How to Get Away With Murder in Small-Town India

Thursday: A Grim Rumor

While reporting in Peepli Khera, I often set myself up at the home of a woman named Anjum, who lived next to a hand pump for water and therefore served as a clearinghouse for gossip.

I was lounging there when I heard that a woman had been killed last year, bludgeoned to death by her husband in front of at least a dozen people.

Anjum said the woman’s screams had woken her from a deep sleep, and she stumbled through the dark to the neighbor’s house, some 20 feet away. The woman, Geeta, was cowering in a neighbor’s bathroom, a U-shaped enclosure used for showering, while her husband brought a bamboo stick down on her, again and again, she told my colleague Suhasini, who was translating.

“I dragged her out to protect her,” Anjum said. “No one was protecting her. Everyone was just watching.”

But when Anjum stepped away, Geeta’s husband — a slight man named Mukesh — stood above Geeta, who was slumped on the side of a rope cot, and brought the stick down on her head several more times. She died on the spot.

What bothered Anjum, she said, was that the police had been contacted about the killing but almost immediately closed their investigation, releasing Mukesh after a few hours.

In fact, just the day before my visit, Mukesh had remarried, to a girl who was lighter-skinned and taller than the dead woman, and he kept driving his new wife around on the back of his motorcycle, showing her off.

Mukesh’s brother, Bablu, happened to be hanging around Anjum’s, and he said his brother had caught Geeta cheating and had killed her.

“He was sad,” he said of his brother. “But then yesterday he got another one. So why would he be sad?”

We drove to the nearest police station, a few miles away, and a young constable, Jahangir Khan, was sent out to speak to us. He was carrying a rifle whose butt was held together with wire — he reckoned it dated to “the time of Hitler” — and he said he could tell that I was American because my nose shook when I talked, a national characteristic he had observed while watching James Bond films.

What follows is an abridged version of our conversation:

Constable: She was sleeping on the terrace. She woke up to urinate. So there was a wooden staircase, a makeshift wooden staircase made of bamboo. Her leg slipped when she was coming down the staircase. She got hurt in the head.

Reporter: Didn’t her injuries suggest something more violent?

Constable: When you are hit by a stick, you will just be hit on one spot on your head and you will die. But when you fall off a staircase, you will not just get hit on the head. She had seven or eight marks on her body, which means she was not hit with a stick but she fell down the stairs.

Reporter: It seems unusual to get that kind of head injury falling down the stairs. You might break your neck.

Constable: When you fall off the stairs you will get bruised all over.

Reporter: Didn’t the neighbors tell you that she was beaten?

Constable: Some of the neighbors said the husband had killed her. But the wife was fine. She was strong and well fed and happy, and she had two kids. She was healthy, plump, like you.

After a while, the constable indicated that he had no more time to discuss the case. As he left, he turned back to me.

“This is the trick that foreign countries like yours are playing,” he said. “You will write something. People will read what you write, and say, ‘This country will progress only after 100 years.’”

Photo

A family photo showing Mukesh and Geeta.

Friday: Visiting the Killer

I had a degree of sympathy for the constable on his last point.

Over the past decade, in Russia and then India, I have been asked versions of this question hundreds of times: Who are you to come here and tell us what is wrong with our system? And it’s true, the whole enterprise of foreign correspondence has a whiff of colonialism. During the years I have worked abroad, Americans’ interest in promoting their values in the world has receded, slowly and then precipitously. I doubted the regional hegemons filling the vacuum would do better, but still, I wasn’t sure it was such a bad thing.

I worried, as the constable suggested, that I wrote too much about violence. In India, in particular, where millions of people move out of extreme poverty every year, there is a great deal to be hopeful about — the transformation that comes with mobile phone and internet access, or with young women cashing their first paychecks, or even something like installing a family’s first air-conditioner.

I wrote those stories, too, but the move from dire poverty to ordinary poverty is subtle and difficult to capture. Violence writes itself.

Peepli Khera

Uttar

Pradesh

BANGLADESH

But there was also this: I had spoken to two young women who lived in the courtyard where Mukesh killed his wife. The next day, they crouched on the ground and used their hands to mop up the blood. They then covered the whole courtyard with a thin layer of cow dung, which hardens into something like plaster.

New wives occupy the lowest rung in the family hierarchy, which means that when food is scarce young women do not eat, even if they are pregnant. Caste rules forbid them to sit on chairs or cots if higher-ranking people are present, which is pretty much all the time, so I interviewed them the way I always did: me sitting on a cot, them crouched at my feet, looking up at me from the ground.

When I asked about Geeta’s killing, the older daughter-in-law answered quietly, because her answer did not line up with the village consensus.

“It was wrong,” she said. “What happens now if my husband beats me?”

We found Mukesh on his terrace with his new wife, slicing okra. My heart was racing as we climbed the stairs, but it needn’t have: When we asked him whether he had killed his wife, he told us in detail how he had done it. The new wife said she believed Geeta had deserved to be killed and Mukesh should not worry himself about it.

The new wife was excited because she was cooking on a gas stove, the one Geeta had signed up for before her death. At first it frightened her, but Mukesh had helped her light it, she said, blushing. She was enjoying wearing Geeta’s jewelry and using her makeup.

She seemed grouchy about one thing, which was that her in-laws had told her she would have to answer to a new name after the wedding. Her name was now Geeta.

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