The documentary novel
I will tell it like it is. For a long time, I couldn't get started on this chapter, this topic, this page of our story; I lay it to one side and put it off because I didn't know, or don't know, how to write about it here – which letters constitute words about cruelty; how many sounds there are in fragments of crying; or how commas and full stops are distributed in the intervals between pain. Yes, I imagined naively – as my main characters once did: when the time came – that I would sink into unconsciousness and, right there, in this oblivion, this quiet death bereft of feeling, write down the mournful lines. And afterwards, wake up when everything had calmed down and hurt no more.
But alas. A thousand times alas. Life isn't like that. You can't skip over a step on the ladder. Can't tear a link out of the chain. Can't eliminate one hour of the day, one day of the month, or one month of the year. Not one of the burdens that destiny is loaded with, can mankind throw off. We are forced to bear each and every one of them. Why life is constituted in this way, without alternatives, I will not say. Because I don't know. But I'd very much like to know. Along with you, I want to find out for what purpose we are given this terrible knowledge. Shall mankind really, in order to recognize the world it has to go forward to, first face up to the world it has to get away from? Is the advance of mankind a movement away from something?
But before I open the door for you into this world – which is absolutely not a world, but a hell – I want to ask you for one thing. All you have to do, from this moment and from this line, is to put yourself in Archana's place. Or in Latika's or Gouri's place. Please take that step. Try to get inside their skin, their eyes and their hearing. Become their shadow. Breathe with their breast. Burn with their fear. Scream with their nature. Don't be afraid. To imagine being in their place is not the same as being in their place. And besides, I am with you. I will guide you through. Whereas they were there alone. But what if you don't want to – don't want to stand in someone else's sandals, because you are used to books providing you with "wisdom, light, and not a stone in the soul" – then at least read. Stay at the peephole and read. Without having sensed at least a shadow of sadness, an echo of pain, an aftertaste of bitterness, how are you going to penetrate to the essence? The essence is that the heart doesn't die when you think it should. But what keeps it alive?
* * *
When he – that is, Police Inspector Runu Niyogi – arrived at the Special Cell, it was 10 o’clock in the morning and Archana, Latika and Gouri had already been brought into his office. He had scarcely come inside (and he was always energetic, with his long strides and a cigarette end he just had to finish) before he had filled half the office and crushed the other half under the weight of his shadow. Coming straight after breakfast, his fleshy cheeks were clean shaven, his trousers freshly pressed and his shirt crackling clean. Runu seemed to be in fine spirits. Anything else was unthinkable. In the Special Cell, he had long since become his own master. Or rather, everything here had become his.
But what is the Special Cell? Not just a prison cell. Historically the same age as the Naxalites, it was created especially for them: "for the freedom fighters," whispered the people; "for the terrorists," hissed the police. The press expressed themselves neutrally: "to combat the alleged extremists." Compared with its predecessors – the Gestapo and the KGB – and its successors – Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib – the Special Cell differed only in size. In the shape of an inverted L, the premises consisted of only three rooms. The first and largest was considered to be a shared office; it was here that Archana, Latika and Gouri had been questioned before, and it was here that the youngsters liked to sit and warm the benches while waiting to be given a task. The second room served as Runu's office. The third, and final, room was called "the toilet". But there was no toilet. From the first room, you could get into the second; from the second, there was access to the third. In the third, everything stopped. No noise penetrated out of it. The third room – that was timoka.
As some may recall, Ingmar Bergman's film The Silence should originally have been called Timoka. In his memoirs, he explains that he had seen, in an Estonian book, a word which stood on a line by itself and, without knowing how it should be translated, he decided that it was an appropriate name for the strange city his three main characters had arrived in. Only later did Bergman find out that timoka means "the executioner's" or "that which belongs to the executioner." A place where there is no god to help you.
In other words, Lalbazar and the Special Cell, especially the third room – this was also timoka. Ti-mo-ka. That which belonged to the executioner.
Gouri was the first one they grabbed hold of. Latika and Archana remained in Runu's office. About 20 minutes later – rather quickly, Runu had barely had time to find the papers he would need for the interrogation – the door to the third room opened a fraction. From somewhere inside, there came terse obscenities. Archana was ordered in there.
