BY: ANOOP CHANDOLA
Mutilating Women is the story of an honor crime. It follows members of the Kotwal Clan during the chaotic months before and after Indian independence in 1947, a time of upheaval and of hope. The members of this Himalayan clan would be termed liberal/progressive in their stance toward the many issues they faced: from questions of equality for women and untouchables, to the role of religion in thwarting both and changing marriage practices to what modernization might look like for India. However, this book, based on the fictional interviews with the offspring of some of the “characters,” is an accurate portrayal of the many obstacles the people of India faced during this time—the cultural and psychological barriers that confronted them at every turn.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Mutilating Women by Anoop Chandola, we follow members of the Kotwal Clan of India during the difficult times around the fight for Indian independents. The clan faces many issues, not the least of which is women’s rights not to be beaten, sold, and treated as chattel, as well as their right to remarry after a divorce. The traditional and repressive practices of the Indian establishment are brought to light, along with the more enlightened citizens’ fight for equality and justice.
Giving us both a glimpse of life in India in the forties, as well as an educational look at their fight for equality for women, this is a great read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Mutilating Women by Anoop Chandola is the story of the struggle for women’s rights in India. The story follows the members of the Kotwal Clan in the chaotic times in 1947 while India was fighting for its independence. As the story opens, a new member of the clan describes how she took revenge on her abusive husband and fled. Now in hiding, she wants to remarry, but it is forbidden and the clerics will not preform the wedding. As the story progresses, we see the traditions that allow arranged marriages in which the women have no say, and other inequities heaped upon them and the enlightened men who fight for their rights.
Mutilating Women is both entertaining and educational, a realistic look at life in India in 1947 when women were denied even the basic rights that most of us take for granted. It’s a book that everyone should read.
Nanda and Murti looked about, to make sure there were no men nearby, then lifted their saris to their knees and climbed the oak tree without knowing that a tiger was hiding below. For them, summer was the best time to climb up an oak tree because, come winter, this Himalayan forest would be white with snowfall and very cold. They positioned themselves halfway up the tree.
Nanda was riveted, amazed by the distant views. Toward the north, the sun’s rays had made the snow-clad towering tops of the Chaukhamba Himalayan range so shiny. And toward the east, stood Mt Rama Rana. The Chandrabhaga rivulet looked like a trickling stream as if reluctantly released down that lazy mountain, between the Kotwal and the Gadoli forests. Come heavy rains and it became a raging river for the next twenty miles before merging with the overflowing Ganges. The soil of the mountain was studded with burans rhododendron. Murti hummed in Garhwali, the local Himalayan language, “burans phulyo rato rato…(the rhododendron flowered red and red…).
Nanda didn’t appear to react to Murti’s singing. Murti grabbed one twig of oak, with which she touched Nanda’s face. Nanda shook her head with a smile. She came out of her ecstasy. “I was smelling the pollen of the kulain trees,” she said in Garhwali. The swirls of the kulain pines on top of Mt Rama Rana were blowing the yellow pollen.
“Did you see a pair of karain birds gliding down with their extra-long tails? The female ahead and the male behind her?” Murti asked with a smile.
Nanda reciprocated a smile, as her gold nose ring, the sign of a married woman, shined brightly.
They started cutting a long oak branch, taking turns with their large well-sharpened axes. The long oak branches were used to create a trellis to give support to sun-loving hyacinth vines.
In this central Himalayan region hyacinth was known as chhimi, which was called sem in Hindi and spelled seim in English. The supporting branch was inserted in a one-foot hole next to the little vine which then climbed to the top of the supporting branch, covering its sub-branches along the way. The whole dry oak branch experienced a sort of metamorphosis. It didn’t look like a part of an oak tree when it was fully covered by the green leaves, purple flowers, and pods of hyacinth. One vine could grow to more than six meters if the supporting branch was that tall. One single vine could yield a huge number of bean pods, roughly sixty to one hundred pounds, depending on the size of the branch and the number of its sub-branches. The more sub-branches, the greater the yield. The fresh pods were eaten as a vegetable and the beans were also dried. When the vine itself dried up, it was converted into mulch, which was used to make the garden soil more fertile.
These women didn’t need such information on chhimi, for this knowledge was in their blood. They severed the oak branch from the helpless host tree. Its breaking noise was so sharp, as if the oak tree was screaming. The noise scared the baters (quails) below as they fluttered away for shelter.
“Ah, those baters!” Murti shouted. “You made me addicted to their soup.”
“Me too. My husband would have shot them if he was here, and you would have enjoyed more bater soup.”
“He would have shot the malyo pigeons. See their flock flying up.”
“Yes, their spicy and soupy meat.” Nanda sucked her saliva.
She paused momentarily then resumed talking with eyes glancing toward the east. “I can see Pauri from here.”
The town of Pauri spread all over on the lap of Kandoliya Mountain, offering the best view of the Chaukhamba Himalayas, which looked even taller when viewed from the mountain top.
