Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Candle for Heena

I’ve been following the twists and turns of the Rizwanur Rehman & Priyanka Todi case in Kolkata on other people’s blogs. Some of the comments have really set me thinking about the rise of fundamentalist thoughts among the youth today, even in a state like West Bengal where we liked to believe that the religious divide was not so sharp and people were by and large more tolerant.
And even as I follow this case, which has today become very high-profile, I can’t help but think of Heena, an young Muslim girl who was a domestic worker in the apartment block where I live. She's dead and she too died like Rizwanur because she had dared to enter into an inter-communal marriage. The only difference was that there was no-one to fight for justice for her and I don't think anyone even remembers her today after a couple of years.

She worked at my house too and every morning greeted me with the energy and high spirits that only a young girl of that age can have – she was in her late teens, at the most. Heena came from a impoverished family where her father was ill and unable to work. Her step mother and she along with her sisters worked at domestic jobs to earn the living for the family. She had a couple of brothers too, who didn’t seem to have any great jobs. Heena, like many others who worked at people’s homes, often pilfered money from my purse – that was almost an open secret and I had told her off often. However, she didn’t grumble about any extra chores that I asked her to do occasionally and was always in good spirits. During Id she even brought across delicacies that had been cooked at her home for me. And then one morning she didn’t turn up anymore. A few days later her mother came and picked up the work at my place, telling me that Heena had been sent to her grandmother’s place and was to be married soon to a boy that the family had selected for her. A few months elapsed with almost no news of her. Finally, one day she returned looking frail and worn out and very unhappy. She told me that she had rebelled against her family and married a Hindu boy. She was now living with him and his mother at a colony nearby. She needed to have her job back since it was very important for her to earn a living to add to the meager income that her husband earned by doing odd jobs. She told me that her family was very unhappy over her marriage and had cut her off completely. Her father and brothers refused to even meet her, while her step-mother still spoke to her sometimes. She was not allowed back into her home. She had been meeting the Hindu boy before and both of them were keen on marrying each other – but what forced them to go against her family and marry in a hurry was the fact her family was forcing her to marry her first cousin who was many years younger than her. So for a few months she worked again with me though she had lost her verve and her youthful vigour. Money seemed to be a problem and she was taking on many jobs – she had lost a lot of weight and looked stressed most of the times.
And then again she stopped coming – after a few weeks her mother rang the bell and when I opened the door she burst into loud tears and told me that Heena was dead – set on fire by her mother-in-law and husband in their house and the door bolted behind her. She was hospitalized with severe burns and when her parents and brothers called in the police she made a statement on her deathbed saying that she had tried to kill herself and no one was to blame. After her death there was little her parents could do beyond burying her. Apparently there had been a reconciliation between her and her family and she had spent her last evening with them before she returned to her husband’s house and terrible end. What added to the tragedy was the fact that she was pregnant too.
When I got to know of this, more than two weeks had passed by since her death. When I talked to some of my neighbours and friends about it – wondering what we could do to seek redressal – most felt that there was nothing that we could really do. A Muslim friend of mine – who is herself married to a Hindu – told me that this was the price that the poor girl had paid for transgressing. She felt that her own family too would probably have felt a certain degree of relief at her death even though they were perhaps unhappy at her loss. For a girl who was weak economically and uneducated – marrying a Hindu boy was an act that she had to pay for with her life. And there was no justice afterwards. She passed into oblivion along with her unborn child - without anyone raising any voice for her. And today she’s largely forgotten, perhaps by her own family too. Even I wouldn’t really have thought about her had it not been for Rizwanur Rehman’s death. So I think I’ll light a candle for Heena even as I remember her lively laughter that helped me into wakefulness every morning for many months…I hope she has found her peace and justice somewhere beyond.

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