A Testimony to Survival

How poetry speaks to power in Gujarat

01 February 2011
A Muslim woman by her destroyed home in Ahmedabad in 2002.
AMAN SHARMA / AP PHOTO
A Muslim woman by her destroyed home in Ahmedabad in 2002.
AMAN SHARMA / AP PHOTO

IF YOU TYPE THE WORDS “Gujarat riots” into Google Images, the photographs that pop up include the following: Narendra Modi, burnt children, houses on fire, men armed with swords, and the face of a young woman I had met, during the months following the 2002 riots, in the Darya Khan Gumbat relief camp in Ahmedabad.

Her name was Noorjehan. When I saw her in the camp I recognised her from a photograph I had seen in the papers, the same photograph that was now appearing on my screen. When I asked what had happened to her, she said that her pets were killed on the first day of the riots. Then, she began to speak about herself. She said that when the crowd came there were about seven or eight hundred of them, filling the streets. She had been watering the plants in her garden. Noorjehan used the English word “flowers.” She was watering her flowers when several men entered her house, hit her on the head with a sword, and then gang-raped her. Later, a young niece had to pull Noorjehan from the fire set by her assailants before they left her.

I came across Noorjehan’s photograph again the other night because I had written a short piece for The Indian Express, about an Urdu poet in Gujarat, and I was looking for an image to accompany my article.  I had written about the Urdu poet, whose poems about the riots offered a testimony of survival. But the sight of Noorjehan’s face made my stomach turn. I suddenly remembered what the little girls at the Shah-e-Alam camp had told the six female members of a fact-finding team when asked if they understood the meaning of the word balatkaar (rape). A nine-year-old gave this reply to the visiting women: “Mein bataoon Didi? Balatkar ka matlab jab aurat ko nanga karte hain aur phir use jala dete hain.” (Shall I tell you, Didi? Rape is when a woman is stripped naked and then burnt.)

Amitava Kumar is a professor of English at Vassar College in upstate New York, USA. His latest book, The Lovers: A Novel, is forthcoming from Aleph Book Company.

Keywords: poetry Amitava Kumar Urdu Narendra Modi Gujarat Aqueel Shatir Noorjehan Abhi Zinda Hoon Main Raunaq Afroz Godhra riots
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