Suresh* and Geeta* have forgotten to eat. Two plates of recently-laid out ghee-streaked rice and piping hot chhole sit resignedly on their palms, as the couple stare, mouths agape, at the blinking screen in front of them. The large LCD-type screen takes up quite a lot of room on the wall of the couple’s tiny one-bedroom house – but they don’t mind.
At first glimpse, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were watching television. But their unblinking stare tells you otherwise. That, and the unusual static on the four-screen ‘TV’ that beams only images of a staircase and a road. Occasionally, Geeta will yelp and point vigorously at it – or Suresh will stand up to rant in excitement – but most often, it’s for nought, and the CCTVs continue their magnetic pull over this strangely fascinated couple.
A Couple, a CCTV and a Lifetime of Paranoia
Suresh and Geeta were granted the installation and use of CCTVs in the last court hearing they attended for their baby girl who was raped over a year ago.
“We had lodged a complaint with the police earlier, telling them how we’re regularly harassed by the other members of the family. They aren’t even accused in the rape FIR, and yet they feel like they have been dragged into this. They’ve been lambasting and threatening us for months.”Suresh
This complaint was brought up in front of their POCSO magistrate too, who directed the police to make sure the cameras were set up. Two sit at the top and bottom of the staircase to their house, respectively, and the other two look out into the road in front of the house. And so, for the past month and a half, Suresh and Geeta have been staring, transfixed.
The mistrust is palpable. But even more palpable is the feeling of betrayal. When Geeta had walked back into her house on the Sunday morning of 28 January 2018, she was greeted with a sight she’s never forgotten – her 8-month-old baby lying in a pool of her own blood and stool.
Geeta had felt dizzy and then called out to the only person who had been in the vicinity – her husband’s nephew, 28-year-old Suraj. Suraj lived in the floor above theirs, with his wife and son – and on Geeta’s insistent cries, got flustered and fled. Eventually, he confessed to the police to having raped his niece. His defence in front of the court though, has been ‘not guilty’.
A Year Since the Rape
It’s been a year and a couple of months since, but Geeta and Suresh are neither forgetting nor forgiving. But neither, apparently, are the handful of family members who still live in the house with them, on two lower floors.
“None of them came to visit Chhutki* when she was in the hospital,” Suresh has said in anger, several times over the past year. For him, it is the ultimate betrayal – a sign of the rest of the family siding with Suraj.
Incidentally, Chhutki was in the hospital for two weeks after the rape – doctors at AIIMS performed surgery to repair a perineal tear. Only 8 months old, Chhutki was given a temporary opening in her abdomen for stool and urine to pass – while her vagina healed. She was carried around, wrapped in bandages, for months after.
Suresh and Geeta cannot get over the fact that no one in the family asked about her, or offered their condolences. Neither of Suresh’s brothers (and their wives) who live in the house have ever attended a court hearing with them or even accompanied them to the nearest police station.
Each absence has stung and hardened the couple, who now sit in isolation from the rest, with their two little girls, on their second-floor house, staring at a screen that plays and replays footage from their surroundings.
But why the decision to ask for one, in the first place? Chhutki’s young parents have wanted to leave the house with their two daughters for months now – but can’t because of a property logjam. Suresh claims they have been held up by his brothers refusing to part with the property papers.
“My father allotted each floor of the house to each of his sons and daughters, and I should be able to sell my share if I want to and leave. But right now, I can’t. They refuse to give them to me, shouting about how I’ll sell off their shares too. They tell me they don’t trust me because I have dragged the family name to court. But how can they forget what a man in this very family did to my daughter? How can they forgive him?”Suresh
Of Isolation and a Blame Game
Most days that Suresh stares at the CCTVs, therefore, he is looking to see if his brothers and their wives will cause any more trouble. Last year, a few days before Diwali, when he had requested the papers, they had created a ruckus and run upstairs to rant and rage at Geeta and Suresh. The parties have been logging heads more and more often, with the argument always petering out to one sentiment, flung viciously at Chhutki’s parents – “you only want to destroy this house”.
Last week, Suresh’s older brother screamed at Geeta and her friend as they were climbing up the stairs, accusing them of trying to steal something.
A video that Suresh showed me, replaying his CCTV footage, shows his incensed brother chasing them up the stairs, jabbing his fist at them – until Suresh calls the cops. A policeman can be seen in the video dragging away the brother by his collar. Suresh claims that before the cops showed up, his brother had been hurling obscenities. “They stop at nothing,” he says.
Each time a slanging match occurs, Chhutki and her three-year-old sister cower behind their parents, oblivious to the fact that their safety is what caused this in the first place. Oblivious to how a rape has catapulted the family elders to debate how their names must not be dragged into the mud. Oblivious to how little they matter, and how they must stay a little longer in an environment that didn’t protect them – all for a scrap of paper and a house deed.
‘We Can’t Leave’
Where will they go, if they leave here? I ask them.
“To my mother’s in Kolkata,” says Geeta softly. Kolkata has become a haven for the four who have been escaping to Geeta’s hometown every couple of months, between court dates.
“We want to leave now, but we need to see my baby gets justice. And we want to sell our house so we can never come back.”Geeta
Yet, they stay, compelled by circumstance.
And each day, every minute, stare a little longer at their screen, both horrified and paralysed by its possibilities. Sometimes, when he catches something ‘suspicious’ on screen – Suresh says – he doesn’t go to work that day. He works as a daily wage labourer without a Sunday, but paranoia about his family will make him miss a day.
It’s been a year and two months since the home stopped feeling safe for one 8-month-old baby, her toddler sister and their parents. It hasn’t felt safe since.
(*Names changed to protect identity)