Workshop # 17
She was conducted to the village square amidst shouts of defiance and looks of bewilderment on their faces. The crowd predominantly young men of the village threw palm fronts on her head, a symbol of shame and outcast. A smaller crowd of women with tired babies straddled on their backs followed from a safe distance. “Outcast! Outcast!” I heard them scream around her. Now and then, she kept ducking to avoid the palm fronts that her assailants pushed into her face in a threatening fashion, incessantly.
Her accusers and their victim arrived the village market square where sat the village traditional council headed by the supreme chief of the village, chief Ottowala. Hm! The traditional council! Such an interesting fraternity. It was a selection of rugged old men, thirty of them in number and custodians of legendary traditional practices of the Kwa Kwa village. They were already in session, a kangaroo court, I always mused to myself but too frightened to share with anyone, wondering now and then why no woman was ever a member in the history of its existence. The council was already deliberating on the scene that had just arrived the village square with their victim just entering the council premises. It was a dreaded thing for any villager’s case to be brought before this supreme council and a woman especially would rather die than be taken here, for the verdict was almost always against her, with grave consequences.
She was booed into the presence of the council and was made to sit down in the middle of the court, on the bare ground, taking the posture of a mourner as was the custom of all female criminals who had the misfortune of entering the supreme council. However victims who were men had a much more comfortable option. They usually would sit on a bamboo bench placed at the center of the court.
For the first time since the mock parade, I saw her face clearly. But to my sheer puzzlement, though her young face showed signs of fatigue and strain, with minor cuts here and there, yet her eyes held a determination that even the impending consequence of her rebellion could not erase. I was amazed that any woman in kwa Kwa village could harbor such courage. My heart began to bit faster. At this instant, the victim’s husband was ushered in from the court premises. He was about sixty and more, his whole being smoldering with anger, almost on the edge of apoplexy I could say, and for the disgrace his wife had brought on his grey hair and household entirely. For no woman in Kwa Kwa village not even among his wives which he had bought with his money was permitted to do this terrible thing, not even in their wildest dreams were they permitted. It was such a shame what his seventh wife had brought upon him that a man would rather commit suicide in Kwa kwa village than let this happen to him….
I had come home very tired, last night, from a distant farm and the last of my eleventh children strapped on my back hadn’t made the trek any easier. It was my turn as the fifth wife to cook food and keep house for my ageing husband, whose strength he complained failed him at every tiny task except to make the tedious trek across the hills with a large calabash of palm wine strapped on a bamboo and dangling on his shoulder to the market square to share with his counterparts and eat kola nuts which every one of his wives took turns in supplying for him. That night I had kept his room in order, prepared his meal and smoked his favorite meat, which I had caught from an old trap in my farm. After that I finished bathing the sleeping baby far into the night. I collapsed beside her on the grass mattress faint with fatigue and as I drifted off to sleep, the sound of the drums came crashing into my ears from all directions. This particular one indicated bad omen for it rarely was heard in the village, except an abominable act had been committed. I was however too tired to move even my leg, but whatever be the case, by twilight tomorrow the whole village would be ablaze with it, even the tall lanky palm trees behind my kitchen would be trembling with the news. For bad news had a way of affecting this tiny village especially when this news concerned a kwa kwa village woman.
The next day the whole village was boiling over with the story of this unfortunate young wife called Jaja, the sixth wife of her husband. She had killed a chicken, which she bought during the big market day with the earnings she had saved from doing farm contracts as was common in the village during the farming season. She had kept all the choicest parts of the chicken for her husband, but for some unknown reason, she ate the gizzard of the chicken. Of course for a woman to eat the gizzard of the chicken in the kwa kwa village was an unpardonable sin equivalent to exile to the temple of doom and consequently death. The gizzard in Kwa Kwa village stood as a symbol of authority which was the man, and no woman or child was permitted to make the mistake of eating it. If a chicken was killed and the husband wasn’t present, the gizzard was to be preserved until his return or given to another man closest to the family. Generations of women had lived and died, and will still live and die in kwa kwa village without ever knowing how the gizzard of a chicken tasted or would they? It would have been more tolerable for this woman to have eaten all the choicest parts of the chicken and then kept back the tiny gizzard for her husband than otherwise. Every man in my small village considered it as a big challenge on the part of any woman to eat fowl gizzard.
I had attempted once as a little girl to ask my mother why the gizzard was held in such sacredness. My mother was shocked and alarmed at such a question that she had carried me to a passing stream behind our house at midnight while the village slept, to do cleansing rites on my tiny body. When she brought me back into the house dancing from the biting cold, that night, she forbade me never to mouth such a question again if I desired to see her and myself around for a long time in this village and that I wasn’t permitted to dream about such a subject even in my sleep. She said it was too big a basket for me to carry. Well that ended my curiosity that night.
