A girl muses over her own reflection on a highly polished table, an image which stays with you while you read her story. After the book is read, you continue to see the image, even as its poignancy hits you. For Onaatah – of the earth, portrayed through the sensitive pen of Paulami DuttaGupta is a narrative dedicated to the daughters of the earth, many of whom go through the throes of suffering, and emerge, phoenix-like, stronger than ever. The process is difficult, the path thorny, but often, their own strength, and the strength of those around, aid them to regain their faith in humanity.
So it is with Onaatah, an overworked nurse, with a non-existent social life, who remarks that good old Shillong “is the most peaceful city I could think of”. She has everything to look forward to... a satisfying career, Peter, her fiancé, who appears to dote on her and a hazy idea of overturning the tradition of having her husband live in her house after marriage. They decide to live in a cosy little flat, much to the horror of Peter’s mother who laments that this young generation is hell-bent on changing customs.
One evening, Onaatah is returning home after administering an injection to her friend, Sarah’s, mother. Unable to find a taxi, she decides to walk home. “Onaatah had always found stories in these roads. The shadows of old pine trees, the old houses and new buildings, the lampposts... all of them had stories, experiences of years. Who knew Shillong more than them?”
Amidst these pleasant thoughts, in a split-second, her life turns around, as brutality and violence reign supreme. In that one moment, all her dreams come crashing to the ground, as she herself does.
Many vital questions are asked in the book, many by men themselves. Mr. Kharpuri, Onaatah’s grief-stricken father, asks the men who have saved his daughter’s life, “Every time I see a woman going through sexual violence, I wonder why are we men not revolting? Why do we let men get away?” How often have we heard the very same words repeated by men who have undergone similar tragedies?
Onaatah comes across as a strong-willed girl who relives the nightmare often, but shows the courage to fight for justice, not just for herself, but for the sisterhood as well. Her family stands by her, trying to keep up a brave front, but Peter and his mother react predictably enough. Peter tries to make her “see sense”.
“See, Onaatah, in our society a murderer or a terror suspect is accepted but... not a rape victim. People will tear you apart.” He is just a symbol of a patriarchal society that puts the blame, as well as the shame, on women.
Unable to accept the sympathy in people’s eyes, or douse the screams within her mind, she waits till the perpetrators are booked. However, everyday something breaks within her, and she tells herself, “I cannot live with a version of myself that I can’t relate to.”
Luckily she has a place to seek refuge in, as she takes a trip to her Uncle Khrawbor’s village, a home that she has always loved, where her Uncle and her Aunt have always treated her like their own, bubbling over with positivity.
It is in this tiny village, where her Uncle is the headman, that Onaatah’s process of healing begins, as she slips into a simpler lifestyle. Many interesting characters come into her life; the resourceful Duh with his passion for music, his practical grandmother who is always ready with sound advice, Charming, the bubble-headed young man who meanders his way towards responsibility, his lady-love, the charming Dariti, and the enigmatic yet optimistic Dondor, who teaches Onaatah the essence of life through his way of living it. Dondor comes across as one of the most interesting characters here.
It is also here that she realizes that problems are universal, and the dilemmas of family honour, marrying out of community and fixed mindsets are as acute, even in tiny villages. However, as she lives amongst folks who accept her for what she is, she discovers a silent power within herself. She forges new relationships and finds a whole new family in the village.
Many harsh truths are enunciated in the book. “Rape is a part of our culture. Rape jokes, rape analogies and raped bodies – we have silently accepted all of it,” Onaatah says to Destina, a family friend and lawyer. An even sadder thought arises in her mind. “A rape victim is already dead for the society.”
However, Onaatah climbs gradually from despair and frustration, to a state of mind in which she accepts that she needs to move on. She regains her faith, aware that life is too short to bear grudges. When she finally crosses the dark tunnel, and emerges bathed in light, a survivor and not a victim, she becomes an inspiration for myriads. And that is the true triumph of the novel, and its creator.
Onaatah is the book adaptation of a National Award winning film in Khasi. The trailer of the movie is picturesque and heartwarming.