A few admire her for her grit and self-confidence. Some condemn her for her brazen outspokenness. Many call her a stormy petrel. Others dismiss her as a seeker of cheap fame. Whatever the impression she leaves on people’s minds, whatever the responses she elicits, there is no denying that Vinaya’s was the most recognizable face in the Kerala constabulary. Her life has been a relentless battle against the culture of hypocrisy, corruption and male chauvinism that has gained tremendous strength in our society despite growing awareness of gender-equality and justice. Her autobiography in. Malayalam ‘Ente Katha Athava Oru Malayali Yuvathiyude Jeevitha Yaatra’ (2003) gives the readers an account, sometimes moving and sometimes hilarious, of the small struggles she initiated and the challenges she faced in life. Simultaneously, it throws light on the people who moulded her thoughts and the experiences that shaped her world view. Following is a translation of excerpts from the book:
My (and everyone s) mother s life
When I recall my childhood days, it is my mother’s miserable condition that first comes to memory. It was much later in life that I realized how she represented the times she belonged to – living like a slave, shorn of all dignity. Heinous indeed was the manner in which my father and all the men of his family treated their wives. Caught in a worthless existence and slogging day and night merely to get food, clothing and shelter, these women had to tackle several other problems as well – relentless domestic work and settling of children’s quarrels … everyday, endlessly…
My father who did small-scale timber business and farming came home only at night. We children would invariably be asleep by then. If ever he reached early, that day remained fresh in our minds for a long time. Complaints like ‘There’s no salt in the gruel’, ‘The gravy isn’t thick’, ‘The tea is not strong’, ‘The spittoon isn’t clean’ were followed by expletives ‘Dirty animal’, ‘You inauspicious one’ – all directed at my mother. My younger sister and I stood mute in sheer fright but my elder sister grumbled, out of his earshot.
On most days father was heavily drunk. Then, he would call all of us to his side and cheerfully repeat the same old story of how he tripped over a rope that tied a cow to a stake, and how he narrowly missed being hit by a lorry. One day in the middle of this tale, when he stepped out to wash his hands for dinner, mother muttered ‘Won’t this man die, ever?’ I distinctly remember that episode even today.
There were many avenues for my father to give vent to his anger or express his happiness. He was a fine volleyball player and even participated in competitions. He was also good at cards. On festival days like Onam and Vishu it was usual for some of his friends to come home for lunch and join in the card games that followed. He was a man who enjoyed life in all ways possible. My mother lived like ‘a good woman’ – without friends or social bonds, confined to the kitchen, ignorant of the world outside the house and adept at keeping all her emotions and feelings under check. Such is the condition of most mothers – destined not to find happiness of any kind, sacrificing their lives for the comfort and satisfaction of others .. .
I was in the fifth standard when I killed a chicken for the first time. Chicken was usually served for lunch or dinner to honour visiting friends or relatives and on such occasions we depended on a young labourer from a neighbouring colony or an older man to do the job. That particular day no one was immediately available and my mother became desperate.
This situation made me think – ‘Can only men kill chicken?’ It was dusk and all the hens were in the coop. I went there, caught one, held its feet firmly under mine and using all my strength turned its head full circle. After some time its flappings stopped. I had earlier seen hens killed in our compound – the labourer merely twisted its head a little, the bird bounded high a couple of times and gradually went still. But I feared that if I loosened my grasp, the chicken would run away. So I held on for a long time. During dinner that night, as the visitors and my family tucked in the chicken curry I felt no qualms. Rather I was proud to see them eat the bird I had killed.
Like every woman, I have memories of a few adolescent experiences that like a slow-moving slug still haunt me hi moments of loneliness and trigger feelings of revulsion and fear. I’m sure most girls can recall at least one instance of a crude sexual assault that has left a permanent scar in their minds. Although many such incidents have happened in my life, two experiences sadden me even today. They happened when I was too young to know or resist.
I was in the first or the second standard then. Govindan was our trusted servant and odd jobs man who sometimes carried light refreshments and water to the labourers when they took a short mid-day break in the fields. I was sent along with him to bring back the pots and vessels. As the men resumed their work, Govindan would put me on his lap and fondle me. Several years passed before I realized that his caresses were not a show of innocent affection. Later he died tragically, killed by his younger brother in a domestic dispute.
The second incident took place when I was an eighth standard student. I was the only girl to be selected from my school to participate in a district-level sports meet. At the end of the first day, the boys’ events got over and all my school-mates and teachers returned home. I was alone with one instructor who promptly left me under the care of a male teacher from another school, an utter stranger to me. It was evening. We had to go back to our lodgings. Just as I boarded a bus, this man put his hand under my skirt and pinched me. All his subsequent actions were more revolting. Soon we reached the lodge that housed many sports candidates and their coaches from other schools. One master, perhaps seeing the distress on my face, enquired about my school and offered to put me up at his house for the night. I accepted it immediately, without second thoughts or even looking at my tormentor. I spent a happy night with his family. Even today when I think of him my heart fills with gratitude.
There is an unwritten rule which compels girls to wear gold chains round their necks when they attend weddings or other festivities. It came into effect in my life when I was doing my pre-degree course. As neither my sister nor I had one, we usually borrowed a gold or gold-plated chain from our neighbour. It was given without any hesitation but my mother always cautioned us: ‘Take good care of it, won’t you? Pin it firmly to your blouse. Remember, it is someone else’s’.
One day I decided to stop the practice. I wore a bead necklace to a wedding. On the way, I pondered over the connection between a gold chain and my father’s honour. Why does a girl require gold chains and ear rings? Essentially, they are a yardstick for others to assess her financial status. If the wife or the daughter wears jewellery, the credit goes to the husband or the father, who does not use it That very evening, I removed my ear rings. Since then I’ve never worn any jewellery. I’ve realized that ornaments destroy a woman’s self-confidence. Even today when I see women decked in jewellery I am convinced that the beauty of a chain or the clinking sound of bangles serves only to limit her thoughts to herself.
My younger sister’s wedding took place before mine. It was then that I came to know about the special restrictions society places on an elder sister’s behaviour and even her choice of dress. An experience at a wedding brought home to me some of these taboos. I wore a churidar for the first time in my life to my uncle’s daughter’s wedding. While I was applying make-up on the bride’s face, a middle-aged lady, an old family friend, stepped into the room. Seeing me, she blurted, ‘Why on earth are you wearing a churidar? Your younger sister has had a baby! And yet, the elder one wears churidar ?’ My anger boiled over. Without waiting for her to finish and totally unmindful of the women and photographers in the room, I retorted, ‘In our village, when the younger sister gets married, it is she who has the baby. In yours, is it the elder one who bears the child?’ The arrow found its target and she left the scene immediately.
At the Police Training Ground
My police career began on 13 March 1991 at the Police Training College in Trivandrum. Our professional kit was distributed the same day. It contained a cap, a belt, a baton, four sets of uniform, a pair each of black shoes (for parade) and white shoes (for PT), shoe polish and brush and a rifle sling.
Some women trainees, including myself, objected to our sari-Uniform. We knew that it did not give us a professional look and one of his even wrote a letter to the Chief Minister seeking official sanction for the shirt-and-pants uniform. A few senior police women, who heard about our discussions, called us to their room, spoke at length about the greatness of the sari, the disadvantages we will suffer if we switch over to shirt and pants and even mentioned how it will destroy our marriage prospects. At the end of their brain-washing, an ‘anti-pants’ lobby emerged among the trainees!
During recess, many trainees swapped stories about the marriage proposals they lost merely on account of their police job. Their conversation ran like this:
‘Only police men will marry us. What a fate!’
‘Hmm . . . Men prefer soft and simple girls. And people say we aren’t like that.’ ‘Yeah, everyone thinks police women are very arrogant!’ ‘Now there’s a “pants problem” to make it worse. Isn’t it enough if we get our salary on time and our pension, without looking for trouble!’
Try as I might I could never make them feel proud about having a job that conferred executive powers on them. However, the fact that I could keep the pants debate alive for some time gave me a sense of victory or accomplishment.
There were many talented girls in our batch who excelled in athletics and played volleyball, basketball, football and so on. But no one in the police force bothered to seek them out or encourage them. There were many balls and nets in the PT room and whoever was interested could use them. That was all. It was not difficult to groom an excellent women’s volleyball team from among them. The Indian Railways and the KSEB (Kerala State Electricity Board) had separate men’s and women’s sports teams but the Kerala Police was satisfied with only men’s teams. Even today, during the training period and later, men are given coaching in athletics and games while police women are marginalized in every field of activity.
After training I was given orders to join the Bathery police station along with six others. On reaching there, the first bit of information the senior policemen gave us was about the professional concessions we, as women constables, could enjoy. The most glaring among them, which sparked off a big controversy later, gave us permission to leave office at .5 p. m. every day.
Our most important responsibilities included doing wireless duties and taking copies. Besides, during law and order problems (like dharna and picketing) we were called in to arrest and remove the strikers or to escort the accused. Our range of duties was very limited. In the evening, at the stroke of five, a policeman invariably asked, ‘Aren’t you going home?’ This encouraged all, except a few of us, to make haste and rush home, earning in the process the reputation of being disciplined girls.
Nearly two months later we were transferred to the Bathery traffic unit. There we had to work in two shifts daily. The first was from eight to eleven in the forenoon and from two to five in the afternoon. The other was from eleven to two in the afternoon and from five to seven in the evening. The police women on evening shift were permitted to leave an hour early. However, this concession, granted willingly by the senior policemen in the initial days, became conditional in course of time. Often one heard loud mock prayers like ‘O God! Make me a policewoman in my next birth!’ As far as possible, I avoided approaching them for such concessions. I did my duty with enthusiasm right up to seven. But it did not go well with my female friends. They feared that my attitude might affect them adversely.
Sometime then, a few police women had fears that long hours of exposure to the sun would spoil their complexion and ruin their marriage prospects. They approached a local MLA for help. Convinced about the gravity of their problem, he intervened and relieved police women from that ‘heavy’ traffic duty. This move put an end to our freedom to see the outside world. Thereafter we remained cooped within the four walls of our office.
