[NOTE: This story was nominated for a Pushcart and for the Best American Short Stories 2018.]
Let me start with a great, big thank you to the editor-in-chief, Laura Pegram, of Kweli Journal. Not only did she provide careful, insightful feedback for this story but she did it in a way that was both encouraging and inspiring. I am so grateful to be a part of this issue with the other wonderful contributors.
Set in Gujarat, India around the time of the 2016 Dalit protests, ‘Each of Us Killers‘ explores the present-day politics of Hindu cow worship — a highly-charged issue. It is also the story of a minority low-caste community struggling to reconcile their position in society with their need for personal agency. This struggle is, of course, universal wherever there is oppression of the minority by the majority. I also wanted to explore crowd psychology here.
It is partly inspired by a real-life incident in 2016 of a group of low-caste men flogged publicly by higher-caste cow-worshippers (self-styled cow protectors or “gau rakshaks.”) The low-caste men were caught skinning a dead cow. The allegation was that they had killed the cow to get the skin. Their defense was that the cow had already died and they had been asked to deal with the remains because no one else except their community would take on such an “unclean” task. The flogging went viral on social and news media. Within a week, there were widespread protest marches, ineffective legal actions against the floggers, controversial statements from politicians (including the state’s chief minister), and even tragic acid-drinking suicides by young men of the low-caste communities as protests against the lack of justice.
Among the horrific news unfolding daily, there were further fresh and old stories of violence against the lower caste communities. One thing consistent in almost all of these was how the violence was often carried out in broad daylight and in front of watching crowds. This last thing kept nagging at me. Having lived a privileged, sheltered life myself, I have never witnessed a major act of violence firsthand. I do not know whether I would be able to do anything in response — at least not in real-time.
The psychology of such a spectator crowd — what goes through their minds, how they process such events/tragedies, how they deal with the aftermath amongst themselves, how they might be brought to see things from a different perspective — has always interested me. It is also not something we get to understand from news reportage, which is focused on giving us the facts of the events and not much else.
So, with this story, I wanted to explore how a crowd gets to such a point where they can watch someone being assaulted, even killed, and do nothing. I wanted to understand how, afterward, this crowd might view its own co-conspiracy in such violence. The crowd is the collective protagonist, as you will gather from the first-person plural voice.
The actual main events of my story are entirely fictional. In fact, the village itself is fictional. However, like the Una, Gujarat flogging incident mentioned above and described in the story, I have also referenced a few other real-life acts of caste-related violence that have been reported or revisited in the last couple of years in Gujarat. While I am very interested in the religious and socio-political constructs that still drive casteism in present-day India, I have focused here on the aspects of human nature that allow us, collectively, to turn away in silence when witnessing injustice, violence, or murder — and what that might mean for us as communities/societies.
Oh, and here are 11 books/stories to read if you want to understand casteism in India.
An excerpt from the story:
A week after the protests in Una, when Vishaal Parmar drank a bottle of acid and killed himself, even the police could not be bothered to find their way to our tiny village of Saakarpada. If you are traveling along the Kodinar-Amreli Highway on a rare day clear of the smoke exhausting out of rattling trucks, tempo vans, and motorcycles, you might glimpse us hidden between the farthest fields. But you might also simply drive on by, unknowing and unseeing. We are so distant from all major roads, there is not even a sign pointing in our direction.
This anonymity does not bother us. Our few Dalit families have served in the fields of the upper caste families from before the Maratha cowards gave our state away to the British bastards. Unlike all of them, we have always honored the long-time, invisible borders keeping us to our side of the village and the upper castes to theirs—until the recent tragic events. And our Panchayat leaders are descended from long lines of Panchayatis themselves, so we do not need any outsiders to tell us how to manage these affairs.