I read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in college – Room#21, Presidency College, in the heart of North Calcutta, the heartland of the Bengalis. As Professor Bose read out excerpts, our world seemed to changed – the white sun glinting in the tram tracks dulled, a cloud spread like blotting ink in the starched, pristine kurtas the men wore in the second-hand bookseller’s market – small Bengali men, in horn-rimmed glasses who softly whispered their wares.
Here too, in this HDB heartland the pace is slow – a slow, laboured return from the wet market, trundle of trolleys on rusty wheels, rustling newspapers stretched across an entire morning like papered window panes to keep out the rain, voices of school children that don’t really disturb the stillness, a stillness that gathers like an ocean of dark water closing in overhead. And all the while you hear the breathing, the heavy pounding of the heartbeat.
But darkness was here yesterday.
With the silent swish of the electronic door closing behind you, you hear the determination, the determination to stem the flow, to cut through the clutter. To read the fine print hidden under the headline which whispers, no, all is not well in the heartland. The determination to turn around and hold her by the shoulders and say, no, this is not love. The trickling wound on your forehead is not love, the drooping head, the slump, the tremor in your voice in not what love looks like. And that there are always ways out of this, out of this Houdini’s box that has been chain-mailed and cast into an ocean of dark water, where you only hear your own breathing, the heavy pounding of heartbeat. Allow the box to be opened, come, let us pave your way.
And so, the walls of PAVE do not tell the saddest stories, of the shame of the slayer and the slayed. There is no darkness here. Instead, the white-painted walls give off light, light ricochets off the glasses of long-standing volunteers – the glass as it were a glittering star, lit from a blessed olive tree.* It falls on the rubble of fallen beliefs and shattered trust, forages among shreds of flesh and broken bones and promises a resurrection – a resuscitation of life and hope. A resuscitation of real family values and filial piety and above all love – love that is an organic coming together rather than a forced bondage of vengeful, domineering intimidation.
And thus, PAVE believes in integration, they pave the way. They believe in stitching back family units, suturing wounds with wise counselling, strengthening weak links with a lifetime of support. They believe in the integration of systems – the need to work with a cross-section of legislative, executive and judicial bodies; a slow, laborious process of integrating opinions and sharpening them to a point where only a single purpose remains visible. They believe in integration of generations – for when dark-eyed children come with their mother and listen in silence while she speaks of yet another night of unwarranted violence, it casts a long shadow. The wound remains – open and throbbing – perhaps never to be aired in public but always ensuring an exclusion from happiness.
And so, PAVE also believes in staying ahead of the cycle. While others speak of victims they extol survivors, while others celebrate the sanctity of family units, they point to the tortured obligations of putting up a united front; when others point to the Women’s Charter they shine their light on those disenfranchised by law;* when others speak of marital rape they speak of the children who are yet to learn how to protect themselves. And thus, they journey ahead and the pool of light expands. And as you exit through those electronic doors, into the world outside, you don’t dare to look too closely at faces, lest the mask crumbles, lest you read the fine print under the headlines and it is too difficult for you to handle. For you know, darkness was here yesterday.
*There was little protection for women outside marriage or for transnational marriages, their only recourse being the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) or in worst cases, the Penal Code.
– Ms Nilanjana Sengupta