home Arts & Literature, Asia, Essays, Women Her Name Escapes Me

Her Name Escapes Me

Popular culture in India depicts Punjabi girls as pretty and exuberant. Notwithstanding the perils of any generalization and the hyperbole of cinematic rendition, it is not far from the truth. Certainly not very far. Beauty is without doubt a relative concept. Having said that, a man with an ordinary heart, good vision and an eye for clear blue skies will more likely than not admire the quintessential Punjabi beauty. A stroll through the crowded and colorful streets in the small towns of the state or the coffee houses of the nation’s capital will, rest assured, put some interpretive differences to rest.

Staring into the cavernous depths of a well, one after another they leap off the edge. The couple of elderly Sikh men with flowing grey beards mumble prayers, the verses broken only by the protestations of little girls scared and huddled as they are asked to jump to their deaths. Their pig tails billowing in the air, the colorful glass bangles sparkle for one last moment in the sun and the final cries are drowned in constant drone of the dust laden summer winds. These were amongst the many female victims of the communal carnage that accompanied the independence of India. The untold suffering of the largest human migration ever did not distinguish between religion or caste but, as in any civil conflict, violence against females became the central motif of revenge.

To prevent the girls from falling into the hands of Muslim gangs baying for Hindu/Sikh blood, the villages decided to end their lives [1]. I choose in the instant narration not to dwell for long on the perpetrators of these murders or assisted suicides. It was a desperate judgment in history that people made, both men and women, in the midst of despair and satanic violence. It was perhaps the hubris of a dogmatic patriarchal culture or an act guided by a sense of primal love and paternalism.

It is not for humans in exercise of their clouded judgment to predetermine fates as ominous as the clouds might be. It is not for us to preclude the mere possibility of suffering and thus the chance of escape, healing and living. With the luxury of hindsight and from the comfort of ordered and lawful times, I might say that I would have done things differently. But the truth is that I was not there and I will never know what I would have done.

Soon after and over the years there has been much grief and mourning for these lost lives. Many efforts were made on both sides of the line to rescue abducted girls, over 12, 000 girls were freed from the clutches of the kidnappers and reunited with their families. The loss has inspired much in modern Punjabi literature and dominated the mindscape of that generation. As the water flows down the disputed and glorified rivers of the Punjab, the people and their memories fade away. It is difficult to reconcile the collective grieving for lost daughters to the self perpetuated murderous rampage of contemporary Punjab.

With the worst male to female ratio in the country the prosperous green fields are home to the most horrific continuing crimes. A little over 50 km from Chandigarh, the nehruvian symbol of a modern India, Fatehgarh Sahib (a landmark on the Sikh pilgrimage map) has the dubious distinction of being the district with the lowest juvenile sex ratio in the country. Female infanticide is rampant across the countryside and in urban centres too. According to a recent study published in the medical journal- The Lancet, 10 million girls have gone “missing” from India’s population since 1985 because of the practice of female feticide and infanticide. Punjab no doubt contributes the most to the “missing” tally.

The preference for a male is not a malady that afflicts the poor or the uneducated rural masses; it is as prevalent and marked amongst the urban elite. In a land where over half the population practices the progressive Sikh religion, murder in the day and an evening in prayer seem to have made a dangerous peace.

There is much research and academic literature on the political, social and economic reasons for female infanticide. But none can ever explain the social order and collective mind that encourages and perpetrates the killing of female fetuses.

Lies and pretence are at the very heart of this moral anarchy. It is the result of the absolute inability of consecutive generations to challenge the inherited social imagery. People across the social, economic and political divide have been reckless in their silence and their failure to engender ethical reason. It is certainly not about saving your own lot, but perhaps expecting a greater degree of empathy from the women in the larger community is not entirely misplaced. With due hesitation it could be said that the efforts of the empowered and successful women from the community leave much to be desired.

The rule of law in many ways is a bluff, a fine example of human ingenuity; it cannot address a pervasive social perversion. The complete failure of statutes in curbing female infanticide demonstrates the fact that in the event deviancy becomes a norm, institutionalized state intervention is damned. The social acceptance of such a repugnant practice must solicit greater curiosity. The lively Punjabi spirit veils a remorseless myopia of reflection and ignorance stepped in profound religious symbolism.

This is an equally unforgivable failure of the scores of religious institutions and in that sense, each temple and priest stands condemned as an accomplice in murder. The breeze at dawn and dusk carries with it the sounds of hymns emanating from multiple sources. But apart from a few notable efforts, the clergy has been able to do precious little to enlighten its acolytes. Institutionalized religion irrespective of its lofty and divine origins reduces itself to a pitiful state.

Spiritual salvation is the single most self aggrandizing enterprise; it is no surprise that a religiously charged people murder their daughters with impunity. As corrupt as it is, the clergy yields immense influence over the masses and must pioneer a social awakening. It does not require great prescience to foretell the demographic catastrophe that awaits us.

I wonder what the young lives which were ended for ‘honour’ in the summer of 1947 would think of these killings.

To quote Simran, a College Lecturer (Nawanshar District-Punjab): “I have one girl and cannot afford to have another daughter. I have undergone five abortions at a private nursing home as all of them were female fetuses.” As narrated to a journalist in 2007.

[1] In historical fairness I must state that the violence-murders, abductions. mutilations and rape were perpetrated by all sides, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs during the partition of Punjab.