A virtual session of An Author’s Afternoon was hosted by Prabha Khaitan Foundation. Introducing and welcoming the guests was Modhurima. The guest was Rijula Das. Rijula received her PhD. in creative writing in 2017 from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, where she taught writing for 2 years. She is a recipient of the 2019 Michael King Writers Centre Residency in Auckland and the 2016 Dastan award for her short story, “notes from a passing”. Her other short story, “The grave of the heart eater” was long listed for the Commonwealth short story prize in 2019. Her debut novel, ”A death in Shonagachi” was long-listed for the JCB prize for literature in 2021. Rijula hails from West Bengal and currently lives in Wellington, New Zealand. In conversation with her was Bharti Harlalka, an interior designer, wellness enthusiast and has even staged plays. She is also a disciplined reader.
Rijula talks about the story of a prostitute and says that it is such a predictable story because it has been narrated so many times in our collective imagination. Bollywood has been a very big proponent of this story. We have heard it over and over again which made Rijula feel that we weren’t telling the right story. We were telling the story that we could see or wanted to see from where we were in our middle class lives, with its confinement and with its expectations. She talks about her PhD. research, saying that it is a cultural study of sexual violence based in India and public space, to find out how we understand sexual violence against women and how public space plays a part in it, in terms of a cultural lens. Rijula has been very interested in public space, in India but more specifically in Kolkata. This is how she came up with the idea of the book, thinking about what happens when you have crossed that threshold. Women face a lot of restrictions while growing up, like not being allowed to go to certain places. She thought about the lives of women who already live in places that other women weren’t allowed to go to as children. She wanted to see how it was to talk to women living in those places. She says that since the story has been told so often, people have certain expectations that the story is going to be tragic or a lot of tears and even though that is true to a point, it is a human life and no human life is entirely tragic or entirely full of misery. The people that live in those areas also have families, children, friends and joke around, go to the neighborhood shops like the rest of us. She thought that wasn’t an important story to tell, maybe not as exciting but it was important to tell that sometimes, as bad as life seems, it’s still normal, even horrible lives are normal.
Rijula says that sometimes when a person writes a book it is just telling a story to yourself. She did not think that the book she wrote was a very good book and had absolutely no hopes for it, but somehow she reached out to an agent who represented the book and even sold it. She still wasn’t convinced that it was a good book and didn’t want that book to come out with her name on it and decided that the book required some work on it. She re-wrote the book which is a completely different book from the third chapter as compared to the first book that she wrote.
When she started writing the book, she had 2 things in mind, she didn’t want it to be a doom or gloom story and also wanted that her book and laughter and humor in it. She also didn’t want to write a book that candor to our expectations of poverty, violence etc. as it had been done very often and it is the only narrative that we keep getting. She says that when people sell their bodies for a living, there is very little that remains and 2 of the things that she has seen people hold onto are their names and stories.
She talks about the setting of the book which seems very current with the addition of demonetization and how it affected the people living in Sonagachi. She felt that if she left out the part about demonetization, the characters were not true anymore. Demonetization was very bad for those cash economies in many more ways and it wouldn’t have been real if she had left that out.
Writing the book was a tough suit for her, she felt that she couldn’t talk about Kolkata and Shongachi in a one person narrative. In her experience, Kolkata is a very multi-faceted city and one cannot leave their homes without becoming a part of somebody else’s story. Her story isn’t about a person but rather it’s a story about a place. She hasn’t let her point of view affect the story. When she interviewed people for her book and learnt about their stories, she realized that her point of view doesn’t matter because it isn’t her story. She says that she isn’t important in the story because it’s not her story.
She says that our economy is a very cash-based economy and with the internet, digital wallets, whatsapp etc. a lot has changed. The entire landscape of sex workers has changed with all the technological changes which has changed cash economies of any kind. Having dating apps, escort services, internet etc. have made pimps and madams irrelevant.
Singh’s book ‘Batla House’ is centred around the controversial and famous encounter that took place in Delhi at the Batla House. The book starts from the first bomb blast that took place on 13 th September 2008. The bomb blasts were simultaneous in many places at the same time and were done by a terrorist group called the Indian Mujahidin. The terrorist group had done serial bomb blasts in over 14 places in Delhi and the police had been trying to find them since a long time. When they got the news of the group hiding in Batla House they went there to investigate where the shootings happened. Media spun the news saying that it was a fake encounter and that it was just done under the pressure. The media and the people put out rumours saying that the police officer that died was killed by his own team, however, when the forensic report came it was clear that the police officer had been killed by the terrorist group, the dead terrorists also had residue of gun powder on them that indicated that the shots had been fired by them. The police officer that had died was one of the most decorated police officer, Mohan Chand Sharma, it was his discovery that had led the team to Batla House. He had in his lifetime neutralised around 35 terrorists, received numerous medals and was also awarded the Ashok Chakra for bravery in the battle field after he had died. He was knowledge of both the technical and the human skills.
He said that the media is like the 4 th pillar of democracy and has the responsibility to make sure that they do not put out fake news out in the public domain. When the police investigate and presents the facts, it does in front of the court where the defence also has the right to fight and present the facts to the court, a judiciary body that is independent of the other pillars of the democracy. Whereas the media just presents the facts that they think is correct and frames a side, the other side has no right to defend themselves. The party that is declared guilty by the media become guilty in the eyes of the people and has no chance of redemption. The media must understand that they have a greater responsibility to refrain from showing the news that can leak sensitive information about the case and hamper the investigation. Media is like the 4 th pillar of democracy and has the power to sway the people in whatever side that they want to. The investigation teams must also be trained in what information should be shared and what should not be, as that can make or break the case.
Singh then said that sometimes the clues can be found easily whereas many times when dealing with terrorists finding clues that connect and make sense are difficult. The investigation agencies have to look for clues both on the scene and off the scene. The area has to be extensively swept for any evidence and the dump data, like the phones connected to the nearby tower, same phone present at different locations of crime. The data has to be looked through carefully as the evidence is hidden in them to crack the case.
When talked about the investigation that followed the encounter Singh mentioned that the team that has done the encounter is never a part of the investigation team, however since there is not one agency for looking into the encounters, the media and the people still claim that the teams are the same and hide facts that do not show the police in good light.
The two roles that Singh played were both of important as one dealt with the physical and internal security of the country whereas the other with the economy and social security of the country. Both these roles are fulfilling in their own way and give an immense sense of satisfaction knowing that one is doing something that will help the country be a better place in all aspects.
The conversation ended with Esha thanking Singh and Bhatia on an insightful conversation on the encounter that happened in Batla House and how the media had twisted the facts that were presented.