During the training period we had strict instructions to address senior policemen (even when they were senior only by a year) as ‘sir’. However, on joining duty at Kalpetta traffic unit later, we started calling our juniors and other friendly policemen by their names. One day the head constable and the SP (Superintendent of Police) came to know of this. They ordered us to go by the rules. Years later, when young policemen joined the force, they started calling us by our names. We complained to the head constable but it brought about no change. His incredulous reply was ‘How can you be addressed as ‘sir?’ ‘Aren’t you women?’ During training everyone was instructed to address each other, even police women, as `sir’. Sadly now, even the SP could not redress our complaint. A woman does not deserve respect but she is always expected to show respect to others — this principle holds good in the police force even today.
I got married at the Ganapathy temple in Bathery on 1 November 1992. The groom was Mr Mohandas who worked at the Bathery Traffic Station. He was a man of few words.
There were twelve of us, men and women, working at the Bathery station. We were good friends. One day, some of them brought me a marriage proposal from a policeman working in the same office. As I was not interested in him, I told a senior policeman Mr Kunhikannan, ‘Six, if you’re interested in my welfare please tell me what you think of Mr Mohandas. I like him.’
`Oh, I see . . . So you’re interested in getting married, after all!’ He teased me. But a while later, calling me aside, he said, ‘Vinaya, consider me like your own father. I think you must wear jewellery. Otherwise, no one will marry you.’ ‘That’s impossible, sir. If you agree to my choice, will you do what is necessary?’
I had never spoken to Mr Mohandas; I merely knew him. I usually went to the nearby temple on my way to the police station and distributed the prasadam among my friends. Mr Mohandas was one of them.
A few days later, after traffic duty when I was going back to the station, I met Mr Mohandas. He was returning from some work at the law court. We stepped into a tea shop in front of the police station. Mr Mohandas spoke to me about our wedding but was worried that he did not have a house of his own. I assured him that a housing loan would settle the issue. Then I mentioned the only condition I had regarding married life. He was willing to hear me out. I merely said, ‘Don’t expect me to change my ways after our wedding. I will never be able to do it.’ He had no objections.
Later, there were the usual formalities to go through – meeting the bride and so on. One morning, just a couple of days before the wedding ceremony, Dasettan (Mr Mohandas) came to me, looking very worried. He said, ‘My relatives insist on the thali ceremony. Won’t you permit me to tie the thali thread around your neck that day?’ I was in a fix. Some senior policemen spoke to us incessantly, insisting that we agree to the thali tying ceremony. ‘Otherwise … tongues will wag,’ they warned us. Just as this debate was going on, Ramla, a friend of mine, told me secretly, ‘Vinaya, tell them go to hell! If they are so adamant, why don’t you put an end to the whole thing?’ That advice worked like a shot in the arm. I told everyone, ‘I don’t want the thali tying ceremony. Maybe we should call off the wedding!’ Immediately, somebody interrupted, `Vinaya, just imagine! After the wedding, if both of you check into a hotel, shouldn’t people know that you’re his wife?’
‘Oh, I see! Is the thali a licence for prostitution then? With that tiny thing tied round the neck I suppose I can move around with anyone. And no one will ask questions!’ My reply put an end to all discussions about the thali issue.
But there was something I had forgotten completely – the bride’s ceremonial change of dress on the wedding day. Nearly a week before the wedding, Dasettan told me, ‘My elder brother and his wife will be coming to your house today to collect one of your blouses. Our tailor needs your measurements to stitch the blouse be giving you at the ceremony.’ As per custom, after the wedding the bride changes into a new sari and matching blouse given by the groom. I had always viewed the ceremony as vulgar. Despite the aura of glamour and dignity, in my View, it is nothing but a blot on the bride’s honour because the change of dress is never accompanied by a similar change of ornaments. Doesn’t it mean that the wife’s wealth is all that matters to the husband? Nothing else is equally important, not even her dignity? I told Dasettan that I did not like the purpose of their visit. But by the time I reached home after duty they were already there. My mother and my elder sister warned me hot to insult the guests. I had to comply.
My story or The Life Journey of a Young Malayali Woman 91
The wedding took place without the thali ceremony. Dasettan and I merely exchanged the garlands blessed at the temple. But there was another ceremony I could not prevent – the formal giving away of the bride which my father did by placing my hand on Dasettan’s. The next ritual required the newly wedded couple to hold each other’s right hands and go round the temple, with the bride always following the groom. I held Dasettan’s right hand in my left instead and walked by his one. However the path near the mandapam was narrow, permitting only e person to walk at a time. When we reached that spot I stepped back unconsciously, allowing Dasettan to lead me!
During the wedding ceremony I accepted the set of clothes presented by Dasettan but refused to wear them. Dasettan’s family insisted that I follow the custom. They threatened not to participate in the feast till I obeyed them and even asked Dasettan to order me. He was silent all the while. When their nagging became insufferable, he turned mildly angry, ‘If Vinaya doesn’t want to wear it, why do you compel her?’ I remember those words even today, with gratitude. Ever since, our relationship has grown from strength to strength.
Meanwhile Dasettan’s relatives showed no sign of backing down. It looked as though they would boycott the feast. At this point my mother intervened. Holding my arms, she wept, ‘My dear girl, don’t spoil the occasion. If you do so, I swear upon Lord Vigneswara, not remain alive.’ I did not think any further. No one was more important to me than my mother. I wore the new sari but implored Dasettan’s relatives not to compel me to put flowers on my hair. They complied with my wish. But word spread that I had refused to wear the sari because I did not find it beautiful.
At Dasettan’s house, the next day, I woke up early and joined a few women who were sweeping the courtyard. Everyone looked surprised; some muttered words of praise. From their attitude it was evident that they had not expected this behaviour. Later when I went inside, my sister-in-law handed me a glass of coffee. Her grunt suggested that it was meant for my husband. Usually I never drink coffee but that day I took the glass from her hand and drank it, right in front of her.
`Ayyo! That was meant for Mohan!’ She tried to stop me.
I smiled broadly at her and emptied the glass. Then I went into our bedroom, woke up Dasettan and led him to the kitchen. My sister-in-law served him a fresh cup of coffee. In this manner I tried to prevent Dasettan from having even small expectations from me.
A week later both of us went back to work. One day as we went out for a stroll I happened to walk a couple of paces ahead of Dasettan. We had a mild quarrel over it. Usually on public roads the woman walks a few feet behind her spouse. It is almost impossible to imagine them walking side by side or the wife walking ahead of her husband.
In my domestic life, I suffer the same discriminations that women face in the social sphere. The full responsibility of raising children and looking after their needs is always the mother’s, while the father enjoys legal rights over them. Struggles and conflicts against such injustices have taken place throughout my married life. In a sense, such struggles for women’s rights should take place in every household; they should also be taken forward because struggles eventually lead to consensus. Although there are limits to a woman’s rights within the family, many a time my intentionally wilful behaviour has helped me secure some of them.
We began constructing our house in 1993. First, we identified a ten cent plot adjacent to my ancestral house, close to the main road. It was full of trees — coffee bushes, jack, mango, casuarinas and others. After marking the plinth area, occasionally Dasettan and I took leave or went to the site after duty hours to do the preliminary work. Dasettan took the lead in felling the trees to clear the area. Then both of us sawed the trunks into pieces and removed them. When this was over, we hired workers to clean the spot and start digging.
My father laid the foundation stone of our house. We prepared food for all the workers at home. Whenever we got some time to spare, Dasettan and I helped in the construction. My mother supervised the heavy kitchen work required for feeding the workers and simultaneously looked after our infant daughter. She did all this uncomplainingly.
Neither Dasettan nor I had any specific idea about the plan of the house. However, we were insistent about one thing – it should not be built according to old patterns. With our GPF (General Provident Fund), housing and hire purchase loans, we completed the foundation work. By then our funds were completely exhausted. Another year passed before we could start the super structure.
Every day, before the workers came, we filled water in a tank that Dasettan had built earlier. Waking up at five in the morning, under the dim light of a couple of candles, we collected and piled the bricks needed for the day’s construction and soaked them. By seven the work was over and after ablutions, we prepared our breakfast and headed for office. We tried to do by ourselves all the work that was possible in order to reduce expenses — sieving six loads of sand for the roofing, preparing the metal needed for making the concrete mix, working alongside the labourers during the concreting of the roof and so on. By evening our bodies would ache terribly but a hot water bath prepared by my mother and a good night’s rest removed all the pain. Despite pauses, the work progressed, sometimes snail-like, sometimes quickly. By April 1997 the house was ready for occupation. We printed invitation cards for the house warming ceremony and I took care to put my name above Dasettan’s. He did not object to my desire.
It was my mother who conducted the house warming ceremony. We could construct our house only because of her whole-hearted co-operation and only I could show her this respect and recognition. My siblings always gave more importance to their husbands’ relatives. Mother was always pushed to the second place, either as a hostess or as a guest, and this had always pained me. During all ceremonies —celebrating an infant’s first rice meal or its naming — the father’s family is always given prominence. I was determined to change it.
That night, my father and my uncle slept happily in the bedrooms of our new house. My husband, my little daughter and I lay on a coir mat on the floor of our dining room, more happy and contented. All the guests had their fill during the feast. Nothing had been in short supply. Thus as a result of our hard labour, a big dream came true. No doubt, it was our job in the police force that made it possible.
The Different Faces of Discrimination
Nearly a month after joining duty, we were informed about a picketing in front of the Collector’s office. Only Soumini and I were in shirt-and-pants uniform. The rest of the police women wore khaki saris. I wanted to put on a helmet as well, but only policemen were allowed that privilege. I wondered – were police women’s heads made of special metal that they did not need any protection?
I took my baton with me as I left the station. In nearly every procession, women protestors form the vanguard. As a result, police women have to be in the forefront to oppose them. However, the sight of the baton in my hand unsettled some superior officers. An SI (Senior Inspector) approached me. ‘Why are you taking the baton with you?’
`Every policeman has one, sir.’
‘Don’t you worry about that! Put your baton in the jeep and get back.’
I insisted respectfully, ‘No,sir. Please let me keep it.’
‘Absolutely not! It may poke someone and create a lot of problems. Just obey my order!’
Thereafter, every time I left the station on duty, that man made it a point to shout the same command. But whenever he was away, I remembered to carry the baton with me.
While undergoing wireless duty training at Kalpetta Police Control Room, three of my batch-mates and I constantly wore the shirt-and-pants uniform, including the cap. One day, a deputy SP, belonging to the ruling party union, sent word that he wanted to see us. We trooped into his room, saluted him and stood in attention. He asked us our names. Then, staring hard at us, he remarked, ‘Why are you in this uniform?’ No one gave him a reply. My friends looked wan.
