A searing look at human depravity, Atharva Pandit’s debut novel shows how easily people get framed in India for crimes based on what they wear, and the religion they are born into

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Atharva Pandit’s debut novel Hurda is a blistering portrait of sexual violence in India, and the rottenness that has seeped into journalism. It takes its name from tender cobs of the jowar crop that are roasted in the open during chilly winter nights in rural Maharashtra. Ironically, Pandit’s fictional universe is so consistently disturbing that moments of tenderness seem few and far between. Read this novel, published by Bloomsbury India, at your own peril.

The year is 2013. On the afternoon of Valentine’s Day, three sisters from a village called Murwani, around 850 kilometres north-east of Mumbai, go missing from home. When Anisha, Sanchita and Priyanka — known for being a close-knit trio — are untraceable, their single mother and paternal grandfather head to the police station to file a complaint. The police inspector makes light of the family’s distress, and refuses to help. The following day, the bodies of those girls are found in a well. It appears that they were raped and murdered.

The hours leading up to this gruesome sight are depicted with an unsparing realism that is difficult to stomach. Pandit’s representation of village life is anything but idyllic. The girls are blamed for being up to no good, bunking, mingling with boys, and carrying expensive bags to school. Their mother is humiliated for not reining them in after her husband’s death. The cop has the audacity to make sexual advances at her when she is searching for her daughters. What makes things worse is the rumour that this woman occasionally practises black magic.

Violence against women in rural India

Chitranshu, a 25-year-old reporter and sub-editor from Mumbai, is sent to Murwani to write a weekend feature with a solid hook and some meaty quotes. He is not excited about journalism or this piece. In fact, he thinks that he does not even deserve to be a journalist. However, he goes on the trip as he does not have a choice. Thankfully, all his expenses will be reimbursed.

In this novel, Pandit — who has written for print and digital publications in the past — pulls out all the stops to show what parachute journalism in India often looks and feels like, including the harms that it inflicts on communities that become fodder for the news cycle. Locals are viewed merely as sources to extract material from rather than as human beings.

At a press conference in Murwani, Chitranshu meets Arvind — a local journalist working for the Nagpur-Yavatmal News Service that provides stories, quotes and photographs to newspapers in Delhi and Mumbai for a fee. He not only helps Chitranshu understand who’s who and how things work in Murwani but goes the extra mile. Arvind gets Chitranshu drunk, and promises to find him a local woman to have sex with. Chitranshu cannot believe his luck.

The horrendous part here, which will send shivers down your spine, is that the woman in this situation is kept in the dark about the plan. While she is having sex in the fields with Arvind at night, he excuses himself for a few minutes under the pretext of an urgency to answer nature’s call. Instead of returning to her, Arvind sends Chitranshu. The woman does not get to see Chitranshu’s face. She does not know that she has been raped until Arvind jokes about it.

Pandit’s novel serves as a powerful reminder of the #MeToo movement that broke the silence surrounding the pervasive sexual violence in media houses but did not do much for women in rural India and women who are marginalized by their caste, profession, and class background.

After getting his story, Chitranshu returns to Mumbai without remorse. He is thrilled to find that his weekend feature makes it to the front page. He moves on to the next assignment but there is no closure for the woman he violated, and for the mother and the grandfather of those three girls in Murwani whose bodies are found in the well. Six years later, after Chitranshu is accused of sexual harassment by a woman interning at his workplace, he makes his way back to Murwani to dig deeper into what happened with Anisha, Sanchita and Priyanka. At 31, he has quit journalism, and has failed at teaching journalism students. He is now writing a book.

A village steeped in misogyny

The author of Hurda constructs his novel by piecing together the narratives that Chitranshu gathers, records and transcribes after his two stints in Murwani — one in 2013, and the other in 2019. Pandit’s prose, therefore, captures multiple voices and viewpoints, and the cadences of everyday speech used by people in the village. It would be an understatement to say that the pages of the book are peppered with Marathi. English and Marathi bleed into each other, mimicking the nature of language use in real life outside dictionaries and classrooms.

Murwani comes across as a menacing place, rife with misogyny, homophobia, casteism and Islamophobia. The rule of law is close to non-existent, so goons, vigilantes and influential businessmen have a field day. Few people in the novel are truly horrified by the violence that Anisha, Sanchita and Priyanka had to experience at such a young age. Most of them are not interested in pursuing answers. The tragedy is a passing source of entertainment for their wagging tongues, and an opportunity to be milked by ambitious politicians. There are more colourful characters in this novel than the number of items in an unlimited Gujarati thali.

The two people who seem most deeply affected are Ajoba — the grandfather of those girls, who speaks to them in their absence using three dolls — and Priyanka’s best friend Janhavi, who mourns her loss by drawing pictures of all the good times that they spent together. Are they able to help Chitranshu track down the criminals? Is he even interested in justice, or does he simply want to write the book, earn accolades, and rehabilitate his reputation? What happens to the woman he raped in Murwani, and the intern he allegedly harassed in Mumbai?

Read this book to find out. Apart from a searing look at human depravity, this novel is also a wake-up call for those who are unwilling to see how easily people get framed in India for crimes based on what they wear, how they look, and the religion they are born into. Their innocence does not matter because perception makes the truth look pale in comparison.

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