Like many fictions, this novel too is based partially on facts, some of which may already be known to the reader via media coverage.
My novel, however, is intensely personal. The characters took birth instantaneously when the nude photograph of a young girl crashed into my life - on May 16, 1992 by way of ‘Dainik Navjyoti’ - a local Hindi paper published from Ajmer. Her eyes were blotted out. Fully dressed men with lascivious eyes flanked her on either side, fondling a breast each. Her hair was plaited into neat braids. Dirty Picture is about that girl; the eyes I created for her; the two men in the photograph; what I read in their expressions; and other imaginary characters.
Some events described in the novel did take place.
In April 1992 ‘Dainik Navjyoti’ broke the story of a ‘sex-scandal’ in Ajmer. It named influential men, most of them from the minority community of Muslims. They had been coercing several schoolgirls into sex. They had taken photographs and made video films of the act, the report alleged.
The way the scandal was written and read in Ajmer tells its own story. The first signed article in the press came out on April 22. The authorities seemed unmoved. The newspaper went on to publish two subsequent reports supported by photographs on May 15 and 16. The photographs shocked ordinary citizens - to the extent that many petitioned the newspaper to stop publishing more - but the authorities were still not convinced of the need to take action. In a press conference the Home Minister of Rajasthan admitted to the newspaper that he had seen 75-100 similar nude photographs one and a half months ago. The Deputy Inspector General of Police, Ajmer range, who was also present at the same conference, corroborated his statement saying that the police had arrested four of the involved men under ‘disruption of peace’ in April but had to release them on bail after two days. The police chief tried to explain away the situation by lamenting the limitations of police power. The police can only act after a complaint or an F.I.R, not on the basis of press reports.
People of Ajmer took to the streets. There were bandhs and demonstrations by various organisations. Allegedly to prevent a communal riot breaking out in the traditionally somnolent town, the authorities invoked the National Security Act (NSA) and arrested eight of the men named in the press reports on May 27, 1992. The NSA was in all probability being used in the context of a sex-crime for the first time.
During the long and protracted court cases that followed eight more arrest warrants were issued, several petitions to extradite the accused who had fled to foreign countries made, and one of the accused - claiming to be falsely implicated - committed suicide.
The mood of the authorities seemed to swing from helpless passivity to active vengefulness. Turning down the appeal for bail application of some of the accused the Jaipur Bench of the High Court observed in 1994, “The modus opprendi [sic] of the exploiters had been to trap innocent girls under false allurements and friendship, then they were sexually forced under terror or even by use of force and their obscene snaps were taken to blackmail them in future. Some girls were blackmailed to the extent of bringing other girls for the exploiters. The magnitude of the scandal can be visualised by the fact that it had rocked the State of Rajasthan and its impact was felt all over the country.”
The Ajmer District and Sessions court gave its judgement in May 1998 holding eight men guilty and sentenced them to life-imprisonment.
To me, however, the guilt seems pervasive, the crime, continuing. I was born and brought up in Ajmer. Although based in Delhi at that time as now, I experienced the Ajmer scandal close to the bone: the doubts, the slander, the cynicism, the heart-breaking conclusions. During my visits around the time the stories were coming out in the press and for a long period after that, I would hear people talk about the ‘scandal’. This is what I heard: ‘Ajmer tapes’ are still freely available in the blue-film circuit. Muslim men consider it their obligation to ‘spoil’ Hindu girls. The real culprits have escaped; the arrested men are scapegoats. The real culprits are bureaucrats and politicians; the arrested men are scapegoats. Why did the girls keep going back to their tormentors? Could it be that they were enjoying the sex act? Certain Hindu sub-communities have issued whips against their boys marrying girls from Ajmer. Three of the girls involved in the sex scandal have committed suicide. It wasn’t suicide; the families murdered their girls to escape the stigma. What else could they have done?
I tried to investigate. In 1996 I met the journalist who had broken the story in the Hindi language paper. Santosh Gupta impressed me as being courageous, forthright, and progressive in his outlook. I went through the statements the girls had submitted in court. I watched a video-clip. I spoke to one of the lawyers who had represented the accused. I had a conversation with my reluctant mother who was the Vice Principal of Savitri Girls College, Ajmer at the time of the scandal. I interviewed a police constable. I read all the articles in the press I could lay my hands on. I wanted to meet the victims but my contact Santosh Gupta refused help, “They are trying to build a new life. Some of them have got married. They don’t want to talk about the past.”
The message was clear: decent people do not dwell on the dirty picture. The purdah of shame had been draped; I was being told off. The police constable had mentioned the burning of many photographs in the police station to protect the identity of the daughter of a senior police officer. The decision of the newspaper to not publish any more photographs, the arrest of the accused under NSA and the effort to prevent a foraging of the presumably ‘salacious’ past in order to facilitate new lives for the girls were meant in the same vein.
My novel is an attempt to go beyond the purdah and reveal what festers within.