First, They Broker a Deal For A Daughter’s Body. Now, They Get A Deal For Her Corpse

Samjhauta (noun) as a sauda (bargain)

Artwork by Manimanjari Sengupta

News around us tells us that the brokering of deals over the untimely deaths of women is not rare. It is as common as the crime itself. The nature of such monetary saudas exposes the reality of our most personal relationships – as being hollow, fragile and dispensable.

In this story, a case worker from Sahjani Shiksha Kendra in Lalitpur, Uttar Pradesh takes the reader through scenarios, where, in the aftermath of violence, she pushes families to not seek the comfort of samjhauta. Often, it is in these situations she re-experiences her own personal narrative. She feels a sense of familiarity when she sees her own history playing out in a case, but at the same time, is crushed by the fact that a family is trying to cover the woman’s death.

Witnessing such ‘saudas’ or bargains can push a caseworker to the edge. Yet the caseworker pulls herself together to carry on, to even follow up other cases of murder or so called ‘suicides’. What is it that keeps a caseworker together to go back to the bloodied field yet again – her anger, her pain or the memory of her own samjhautas that she made in her own life?

Read this alongside Meet The Parents, where the natal family fought till the end.

The Third Eye worked with 12 caseworkers in rural and small town Uttar Pradesh, and through a process that included immersive writing, theatre-based pedagogies and year long workshops, the caseworkers became the lexicographers of The Caseworkers’ Dictionary of Violence.

Some of the cases that come to us leave a deep impact on us. At times, the situation is so serious that what we encounter leaves us traumatised and our brain shuts down. Still, we get a grip on ourselves, understand the nitty-gritty of the case and get on with the work.

When you look closely at the nature of samjhautasamjhauta as a bargain — you inevitably see serious socio-political issues. In these cases, money and caste are clearly visible. Women and girls are considered a burden everywhere, be it their own home or their marital home. They need to keep everyone happy and so they begin, at a very young age, to make samjhautas on their own. In this way, they bury their hopes and dreams, they choose to stay silent just to earn a tiny bit of respect and affection at home. Because of this, be it their maika or sasural, they are constantly toiling.

Girls move mountains to keep their parents happy but often they become the sacrificial lamb. Wounded by their own families, they struggle to look for support and are helpless. A single thought that haunts them through all this is—what will people say? I should not be ruining the marital prospects of my younger brothers and sisters. I was one of these girls. I, too, fought and dealt with these circumstances.

In the course of my work, I often wonder if the way society thinks about women has changed at all. When a girl or woman dies, her family beats their chests crying, “Look! They killed our daughter. She was such a good girl. She never complained to anyone. She endured everything.” On the other hand, her in-laws and that side of the family say, “Look! What a bad woman she seems to have been! Surely something was wrong with her which is why this happened to her.” And then people begin reciting names of other dead women. “Remember Suneel’s mother, Kallu’s wife and that so-and-so’s…”

The family of the dead daughter runs around trying to get a report filed. It’s not that their daughter’s death has devastated them. Instead, they use the caste panchayat to put pressure on the sasural to get a tidy sum as compensation.

In their head they think, “The girl is dead, might as well make some money out of it.” And this is what the bidding is for.

“Look at this wonderful world! First, they broker a great deal for a daughter’s body. Now they get an even better deal for a daughter’s corpse!”

While the bargain is being struck, there is a lot of big talk from the girl’s family about their love for their daughter. My daughter, my daughter, is their constant refrain till money changes hands. During this time, the girl’s family presents itself as helpless and sincere when they ask us for their support. They tell us, “We will do as you (caseworkers) say. We are prepared to go to any length to see this through.” But, at the same time, they meet all kinds of people secretly to get their advice and see which connection is more profitable for them. If the woman’s in-laws are well off, then her family uses political connections to put pressure on them in order to extract money. And if the woman has left behind children, then they too are used as a way to get property or land signed in their name.

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Take the case of Geeta (name changed) who was born in a village in Madavara Block. She was 20 years old and belonged to the Lodhi caste. Her father was a well-to-do farmer, who married a second time as he did not have any children from his first marriage. With his second wife, he had three children—two sons and Geeta. Geeta’s mother wasn’t allowed to do anything of her own will in the household. She was only looked upon as someone who would produce children for the family and work in the house. She had just two pairs of clothes and was served food separately. She was not even allowed to talk to anyone outside the house. The first wife was smart. She was the one who controlled the household. Be it money or the produce from the farm, she handled it all. Nothing happened in the house without her say.

As Geeta grew older, she observed how her mother was treated and began supporting her in her own way. After school, she assisted her mother in harvesting work in the field and later, in household chores. She took care of her mother’s meals and made sure she had a decent share of what was cooked in the house. She tried to make sure that her mother lived like other family members and even took her to the doctor when ill. The people in the neighbourhood remarked, “See how Geeta works like a boy in the fields all day and night with her father and brothers to irrigate the crops, and drives the tractor too!” All of this made her stepmother really angry.

After Geeta was married off, no one really looked after her mother. She had two daughters-in-law but no one empathised with her. Whenever she would get upset, she would leave for her parents’ home and end up staying there for months as no one would come to get her.

Whenever Geeta visited her parental home, her mother would cry and confide in her. And as long as Geeta stayed in the house, her mother was happy. But, being a married woman with two children now, she could not stay for too long a time at her maika.