Now as I watched this young woman sitting on the bare earth, awaiting trial, no one needed to explain to me the magnitude of her crime. In a matter of minutes, her fate will be decided in a mock trial in this kangaroo court. My mouth went dry, and my hands began to sweat. All the women where standing on the left, set apart from the men, for it was a taboo in this little village for both sexes to stand shoulder to shoulder. The women all had babies straddled on their backs and some crawling around their feet, the only symbol of their worth. The supreme chief was ushered in with a solemn match while the rest of the people stooped in honor of him. The council members sat down, the court went into a hush, and the judgment was about to commence.
The chief, chief Otowala fired questions at the victims in the kwa kwa dialect, mainly asking her why she deliberately chose to bring shame on her husband and challenge his authority and that of the entire men of Kwa kwa village. And that in doing so, she had not only challenged her husband, the entire men of the village but she had chosen to throw a challenge to him as the supreme leader of the village. When the chief had finished speaking, he asked the young woman Jaja if she had anything to say to defend herself. Then she took up her head from the mourning posture, her face was set like granite, and I perceived that this village was on the verge of witnessing a great rebellion, something that had never happened in the history of kwa kwa village. She quietly told chief Otowala and the rest of the bewildered audience that she had nothing to say. I could say I sensed a subtle form of defiance in her voice and this with the chief too? Ah! Ah!
The supreme chief now turned his attention to the rest of the women standing on the left as was the custom. He asked them if they were in support of what the young woman had done, by challenging her husband’s authority in such a disgraceful way and bringing shame to the entire men community. Chief Otowala said if any of them was in favor of what this young woman had done then they should step forward in to the ring. Of course the chief and every one knew no one would dare to do that and no one had ever done that in support of the victim. Then when a few minutes ticked by and no one stepped in the ring as was expected, he began to mete out the dreaded judgment. The atmosphere was packed with tension which a knife could slice through. He began pronouncing the judgment; “you have been exiled from this village today, and to the temple of doom, any thing you own, in this case your hoes and baskets will be burnt and your first daughter would accompany you to your fated end”. The supreme chief was still saying “let this punishment serve as an example for every other woman who would dare to rise above her shoulders to measure up with her husband who bought her with his own money and …” But before chief Ottowala could finish, the incredible happened and history began to unfold in my own very eyes. I trembled so hard my loin cloth tied firmly around my waist began to give way. A young woman from among the women , with her baby strapped to her back and two toddlers trailing behind her was slowly making her way in the ring, where sat the victim, Jaja. She could have been twenty seven or more but looked a bit older, her eyes reddish and her face marred from long hours of sitting beside the fireside; the lot of all kwa kwa women. Her eyes told me she had been crying but had stopped. There was fright on her face but mixed with an underlying strength and conviction that she knew what she was doing. She moved slowly into the ring and stood facing the supreme council members.
Alarm seized the atmosphere and someone attempted to come after her to pull her back, her husband maybe, but the chief beckoned with his staff for her to be left alone saying that every rat that challenged the cat to a fight knew the consequences. But I simply wondered how long the rat would remain the victim. She made obeisance to the chief and asked to be permitted to speak. I thought I was dreaming. Anyone looking at this woman could tell with just one look that she could hardly be anything less than the property of another man. She looked defeated by life and with the toddlers crawling around her feet, she did not fit the picture she was presenting right now. But seemingly even if everything inside of her had died yet one little flame was still burning even if faintly. At that moment it seemed to me a sleeping giant had roused it self inside of her and I did not see weakness any more but the light of a beacon that had been repressed for by far too long and now it was ready for release. Chief Ottowala beckoned to the woman to go ahead and speak. She said “your highness, if this woman goes condemned to the temple of doom, for haven eaten the gizzard of a fowl, she worked hard to buy with her own money, then I am ready to face the consequences and go with her and my three children here with me to the temple of doom. Let my kitchen, my hoe and my basket be burnt. Yes I know that the law of this village demands that to happen but we human beings aught to live by the rule of our conscience first and then the rule of tradition next” I was already sweating profusely by now. But a more interesting episode began to happen again and this time I almost fainted. Like in a slow motion, as the young woman was still speaking, slowly and one by one, more women began joining the two women in the ring. One after the other they moved in. I swapped my hand across my face to find out if I was seeing clearly. But it was real. The woman who was speaking turned behind her to see her colleagues joining her and it would seem her courage was fueled and she proceeded to speak. She again said “our husbands and council member representatives, more women joining the ring right now simply tell us all that they do not consent to such a judgment, at least not anymore. Something has to be done your highness, think for yourself. But even if nothing is done all of us women standing in this ring would accompany our fellow woman to the temple of doom, we and our children together. Then it would be heard all over the neighbouring villages that Kwa Kwa village has more widowers than widows, that men rise up to warm their own bath and that they bend to the grinding stone to prepare their own meals. Isn’t that an abomination too?
