As the OB vehicle made its way in the dusty by lanes of a small village in Haryana, the little kids gathered around excitedly. For a sleepy village, this was enough to create a ruckus, only that, now everyone knew where they were headed. Without even having to ask, the children pointed out Amma ji’s house for Tanya. Amused, she ruffled the hair of the littlest of the imps before heading towards her destination.
Once there, they were told that Amma ji was in the class and would join them in a while. Tanya and her crew made their way inside and started getting ready for their recording. Someone came with tall glasses of homemade chaas (buttermilk) which they gratefully accepted. Just when they were done, they heard the excited chatter of girls, an indication that the class was over. Moments later, Amma ji walked in with two little girls who clearly seemed too fond of her to leave her side. Shooing them away, she folded her hands in a namaste, greeting Tanya and her team. As she settled in one of the chairs, Tanya couldn’t help notice the aura that seemed to envelope this tall, stately woman. She wouldn’t call her beautiful, not in the conventional sense anyway. There was something else more than the physical beauty that made Amma ji particularly attractive. The laugh lines and the crow feet when her eyes crinkled in a smile added to her character.
Tanya was lost in her thoughts when the cameraman came and whispered in her ear, “Ma’am, shuru karen? Should we start?” “Uh, yes of course, we must. Amma ji should we begin?”, asked Tanya adjusting her hair and clothes before the camera rolled. The older lady nodded in agreement, letting an assistant attach the microphone to her dupatta. And the ball was set rolling.
“Tell our viewers about yourself, Amma ji, I mean Ramdulari.”
“I am just a simple woman from the village, who till a few years ago had never seen the world beyond the village except the school that my father allowed me to attend till tenth grade. Some unfortunate circumstances brought me in limelight, otherwise I was living a content life.”
Nodding in affirmation Tanya continued, “Please tell our viewers about those unfortunate circumstances.”
Amma ji paused briefly, inhaled sharply and began, “I was a simple housewife till my life was turned upside down thanks to a feud that had been brewing over the past few years between my husband’s family and the village sarpanch’s (village head). When the court ruled in our favour, it angered them so much that they avenged by kidnapping and raping me”, she said, in a manner so matter of fact, as if it was the most natural thing to accept.
Tanya shuddered visibly but Amma ji just smiled wryly and continued in the same tone, “Five men took turns in violating me as the rest watched and derived pleasure from my pain. My cries for help went unanswered. I was battered physically and mentally, when one night they put me in a car and left me outside my home. When I asked why don’t you just kill me instead, one of them leered at me and said, we’ll leave that for you to do. They jeered and laughed but this answer of theirs left me stunned. They were so sure that the moment they would throw me out I shall choose to end my life. Couldn’t really blame them, that’s what all women before me had done when faced with the dilemma of living in shame or die clinging to the shreds of dignity.”
Amma ji let out a deep sigh as her audience gazed at her, their faces contorted in grimace as they visualised the hell she must have walked through. Taking cue, she picked up from where she had left, “I knocked the door and thankfully my husband opened. He gasped at my mangled sight and threw his shawl to cover my half naked body. After that it was an arduous journey between the hospital, the police station and the court. The police initially refused to lodge our FIR but had to give in when we took legal advice. The road to recovery was long for both my body and my spirit. But every time I contemplated suicide, their words would echo, ‘we’ll leave that for you to do’. And that would stop me from giving in. I did not want them to derive satisfaction from that. Thankfully my husband, despite and in spite of his family’s advice, stood by me through the entire ordeal.”
“You didn’t feel uncomfortable or embarrassed? Especially when you must’ve faced them,” interrupted Tanya.
Amma ji replied indignantly, “Why should I be embarrassed? Why should I hide my face? Just because I was raped? Was it my fault that I was raped? Those who committed the sins should be ashamed of themselves, not I. Who came up with the ridiculous concept of associating honour with a woman’s vagina? I refused to acknowledge that. Instead I chose to look them in the eye and to walk with my head held high.”
Tanya’s eyes were filled with admiration for this woman who had been through so much and had yet chosen to come out better and not bitter. “So how did you start this school? What gave you the idea?”, she asked.
“Ahh! the school took a while to take shape. As we fought our case in the High Court, we got publicity. The state government pledged financial help and some others too pitched in. It helped with the legal expenses and I started getting letters from women who’d been through a similar ordeal as mine. They would write that I was a beacon of courage and hope for them. Some even claimed that they had thought of ending their lives but my example gave them the will to fight back. This touched me deeply. And then gradually when we had enough money, my husband and I decided to open this school for girls. Here I teach along with a few other volunteers. Apart from curriculum, we have a retired sportsperson who teaches them self-defence and I myself take sessions with them to make them aware of their body and the control over it, that is rightfully theirs. My first batch of students will soon leave for the University. Thanks to people like you the spotlight hasn’t yet faded. Some awards came by and help keeps pouring in which somehow has kept the school afloat. The publicity has also made the perpetrators wary. Now they wouldn’t dare touch me.”
The cameraman signaled Tanya pointing at the watch. In a bid to wrap up the shoot, she asked, “Before we leave, any message you would like to give to our viewers?”
Amma ji looked straight into the camera as it zoomed in on her and said, “To the parents, I would say, stop blaming your girls for anything wrong that happens to them. Bring up your boys right instead. And to those who violated me, justice shall prevail, I have faith in that. Till then, as I walk past you with my head held high, let it be a reminder to you that you cannot break me. I refuse to be cowed down.”
Once the cameras switched off, Tanya hugged Amma ji thanking her for the time and for being a force to reckon with. Amma ji patted her back and with a warm smile and a twinkle in the eye asked her, “I hope now you understand, just why my head’s not bowed.” Tanya nodded back in affirmation.