Of course, Geeta had her own problems in her marital home but she did not tell anyone in her family because her mother already had enough troubles. Her husband was in love with his brother’s wife and this made Geeta anxious but she couldn’t share her frustration with anyone. She simply immersed herself in household work, never complaining. And one day her in-laws cut off her nose, her ears, gouged out her eyes and brutally murdered her. Then, to make it look like a case of suicide, they threw her body in a well. They sent word to her family that their daughter had jumped into a well and killed herself.

When her family received this news, her maternal uncle and others from the village set off on their tractors to reach her marital home in the village, 70 kilometres away, in Madhya Pradesh. When they got there, they learned that Geeta’s in-laws had been torturing her for days and then they murdered her. When the police arrived, they took the body out of the well and saw that Geeta had been killed ruthlessly. Because the well was dry, the body came out looking as it had been before it was thrown. Her corpse was drenched in blood.

The in-laws paid them all off, right up till the district police station. Nobody was paying attention to the case. Also, her father and other family members did not put any pressure to record their complaint. Despite her horrific death, they just got a routine post-mortem procedure done, cremated their daughter and returned home after performing the last rites.

Meanwhile, Geeta’s village had a Soochna Kendra (Information Centre) run by the NGO, Sahjani Shiksha Kendra, where women and adolescent girls are provided with information related to education, technology and current affairs. That day, a teacher running the centre arrived and was told by the women that a girl from the village was murdered by her in-laws. When the teacher and some of the women went to Geeta’s home, they saw a group of little children playing. Geeta’s mother was lying nearby, barely conscious. With some effort, they woke her up but she was weeping so much she couldn’t speak. The teacher spoke to the neighbours and managed to get Geeta’s brother’s number. She called him and he said he was still at Geeta’s in-laws’ village and wouldn’t be back until midnight. He said he would call her the next day and disconnected the call.

It was the teacher who told us about this incident and sent us the picture of Geeta’s mutilated body. That image sent chills down my spine. I felt that I had to meet her father right away. When we went to meet him, we also ended up meeting her stepmother, her mother and her brother, none of whom spoke to us properly. However, Geeta’s mother was crying a lot and she told us to go to her natal village and meet her brother who might be able to do something. We met Geeta’s maternal uncle who told us what he knew—that his niece was killed in a most brutal way. “That girl who worked like a man in the fields and at home. That girl who never complained about anything, we will make sure her murderers are punished,” he lamented.

The next day when we reached Geeta’s house again, the body language of the father and brother had completely changed. The father, quiet and simple, said, “My daughter is dead. If I file a case, all of Geeta’s in-laws will go to jail. There are small children in that house. They have livestock, 20 animals who will die of hunger and thirst. Who will bear this bad karma? We will be cursed. We won’t do it. What will people of our caste and samaaj say? What will the rest of our family say?”

I was stunned. I had neither heard nor witnessed such a situation before. Another caseworker, Karishma*, was with me. I looked at him and I could not stop myself and shouted, “What kind of a father are you! It would be a sin to even call you a father!” At that moment I really wanted to slap him. But he was a lot older than me. Moreover, we were just two and there were other people in his house too. I do not know why I didn’t raise my hand. I just could not think. I was paralysed with shock.

Karishma and I decided that if we get scared now, how could we talk to them in the future? I mustered up some courage and said, “A girl has been killed ruthlessly and you are unmoved. But you are worrying about the animals in the man’s home. Is her life of less value than the animals? Of course, the life of an animal is important but is a woman’s life worth nothing to you?”

What a beautiful girl and how brutally she had been murdered. I could hear her mother’s loud rasping sobs, her cries coming from a corner of the house. She had been driven almost insane with grief as nobody was telling her anything.

When I visited the village for the third time, I stopped by Geeta’s house. I found her father and a few women and men sitting at the entrance. When he saw me, he lowered his head. I asked, “What happened, did you think about filing a complaint?” That 50-year-old laughed and said, “We had gone to the in-laws with four influential people from the village. We demanded that Rs. 4 lakh be transferred to each of Geeta’s children. They have transferred three acres of land to me. Since the children are minors, as soon as they turn 18 the land will be theirs. For now, they are with them. When we get an invitation for Geeta’s final ceremony on the 13th day, we’ll go and bring the children here for a few days. If we had another daughter, we would have married her there for their sake.”

Artwork by Manimanjari Sengupta

All the people sitting next to him were also listening. I was filled with rage. I said, “Wah! What an act of courage! They killed your daughter and you will shamelessly eat the funeral feast at the house of those murderers. You will stay on good terms with them. If every father was a demon like you then girls would be killed like this every day. Why would you understand a woman’s suffering?”

The woman sitting beside him spoke, “Sister, he will not understand. Had he given birth he would have felt the pain. They are the reason why we women are in such a bad state at home.” I don’t remember all that I ended up saying to him in front of everyone. He did not even flinch. He just sat there and listened in silence.

I came away but for a long time, the image of Geeta covered in blood did not leave me. I was unable to forget because I was completely shaken by it. Even now when I pass by that house, all those voices come back to me. As a caseworker, this was the first time I had witnessed such a samjhauta, such a deal over a woman’s body.

*Name changed to protect identity.

Translated from Hindi by Mini Sinha with inputs from the TTE Team

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