“Can you see the Messmore High School’s big building?” Murti said, pointing with her index finger to the east.
“Yes, big for our husbands. They studied there. We didn’t.”
“If we were sent there, then we wouldn’t be here cutting oaks,” Murti said with a sigh.
That Christian School was nestled in an oak forest, separating Pauri from Gadoli. Today was not Sunday. Otherwise, they would have heard the big gong of the bright white church, perched like a dove on a little hilly hump below the school.
Instead they heard the drums dhol and damau. “I think they are going to sacrifice a ram to please the goddess.” Murti was looking at the Devi temple, situated on a saddle half a mile below the church.
“I know, you like the roasted legs of goats. So chewy!”
Murti ground her teeth.
Suddenly, the women smelled, baghyan, the Garhwali word for the tiger odor. Murti shouted “Hwa, hwa,” several times to scare the tiger.
Nanda didn’t shout. “Murti, the hwa, hwa words work better with hands up. Our hands are tied here. Let us ignore the baghyan, so long we don’t see any tiger.”
Then they dragged the two branches to a slope especially prepared to slide the cut trees down. Once the branches hung over the slope, the tree branch was given a push and slid down the hill, aided by gravity, until it reached the banks of the Chandrabhaga.
Murti took a deep breath of relief and moved a few yards away, slipping under a bush to pee. A tiger appeared as if out of nowhere and grabbed her from behind. As the male tiger dragged her toward the slope, Nanda came from behind, quick as lightning, to scare the tiger. “Wha! Wha!” she yelled,.
But the tiger continued to drag Murti down the slope. Then Nanda stepped up to the tiger with her axe and chopped his tail. That didn’t scare the tiger either, and so she hit his testicles, which were situated near the bottom of the tail, with her large axe. The tiger ran away, his tail bleeding and his testicles ruptured.
“You saved my life, didi.” Murti wanted to hug Nanda to show her gratitude, but her neck was bleeding.
Murti, being the younger sister-in-law, had to address Nanda as didi, never as Nanda. Nanda could address Murti by her name or affectionately call her bhuli, junior sister, for sisters-in-law were considered sisters. Nanda’s husband, Balram, was Nanda’s husband’s junior cousin. Pawan would address Balram affectionately as bhula, little brother, and Balram would address Pawan very respectfully as bhai ji, big brother.
Nanda put her hand on Murti’s shoulder. “You are my bhuli. I was only doing my duty.” To lighten Murti’s unbearable trauma, she added, “He will never be able to fuck any tigress. I have made his balls—” She made a fist of her left hand, which she then hit with the fist of her right hand in downward motion to mimic her chop with her axe.
Murti’s bleeding would not stop. Nanda quickly tore a piece of her sari’s corner with her teeth and then made a bandage. She bandaged Murti’s bleeding neck, which had no deep wounds, just a few scratches. The tiger must have been too old to do her much damage, Nanda thought.
“You are so tall, didi. If I were not tiny, the tiger wouldn’t have attacked me.”
“That’s not true. If they can kill bufalo, they can kill me as well.”
Murti pressed her upper lip over her lower lip as if trying to suppress her laugh.
Old tigers were known to become man-eaters because they could no longer take bigger or faster animals such as wild deer, hogs, monkeys, langurs, jackals, and bufalo. Calves, children, and women were easier targets.
Though her name meant “statue,” like any Himalayan woman, Murti could run like a mountain goat. She was barely five feet tall, of average height for a Himalayan woman, but Nanda was very unusual for a Pahari woman, in that she was four inches over five feet.
Murti had no children, thus making her free to leave home and go out with Nanda to enjoy their gossiping. Hence, they were given euphemistic names: Nanda was called Naranga and Murti was Saranga. In the Garhwali society, Naranga was associated with Narada, an ancient sage known for gossiping and roaming. Saranga was associated with Sharada, the goddess of speech who goes to any home where she was worshipped as the goddess Sarasvati. This goddess gave false hope of giving knowledge and therefore most people who worshipped her remained illiterate. These mythical names from folk custom were very popular in local Garhwali culture. Naranga was also the color orange and had passed as such into other languages (the Spanish word naranja, for example). Saranga was also a species of deer and a species of bird, known for running and flying fast respectively.
Murti was still shaking. Nanda gently put her arm around Murti’s shoulder and led her down to the creek, the Chandrabhaga. Both drank a lot of water and felt better, but as they walked up the bank, Murti looked around because she was apprehensive of another tiger attack. Nanda kept her engaged by talking about family matters.
Then they reached the place where their felled oak branches had stopped sliding at the foot of the embankment. They began to drag them toward the creek. Near the creek was a huge dalchini, a cinnamon tree. They cut smaller branches to use the leaves for the beds of livestock. The Paharis did not know that cinnamon trees produce an internationally coveted spice but only used it as fodder and as the bedding for cows.
