Rules of the jungle have changed: Amitava Kumar responds to assault on Caravan staffer

21 October 2020
ILLUSTRATION BY SUKRUTI ANAH STANELEY
ILLUSTRATION BY SUKRUTI ANAH STANELEY

On 16 October, Delhi Police assaulted The Caravan’s staffer Ahan Penkar at the Model Town police station while he was reporting in North Delhi. Amitava Kumar, a professor at Vassar College in New York and a contributing editor at The Caravan, responded to the attack, in poem form. 

I read in a report that a journalist named Ahan Penkar at The Caravan magazine was beaten at a police station in north Delhi on 16 October. Penkar was covering a protest concerning the alleged rape and murder of a 14-year-old Dalit girl employed as a domestic worker. Penkar was hauled inside the police station along with four protesters. He held his press card in front of him and shouted that he was a journalist covering the protest but to no avail. While they were being beaten, a policeman asked the men: “Why do you all keep doing this? Tumhe nahin pata hai ki desh badal gaya hai?”—Don’t you know the country has changed? 

The dead girl’s family believes that their child was raped and killed by her employer in a house in North Delhi. We do not know the whole truth about what happened to the girl, but we do know this much from the protesters who were tortured at the police station: the assistant commissioner of police, an officer named Ajay Kumar, brutally assaulted the men who had been brought to the police station and he also abused them. He put his boot down on the throat of a student-protester who later said to reporters about ACP Kumar: “He used such horrible abuses that I cannot tell you over the phone.” 

I do not know what abuses ACP Kumar used but what caught my attention was the line I have quoted above: “Tumhe nahin pata hai ki desh badal gaya hai?” It is possible that the police official was thinking of the Modi government’s theme-song “Mera desh badal raha hai, Aage badh raha hai”—My country is changing, it is moving forward—a hagiographic offering showcasing, for the most part, the dear leader’s penchant for being photographed at a variety of celebratory events. But, in my case, the police official’s line reminded me of a line from a novel that I have been working on for the past few years. My novel also tells the story of a journalist, and in that way, it is a novel about the news.

In this novel, the narrator interviews a poet who has been beaten up by plainclothesmen in Patna. The poet had published a poem in Hindi titled “Jungle Ke Niyam Badal Gaye Hain”—The Rules of The Jungle Have Changed. You can now understand why I thought of my novel when I heard the policeman’s question. The poet’s name is Raghav, and newspapers refer to Raghav as a “revolutionary poet.” The novel’s narrator, my protagonist, calls Raghav on a WhatsApp number and asks him if he is still writing poetry after the beating that he has received. Raghav’s left arm has been broken by his attackers but he says that he has written a poem that very day. It is titled “Aaj, or today. Following Raghav’s recitation, my narrator records the poem and then translates it to publish it in his newspaper:

Today

After returning from work early today

I stood on my balcony and cursed 

My neighbor. My wife

Also stepped out and calmly wove a necklace 

Of abuse in the air. Our son

Was at the other end of town

In a riot

Beating up a helpless man.

Across the street from us

In the playground of the Middle School

Children were raising slogans.

I asked my wife, ‘Didn’t the kids

Go home today?’

My wife’s answer came

More as a challenge:

‘What we were not able to do

The young will do. They will drive

Our enemies out of their homes.’

When she said this, she was looking directly

At our neighbor’s house.

In the gathering dusk I saw 

A few youth carrying torches

And others beating drums.

Nearby, a group of girls eating ice-cream. 

But even I, wedded to war,

Feel fear sometimes.

As when I looked down below us, 

on the school’s steps, and saw what looked like

A line of small-sized corpses.

Like fish laid on ice

For sale at the weekend market. 

Amitava Kumar is a professor of English at Vassar College in upstate New York, USA. His latest book, A Time Outside This Time: A Novel, will be published by Aleph next year.

Keywords: Ahan Penkar
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