I was on a bus in Ireland surrounded by green, listening to Bollywood music. I had a vision that out of these forests — which I always see as a feminine force— armies of girls and women would storm out with weapons in their hands. Some had panties around their lips. Some were carrying iron bars. Some were alive. Some were zombies. They were unstoppable and they were coming.
It was seven months after Jyoti Singh had been raped on a bus in New Delhi. Everything seemed overturned. Rape was a word that had entered daily vocabulary. Shame had become defiance. Like Neruda’s ‘Come and see the blood in the streets!’ we were shouting, ‘Come and see the rape in the streets!’ It felt like a watershed moment in India. In many ways it was, and yet, and yet.
Girls are Coming Out of the Woods
Girls are coming out of the woods,
wrapped in cloaks and hoods,
carrying iron bars and candles
and a multitude of scars, collected
on acres of premature grass and city
buses, in temples and bars. Girls
are coming out of the woods
with panties tied around their lips,
making such a noise, it’s impossible
to hear. Is the world speaking too?
Is it really asking, What does it mean
to give someone a proper resting?
Girls are coming out of the woods, lifting
their broken legs high, leaking secrets
from unfastened thighs, all the lies
whispered by strangers and swimming
coaches, and uncles, especially uncles,
who said spreading would be light
and easy, who put bullets in their chests
and fed their pretty faces to fire,
who sucked the mud clean
off their ribs, and decorated
their coffins with brier.
Girls are coming
out of the woods, clearing the ground
to scatter their stories. Even those girls
found naked in ditches and wells,
those forgotten in neglected attics,
and buried in river beds like sediments
from a different century. They’ve crawled
their way out from behind curtains
of childhood, the silver-pink weight
of their bodies pushing against water,
against the sad, feathered tarnish
of remembrance. Girls are coming out
of the woods the way birds arrive
at morning windows—pecking
and humming, until all you can hear
is the smash of their minuscule hearts
against glass, the bright desperation
of sound—bashing, disappearing.
Girls are coming out of the woods.
They’re coming. They’re coming.
I wrote a poem fueled by anger, with bits of mud and wood and leaf. I wrote a poem because it was the only thing I knew how to do, the only place to park my rage, fear, disbelief. The poem was to be a kind of anthem where there could be resuscitation. Where the dead could be remembered and brought back in some way. It was a recurring trope. In an earlier poem, River of Girls, I had imagined all India’s missing girls—all those millions of girls aborted at birth or killed in the womb because of their sex, moving like a river underground and emerging into the world with ‘tigers breathing between their thighs…. with all three eyes on fire/ their golden breasts held high/ like weapons to the sky.’ It is impossible that the dead remain dead forever. That the murdered stay murdered. Won’t they echo back in some way? This is what I was asking.
I wrote the poem and moved on to other poems. Three and a half years later my friend Monika Ghurde was killed in her apartment in Goa. And suddenly the rage and sadness was inside my spleen and body in a different way. I did not have to imagine how this girl laughed, how she rose up on her toes to hug you. I did not have to be told about her rapture for jasmine, her fear of living alone as a woman in this country, because I knew everything already. We had known each other as neighbours in Madras. We had made trips together, drifted apart and come together, danced across her sitting room, watched movies late into the night, discussed our frailties, our men. And now she was gone, horribly gone.
What can a poem do? Nothing and everything. I put her name to the poem that wasn’t written for her. Why? Because it was a way to reclaim her.To recover her. To remember her. Not just her. All the women, before and after. Because the list of names is so long, so unrelenting. We thought by bringing it out into the streets something would change. What has changed? Everyday a new woman comes out of the woods and says: This was done to me. Everyday there is a new terror. Won’t it ever end?
We lie in this country. We say we worship women. We build shrines for them. Mother, we say, as if we are saying god, earth, rain, fire, sky. The papers tell a different story. Bride burning, rape, torture, slavery, sex work, infanticide, murder. We tell our men to think of women as their sisters or daughters so they might resist the urge to attack them. In colleges, women are told not to wear jeans, although according to one politician, it is impossible to be raped if you are wearing jeans. Another politician has said the crime of rape depends on men and women, ‘Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong.’ Still another has said rape can be averted if women stay at home like cars, parked safely in the garage, so they cannot be scratched. My friend, Monika Ghurde was in her home, Mr MLA. They talk of bad hormones and bad elements and bad influences of movies, and all the while it sounds to me like they are talking around the problem. Like the early HIV campaigns: AVOID AIDS on the back of lorries. Not how or what is the root of this or where is this coming from. But listen, this is the butchery we must live with, and your best bet is to avoid it. So, I write poems. Not all of them are angry, and not all of them are about death, but all of them insist on beauty and absurdity, because this is what we live with. This is what we have.
Cover photo by Rohit Chawla
Girls are Coming out of the Woods published by Harper Collins is available on Amazon