‘Sari is the best dress for women,’ he remarked.
‘But aren’t pants better, sir?’ I spoke in a humble voice.
His tone turned sarcastic immediately. `Oh, I see! But what will you do if you feel like peeing?’ His snigger sounded cruel. All my colleagues stood shame-faced, staring at the floor. This man was behaving more like the patriarch of a family than a superior officer! I felt pained. Summoning courage, I replied, ‘Sir, if you feel like going to the loo, what ‘do you do?’
The faces of my colleagues lit up. They gave me a proud smile. e deputy SP lost his cool for a moment. He looked around to see if anyone had overheard our conversation. I could not say whether he was angry or spiteful.
‘Get out!’ he barked. We saluted him and left.
My colleagues switched over to the sari-uniform and stopped wearing pants altogether. After this incident, some of my other friends, who liked to wear pants occasionally, gave it up for good. They too sought refuge in the khaki sari and became ‘disciplined’ police women. However I refused to change my ways. With police women recalled from traffic duty, the pattern of our work changed completely. We stepped out of the station very rarely, only when there was a law and order problem to attend to. The recess period that we had lawfully enjoyed between traffic duty sessions was cancelled and the opportunities to interact with the public came to an end. We were permitted to do nothing except wireless and copying duties. Our male colleagues – both peers and superiors – began to remark, sometimes in jest and sometimes seriously, that police women were thoroughly inefficient.
Everyday after 5.30 p. m., when all the police women left the station, I stayed back to examine all the police records. With the help of a few friendly policemen, I even tried to learn some of the other duties. In course of time, I could easily prepare the cash book after going through its rough versions. By December 1992,1 was adept at the ‘writer’s’ job at the station and did it voluntarily whenever the official writer was on leave. The assistant writer was my friend and did not object to my interventions.
One day, the assistant writer had to go out on an urgent errand. He gave me the keys to the money chest. The writer’s responsibilities included disbursing TA (Travelling Allowance), processing GPF loan applications and so on. While I was in the midst of these cash transactions, the SP came into the writer’s room on some business. ‘Who gave you the keys to the chest?’, he hollered on seeing me hand over cash to a few policemen. I could not betray my friend. ‘Sir, Aji sir was called out urgently by someone. He’ll be back in a minute,’ I managed to say. Hearing this exchange, a policeman went out discretely and came back to the room along with Aji sir. The SI now turned to him, ‘Hereafter, don’t entrust women with cash transactions, do you understand?’
I soon grew tired of doing the same boring work everyday. But as I wore the shirt-and-pants uniform, I was always summoned in cases of emergency. No one bothered to call the sari-clad police women. As I was made to do additional duty because of my uniform, I became the common butt of ridicule. I slowly realized that there was greater wisdom in changing to the khaki sari. Unable to withstand the veiled barbs, Soumini had given up the struggle a little earlier.
This kind of discrimination extended to other areas as well — in the duty roster of police women, in official records, and during ceremonial parades on Independence and Republic days. Usually, each one’s duty is written against his or her number in the station history record everyday. The numbers assigned to the police women come before those of their male colleagues and therefore have to head the list in the record. But, strangely, they were put at the very end — after the SI, ASI, HC and PC. protested against this practice and finally got it rectified.
Further, women constables were never given a chance to participate in the ceremonial parades conducted to showcase the skills of the police force before the public. I wrote several letters of complaint to the authorities concerned but I doubt if they were ever dispatched from the police station. The main reason quoted for keeping police women out was that the sari uniform looked entirely out of place in parades. Another reason was the inadequate number of women constables. As I had been raising this issue almost relentlessly since 1992, I was invited to participate in the Republic Day parade in 2002. Two factors had worked in my favour – I usually tucked in my shirt and wore my hair very short. The logic was that no one would know the difference! The greater irony is that the very officer who decided to include me in the parade, later denied me three increments precisely because I dressed like men constables.
Several disciplinary actions were taken against me for raising complaints regarding gender discrimination at the work place. But eventually the SP of Wyanad sent an official letter stating that the demands of women constables were just. A circular was issued to inform everyone concerned that women constables should not be discriminated against. Today, from a distance, I can see that men and women constables enjoy equal rights. Although I am not destined to enjoy a right I was instrumental in securing, I consider it a huge victory for women.
While I was working at Manandavady Deputy SP’s office, our morning tea was supplied by an old man who worked there as a sweeper. Everyday he made tea in my room and, bypassing my table that stood closest to his stove, served tea first to the four policemen seated in the front rooms. Swarnamma, a woman constable, and I were the last to get our cups of tea. It took me some days to notice this ritual. Thereafter as soon as he finished making tea, I would go over b his table and take a glass for myself. One day, just as I stretched my hand to pick my cup, he took the tray away, ran towards the front room and served the men. Enraged at his act, I declared that the old man had no right to behave in this fashion. Arguments flew this way and that. Eventually a senior head constable found a solution. The man would merely brew the tea. Each one had to go to his table and pour a glass for oneself. Whenever he was on leave, the responsibility usually fell on Swarnamma’s shoulders. I demanded that this practice be discontinued. Everyone had to make tea %by turns. On many occasions I’ve seen women constables being ordered `about by all the men, either in the station or at the office and wherever possible I’ve tried my best to correct the situation.
Once, while I was on duty at Ambalavayal station, the townspeople were making preparations for celebrating the Shivaraatri festival. They had planned the traditional display of caparisoned elephants, thaalappoli, kaavadi and so on. The town was full of people and the police were posted on duty from two in the afternoon. By four, nearly all the policemen had left the station and I stood ready, holding my baton. Just then, the ASI queried, `Vinaya, are you on duty too?’ People were thronging even on the path leading to the police station. Pointing to the overcrowded town, I replied that his question had no relevance at all and stepped out. Immediately he ordered me into his room. I followed him.
‘Vinaya, stay right here! If the need arises, you will be summoned!’
‘Why, sir? I shall do my duty within sight of the police station. Is that okay?’
‘There’s no need for it.’
‘Why not? Why shouldn’t I do my duty, especially today?’
‘Why should you be told the reason? Just do as I say!’
‘That’s difficult, sir. You can’t stop me from doing my duty! I’m leaving.
‘I order you . . .’
‘Sir . . . I will do this duty. Report me if you want . . Without waiting for his permission, I stepped out and returned from duty only with the rest of the policemen. For some reason, the ASI did not take any action against me.
In deciding not to send women constables on duty to heavily crowded public places the police only reinforce the invisibility of women that is so usual in the social sphere. Perhaps the sight of police women maintaining law and order and thus proving their ability is disconcerting to the male chauvinistic culture of the police force.
My First Suspension
Once while I was working in the Manandavady Circle Office, the residents of Thirunelli and Appappaara went on a strike to close down a local arrack shop. Every day they assembled in front of it in the morning and remained there till evening, `shouting slogans. As days passed the strikers, instead of returning home at dusk, stayed put in order to press their demand. Now policemen had to be deployed to stand on duty in front of the shop.
As there were many women among the strikers, four women constables including myself had to take turns and be on guard. By six in the evening we would take down the names of the women before they went back home. One day while I was on duty, they refused to go away, insisting that if they were not arrested and taken to court, they would throw stones at the shop and destroy it. Soon they started to execute their threat. The asbestos roof began to break and fall. At this, the ASI was compelled to order their arrest. The police station was about six kilometers away and the road was not only winding but full of potholes as well. ft took us five trips that evening to transfer nearly seventy women to the police station. The travel was gruelling. I was two months pregnant then and found the rigour terribly fatiguing.
On reaching the station however the ASI permitted them to go back home but the women insisted on being taken to court. So now they had to be housed at the station that night. My husband and two other policemen were on duty. I too had to remain there for the night. Though tired, I consoled myself – surely I would be relieved the next day as there were three other women constables at the station. But the following morning, a lot of paper work had to be attended to before the women could be taken to court. It was nearly twelve noon by the time I finished it. I then had to accompany the women to court in a private bus hired for the purpose.
At the court, the strikers announced that they did not want bail. The magistrate had to order that they be remanded. By evening however the small children were bawling incessantly and some women began to lose their enthusiasm. Their lawyer approached the magistrate and filed his affidavit. The court reconvened in order to grant bail to all the adults. As fourteen among the group were below the age of eighteen, they had to be treated as children and taken to the juvenile court at Kalpetta. We had to pack all of them into a police jeep and take them there. But by the time we reached the juvenile court, it was seven thirty in the evening and pitch dark. The Chief Judicial Magistrate of Kalpetta was a lady and she had left instructions not to be disturbed after dusk. The children’s lawyer as well as Dasettan, who had accompanied us, went to meet her. She abused them roundly, stating that she had specifically ordered the SP not to send anyone to her house in the evening or later.
During my police training, I had learnt that the Magistrate’s house could be considered as a court. But as the magistrate happened to be a woman and as i t was evening, it was a mere house! With no other way out, we had to take the children back to Manandavady police station in the same jeep. By then the children had become totally restive. They swore and jeered at us all the way back. I was feeling extremely hungry and my head began to spin. Dasettan tried to comfort me as we could not stop anywhere, even to have a glass of black tea. It was nine thirty in the night when we reached Manandavady station. All my pent-up anger and sorrow spilled over as we spoke of our troubles to the men on duty. While shepherding the children into the cell, one policeman even shouted, ‘Get into the lock-up, you curs!’ The boys and the girls were locked up in separate cells.
After these two days of relentless travel and due to lack of sleep, I was totally exhausted. I went to the officer in charge and sought a change of duty. His irritated reply was, ‘No! That’s not possible. All of them have very small children’. I knew that my colleagues’ children were of the same age as my own daughter. And she was only three years old then. But I did not say anything in reply. We had to remain there on night duty, with a cup of black tea and a bun each for dinner. The responsibility of transporting these fourteen children had been entrusted to two policemen and me. One policeman, sensing that the case involved hard work, decamped midway through the procedure. The subsequent experiences that I had, proved he had acted wisely. All he lost was an increment for dereliction of duty.