Then they kept calling, rather yelling, “Mussi! Hey, Mussi!”
Disappointed they did not hear a response, Nanda said, “Let’s go home, Murti! That man must have heard our call. Maybe, he is still sleeping with that woman.”
Murti understood who she meant by “that woman.” She always believed that Mussi was a decent man. He was not remorseful for keeping “that woman” as his mistress. He did not believe in using women for carnal pleasure, nor was he a religious man or a sadhu. Then why should he be remorseful for keeping a mistress? Was Lord Krishna, who had eight wives, ever remorseful? And who knew about his other girlfriends. Lord Krishna’s flute had a purpose—to lure the gullible gopi girls. Mussi was not guilty of such lecherous behavior as that.
Mussi was a Rajput, not a Brahmin. His full name was Musa Singh, but many local Rajputs considered him very low in their caste hierarchy. His name was fun for kids. How could he be a female mouse, musi or mussi, and a lion, Singh, at the same time!
Nanda and Murti knew that Mussi was a man with authority, even though he was just a chaukidar (guard). His job was to keep an eye on the neighboring village women who would steal trees and fodder from the Kotwal forest. He was tough with those women. The owners of the forest didn’t pay him anything for his services.
However, the Kotwals didn’t call Mussi a chaukidar. They considered him as their forest’s patraul, which in English was “patrol.” It was a term used for the government forest overseer, and hence a very prestigious position, unlike chaukidar, a watchman. However, the local Pahari people were not aware of the word’s prestigious derivation.
Mussi was a farmer, too. He grew lots of fruits and vegetables: beans, big Himalayan cucumbers, pumpkins, mangoes, oranges, peaches, apricots, apples, lychees, peppers, tomatoes, lemons, limes, onions, garlic, turmeric, ginger root, corriander, peas, and much else. He knew the folks of the neighboring Pauri town were desperate to get this kind of produce. As long as he continued patrolling the forest, the owners allowed him to use four acres of land near the bank of the Chandrabhaga. That chunk of land was his remuneration for his services, and Mussi was completely attached to it, using it for commercial gardening.
And for additional cash, he sold sickles. One of his duties as guard included stopping illegal woodcutting. If he found any outside woman cutting little trees with their sickles and axes, he would snatch those tools along with the cut trees or plants. Before selling the snatched tools, he would show them to the owners as proof of his honesty, proof he was carrying out his task patrolling the forest.
He could have made more cash, however. Some women did not want to go through this humiliation, and they offered him cash, and even their bodies, which he declined.
He was given the task of dragging those heavy oak branches up to these women’s home, about half a mile, across the creek. Mussi knew that Murti’s husband Balram was an accountant and Nanda’s husband Pawan was a lawyer and judge, and these men would not do this kind of menial job, but their wives would do whatever was needed to live with their “classy” husbands under the same roof.
The Kotwal clan had no village, just five family ranchettes and three cowsheds with large barns. Each ranchette was a sort of joint residence of several brothers and cousins and their families. For drinking water, the ranchette area had two springs, one on each side. For washing clothes, the Kotwals used the Chandrabhaga creek.
The Chandrabhaga was not a glacial creek. Its source was ground water from the Rama Rana mountain. Its water was drinkable except during the rainy months when it became a raging muddy torrent. Many villages and hamlets thrived near its banks. Also, like the Kotwals, there were many other ranchette owners with their own forests and fields scattered along the entire length of this waterway.
The Kotwal forest had a couple of other creeks that were tributaries of the Chandrabhaga. The Kotwals owned several terraced fields and the orchards surrounding the ranchettes. The Chandrabhaga also made it possible to grow basmati in the wet fields on its right bank. The terraced fields were used to grow rice, wheat, and beans as staple crops. Additionally, they grew vegetables and fruits in their orchards. They never sold any produce of these orchards or fields. Although all farming was done with the help of hired labor, gardening was a hobby, not a menial chore, for all the Kotwal men and women.
Mussi could pick any produce of the Kotwal gardens for free. It was up to him how he wanted to use that produce. The bhang plants grew wild here and there. No Kotwal was interested in using the cannabis, but they used to see some hired workers picking the bhang during two sacred festivals: Shiva Ratri and Holi. During sacred occasions, all hired workers were free to pick the produce from the orchards, including bhang. The pakoras of fresh bhang leaves would get them high, but Mussi was not one of those workers interested in bhang.
In the evening, Murti told Balram what happened to her. He almost fainted. Murti calmed him down.
© 2019 by Anoop Chandola
Midwest Book Reviews:
“Those with a special interest in Indian history and social change will find Mutilating Women is much more than a story about one woman’s “honor crime.” It’s a sweeping consideration of the sights, smells, and sounds of a nation in flux, offers much food for thought, and is especially recommended for anyone interested in absorbing India’s revolution via a multifaceted story presented from different perspectives.” ~ Midwest Book Reviews