Bookshelf: 13 Men

13-Men-CoverI made a brief mention in my latest LA Review of Books China Blog post of a new short book by Indian journalist Sonia Faleiro, 13 Men, and wanted to discuss that publication in a bit more depth. 13 Men is the most recent e-book from publishing collective Deca (it’s also available as a Kindle single) and narrates the story of a gang rape that allegedly took place in West Bengal in January 2014. Faleiro, whose previous writing includes Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars, traveled to the small village of Subalpur, where the crime allegedly took place, and interviewed everyone she could find with a connection to it in an attempt to untangle the various stories being told—including at least two different versions from the woman at the center of it all, known only as Baby.

Baby was twenty years old and had recently returned to the village after several years of working in Delhi, “the first person from Subalpur, man or woman, to venture outside West Bengal.” Her time in the city had changed Baby: she had money and a cell phone, for one thing, and had grown disinclined to follow the village rules. “She wore shorts!” one scandalized neighbor woman exclaimed. Shortly after coming back to Subalpur, Baby had also taken up with Khaleque Sheikh, a married Muslim man nearly twice her age who worked with her on a local construction site. In the villagers’ eyes, neither Khaleque’s marital status nor his age automatically made his relationship with Baby unpalatable; Faleiro notes that “The villagers actually had liberated ideas about sex.” But Baby and the villagers of Subalpur came from an indigenous tribe, the Santhals, and Khaleque was not only an outsider, he was also a Muslim—making him an inappropriate partner twice over. Baby’s neighbors urged her to break off things with Khaleque, but she refused. To the people of Subalpur, this was further evidence that Baby had lost touch with her community and needed to be brought back into the fold.

The way the villagers chose to deliver this message, Baby alleges, was through sexual assault. She and Khaleque were taken prisoner by the villagers one evening, and a tribal council planned for the next day. Before that took place, Baby says, thirteen leading men of the village spent the night raping her.

That’s not the story that hit international media a few days later. Baby’s initial police statement, given a day after the crime allegedly took place, declared that the tribal council itself had ordered the sexual assault as punishment for her “crime” of having a relationship with Khaleque. Later, in court, she revised that statement to clarify that the gang rape occurred before the council sat. Some, Faleiro explains, are not convinced that Baby was ever raped at all, but instead allege that her accusations came at the behest of quarry owners who wished to seize Santhal land and needed the village headmen out of the way.

The alleged crime against Baby, though, came at a time of increased international concern about violence against women in India. As a response to being in the spotlight, Baby’s case was fast-tracked: just seven months after the attack allegedly occurred, the thirteen men came to trial. Based entirely on the testimony of Baby and others for the prosecution—the trial had come about so quickly that forensic evidence hadn’t yet been processed by an overworked laboratory—the judge convicted the thirteen men of gang rape and sentenced them to twenty years in jail.

Was justice served? As Faleiro points out in this interview with The Takeaway, Baby’s case can be taken as an example of the system working as it should: her complaint was received seriously, investigated, and proceeded swiftly (perhaps even too swiftly) through the judicial system. That those things will happen when a woman brings forward a case of sexual assault is not a guarantee—not in India, not in the United States, not anywhere else in the world. But the murkiness surrounding the central question—was Baby raped at all?—remains, and Faleiro has carefully left the story open-ended, permitting the reader to decide for him- or herself.

Read an excerpt from 13 Men at The Caravan.

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