Archana got up. Began to walk. Her heart was in her throat. Her legs suddenly withered, like the leaves of the cotton plant wither from the droplets of a defoliation agent. But she overcame it and walked on. On her own two feet. There was the door, there – the doorstep. She stepped over it.
A strong smell of a den of thieves struck her nose. Damp, sweat, tobacco and wine, sweaty skin, blood, remnants of vomit, something burnt, and at the same time, tea with milk; all boiled together into a deadly stew. To the left of the entrance – a worn mattress on the cement floor. Opposite – a bunch of Indian lathi of different sizes: batons and cane sticks with an iron tip. A hole gaping in the wall. On the right, two large high-backed chairs. Between them, a pole weighed down by a burden, the ends resting on the armrests. On the bar – something resembling a carcase on a spit. A person? An animal? An oversized foetus? The four limbs doubled up together in an impossible knot, held together with a tight rope. Soles of the feet up, head down.
Suddenly it hit Archana like a bucket of boiling water. The sari! The colour of the sari – she recognised ... Gouri! Oh my, it was Gouri!
The policeman Kamal was towering over Gouri's body. Next to him stood Constable Santosh. Kamal was beating her feet with a lathi. Bloody skin that had come loose was already hanging from the soles of her feet. But Kamal continued with the punishment while making comments – now aimed at Archana.
"Look at this! Watch carefully! If you don't confess, you're next!"
Strange, but Gouri wasn't crying. Wasn't moaning. Wasn't even begging for mercy. It was as if she wasn't there. Her consciousness hadn't been able to bear the horror of the pain and had left her body, which now didn't belong to her.
Archana was taken back to Runu's office. Fifteen minutes later, she caught a glimpse of a doctor's white coat disappearing into the third room. Gouri was still in there. At the same moment, Kamal came out.
"Take her next," commanded Runu, nodding towards Latika. He was still sitting rummaging among his papers.
Kamal pulled Latika up from her chair and threw her with all his power against the wall. His right arm flew into the air like a butcher's axe and landed heavy as a stone on Latika's left cheek. And again. And again. With every blow, it seemed to Archana that Latika's eyeballs were about to jump out of their sockets. Forehead, ears, nose, chin – everything on Latika was sort of bulging outwards. On her cheek, there was an imprint from Kamal's fingers. From her eyes, there came an electric quaking. For 15 minutes. And each time with full force. Afterwards, they pushed a chair over to Latika.
Gouri came out of the third room, crawling on her knees while propping herself up against the wall. They had got her back to consciousness (hence the doctor's visit), but she couldn't walk. Santosh came out behind her.
"Take her next," ordered Runu.
Archana was lifted up from the chair and carried in through the door. Following her, gesticulating obscenely, a bunch of policemen who had been in the
shared office streamed in, and some time later Runu also came into the third room.
* * *
"Let's make her into a man!" orders Santosh.
Falling over each other in their eagerness, four men with dull red cheeks – Santosh, Kamal, Aditya, Arun – force Archana down into a sitting position on the floor. They push her sari up above her knees. Tie its front and back parts together into a knot between her legs. The top piece of the material, which covers the breast like a shawl and hangs down from one shoulder – that is also ripped off, torn into pieces and bound around her waist. Now the sari is no longer a sari, but kachha – short shorts or underpants for men. Looking like this would be enough on its own to get a Bengali woman to choose death.
But no. They go on.
There – the coarse rope. There – the thin wrists. They are strapped tightly to the ankles. Breast and stomach become one with the knees. The body can neither move nor straighten up.
But no. They go on.
Below the knees – to be more precise, in the gap between her knees and her elbows – a wooden pole is forcibly screwed in. There's not enough room, her skin resists, but blow by blow, the pole is forced through. The ends stick out on either side of her legs.
But no. They go on.
On Runu's order, two men take hold of the ends of the pole, lift it up off the floor and carry it over to between the chairs where they put it on the armrests. The armrests are strong. The support base doesn't give an inch. Her body hangs on the pole like a carcase on a spit. Soles of the feet up, head down.