That evening we recorded our halt at the Manandavady station and went home. I was ravenous and ate my dinner greedily. The next day, back at the station, I saw an article in a newspaper which described how the boys and girls were put in the same lock-up and undressed by the police. Immediately the DIG (Deputy Inspector General) of Police came to the Manandavady Rest House to investigate the truth behind the newspaper report. We were directed to report to him. The CI (Circle Inspector) of the station who had played no role in the entire episode came up to Dasettan and me arid told us how to report the case, taking care to ensure that no harm came to him. He compelled us to say that on the day of the incident, he was present in the police station at ten in the night and that the girls were locked up in the SI’s room that was lying vacant then. Further, we had to state that the SI too was present at the station the same night and that we did not receive orders from any officer. When we went to the DIG’s room, I was determined to tell the whole truth to him. But the SI stood behind him and threatened us with gestures. I was forced to relate the false story he had taught us. In the end, the SI, the CI and the Dy SP got away scot free. The four of us who did our duty conscientiously were placed under suspension.
Following this incident, many articles appeared in the press. Dasettan and I were specially targeted by a newspaper which carried an article portraying my antecedents in very bad light. As there was no trace of truth in the news story I immediately filed a case in the Bathery Sub Court against character vilification. The verdict was in my favour and the court ordered that I be given Rs 25,000 in damages. The newspaper has since gone on appeal.
During this period, Dasettan and I drowned our sorrow in hard labour. Without any help from labourers, we washed the metal and sieved the sand needed for our house construction. We did not have any money to pay the workers anyway. Both of us were taunted and blamed by our relatives and acquaintances but by then we were capable of handling the scorn without losing self-control. Five days after being suspended, I had an abortion. There had been mild bleeding during the jeep trips. Continuous travel, starvation and emotional stress snuffed out the little life. Thus I unknowingly became my baby’s killer. Dasettan and 1 braved our sorrow together.
The Human Rights Commission undertook a biased investigation into the lock-up case. It decreed that a total compensation amount of Rs. 70,000 be paid to the boys who were detained by the police. According to the Commission report, the incident took place in Thirunelli lock-up. In actuality, there was no complaint registered there. However, the police department did not do anything to challenge the blatant error. Rather, it issued notices to the four of us, stating that the amount would be deducted from our salary. This case is now under consideration in the high court.
We were re-instated in November 1995. Immediately on receiving the orders, we went to the Wyanad district police office to meet the superintendent. There we got an amusing bit of advice: ‘If you are given an option regarding transfer, choose a station where you don’t want to be posted because you ask for Manandavady and you’re sure to be sent to Bathery. Ask for Bathery and you’ll be posted to Vythiri. So never mention the station you want to be in’. We did not take this seriously. It was only when we received our posting orders that we realized the truth behind the information. Dasettan had opted for Bathery and was given Vythiri. Another policeman wanted Manadavady but was sent to Mepaady. As a woman constable, I didn’t have to be transferred at all but I was sent to Kalpetta police station. As there was no provision to grant me either travel expenses or joining leave, I had to report for duty the very next day at Kalpetta whereas Dasettan got two days as joining time. I worked at the Kalpetta station for three months before being sent back to Bathery.
One evening I took a public transport bus from the Bathery bus stand to go home. The bus was terribly crowded. All the ladies’ seats were occupied by men while the women passengers remained standing, Unwilling to start a squabble I kept silent and stood along with the women. Just as the bus was about to start, a policeman who was on duty at the bus stand, came over and asked the men to vacate the ladies’ seats. No one paid him any heed. The women too remained silent. As I gazed out, I saw him look at me hopefully. Just then, a man who was seated, commented, ‘The women don’t wish to sit, sir’. ‘Who are you to say that? We want these seats,’ I blurted out. All the three men stood up immediately. Soon, others occupying four rows of seats behind me followed suit. But two men were still sitting on a row I was leaning against. A man who had just vacated his seat looked at me and hollered, ‘Aren’t these men, eh? Why aren’t you asking them to move out?’ I pretended not to hear him. There was a healthy-looking old man of about sixty in front of me who was watching everything keenly. He laughed scornfully at me and, as if addressing all the passengers, said, ‘What’s wrong with her?’ A stream of expletives followed and ended with ‘Of all the women in this bus, how’s she so special?’ The passengers laughed at his statements all the time.
For a while I stood perplexed, not knowing what to do. Then I ordered the conductor to stop the bus. Maybe because I sounded forceful, a couple of fellow passengers joined my side. When the bus stopped, I took a diary and a pen from my bag and took down the names and addresses of the three men. Those who had given me the details told me that I should go ahead with the case, no matter what happened. I then permitted the bus to resume the journey. A couple of stops later the old man stepped out. I did not know his name or address but a few boys in the bus gave me the required information.
That very night I rang up the CI of Bathery, merely to tell him about the incident. I had been informed by the boys that the old man was a local contractor who had contacts with some powerful higher-ups. What I wanted to do was give the CI all the details before the old man could do any mischief. As soon as the CI answered my phone he began to shout at me. If I had any complaint I ought not to ring up the CI but register a complaint at the police station. He hung up abruptly. The next day I went to the station and lodged a complaint with the SI. Although everyone at the station came to know of it, the case was not given the seriousness it deserved. I insisted that the case be considered and by eleven a. m. the CI called me.
As soon as I entered his room, he said loudly, ‘What do you take me for, eh? You may be in the habit of calling up many officers. Don’t include me among them’. He then asked me to leave. When I went to the station, the SI informed me that I had been directed by the CI to submit an FIR. In my bag, I already had letters of complaint addressed to the Women’s Commission and the Women’s Cell. By twelve noon the FIR was ready. The accused was arrested at four that evening. The verdict was in my favour. But the case has since gone on appeal.
Locking Horns with Authority
The first time I had differences with the Kerala Police organisation was in 1998 when I was working at Bathery. Since my joining the force in 1991 till 1996, annual elections to this organisation had never taken place. I gradually became part of a huge group that was unhappy at its slow dissolution. Many secret meetings were conducted to oppose certain pockets of leadership which existed here and there and also to discuss the need for immediate elections. I participated in all the meetings and sincerely joined in the discussions. I was the only woman to attend them.
Finally, in 1996, elections were held and my group emerged victorious. One seat was reserved for women but I had shown enough merit during the meetings to secure an open seat. A woman constable named Safeela Bai was selected for the reserved post that year. The same trend of handpicking the woman candidate continued in the next two elections. However, the leadership did not show the common decency of even informing others about their choice of the woman office-bearer. Worse still, the organisation blindly followed the orders of its leaders. When this repeated itself the third year, I decided to confront the leaders who ‘gave birth’ to such candidates. I openly supported a woman candidate from the opposing panel and took leave from duty to canvass votes for her. Despite my best efforts she lost. I was now singled out for torture and a virtual procession of punishments followed.
Apparently influenced by the elected leaders, the SI became openly partial in allotting duties to police constables. The supporters were not only given many concessions but they could also shirk duties with impunity. While only the nature of the duty was written against their names in their notebooks, I saw an extra item in mine – the number of hours of duty which was specially endorsed by the SI.
True, there was one concession I shared with all the women constables at the station – an hour’s rest during lunch break. I used this time to rush home and suckle my infant son. Now the leaders of the organisation wanted to deny me this privilege. By inserting the number of duty hours in my notebook they could ensure that I did not go home in between. One day the SI, egged on by these men, told me, ‘I’ve received complaints that you go out during duty hours. So from now on, no one will attend the VHF (Very High Frequency) transmitter while you are away.’ He said this within the hearing of everyone in the station.
Until that day there was always someone or another to answer the VHF set for me if I happened to be busy. As wireless duty was exclusively the responsibility of women constables, we rarely got any co-operation from the men. The SI’s public instruction served only to abet their apathy.
On the days when Ramla was on leave, life at the station was really tough. The number of times I had to rush out of the toilet without relieving myself so that ! could attend the call! According to rules, the wireless set has to be answered within three beeps. If not, the SP will directly attend it. As a result, by the time the instrument beeped twice I began to have palpitations. This torture continued for three days. I could take my lunch only at six in the evening, after my duty ended. My fear was that the smallest lapse on my side might provoke a suspension order.
I decided to talk to the SP about it. I drafted a letter mentioning the prejudiced behaviour of the SI and the practice of confining women constables to station duties. When I met the SP, I also told him that the station provided no facilities for women constables. The cots in the rest room were invariably occupied by policemen from other stations. Showing my notebook as evidence, I implored him to give necessary directions to the SI and change my punishing schedule. He took my letter, examined my notebook and assured me, ‘You may go. There won’t be any more trouble’. I left his room feeling greatly relieved.
Two days later, a wireless message summoned all the women constables of the district to the SP’s office. As everyone stood in attention, he spoke scornfully about my letter of complaint. Further, he announced that all the police women were transferred to the women’s cell. Everyone cursed me, either openly or secretly. They were about to lose the small comforts they had grown used to and so held me solely responsible for it. `Can’t they punish the complainant alone? Why should others too bear the cross?’ Their sharp comments pierced my heart. In a week’s time, I received official notice of punishment for having made baseless complaints and misled the SP. All the others were reinstated in the offices of their choice within a month.
The stress was so unbearable that one day I decided go out with my family to see a film. The theatre manager was usually cordial and invited us to have tea in his room. But that day, he did not show the same courtesy. Instead, he called us over and secretly revealed that two days earlier the SI of Bathery had come to the theatre and instructed the manager to promptly inform him if my family came to see a film. ‘What should I do now?’ he asked us.
`Will you give this same account of facts if the need arises?’ I asked him.
‘Definitely! Even if it costs me my head.’ He sounded fierce in his resolve.
On the strength of his word, I drafted a letter to the SP. My complaint was that the SI’s instruction to the manager of the theatre was an infringement on my right to privacy. However before I dispatched the letter I went to the theatre with Maria, a friend of mine, met the manager and requested him to give me all the information in writing.
`Oh, no! I don’t think that’s necessary at all! I can reveal all this anywhere you want,’ he said with the same conviction he had shown earlier.
Three days after the incident I submitted my letter of complaint. I delayed it because of a nagging suspicion that my letter was practically useless without the manager’s written statement accompanying it, Two days later, T received an order from the department. its contents took me completely by surprise. It said that I had gone to the theatre and picked up a quarrel with the authorities for obtaining a pass. The theatre manager had formally lodged a complaint to the SP about my behaviour just a day before I put in my letter! This necessitated the opening of another punishment roll against my name.
In the police association elections of 2002, I joined a group that canvassed widely against the official panel. A seat was given to me very reluctantly and after the results were announced, my panel was declared elected. In the meeting that followed, after elaborate discussions, I was selected to the executive committee. Many among the office-bearers told me, half jokingly and half seriously, that the nomination of a police woman to the executive committee was due to the liberal views of the newly constituted organisation.
