The phone chirped. A girl had been gangraped, another detained for marrying a man of her choice. The first girl died, the second miscarried. Was she raped at all? Did the miscarriage even happen?
The phone buzzed to tell us that our already fractured society had ruptured – yet again.
And so, we reporters packed our bags, grabbed our equipment, and thrust our hungry selves into the raw flesh of someone else’s life.
In her book The Unwomanly Face of War, journalist Svetlana Alexievich writes, “Before my eyes history ‘humanises’ itself, becomes like ordinary life.” To me, that’s the scary truth and ultimate responsibility of being a reporter: to know that you’re often a lone witness of history. It takes a village to publish what a reporter sees, but the circumstances leading up to a story being written is often a lonely and bizarre task.
It’s up to reporters to produce the first draft of history, which often exists under the guise of banal everyday events. My problem with history is that it is far too interested in facts. And that’s what our journalistic reports often do. They set in stone a person, fossilised in the form of a fact.
Memory, on the other hand, permits the existence of full human beings. That’s the purpose of a reporter's diary: to remember, to remind us of everything felt by a survivor that was left out of a dry news report.
While journalism demands that we dispassionately (while not desensitised) produce confident reports, I want to write this piece because it only seems fair that our readers are also exposed to the daily confusions, contradictions and questioning that goes into producing a report.
This diary entry is primarily about two women whose stories I reported in the course of this year. The first, Muskan, from her husband Rashid, who was falsely accused of forcefully converting her to Islam. The second, Asha, was a Dalit woman who was by four Thakur men in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh.
This is my diary entry of one day at work, on December 18, 2020.
Monu Bishnoi, a Bajrang Dal worker, was the immediate cause of Muskan and Rashid’s nightmare. Since my day began with Monu, so should this story, because the only way to understand Muskan’s pain is through Monu’s conviction.
My colleague Anna and I met Monu at his saffron-wreathed snack shop in Moradabad. He called for tea and while we waited in silence for it to arrive, he prayed to his gods, who stood on a saffron ledge. As we sat to talk, Monu held my gaze for longer than was comfortable. He asked our full names and I could feel him scanning my body to find my betrayals – no earrings, no bindi, no bangles.
“Didn’t Muskan convert and marry of her own will?” Anna and I asked him.
“No,” he said. “These people brainwash our Hindu women. Why will anyone choose to live their way of life?” He meant Muslims.
“What if she goes to court and says she wants to go back to Rashid? What will you do?”
“What can we do if she wants to live a hellish life?” he said. “But one thing is for sure: if she decides to leave him, we will ensure she gets married to a Hindu boy. That will be our responsibility.”
As Monu walked us back to our car, I asked him, “What if she leaves Rashid but doesn’t want to get married?”
He slowed down, looked me in the eye, and said, “Is Suresh your husband’s name?”
“No,” I said. “I am not married.”
I could sense his disapproval. I wasn’t a “good enough” Hindu woman for him. As we departed, I said “shukriya”, and he immediately corrected me: “It’s ‘dhanyavad’, not ‘shukriya’. That word doesn’t exist in our vocabulary.”
We reached Muskan’s home at noon.
She had been robbed of her agency by the state, when a month-old law decided her year-old love was criminal. But that wasn’t all, even the supposedly “left-wing media” consistently referred to her as Pinki. That mattered to her.
“Call me Muskan,” she told us. “I am not Pinki. I am his, and I am his Muskan.”
We sat by her bed where she lay under a thick quilt. Rashid was somewhere in jail. She had miscarried two days ago, and Rashid didn’t even know yet.
Nothing prepares you for these moments. You walk into a room armed with facts but you realise you’re meeting a human, not a statistic.
Instinctively, I wanted to ask Muskan how she was doing. Did she miss Rashid? Was she in pain? As a woman, I knew the answers to these questions, but as a reporter, I needed to hear her say it. That’s what reporting sometimes feels like: making an unfair choice between being a human and being a journalist, between reporting and caring.
So, as I sat next to her, I chose not to ask some of those questions, because sometimes, especially in the face of such extraordinary violence, caring itself seems like a cruel act. I was the fact-seeker and she, the fact giver. To ask her how she was doing would have meant I was willing to hurt her. I wanted to get through the moment as kindly as possible.
Muskan’s love, which had quietly bloomed in Dehradun, was now a public and political event. “I converted to Islam of my own will. No one forced me,” she said, and would repeat it over and again, to the police, her parents, Rashid’s parents, the media, and the Bajrang Dal.
Rashid was released from jail after two weeks, after the court found “no evidence of forced conversion”. Reporters rushed to capture the moment when the couple reunited. In the verdict, we saw something like hope, or maybe what we have exchanged for hope – I don’t know.
To me, what it really looked like was that Muskan’s body had become the state’s playground. Her miscarriage had become what would conveniently be termed as “collateral damage”. The court had merely said exactly what Muskan had already said multiple times before.
As I wrapped up my fieldwork in Moradabad, a notification popped up on my phone: “CBI says Hathras victim was gangraped, killed.”
I instinctively dialled Asha’s brother’s number. I wanted to know how he felt, what this moment meant for the family. But as soon as the phone rang once, I cut the call. What new information was the CBI really giving them, after all? They already knew she had been raped. It was the rest of us who needed the confirmation.
I remember standing in the hospital in Aligarh. I could see Asha through the stained glass window of the ICU door. She lay perfectly still, the hospital machines testifying that she was still alive.
Her brother stood next to me, and said: “She told us that four men raped her. We told everyone we know, we even tweeted it but nobody came to hear her. Nobody cares.”
I picked up the threads of this conversation the next day with Asha’s mother, who hesitantly told me, “Uske ke saath galat hua hai.” Before her mother could complete her sentence, her voice was drowned out by the men of the house who described the crime.
Asha’s mother and aunt accompanied my colleague Akanksha and I to the crime scene. To know what men had done to Asha, we had to get away from the men of her house. There, Asha’s mother came alive with her horror.
“They raped her. She did not have her kurti on her when I found her. Her breasts were exposed, her dupatta wound around her neck, and she told me they penetrated her vagina...” Her mother’s voice gave in to her emotions and she collapsed as she described in detail the nightmare her daughter had survived in broad daylight.
In the following days, despite the nationwide outrage and the stonewalling by the police and state, Asha’s mother repeatedly said, until she lost her voice, that her daughter had been raped. Yet, not many believed her, or her daughter.
And so, two months after Asha had died, we sighed a useless sigh of relief when the CBI confirmed exactly what Asha had painfully whispered with whatever life was left inside her.
Why didn’t we listen to Muskan and Asha?
This where I end up suspecting the authenticity of journalism and fear myself in the role of a journalist. Reporting is historically done and defined by men. Courts are run by men. Women journalists are often captive to male descriptions of experiences and what they call “justice”.
But it’s women who most often experience violence like gangrape, it’s women who suffer miscarriages. Perhaps justice can be achieved only if we listen to the nuances of the nightmares repeatedly described by these women.
That’s why I return to Svetlana Alexiewich. “Women’s stories are different and about different things. ‘Women’s’ war has its own colours, its own smells, its own lighting and its own range of feelings. Its own words,” she writes. “There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.”
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