Chief Otowala was exasperated and completely knocked out at such an unprecedented turn of events. The women, their faces frightened but fueled with conviction, kept standing in the ring round the victim who still sat in the same position. Then the chief in a very solemn and grave voice stood up, raised his staff and asked the entire crowd to listen. He said the final judgment had been postponed to a date that would be communicated by the villager crier...
Two weeks later I had taken all my time to get up from the bed and was just preparing for a nearby farm. Lately and ever since the incident at the big market square, I did not feel any sense of urgency as before in going to the distant farms which enabled me get special meat from the forest at my husband’s request. The pressure of that task had dwindled just a little bit. And just then my thirteen year old daughter came running to my kitchen her eyes round with excitement. And she went ahead and told me there was heated quarrelling and threats in the neighborhood because two women had eaten fowl gizzards. But I wondered why no gongs of bad omen were sounded, and then a hidden smile began to curve round my lips as I picked up my basket to the farm.
Three days later on the evening of the small market day, I was coming back home lost in thought when my young daughter again met me at the entrance with another saga. The supreme Chief’s own daughter who was seventeen had defiantly refused to show up on the day of her betrothal to a sixty year old man as the ninth wife; in the history of Kwa Kwa village no woman had ever done this. Then my daughter shook my hand and said “mama, does this mean that I can also refuse to marry that old man pa keeps taking me to visit him?” I looked at her thoughtfully, and then quietly walked in to the compound. She ran off again but I understood that she knew the answer to the question. I knew the consequences if she did that but I was more prepared now and would prepare her too.
The balance had began to tilt and there was no turning back even at the edge of the sword. A faint song of freedom began to form from deep within me, as I visualized this wonderful legacy…
Workshop # 17
Act! Oh, Goddess of Justice! by G. Venkatesh
Advocacy by Dr. Raj Vatsya
Against All Odds by Shernaz Wadia
Animal Farm Again by T. A. Ramesh
Before The Bench by Kamal Wadhwa
Blind Justice Symbolism by Rajha Rajesuwari Subhramanium
Blind to Hypocrisy by Jayaprakash Raghavan Pillai
Can Justice Reach India’s Toiling Masses? by Dr. Uddipan Mukherjee
Coomaraswamy’s Last Stand by Kamal Wadhwa
Encounter by Shernaz Wadia
Give Humanity A Chance by Rupradha Mookerjee
Gizzards by Afanwi Stella
How Long, Oh Goddess of Justice! by Dr. Kumarendra Mallick
In A World of Big Lies... by N. S. Murty
In Defense of A Committed Judiciary by Kamal Wadhwa
In(Justice) by Ramesh Anand
Is Justice Blind? by Nikhil Sharda
Is Justice Humane? by Shibsankar Bagchi
Is the Statue of Lady Justice Relevant in India Today? by Ganesh Joshi
Just Justice by Dr. Madhavi Godavarthy
Justice Delayed: Justice Denied by Bharat B. Trivedi
Justice Delivered by Janaki Janar
Justice for All by Mukesh Williams
Justice in Adversarial System by Dr. Raj Vatsya
Justitia Versus Justice by Ramesh Anand
Lady Justice by Ramesh Anand
Lady Justice’s a Pretty Nice Girl by Dipankar Dasgupta
Lost is Our Humanity by Rupradha Mookerjee
Miss Justice, a Villanelle by Steve Talbert
Mother Justice by Prof. Siva Prasad Peddi
On Her Blindness by G Swaminathan
Order by Dr. Raj Vatsya
Reform or Perish by Rajinder Puri
Reforming India’s Judiciary by Rajinder Puri
Rejoice! by Pavalamani Pragasam
Righteousness is Divine ... by Deepak Yadav
Self-realization through Internal Justice by Prof. Siva Prasad Peddi
Shall We? (Tyburn) by Ramesh Anand
She Laughs at It! (Senryu) by Ramesh Anand
Strength of a Woman by Yogita Tripathi
The Lady Justice's Lament by Ramesh Anand
The Lady of Justice by Supriya Bhandari
The Origins Of Justice by Gaurang Bhatt, MD
The President's Pardon by Jayaprakash Raghavan Pillai
The Public Prosecutor by Kamal Wadhwa
The Social Base by Prof. Siva Prasad Peddi
Universal Justice (NONET) by Ramesh Anand
Whatsoever (Limerick) by Ramesh Anand
Who Am I? by Dr. Shirisha Dabiru
Why? by Pavalamani Pragasam