Until then, police women, considered merely as a vote bank by all the leaders, had only a couple of demands – transfers to convenient stations and more concessions. On several occasions, during discussions with the organisation workers, I argued that all the sections that were exclusively male bastions – special branch, vigilance, crime department, the narcotics cell battalions which included dog squad, bomb squad, tear gas section, telecommunications and others — should be opened up for police women so as to improve their promotion chances. I could work towards these goals only if T received an official post but no one seemed interested in nominating me. It looked as thought would have to fight for it myself. However when I made it known that I wished to be nominated to the state working committee, a junior colleague looked incredulously at me and asked, But . . . what are your qualifications?’ I had no answer to his question. The only additional qualification the likes of him had was the support of other policemen who nominated and seconded their names. I was not included either in the district or the state working committee.
My story or The Life Journey of a Young Malayali Woman 107
But I did what I could as an executive committee member. I approached Mr Radhakrishnan, a research inspector at the A. R. Camp, and sought his help to trace all the department circulars that had been issued between 1951 and 2000. There were only two circulars relating to police women and both were aimed at denying them opportunities. I probed into the history of police women and found out that the decision to form a women’s police wing was taken by the Travancore-Cochin government in 1951. Its growth was very slow. I took down such data, thought of remedial measures and brought them up for discussions in the executive committee meetings. But none of the leaders showed any interest in reading the material.
I discussed these issues with the DIG, Ms Sandhya whenever I went to Trivandrum. She even borrowed my book Sex Discrimination in America that had been presented to me by an English woman. Tn. January 2001, she organized a seminar in Trivandrum on this topic and at the end of it, some of the suggestions I had made came into effect.
The state president of the association, Mr Balakrishnan Pethiyedathu had a special regard for me and included me in the editorial boarrd of Kaaval, a police quarterly. I used my position to introduce articles on feminism and police women, subjects that had never featured in until then.
A Mother s Worth
One day while at home in Bathery on leave (I was working in Trivandrum then) I decided to go to town on my motorbike. As I was getting dressed I saw my daughter staring at me. Assuming that she wanted to accompany me, I called her over. She made a face at me as though I had said something wrong and blurted, ‘Ayye, I won’t come with you! Do girls ever ride bikes? The boys in my class tease me because my mother does . I’m not coming with you.’
Even today, through my daughter, I experience the pain inflicted by neglect and insults. In her eyes, I am a maverick, a person who upsets her by refusing to wear sari, to grow hair or to put on jewellery. Many times, especially when we had to attend weddings, she has implored, ‘Amma, please wear a sari . . . At least today’. She is incensed that I do not permit her to pierce her ear lobes or grow her hair.
Before I came back home on transfer, I took her to my hostel in Trivandrum for a short stay so that I could show her women riding bikes. Soon she was convinced it was not a bad thing after all! Thereafter she did not feel shy about being a pillion rider when I drove my motorbike.
In taking my daughter to Trivandrum I had another intention too in mind. She suffered from a chronic cold that occasionally worsened into wheezing and I wanted expert medical care that could cure her completely. A friend of mine fixed up an appointment with a professor working in Trivandrum Medical College hospital. The doctor examined patients at his house as well. We reached there at the appointed time and on entering the doctor’s room, saw him at the table, his fingers resting on the keyboard of a computer. He began his preliminary enquiries. The physical examination of the patient would come later.
‘What’s your name, child?’ ‘Athira .1
‘Excuse me, sir. I’m her mother. Please write my name instead.’ ‘Oh no! I don’t want the mother’s name.’
‘Sir, her father is in Wyanad. So his name is of no practical use here. Please write mine, sir.’
‘Well . . . what’s it?’
He typed in all the details, examined my daughter and prescribed some medicines. As we were about to leave he gave us a print-out of the data he had entered in his computer. When I looked at it, I was dumbfounded. There was no column for the mother’s name. Only the father’s s name had been typed!
On my way back, I decided that if such questions arose in future, I would reply that I did not know the father’s name! Will that cause the authorities to deny anyone education or medical care? Does a name uttered by the mother have greater worth than her own?
Authority, Dignity, Insult
While in Trivandrum, I had first hand experience of how the traditional dress as well as social orthodoxy prevents a woman from exercising even her legitimate authority. Everyone knows that the sari is a highly inconvenient dress, especially in the case of law enforcers. It is very difficult for a sari-clad woman to remain decently covered while she is in a bus, a train or in her workplace. Always trying to protect herself from dirty glances and unwelcome pinches, she becomes a prisoner of both the dress and the societal norms.
One night while I was at a station, a woman constable on guard duty had to go out at about eight thirty to arrest a trouble-maker. At ten, she returned to the station in tears, all alone and in great distress. Her sari had come undone and she was clutching it tightly around her shoulders. She had tried hard to catch the woman-offender but the latter grabbed her sari and yanked it off her waist. in order to cover her shame, the woman constable had to release the culprit so that she could retrieve her sari and clamber back into the police jeep.
I was to see the same kind of scene many times over and this made me think about the possible cause of such behaviour of criminals. Afterwards when I too faced a similar situation, I realized how the sari-uniform served only to perpetuate the centuries-old oppression of women.
Once while on night duty I had to join a squad at nine-thirty to arrest a woman who was creating trouble in the General Hospital premises. She stood there, like an avenging goddess, spreading fear all around and showering expletives on the duty doctor. I was rattled but marshalling all my courage, approached her. Immediately she fell silent and walked meekly towards me. ‘It’s alright. Come with me,’ I told her gently. When I tried to hold her hand, she did not attempt to wriggle free. Instead, she said in a soft voice, ‘Clear off! Or, I’ll pull your sari off! .. . Why bring shame on yourself?’ She gave a shriek of laughter. It sounded cruel. No one could hear our conversation or understand what was going on because both of us spoke in low tones. I replied, ‘Unless you leave this place, we cannot go back. We won’t harm you.’ As she walked away, I went back to the jeep and told the head constable what had happened. It was the sheer absence of a convenient uniform that had made me comply with her demand in front of the huge crowd.
On another night, a policeman on duty called me at one-thirty. A woman was creating commotion at the Thampanoor bus station. I was summoned to help the squad in arresting her. Wrapping the sari-uniform tightly around me, I climbed into the jeep. But when we reached the bus station, we saw no woman there; only a group of people who had gathered around another police jeep. I asked them to disperse and looked around. Just then, somebody said, ‘Look below the jeep, sir’.
As we peered, we saw a woman lying on the ground with both her arms embracing the main lever of the jeep. She was panting and appeared exhausted, after a bout of loud shouting. I recognized the woman instantly. She was the notorious criminal named ‘Shyamala’. As I called her by name, she turned towards me. In a split second, her hand gripped the folds of my sari.
‘Sir, may I pull it off . . .?’
I broke into cold sweat. Even at that midnight hour, there was a fairly large crowd of men around me and I had to let go of Shyamala just for that reason. So in a mildly angry tone, I told the policeman who had accompanied me, ‘Pull her out yourself. No one will complain. It seems she wants to disrobe me.’ The woman had to be dragged out and put into the jeep. As she stubbornly lay on the floor of the vehicle, we had a tough time keeping her pinned down all the way to the police station.
There was a bandage on her arm and spots of dried blood on it. In Trivandrum, whenever women criminals got arrested they would ferret out a razor blade or a shard of glass from their dress and injure themselves. The police invariably had to take them to hospital and from there the criminals could escape the attention of the doctor and decamp quickly. Shyamala had bruised herself deliberately that morning when she saw the police. After this incident, I discarded the khaki sari-uniform for good. Disregarding widespread criticism, I continued to wear the shirt-and-pants uniform and to arm myself with a baton.
Why did men and women doing the same job have different uniforms? Why weren’t women constables permitted to tuck in their shirts? I did not have answers to these questions. One day I went to the Police Headquarters to see Ms Sandhya IPS and shot these queries at her. Looking at me, she merely smiled. She had no specific replies to give me. ‘May I stitch a uniform in that fashion, sir?’ I asked her politely. ‘Why not?’ Her reply gave me some courage.
Women of the IPS cadre tucked in their shirts whereas women constables could not. It was impossible for me to accept this discrimination. The policemen too could tuck in their shirts. Didn’t this male-chauvinistic rule imply that for women constables to be equal to their male counterparts they had to be at least in the IPS cadre?
That very evening I bought uniform cloth for two pairs of shirt and pants and gave it to a tailor. The next day, I wore it to the station. The SI looked at me from top to toe and asked, ‘How come you’ve tucked in your shirt today?’
‘Isn’t that the rule, sir?’
‘Only IPS officers have the right to do it.’
‘What about the men constables then?’
‘That’s another issue altogether. You need not worry about it . . .’
Then the SI lost his patience. ‘Do whatever you want,’ he said.
He did not refer to my uniform ever again. But the women constables were irritated with me. Those who used to seek me out for all kinds of duties now began to avoid me deliberately. I was sent out on duty only if there was no other alternative.
My Image Make-over
During my frequent trips to Trivandrum I had to take my bath at the Railway Rest Room and change my sari, standing on the wet, dirty floor. This gave me time to think about the inconvenience caused by the sari. Why should I suffer it merely to satisfy the whims of some people? One day when I went home on leave, I told Dasettan, ‘I’m going to change over to shirt and pants. That’s very comfortable’.
‘Oh … you’ll look beautiful indeed!’ he teased me. I knew he would never appreciate it. Thereafter whenever we went out, I held my bag in my right hand and gripped the railing on the bus ceiling with my left. Dasettan, seeing this, would urge me, ‘Hold your bag with your left hand. Your midriff is showing!’ I didn’t pay him any attention and whenever he persisted, I replied angrily, ‘Isn’t it my arm, after all?’ Dasettan had to stand behind me and hold his hand over a seat to cover my exposed side! Our bus trips became a big burden for him.
One day a couple of boys came home to talk to me about an organisation they were planning to launch. Dasettan was in the kitchen doing something. At some point during our conversation, when he came to the door, he saw that my sari had slipped down my shoulder. Taking care to see that the boys did not observe him, he gestured to me to put my sari back properly and cover myself well. I pretended not to notice. My conversation with the visitors went on and I could see that Dasettan was getting increasingly uneasy. As soon as the boys left, he said in mild anger, ‘Why couldn’t you wear your sari properly?’
‘Why should I? That’s also part of my body, isn’t it? I’ve worn a blouse. So what’s the big deal?’
