Early on in the narrative, Paulami Duttagupta has to say this about Onaatah, the feisty protagonist of her novel ‘Onaatah of the earth’ (http://www.amazon.in/Onaatah-Earth-Adapted-National-winning/dp/9385854224):
‘ She looked rotten. Her face looked battered. But she didn’t want anybody to see her tears.’
This line pretty much sums up the courage and the grit of the (s)hero of Paulami’s story.
Based on the eponymous Khasi language film that won a National Award in 2016, Paulami’s novel is about a young girl who is subjected to brutal sexual violation after being abducted in a car by a gang of men that ironically includes one of her classmates from college, and who then fights back against archaic patriarchy, against the radical changes in attitude of those she had held close to her heart, and most importantly, against her own inner demons that her traumatic experience had unleashed.
In the early sections of her story, Paulami brilliantly depicts not just the physical sufferings but the emotional turmoil that Onaatah goes through, in the confines of her hospital room and later in the safety of her own house. Even as the very foundations of her trust on mankind are shattered, Onaatah is asphyxiated by the cowardly rejection meted out to her by her fiancé Peter and his family, as well as the forced indifference of her parents.
Darkness scares her. Unknown roads scare her. A cab packed with unknown men scares her. And the inevitable accusations, questions, and aspersions keep haunting her. The city she had grown up in is no longer her own.
To her credit, Paulami does not stereotype the urban male. While she unmasks the monsters that roam freely among us, she also deftly portrays the honourable exceptions – like the boys who pick up the hapless Onaatah from the road where the rapists left her to die, the police official in charge of the investigation, and the cab driver who remonstrates a passenger who dared to put a price tag on Onaatah’s dignity by discussing with her compensations offered to rape victims by the state. Or, for that matter, her father who decides to stand by her in her battle against the rapists.
As Onaatah leaves the city and begins to discover life anew in a village, basking in the warmth of the unconditional and unflinching love from her uncle’s family and more importantly, villagers she had never met before, her faith in humanity is reaffirmed. Onaatah discovers purpose for her existence all over again.
Paulami paints with her words and I found myself transported to the world of winding mountain roads, hills covered with moss and fragrant wild flowers, and the breeze whistling through trees under the orange-tinted sky of the dusk. Paulami creates memorable characters and weaves delightful sub-plots into her story that bring out the unblemished beauty and innocence of rural life, and the essence of sharing and caring in a community. This is a world where people do not judge each other.
For example, in sharp contrast to Onaatah’s experience in the city, when a girl of her age gets into a crisis in the village, the villagers do not cast aspersions but come together to alleviate the sufferings of the girl and her family, and help her find a way out of her situation. It is a revelation to discover through Paulami’s characterization the progressive and liberated points of view of people who do not boast of formal education, who are deprived of basic amenities, and who struggle to make ends meet.
The real strength of Paulami’s story, thus, lies in the depiction of Onaatah’s journey into light. This is a story about rejuvenation in the face of adversity.
‘What happened spoils an immediate present... but not your entire life... life is God’s gift to you. How can it just get spoiled so easily?’
This could apply to any individual – irrespective of gender. This could be about any crisis – and not just sexual violation.
This is where Paulami’s book triumphs. This is not just Onaatah’s story. This is about you and me. This is a story about hope. About the courage to fight back. And emerge victorious. I know I will go back to this book every time I am down.
Paulami, take a bow!