This article is by one of our 2017 cohort India Fellows, Rashmi Singh who lives and works in Kanpur Dehat, Uttar Pradesh, with a community radio station called Waqt Ki Awaaz.

I am writing to tell you about an incident that shook me due to the incredulous nature of the story that got fabricated around it, which still confounds me as to why that girl died.

Image courtesy Yahoo News

Ever since I’ve arrived in Kanpur Dehat, the rumoured incidents of women mysteriously waking up to find their braids or chunks of hair cut have been wildly surfacing and dying down like an ambient noise that I have heard now and then from my colleagues who always dismissed them as unsubstantial. Two weeks in, we received information from a listener who reported to us of a young girl who had died and her hair had been cut. The informer mentioned that the village was buzzing with idea that the girl had died due to it. My supervisor promptly decided to visit it as the place was a mere five minutes drive from the Waqt Ki Awaaz community radio station (where I work as an India Fellow). In my excitement to substantiate whether the story was a rumor or otherwise, I forgot about the grave scene of death that I was about to encounter ...

A crowd had gathered near the house in Sambharpur village and we shoved and pushed our way into the gathering to see a group of women sitting quietly around one weeping woman. The women, and the woman, were swarmed around the body of the girl who was covered in white bed sheet near the entrance/door of the house. Now the two most compelling aspects of this death scene were:

  • There was little to no crying around. People looked at each other sombrely and would now and then console the crying mother of the girl.
  • There was a chunk of hair laid out conspicuously on display for everyone to see.

In my mind, these were compelling due to the absurd reaction of the gathered villagers. Death invites loud grief and an untimely one of a young 16-year-old girl should, naturally or even ordinarily, invite disbelief and mourning like no other. Yet, this girl’s death was peculiarly silent. The hair was literally the crowning glory of this scene. The ragged chunk of black hair segued her death to the hysteria of Choti Katwa phenomenon that has been cropping in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and has been reported over 100 times in past two months. This fear-inducing panic is something that Uttar Pradesh is somewhat accustomed to.

My supervisor launched various question at the people on the details of the girl’s death. What emerged is that the family had been visiting relatives in the city and they arrived to find the girl dead in the kitchen with a significant chunk of hair cut out. Prodding further, she asked the reluctant people to show us her face and neck. We saw that the girl’s eyes were wide open and face discolored. Even her neck bore signs and blackish marks.

On seeing these, My supervisor (a brave lady, indeed) announced loudly to the crowd that this was no case of braid cutting but probably a case of murder or suicide. Later, I asked why was it necessary to be so declarative about it, she told me that the villagers knew and were playing along but she felt the need to announce it as she saw girls who were frightened that this hair braid cutting could result in their deaths and would go down. A succinct précis was immediately deemed for this catchphrase Choti kati aur beti mari and would probably be used as an excuse to cover more crimes against woman.

In this situation, a potential suicide was being covered in order to protect the family’s honour or reputation. It is my understanding that there are not just emotional consequences to losing your daughter but also social ones that involve public scrutiny and scorn which prompted this family to take such a pathetic option of chunking off the hair of their dead daughter’s scalp.

Desperation and societal pressure is truly a force to reckoned with.

So far this has been the blow-by blow account of what I saw, knew and experienced that day, things that emerged post that has been psychologically very insightful and revealing. I have heard five different accounts of why this girl died beside the hair-cutting scare one. The reasons have ranged from she killed herself because she scored low marks to being killed by her brother/father because she was found in a compromising (read: having sex) situation as well as she killed herself because she was barred from meeting her boyfriend.

Here’s the complex thing, She is too dead to tell us her reason why she could see no future for her and I may never really know why and how she died. Also, since she is a part of larger community narrative, people like you and me now have the power of assumption and may now proceed to create her identity, character and life story that fits our opinion of her. This is why we see such variations in the reasons why this girl is dead. She is a ghost, a mere figment of imagination made of words. She is now a part of statistics that can be either be mass-panic related death or died for love or honour killing death, depending on where you want to place her. Our discretion, really … This is the power of opinion, It creates or even shifts reality.

Doesn’t this incident raise complicated questions on the fabric of truth and journalism and statistics? A Latin quote says In Vino Veritas which if I paraphrased would mean that truth lies at the end of the wine bottle. Logically extended, It would imply the existence of absolute and objective truth. But do we really live in a society of objective truths?

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