‘But did you have to invite those boys’ attention to your body?’
‘I don’t have time to waste, thinking of such things!’
He merely pulled a long face and left.
On the last day of my leave, I tried on the pair of jeans and shirt I had bought during my training and inspected myself in front of the mirror. Dasettan who happened to step into the room just then remarked, ‘Hey, that suits you really well!’
I knew that my ruse had worked. Then onwards, pants and shirt became my regular wear during travel. In course of time, ignoring objections, I started wearing pants and shirt frequently to the police station. Finally I gave up wearing sari altogether.
During another of my trips to Trivandrum, a young fellow-passenger asked me, ‘Aunty, why do you wear you hair long?’
‘So that people may recognize me as a woman.’
I had no reply to give him. I asked myself the same question several times but got no answer. A girl always has to dress herself in a particular way — sport ear rings, put a bindi, have long hair and put on girls’ wear — so that the society can recognize her gender. Why should she take up the responsibility of being identified? Isn’t it enough that people who know me as Vinaya recognize me in a crowd and take me for a woman?
During another journey, I asked an elderly male passenger seated near me, ‘Why do women have long hair?’
‘For beauty’s sake, nothing else.’
‘Then, what about men who used to grow tufts during olden times?’
‘For beauty again.’
‘Why did that practice come to an end?’
‘Again, for beauty’s sake.’
‘But having the tuft is beautiful, isn’t it?’
`True. But in this fast-paced life, maintaining it is very difficult. Maybe that’s why men decided to discard it.’
His replies satisfied me. The social reformers had put an end to such caste-based practices and the commoners followed suit for the reasons that my co-passenger mentioned. Men tried to bring changes in their dress and hair style to suit the times and also found reasons to justify their decisions. How was it that the practice of women wearing their hair long remained unchanged through the ages, across all differences of caste and religion? Why didn’t any women’s group break the tradition?
I asked several women why they had long hair. One of the replies I got was unusual but it held a great truth. ‘Because everyone does it.’ I was reminded of the story of the little fox, who on being asked why he howled, replied, ‘Because everyone does it’. I understood that it was foolish to follow a practice which had no sound reason to back it. I was now determined to cut my hair short.
When I went home on leave, I told Dasettan of my decision.
‘Well, why not? Why don’t you shave your head, instead? That’ll look wonderful . . . A woman’s beauty is in her hair.’
The reply was on expected lines. So I decided to play the same game as I had done about my sari. As Dasettan hated seeing hair in the comb or on the floor, I always took care to see that it did not happen. Now I was going to break that habit.
One day, holding my comb, his face screwed up in utter disgust, Dasettan asked me, ‘Can’t you keep it clean?’ He threw it in front of me.
‘If you love me, you should love my hair too. If it disturbs you, why don’t you remove it yourself? Didn’t you tell me that a woman’s beauty is in her hair? You like it when it covers the head but hate it in the comb!’ I resumed my work. Dasettan was forced to clean it as there was only one comb in our house. Later, after my bath, with my hair still wet and dripping, I would go near Dasettan, show gestures of affection and whack my hair a couple of times with force. His face would get sprayed and soon this began to get on his nerves.
Back in Trivandrum, I decided to remove this burden from my body. I went to a beauty parlour. A male hair stylist approached me.
‘Which style do you prefer?’
‘I don’t mind any style. Leave some hair on my head but it should not fly in the wind or bother me.’
In three quarters of an hour, he did the job for me. As I stepped downed the stairs, I felt happy. It seemed as if a huge weight had been taken off me. I went to a telephone booth and rang up Dasettan.
‘Dasetta, I’ve cut my hair.’
‘Very good!’ His voice conveyed pleasure!
Women do not tell others about the troubles they face – either in the name of deference to tradition or to pamper some notions of female beauty. A ‘good woman’ is expected to put up with all such liabilities. But I decided not to restrain my arms, legs, tongue or hair merely to be a good woman. I only wanted to be a free person. I did not want to be exploited as women generally are; nor did I want the respect men crave for. I merely wanted the consideration accorded to every human being.
A Little Mirth
With my changed hairstyle and attire, I pass off for a boy, half my real age. Many people have remarked about it and a few have even talked to me as they would to a young man. And this has brought me some solace during difficult days.
At the Chottanikkara Devi temple in Ernakulam district, men are not allowed to keep their shirt on when they step closer to the sanctum sanctorum (I have never found out the reason for this rule, despite several enquiries). One day as I went inside and stood in line to pray, an angry guard shook my shoulder and thundered, ‘Remove your shirt, you . . .’
‘I am a woman. Should I . . .?’
Visibly embarrassed, he apologized and left the scene.
Once on my way from Trivandrum to Kozhikode, I stretched myself on the upper berth in the general compartment of a train. Some time later, a young man tapped me on my head and said, ‘Move over.’ I shifted a little and the man lay full length by my side, his head near my feet!
During another train journey, a man asked me my name.
‘Vinay,’ I replied.
After some moments of conversation, he queried, ‘You go to the gym, don’t you?’
‘Yeah, occasionally . . .’
‘Hmm . . . I can see that . . . your chest . . .’ he said, suppressing his jealousy.
Once I boarded a KSRTC bus to Trivandrum from Bathery. In one of the front rows, two young men were occupying the ends of a three-seater. As they showed no signs of moving, I had to sit right in the middle. By two at night, when I was fast asleep, the boy to my right held me by my chin and shook me roughly. In a gruff voice, he remarked, ‘What do you take this bus for? Your home or what? While travelling, should you be falling over other people?’
‘If I were in a sari or churidar, how long you would have permitted me!’ I said to myself as I sat there impassively.
One day, at Paravoor in Alappuzha district, I stood in front of a toddy shop watching and enjoying the antics of men as they went in and returned fully drunk. Soon an elderly man stepped out and lit a beedi. He kept looking at me for some time. Then, pulling out his wallet from his pocket, he said, ‘Hey, you boy! If you don’t have money, take this. Go in and have a drink instead of standing there with your mouth watering.’ Before he could say anything further, I went into the shop and drank toddy for Rs 10.
On another occasion, I reached the Ernakulam railway station at 11 a. m. to catch the 12 o’ clock express. After buying a ticket I strolled out as there was still some time to spare. Here and there, I saw men smoking cigarettes and looking around anxiously, to avoid being caught by the police. I went to a small shop nearby, bought a cigarette and lit it. Then, like the other smokers, I moved to a far corner in order to keep an eye on any policeman who might come that way. Suddenly, a man called me from behind, ‘Brother, may I…?’ He had an unlit cigarette in one hand. The other arm was in a sling. I gave him my cigarette. After lighting his, ‘he returned my stub. ‘With this broken arm, it is difficult to strike a Match, you see . he explained his helplessness. Then we proceeded to ‘talk about the trouble we would have if the police spotted us smoking.
It was festival season at Pallikkunnu. After night duty, I was back at work in mufti at eleven in the morning. A huge crowd was moving towards the church. Suddenly, two tribesmen approached me. One of them whispered, ‘May I tell you something?’
I looked at him questioningly. He opened his bag. The fragrance of medicated oils pervaded the air. Then, taking out a bottle, he said, ‘This is original bear fat. Apply it for merely four days – let it remain on your face for an hour before you take your bath – you’ll be able to grow a beard and moustache.’
‘I don’t want either,’ I replied in an indifferent tone.
‘Someone must have tricked you earlier. But this one is genuine.’
‘Didn’t I tell you that I don’t want it?’ I showed my displeasure.
‘You’ll regret it one day. That’s for sure.’ The two men cursed me as they left.
Once I was in a bus, travelling from Bathery to Madakkara. Seeing a girl from my neighbourhood, I stood near the women’s seats, talking to her. The conductor came to me, pressed me rather sternly on my shoulder blade and growled, ‘Move forward . . .’ I thought he was merely trying to make more space in the crowded bus. As I was about to alight at Madakkara, the conductor looked at me in triumph, as though he had caught a thief, and said, ‘You boy, tried hard, didn’t you . . . to remain there . . . near the women? Clear off!’ Only then did his insinuation dawn on me. Hiding that realisation however, I winked to show him how enjoyable I found the whole trip!
I was watching a matinee show at the Mahavir theatre in Kalpetta one day. My seat was in the middle of a row and there was no one to my right. After some time, four women appeared and occupied those seats. The movie began. A little while later, my foot accidentally touched the lady seated next to me. She immediately tapped my leg and said, ‘Move your foot away!’ I apologized and obeyed her. Much later, my leg touched hers again but I was completely unaware of it. This time she shouted, ‘You fellow . . . move your leg! This has been going on for some time now ‘ Immediately, a lady seated next to her sprang up and said, ‘Teacher, come here and take my seat. I shall sit there.’ They exchanged places. I felt frightened. Was there any point in disclosing that I was a woman after getting beaten up thoroughly? I held my breath throughout the rest of the film. When it got over, the women stood up to leave but they kept staring at me and muttering something. So I decided to wink at them in response. Instantly, one of them spat out, ‘Pah! Not out of your swaddling clothes yet . . . and have you already started . .?’ I fled the scene and quickly boarded a bus.
Once Dasettan and I were travelling in a bus to Manandavady. A young man, sitting next to me, took me for a boy and fired several questions at me. I wove clever lies, one after another, and made him believe them. A little later, when the bus approached his stop, he asked me, ‘Are you travelling alone?’
‘Oh no! I have a friend with me.’
‘Over there,’ I said, pointing to Dasettan who was occupying a window seat, three rows behind us. Dasettan had been staring at us all the while, wondering at the man I was getting so friendly with.
‘That bald fellow?’ The boy was obviously displeased.
‘Why is he staring at us like that?’ His voice conveyed his hatred.
‘Oh! He’s of a peculiar sort,’ I replied, screwing my lips.
As soon as he stepped out, Dasettan started cross-questioning me!
My First Writ Petition
While staying in a hostel in Trivandrum, on my second transfer to the capital city, I got an opportunity to observe the activities of my young hostel-mates. It filled me with wonder. What attracted me most was the method of study adopted by the students of journalism. I saw them cut out certain pieces from magazines as well as newspapers and create albums. Gradually I came to understand that they were doing research in certain subjects and that they were collecting material — articles and pictures — related to their topics of interest. All this was totally new to me.
