When I finally saw her, she looked so ordinary, so short, so normal, that it was a shock. The smart black jacket, too, with the white pants, was not what I had been expecting. What had I been expecting' Perhaps a salwar-kameez, perhaps a sari, and her hair in a bun like a ‘typical’ Indian woman, and I expected her to be much bigger and taller, I’m not sure why.
Perhaps it was because the whole story had already acquired mythical overtones for me: a young Punjabi woman from Ahmedabad, brought to the UK via what seemed an ideal arranged marriage; the psychopathic, relentlessly abusive husband; the beatings, the marital rapes, the serious threats to her life and to those of the two boys she’d had with him; the final snapping after ten years of torture, the setting to fire of the husband’s legs when he was drunk and asleep, the fire going out of control. All of it seemed to require a larger-than-life persona: for the bearing of the grotesque abuse, for the retaliation that turned spectacular, and then for the epic legal battle that followed, the fight that Kiranjit Ahluwalia had just won when I first saw her outside the Old Bailey moments after the judge had freed her.
Strange then to see her again, nearly fifteen years later, at the London premiere of the film based on her story, Provoked. From afar, Kiranjit didn’t look too different from that time in 1992. The difference was that then she had been the star, the hero of that momentous day; today she and her story were being completely dwarfed by the Holly-Bollywood machinery. Oh sure, there were lots of nods and salutes in her direction, but there was no getting away from the feeling that this was dutiful stuff that had to be done before moving on with the serious business of selling the film.
The words ‘true story’ kept cropping up, as did phrases such as “your brave struggle” and “thank you for sharing this with us”. Not all of it was insincere either, it just seemed like the people managing the film and its launch didn’t seem to have quite grasped what this woman was about and what her ‘story’ actually represented.
In a spoken letter from jail (her voice was heard taped on a dictaphone) addressing a meeting supporting her cause, Kiranjit wrote: “For ten years, I tried wholeheartedly to fulfil the duties endorsed by religion…for ten years I lived a life of beatings and degradation and no one noticed…though I had two little children, I worked without rest for fifty or sixty hours a week in order to build up my home. Why would I set fire to that house'”
Earlier, while witnessing Kiranjit being sentenced to life, a group called Southall Black Sisters had become curious about that ‘why’. By then, SBS had had a history of success, struggling against great odds for the rights of Asian women. Comprising mostly of volunteers, SBS had campaigned on a shoestring budget to protect women from the loving attentions of ‘tradition’, ‘parampara’ and ‘izzat’, from the guardians of mosque, temple and gurdwara who would force women back into violently oppressive marriages and family situations; equally, they had campaigned to get proper attention from the moronically racist policemen who ignored the most grotesque instances of domestic violence in Asian communities, hiding behind the argument that they could not interfere with “these people’s culture”.
Pragna Patel of SBS began visiting Kiranjit in jail and, over many months, teased out the full horrific story of insult and assault that Kiran had not been able to bring herself to recount at her trial. Next, Pragna pulled in Rohit Sanghvi, a solicitor brave and crazy enough to take another look at a lost cause. Working from a seemingly impossible legal situation, Pragna and Rohit built up an argument to re-open the case.
Kiranjit’s conviction had been ‘an open and shut case’: according to the court she had committed murder, pure and simple. Pragna and Rohit built up a counter-argument based on two different ‘partial defences’ to murder in British law. The first of these was the defence of ‘provocation’, which can reduce a charge of murder to manslaughter if it can be shown that a person retaliated due to a sudden and temporary loss of self-control. The traditional model for this in English criminal law has been a brawl in a bar, where a provoked man hits out in a sudden rage, killing the provoker without necessarily meaning to. Pragna and Rohit found that there is, for women, often a ‘slow burn’ reaction which involves anger and fear building up in a cumulative way until there comes a point when it erupts, usually when the much stronger male abuser is asleep or drunk. Secondly, there existed the legal plea of ‘diminished responsibility’, where it is argued that the perpetrator of the crime was not fully responsible for his/her actions due to an ‘abnormality of the mind’. The final triggering act causing the fatal retaliation may even be trivial but it often represents the tipping point following a history of repeated abuse. Causing the death of someone in this state again constitutes manslaughter, with a discretionary and not a mandatory sentence attached.
With much painful groundwork, Rohit and Pragna constructed the plea for a reduction of the murder sentence to one of manslaughter. At the same time, SBS also began to have public meetings in support of Kiranjit and others. Gita Sahgal, another member of SBS, then made a film on the subject for Despatches, one of British TV’s main investigative documentary slots, helping to raise public awareness and marshal opinion on the issue.
Eventually, Kiranjit’s appeal against her murder conviction reached the Court of Appeal and the court deemed that her conviction for murder was “unsafe and unsatisfactory”. However, in the course of the judgment, the court changed the definition of provocation so that the ‘slow-burn’ responses of abused women who kill are more readily accepted in cases where the defence of provocation is used. A retrial was in order. But Kiranjit never had to face another full trial because her plea of diminished responsibility was accepted and she was sentenced to 40 months of imprisonment — exactly the period she had already served. The judges had done their sums and she was released immediately. Her case made legal history, opening the way for the defence of many other women.
In Provoked, all this is compacted, re-packaged; the story is simplified to provide the tyres for a manageable acting vehicle for Aishwarya Rai. Nandita Das, playing the re-named Pragna character, comes out of the movie more or less intact, Naveen Andrews as Deepak Ahluwalia, gives us a nice mix of whingeing menace, but that is about the size of it. Rai is unmentionably bad, prettily bruised by the make-up artists, her famous lower lip doing the same thing it’s done in a dozen Hindi films, and the script allows her no sign that she is actually a working woman. Pragna and Rohit’s meticulous climb up the legal cliff is reduced to an inspirational moment in a pub where the solicitor and activist get the idea of the provocation argument. Ultimately, the whole experience leaves you feeling ever so slightly sorry for poor Aishwarya with her severely limited range and talent.
As the gala screening ended that evening, I had a sharp memory of Pragna and others from SBS bursting into the delivery room where Gita had just given birth to our first child. Kiranjit was then still in jail, her fate still undecided, and these women ceremoniously pinned a “Free Kiranjit Ahluwalia!” badge onto the swaddled baby’s blanket. Even in the celebratory laughter, these women had a focus of purpose and a clear sense of what defined them. Our baby’s first outing was to the high court on the day of Kiranjit’s appeal. And, on the day of her release, I found myself allowed into the close circle of people who were there to escort Kiranjit back into the world outside jail.
The next day, every front page carried more or less the same picture — Kiranjit coming out of court, flanked by the people who had got her out. In almost every picture, behind Kiran and a little to the left of frame is a half-obscured, somewhat Bengali-looking bespectacled face belonging to this writer. At that moment, I felt hugely privileged at being such a close witness to a rare historic moment. Little did I know that in fifteen years’ time, a peculiar miscegenation between Hollywood and Bollywood would swallow this moment and regurgitate a superficial tear-jerker with the sole aim of imprisoning Kiranjit inside a box-office.