But no. They go on.
"You first!" Runu nods at Santosh. He positions himself over by the wall where there's a better view, takes out a cigarette and strikes a match.
Santosh turns to the lathis. Chooses one. Looks at it. Places it properly in his hand. Checks how it cleaves the air. And from that moment, every blow – every blow with the lathi on the soles of Archana's feet – is an explosion in her head. And her head is no longer a head where there is a brain, sight, smell and hearing. It is boiling lava.
But no. They go on.
Then Runu joins in. He goes over to Archana and rains kicks down on her thighs. His boots are clubs to beat a tamtam with. The tamtam is an instrument, the beating of which heralds death.
Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony. But the tamtam in Tchaikovsky – that's in the finale. Here it's only just beginning.
They go on, and now follows a favourite trick.
The cigarette, which until then has been smouldering between Runu's teeth, bores its way into the soles of Archana's feet. After having stabbed there, it sets off again and lands on the pads of her toes. Counts them one by one. Then it lands on her toenails. Also counts them one by one. After getting enough of her feet, it moves on to her hands. 10 more pads and 10 more nails. It glues itself to one elbow. Thereafter – just for the sake of symmetry – to the other.
"You communist pig! You red bitch! Cow!" Runu is shouting all the time while he's doing it. "Why don't you wise up and confess! Come on – confess everything!"
But Archana doesn't hear a lot of what spews out of him. Consciousness has left her body. Latika is watching Archana's suffering. They've brought her in so she can take a look at this. Take a look at it and be told:
"If you don't confess, you're next ...”
* * *
40 minutes. The cigarettes were burnt down. The lathis had become limp. The arms tired. Tired simply of beating. Two officers lifted the pole off the armrests and put it down on the floor. The ropes were loosened. The pole fell out from under her knees, taking the flakes of skin with it. Archana was dragged over onto the mattress. Smacked on the cheeks, splattered with water. Consciousness was slow to react. Her jaw was trembling continuously.
When Archana finally opened her eyes, something had happened to the lighting in the room. At one moment, a fire roared, like out of an oven; in the next, it was like a freezing cold night. Someone got her to her feet and gave her permission to go – go out and wait in Runu's office where Latika and Gouri were still sitting. It was three o'clock in the afternoon. Half a day had passed since they had been arrested. Archana made a movement towards the door, but the floor disappeared, the walls shook, and she noticed the gas-like smell of her burnt feet.
A little later, the women were led back to their cell. Gouri and Archana hobbled half of the way along the wall; they crawled the other half on their knees. When they finally arrived, and the bolt was slammed in after them, the only thing they had the strength to say to each other was:
"How can they produce us in court now?"
"It's not in their interest ..."
But all in all, they breathed a sigh of relief. They were still alive. And they hadn't betrayed Saumen.
After four o'clock, they were sent for from the Special Cell again. The officers and other policemen had had lunch and received them with obscene gestures; the same layout as before. The first one they brought into the third room was Archana. Everything was repeated from beginning to end. Without end. Until late in the evening.
Latika was brought in to watch. But I don't have the strength to tell more. Nor the strength to write more. My hands become numb and stiff. My gaze wanders away from the paper. Will I really have to take that road too – to give way cravenly, to walk away and leave them there alone? And for what purpose? For your sake, dear reader? So that you won't now say, "Too much, this is too much."? It could be. But it could also be something else.
It isn't always possible or necessary to put down in detail exactly what kinds of contempt are practised in the cellars of a police authority, and all in all, it isn't the purpose of this book to describe torture. Both the main characters and the author who has undertaken to depict the circumstances, live with a paraplegia of shame – shock, pain and shame. And the more delicate the organs that have been tortured, the more taciturn the victim becomes, and the more silent the author. A human trait. And a wretched trait. To throw everything which hurts the most into the tomb of silence. But I still have a small hope. The one Solzhenitsyn had when he wrote The Gulag Archipelago. Wrote and was worried that he hadn't written everything. "A single swallow is enough to know how the whole ocean tastes."
Translated from the Danish by David Young