From that day on, 1 too started collecting certain documents. My focus was on how the state, totally regardless of Article 15 of the Indian Constitution, perpetuated discrimination against women. I began to keenly scan news stories, inspect the use of language, analyse pictures, application forms, designations, dictionaries, uniforms, films, stories, articles, advertisements, tag lines of advertisements and so on. I also started collecting all the data available on the subject and noting down my inferences. Besides, I set out to study the body language of women, their behavioural peculiarities, manner of dressing, hairstyles, jewellery, rituals and traditions. Soon I noticed that no one had made any effort to overhaul the social set-up that stood in the way of gender-equality that is guaranteed by our Constitution. Couldn’t I take the first step, I wondered.
I took my stock of evidence to ‘Sakhi’, the women’s library in Trivandrum, elaborated every point and started pasting them on several books in order to make albums. The authorities permitted me to open a ‘Vinaya’ file and allotted me a separate space to keep it.
I used to take the files and books with me whenever I went home on leave. One day on my way from Wayanad to Trivandrum, I wondered how I could file a writ petition on the subject in the High Court. I talked to Father Joseph Therakam, an office bearer of the PUCL (People’s Union for Civil. Liberties), and he assured me that I had collected everything that was needed to draft a petition.
Later, while I was on a medical leave, I left home three days before my leave expired and went to the Free Legal Aid Cell at the High Court in Ernakulam. As there was no one available at the office, I stepped out, after collecting a copy of an 0. P. (original petition) from another cabin.
There were several typists in front of the High Court. I approached each one of them and requested them to translate the matter I had written in Malayalam into English and format it into a petition. No one paid me any attention. Greatly disappointed, I decided to try for the last time. This man was busy typing but he took pity on me when he saw my bundle of books and papers. Stopping his work, he went through my files and said, ‘Please wait for some time. I shall type them for you in the afternoon.’ I was overjoyed. He was Mr James who had retired from the High Court.
In the afternoon, after discussing the issue with me, he translated everything into English and drafted a writ petition. By five in the evening Mr James closed his room, assuring me that he would finish the work by eleven the next morning. He kept his word and I showed the writ petition to an advocate he had recommended to me. Mr James took only a nominal payment from me. The sole expense I had to bear was the cost of stamps and stationery. That came to around Rs 500. My writ was accepted as ‘party-in-person’ and the defendants included the Union of India, the state of Kerala and the news media.
The next day my case came up for hearing. I was in a highly nervous state because the lawyers and the judge spoke only English and I couldn’t follow the language well. However, I gathered all my strength and said, ‘I have a request to make before the Honourable Court.’
‘I do not understand English and can speak only Malayalam. Therefore please transfer my case to a court that permits Malayalam.’
‘You are permitted to speak in Malayalam.’
My joy knew no bounds. Later the court gave me its reply in Malayalam.
‘The print medium and Akashvani (All India Radio) do not come under the court’s jurisdiction. Therefore your writ can be accepted only with the first two defendants.’
I agreed to it and my writ was filed.
Only two cross examinations took place over this issue and on ,-casions, I argued my case strongly. I brought in Article 13 of the Constitution and the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women) into my arguments. On the third hearing the verdict was announced. This pertained only to the case of application forms. The rest of the nearly ten issues raised in my writ were set aside due to lack of evidence. The High Court ordered the state and central governments to ensure prohibition of gender discrimination and to rectify the anomaly in newly printed application forms. The verdict on my writ came into force that same year. From then on, children passing the tenth standard got an opportunity to include their mothers’ names in their SSLC (Secondary School Leaving Certificate) books.
Where Does a Woman Lack Space?
Police Head Constable Balan died in a skirmish while he was on election duty in Kalpetta. I was on patrolling duty then, in areas under the Bathers station. The news of his hospitalisation reached me at two in the afternoon. As I did not consider his condition serious, I accompanied my colleagues to see him, without even changing my police uniform. Only when we were ushered into the room did we learn of his demise. Sometime later as I joined my friends and walked towards our jeep, the CI called me, ‘Vinaya, you must remain here on guard duty. Do you mind?’ I obeyed him immediately. Though sad at the tragedy, I felt honoured that the CI considered me strong enough to stand guard over my colleague’s dead body. The CI was one of the few superior officers who entrusted me with serious responsibilities.
The next day as Balan sir’s body was being taken to his house, it began to rain heavily. The panchayat road that led to his house was not a tarred one. So all the vehicles had to stop on the main road and we walked the rest of the distance. I was in the forefront, assisting in taking the coffin from the ambulance and carrying it indoors. No one objected to my actions.
Usually women are not allowed to participate in obsequies, especially in carrying the bier or taking the corpse to the funeral pyre. But even earlier, I had joined others in carrying a body to the crematorium or the cemetery and the fact that no one questioned or stopped me was a source of great inspiration. I was convinced that the centuries’ old tradition of marginalising women had continued only because there was no one to challenge it. I was also sure that such a practice that had been meekly accepted through all these years could be corrected by means of action. Further, I learned that through personal interventions, I could put an end to the anti-woman attitude that society had nurtured over time. Any one with the appropriate mind-set can take part in such rituals. Women should discard the wrong notion that they are a separate community. They should learn to get involved in the problems of the society and become part of it.
One day while on suspension, prior to my dismissal from service, I was sitting in a tea shop in Madakkara, my native village, chewing betel. A little while later, a young boy and a few of his friends came over and stuck a poster on the back wall of the shop.
‘What’s that?’ I asked him.
‘Vinaya chechi, we boys, the local residents of this place, have decided to hold elections to our club this year. That’s what the notice is about.’
‘How is that only boys form the local residents? What about girls like us?’
His reply came immediately, ‘How can girls be considered so?’
I felt that his question was a relevant one.
The sound health which made him speak like this was itself the result of the labour of a few women who remained indoors and cooked food for him. The reason why he was able to spend his leisure time indulging in such activities like a ‘local resident’ and the reason why women had to continue their fight for 35 `)/0 reservation was that women were simply unable to participate in these public events. I he day women can move around freely and be part of such basic social institutions like the local club, the library or the citizens’ forum, they will not need to make plaintive demands for 35 % reservation. But in every village, these institutions come alive only between seven and nine in the evening —when most women are confined to their homes — and this accounts for their absence.
In order to elicit participation in the club elections I went to see many members of a local association (of which I had been part earlier) and held several meetings at my house. None of the members attended the meetings but nearly fifteen women did. On the day of election, there were only six women with me whereas a whole contingent of men turned up to beat us. I argued for a seat for girls. But the boy whom I had taught when he was small and who had been abandoned by his father and raised by his mother, shouted fervently, ‘We men will rule the club’. If his mother had left men to rule in life during his childhood, he would not have been alive to utter these words!
We lost in the elections. Four or five men had voted for us. Though defeated we decided to wind up the function with a ‘woman song’ — ‘Awake and arise, sister’ — composed by the well-known writer Sarah Joseph. Some girls joined me in the song but the boys hooted with greater vigour and drowned our voices. The girls felt humiliated. Later they told others that they would never again be in my company.
Still later I came to know that on the day of the election a few club members had rung up all those who had attended the meetings and many other women to inform them that the elections had been postponed. I understood that the women had failed to come solely due to this misunderstanding. I felt sure that these boys did not have the ability to do anything for Madakkara except project themselves with a lot of zest. These were the very boys who had scuttled the activities of the Mathrubhumi Study Circle I had initiated for around thirty boys and girls some time back. I learnt that though they did nothing creative for their native village, they would do everything to prevent any progressive activity from flourishing there.
The Game-changer at Kannur
An event that changed the course of my life completely was the Kerala State Police sports meet in March 2002. Both men and women competed in separate events and added points to their team scores. But suddenly the results on the score boards were republished after deleting all the points that the women competitors had scored. This provoked widespread protests. Every police woman started cursing the moment she decided to leave her home in order to participate in the sports meet. Java and I however decided to register our protest with our superior officers. We approached the Kasargod SP who was in charge of the meet. He refused to listen to us but asked us to give our complaint in written form. In the letter I drafted that very moment, I mentioned that the removal of points gained by the police women was in violation of Sections 14 and 15 of the Indian Constitution. The SP assured us that the complaint would be considered the next day. By seven thirty the following morning four events were conducted but the score board continued to ignore the points scored by women. I went back to the SP and sought an explanation. He did not like my question at all. Screwing his face in utter scorn, he said, You women will be given a few prizes. Be content with that.’ Many athletes and officials were present there. I saw that this was not simply the dismissive attitude a superior officer usually assumes in front of subordinates. It was pride that came from his male chauvinistic beliefs.
–Unable to tolerate the insult, my mind filled with resentment and my body felt weak. I collapsed on the ground. The meet could not continue without someone removing me. Half an hour passed. Three uniformed police personnel – two policewomen and a CI – came to the scene, arrested me and took me to Kannur Town police station. I was locked up in the Women’s Cell even before it was eight.
While on the way to the police station, I heard the CI receiving orders on the wireless set – he was to arrange two policewomen to stand guard over me and prevent any media person from seeing me. A policewoman guarding my cell cursed loudly, ‘Now we have to do duty on the ground as well – all because of you! What a bother!’ She belonged to my batch and her words hurt me. She did not have the grace to realize that I had been arrested while trying to defend her honour as well. I broke down.
My story or The Life Journey of a Young Malayali Woman 125
I was granted bail by one o’clock that afternoon. Jaya and Elizabeth, my colleagues, were responsible for it but they were not permitted to see me. After signing the papers, as I was about to step out of the station, the CI stopped me. Then, calling a videographer and ordering him to switch on the camera, he hollered, ‘If you don’t obey me, I’ll issue a non-bailable warrant against you and lock you up’. I was thoroughly shaken. Then the camera was switched off. Maybe the plan was to attack me physically and switch on the camera the moment I reacted to the provocation. As the Women’s Cell was in the upper storey the CI roared, ‘Climb upstairs!’ as if ordering a criminal. I felt as helpless as the not-so-tough offenders who are brought into the station as convicts and found myself obeying him immediately. Later the office-bearers of my union requested him to release me but the CI remained adamant. He replied that I would be set free only when my husband arrived. He had conveyed the news to Dasettan by then.
When convicts go to the toilet they are not permitted to lock the door. They can only close it and a constable stands guard outside. I was treated like a true convict. Remani and Sujanan sir who had always behaved decently towards me at the station now turned hostile. Very skillfully, they arrayed false evidence against me in front of the investigating officer. I was released only by seven thirty in the evening when Dasettan reached Kannur police station. Orders for my suspension reached me on 26 March 2002. I now began to feel terribly isolated.
