In January 2014, the story of yet another gang rape generated headlines in India and soon echoed through the international media. A 20-year-old woman from the isolated West Bengal village of Subalpur had allegedly been raped by 13 men. Particularly shocking was the accusation that the rape had been planned and carried out by a village council to punish the young woman for having a relationship with an outsider. The story broke just over a year after the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a Delhi bus, which sparked national outrage and became the first in a series of widely reported rapes that increased public awareness of sexual assault and women’s rights in India.
While the Subalpur story was in the news, Sonia Faleiro travelled to West Bengal. Faleiro is the author of Beautiful Thing, an acclaimed investigation into Bombay’s sex industry. She became the first journalist to interview the 20-year-old woman, whom she calls Baby. (Under Indian law, rape victims cannot be named.)
But once Faleiro embarked on her reporting, conflicting accounts of the truth emerged. Villagers claimed that local politicians had paid Baby to fabricate her story to discredit the tribe and pave the way for a land grab. In a community where, activists say, tribes have frequently been exploited for their land rights, this was not a far-fetched scenario.
Those two versions of the truth became the subject of 13 Men, an e-book that Faleiro recently published with Deca, the journalistic storytelling collective she co-founded.
The book recounts the details of each narrative and offers no conclusions about which to believe. Everyone agrees that Baby, who had recently returned to Subalpur from Delhi, drew attention from villagers for her relative wealth, her modern clothes, and her relationship with a married Muslim man from another village. When Baby’s lover visited one night, the villagers dragged the couple to a palm tree, where they were tied up through the cold January night.
Then the story splits in two. The villagers say the couple remained tied up and the village went to sleep. Baby says 13 men from the village stayed up, untied her, and dragged her to the kitchen of a hut, where they took turns raping her for hours until she passed out.
The stories reconnect the next morning, when a village council fined the couple for violating cultural boundaries.
After an unusually speedy trial of eight months, the 13 accused men were found guilty and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. No forensic evidence was presented at trial—Faleiro says the samples are still in the hands of the Kolkata Forensic Science Laboratory, one of only a few in India.
CJR talked to Faleiro about 13 Men, and how she navigated conflicting narratives on a highly sensitive issue. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
As you traveled to West Bengal to start reporting, what kind of story were you expecting to write?
A story about hopelessness, about generational poverty and deprivation and the mounting frustration over a lack of essential resources, and over the realization that even one’s basic, simple dreams could not be realized. I believed that frustration had come into conflict with the reappearance of this young woman, who I knew had been influenced by modern, urban life and values. I thought I would find that clash between hopelessness and hope, between a sense that life was a dead end and Baby’s realization that no, life was full of potential.
When did you start to realize that the facts did not fit neatly into that narrative?
Before arriving in West Bengal, I felt like I knew the truth based on what I had read in newspapers, and based on what seemed to make perfect sense to me. These things happen. This is who we are, these are the things we do to women. The unfortunate truth is, there’s nothing about this rape that is surprising to someone who is familiar with life in India.
Once I started reporting, I found it very hard to find cracks in anyone’s story. I met people on both sides of the issue who had very plausible reasons for why they were the ones who were telling the truth.
With the discrediting of Rolling Stone’s story about an alleged rape at the University of Virginia, we’ve heard a lot about the dangers of being seduced by a narrative. How did you navigate these conflicting narratives?
When it became clear that this was not an open and shut case, I felt the need to tell the story even more. If there was an injustice, it becomes an even greater compulsion to pursue the truth. It becomes a necessary story.
There is no black and white. I’m saying this without taking sides: there’s so much deprivation and inequality, people have such tough lives that those experiences allow them to justify what others would consider extreme and unacceptable behaviour. Only if you see the environment that people are coming from will you be able to understand the impetus for their words, their decisions, their justifications.
How does the story speak to larger, structural issues?
India is at a very interesting stage right now. One of the cliches about what is happening in India, not just in terms of sexual assault, is correct: clashes between tradition and modernity. Clashes between men who have always felt a sense of supremacy and women who have realized that their lives are more than their roles as daughters and wives and mothers. Those stories about India are accurate. The larger story it illuminates is how effective the system in India can be when it chooses to, starting from the cops, going all the way up to the judgment.
Ultimately this is also a story about how modern ways have not been permitted to reach certain corners of India, and that is a tremendous injustice, and the people who are most grievously affected are women. That’s always the case.
Is that inequality sufficiently addressed in the Indian media?
It is spoken of more than it was, particularly since the December 2012 gang rape. People protested and did not want the media or government to forget that rape. In reporting rapes in India, it is inevitable that you will report gender inequality, economic imbalances, political harassment, grinding poverty, rural deprivation. So the December 2012 gang rape and rape in general has become a way for reporters to illuminate injustice in our society.
In your story, you suggest that Baby’s case might not have reached the media without the 2012 Delhi gang rape. Why is that?
I’m convinced that it would not have. Despite the eyeball-grabbing quality of [Baby’s] complaint, it would have been brushed off—if not by the police, it would have been reported only by the local media. Before the December 2012 gang rape there was never a sense that people wanted to read about this, and even now there aren’t a lot of reporters who are reporting on [rape].
The book doesn’t reveal your own opinion about what happened to Baby. Why not?
I had a sense of what happened, but I don’t believe in putting out anything beyond the facts. If it’s not a fact, I don’t even know that it exists for me. Whatever I may feel happened, it’s a story of such profound, heartbreaking injustice that there’s not this one victim that you need to cry for, there are multiple victims. I think about it every day.
Why publish with Deca instead of opting for a feature in a magazine?
[Deca’s e-books] are very dense stories that illuminate a particular way of life in a particular part of the world that is not known to Western audiences. They are complicated, because they talk about things that most of us have no familiarity with. That level of poverty and deprivation, the loneliness. Poverty is such a lonely thing. You cannot explain it to someone who is not poor. From that stems all the complications.
I just don’t know how another editor in another magazine would have dealt with it while maintaining all of this nuance. I think Deca gets that there are complicated stories that don’t need to be unknotted. Some complicated stories should be written in a way that shows that the world is a tough place that’s hard to understand.
Do the mainstream media and established magazines have more of a tendency to unknot stories?
They do. So much of what I write is in the detail. I cannot have everything stripped away, because that doesn’t explain that life is messy, lives are complicated, people are hard to understand. You have to show that, in all the richness of detail and depth. The general point is that there is no one way of writing about the world.Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.