, who used to own a circus, brought home another woman.

Tukubala has lost her vision to cataracts, and her teeth to age. The shrivelled woman in a white widow’s sari must be in her mid-80s. She stands at around three feet tall, with deep folds on her round face. She has frequent blackouts. When police came that winter morning, Tukubala looked for a place to hide. And January 9 was not the first time she had tried to do so. “The police used to beat us, they tortured us so.... Many of them would come to the village together....”

But Tukubala’s reverie is short lived. “How do you expect me to remember things that happened so long ago'” she asks.

An uncertain future is the only thing the feisty Kananbala wants to talk about. Her freedom-fighter husband, Bipod Baran Maity, is unwell. “He has a recurring cough. Yesterday we had to pay Rs 102 for his medicines,” she cries. To talk about anything else not only brings up painful memories, but also attracts undue attention to her “shameful” past. As her 58-year-old son explains: “You can imagine the kind of things people have said to one who has lost her virtue.” She still hears the taunts ringing in her head. “When they leave school…,” she gasps, pointing to the bright yellow building not far from her home. “All I hear is….”

The blood may have dried on the red soil of Midnapore. But the wounds refuse to heal.

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