Within two months I filed a petition in the high court challenging my suspension order. The court instructed me to appeal to my higher authority. Although I submitted my appeal to the DIG in time, he returned it, stating that no decision could be taken before the departmental investigation was over.
Six months passed. The investigation was not concluded. Unable to withstand the uncertainty, I decided to go to the A. R. Camp at Wayanad which the DIG was scheduled to attend. Dasettan accompanied me.
When I eventually met the DIG, he treated my case very casually
‘Well, what is it.
‘A letter of representation.’
‘What is it for?’
‘Sir, it’s over six months now. This is a request for my reinstatement.’
‘Reinstatement?’ He laughed at me scornfully. ‘We are thinking about dismissing you.’
`This representation . • I extended my letter to him, with great humility.
‘ That’s precisely what I’m talking about . . .’
‘Sir, you must at least accept my representation,’ I pleaded again.
I could not control my sorrow. I felt terribly numb too. Then, finally, summoning courage, I said, ‘Sir, I have several problems to tackle. . . Why do you want to aggravate them further by making me stand like this?’
`Well . . . then . . . give it to me.’
I returned feeling utterly humiliated. I was belittled in front of my husband and Dasettan too was distressed. Both of us rode straight to our advocate Maria’s office. I called her out and told her the entire story amid hitter sobs. She too became uneasy. ‘You will be dismissed, that’s for sure. They’ll do just anything to ensure it. Let’s ring up Mr Rajashekha ran Nair.’
Mr Rajashekharan Nair had helped me in times of crisis even earlier. On hearing us out, he asked us to approach the high court and secure a reinstatement order immediately. However I was not in a position to bear the expense of a court trial. My family- was in dire straits already. With no clue about how to proceed, as Maria and I sat in her office, Mr Rajashekharan rang up to convey some news. The chief editor of Crime Mr Nandakumar was ready to see my case through. Mr Nandakarnar in turn directed me to an advocate who prepared the O.P. in half an hour.
It took six more months for the announcement of the final verdict. I had to go to court two or three times in the meanwhile. The court stated that in the changed circumstances, any further extension of my suspension was not at all justifiable and ordered that a favourable decision be taken within a month. On the strength of this verdict, I received orders of reinstatement on 23 April 2003.
My story or The Life journey of a Young Malayali Woman 127
I rejoined duty two days later at the Manandavady station. As that was the SP’s inspection day, many police officials were present. I served tea and laddoos to all. Some congratulated me. Most of them only whispered their greetings. I overhead comments like, ‘It’s too early yet to crow with delight. Let’s wait till May 31’. May 31 was the day of retirement of the DGP Mr K. J. Joseph. My colleagues’ warning that something untoward may happen before that day sent shivers down my spine.
In April 2002, on the eve of his taking charge as the DGP, Mr K. J. Joseph had spoken to the press of his resolve to inject masculine vigour into the police force. He had also made certain derogatory remarks about the need to expose a few policemen who were fit only to wear bangles. On reading these remarks in the newspaper, I sought advocate Maria’s help and prepared a lawyer’s notice. It stated that the DGP’s statements were demoralising to women and police women in particular. As they went against Section 15 of the Indian Constitution, were discriminatory against women and sexist in content, the DGP should withdraw his statements, failing which a defamatory case would be filed against him. I was working at Ambalavayal station then. The DGP gave a reply notice but refused to withdraw his statements. While on suspension later, I filed my case against him at the Bathery sessions court.
I would soon learn that the hints my colleagues dropped on the day I rejoined duty at Manandavady pointed to the truth. On May 17, I received a show cause notice demanding that I give reasons why my services should not be terminated. The reply had to be sent within fifteen days. As soon as I got it, I went to see my friend Jose who was on Stamp Guard duty. When he was alone in the guard room, I handed him the show cause notice and wept, holding his arm tightly. He felt terribly upset. ‘Vinaya, don’t cry. You ought not to,’ he repeated, trying to console me. Those were the moments when I realized a truth – my belief that I could weather any storm was only make-believe.
The following days rained more sorrows on me. All the newspapers carried the story of my dismissal. I had to answer many people’s questions. Several statements -whatever I made, whatever I did not and whatever I never intended to make -reared their heads before me. The newspapers and magazines sensationalized my words merely to increase their circulation and I began to hate them.
If the print medium had handled my case in the right manner, it could have enlightened the public on the questions I had raised and the actions they had triggered. Without running a background check, it merely reported the events as and when they happened, on a regular basis. This caused me great pain.
All the demands I had made regarding the 2002 sports meet -through the case filed with the help of advocate Bhadrakumari – were accepted by the court. The senior officers were compelled to implement them. During the 2003 sports meet, the police women were permitted to wear white pants and shirt instead of sari . Besides, all the points scored by them were included in the final championship tally. These were no mean achievements. But no one bothered to report these facts. No one took the trouble of finding out the reasons for my suspension. I had first hand experience of grave journalistic lapses.
The Depth of My Fall
When certain ideas that had formed in my mind during childhood fell into the furnace of my adult experiences, they got crystallized into principles I could never discard and my life turned into a war (often a losing one) waged in defending them. Setbacks and defeats have bestowed mental conflicts, often lasting several days, on me. But these intense experiences have made me the Vinaya I am today – a person who confronts challenges in a way different from any ordinary woman.
The damage that my eleven-year professional career inflicted on me – continuous punishments, frequent transfers, suspension, dismissal – has often been more than. I could bear in my short life so far. But there was always some consoling thought [could hold on to, that would lead me to take refuge under a shade of safety, however small. This was to change dramatically on a night, seven days before I received my marching orders. What Dasettan revealed to me that night literally decimated me.
My story or The Life Journey of a Young Malayali Woman 129
A Dy S. P., who was Dasettan’s superior, had retired that morning. After the retirement party when Dasettan reached home it was eight in the night. He looked very tired and from his facial expression I could see that he seemed to have taken a firm decision on something. That morning when I visited Dasettan’s elder sister at her house, her son (who was also a policeman) stated that my imminent dismissal was my own doing. His lack of respect for me was so galling that as soon as Dasettan stepped in to our house, I told him about the incident. But he paid no heed to my story. Instead, he said in a loud voice, Ninaya, I have something to tell you. Listen to me carefully.’
I sat down to pay attention.
‘At the Dy S. P.’s party today, you were the subject of discussion all the time.’
‘There are only two options before us.’ ‘Tell me,’ I was getting impatient.
‘Either you should withdraw the case you filed against the DGP, Seek his pardon and plead for your reinstatement . . . Otherwise, all his ire will be directed against you and then, against me. That is what the Dy S. P., Mr Mathai of the PR section and others told me. If that happens, what’ll we do?’
I had nothing to say in reply. I merely sat staring at Dasettan. He continued, ‘The other way out, as I see it . . .’
‘What is it?’ I wondered.
‘You need not give up anything – your ideas or your principles. I shall commit suicide.’ He burst into tears. Then, clutching his head with both hands, he added, don’t see any other solution, that’s why.’
I felt totally crushed. The words that fell from Dasettan’s mouth were unbearable for me. I did not want to leave him alone for a moment, even to make a phone call. What if Dasettan moved to the next room and locked himself up? I went up to him and hugged him tightly.
‘Dasetta . . . I am prepared to do anything — even withdraw my case. I shall go and see the DGP tomorrow itself. No one in this world is more precious to me than you. Not even our children.’
I realized that I was hollow through and through. My ideas and principles were not more important to me than the person I loved. I yearned to throw away everything for the sake of Dasettan who had stood by me through thick and thin. I learnt that he was my greatest support. Dasettan who shouted in anger . . . who laughed … his sorrows were what gave me strength. But his helplessness brought my own vulnerability out into the open.
I was worried. Determined to ring up a couple of people and make Dasettan speak to them, I led him to our bedroom where our telephone was. I made him lie down and rang up our advocate Maria first. She was out of station. Next I tried Mr Rajashekharan Nair. In a fit of fear, I told him that I had decided to withdraw my statement because Dasettan had decided to kill himself.
‘Vinaya, if you feel that way, do it. I won’t ever tell you to continue your fight all the time. You have done everything you could. And so you can take appropriate decision without any pang of conscience. If you wish to meet the DGP, do it tomorrow itself.’ I hung up.
Just then a call from Manandavady station came through. It was the president of our union, Mr Girishan. ‘Why did you approach the court over the show cause notice issue? The court has rejected it. This was announced in the news just a moment ago. There’s no other alternative before us. Your dismissal is certain. There’s nothing else to do . . .’ I had mentioned in my writ that the real right to dismiss was vested with the appointing authority and it was the state government that appointed women police. But due to lack of adequate evidence, the court rejected my case. Now my hopes of seeking the DGP’s pardon were shattered. My dismissal was a dead certainty now. I rang up Mr Rajashekharan Nair again. I told him how the court’s rejection of my appeal strengthened the department’s position and requested him to speak to Dasettan. They spoke for nearly half an hour. Dasettan’s grief seemed less intense and his weeping stopped.
Almost immediately there was another call. This was from Dubai — for a telephonic interview I had consented to earlier. But I told the man that the circumstances were not right just then as Dasettan was terribly distraught and spoke of suicide. Then I asked him to talk to Dasettan. He was a total stranger. But to me, at that moment, he seemed the answer to my desperate prayers. He too spoke to Dasettan for some time. Then! called up Mr Balachandran, a former office bearer of our professional association and one of Dasettan’s friends, and told him the same story. They spoke to each other for a long time. In a couple of hours, much to my relief, Dasettan became composed.
I could not afford to cry but my insides were burning. I realized that I had no right even to contemplate suicide. Wondering how I had made a virtual habit of giving pain to my loved ones, I tried to find out where I had gone wrong. But the effort was futile. I had done only those things I considered right. But they always ended in failure. Sadly recognized that I had become addicted to doing the right things and I also know that I will continue to pursue the same path.
I asked myself why I continued to act selfishly despite such setbacks. But I got no reply. All my thoughts were aimed at gaining utmost satisfaction for myself alone. The welfare of the society and women did come within the ambit of my thoughts but my actions were primarily for my own gratification. It appeared ironical that even painful experiences gave me contentment. I seemed to get a fair amount of pleasure too from them. Yet Dasettan’s mental distress paralysed me completely.
[Vinaya was dismissed from service on 13 June 2003]
Translated from Malayalam by P. Radhika