The girls hurried through the forest, dragging the reptile behind them. The ground was moist from a sharp burst of unseasonable rain, and the bloodied carcass was soon coated with mud. It was a cold evening in January, but the girls were barefoot. They had bludgeoned the animal with bamboo sticks and were giddy with the anticipation of savoring the fresh meat. They argued logistics all the way home. If they roasted the meat on an outdoor fire, as they would like to, they would attract the envy of the entire village. They lived in Subalpur, a forested neck of land in a remote corner of Birbhum district, located some 120 miles north of Kolkata in West Bengal, India. Few of the people they knew could afford to eat more than once a day. "Aren't you alone tonight, Baby?" one of them said, turning to an older girl. They all knew that Baby lived with her mother, who was away visiting Baby's brother in another village. "Why don't we cook this fellow in your house?"
Twenty-year-old Baby was a fairly new addition to this group of friends. A few of them dismissed her as aloof, but others liked her because she was stylish. She wore salwar kameezes to work, same as all the girls, but she piled on glass bangles and oxidized silver chains, so that her wiry little frame jangled with mischief as she moved. Sweet-smelling flowers spilled out of her kinky, bunned hair. But now she lagged behind the group, preoccupied. Baby was the only woman in Subalpur who owned a mobile phone — a no-brand device that she was always using to call or text someone. Some months earlier, the curious girls had confronted her about the texts. She was messaging a man, she told them, with a note of challenge in her voice. He was handsome, he was good to her. He even bought her groceries.
The girls knew Khaleque Sheikh, who lived in the nearby village of Chouhatta. He worked with them on the construction site, where they were helping to build the area's first high school. The young women hauled spires of bricks and mud out of trucks that arrived at the site, in steel pans they balanced on their heads with practiced nimbleness. Then Khaleque and the other masons laid down the bricks in cement.
Baby looked up distractedly to answer the question about her house. "Oh no," she said, waving the girls away. "Your brother-in-law is visiting tonight." Baby was about as related to the girls as she was married to Khaleque, but the villagers liked to think of themselves as a family. Baby was also convinced that it was only a matter of time before Khaleque asked her to marry him.
Facts suggested otherwise: For all his mooning over Baby, thirty-eight-year-old Khaleque didn't seem inclined to divest himself of his wife Haseena, with whom he had two children, or to take a second wife. Khaleque's daughter was only four years younger than Baby.
Confronted with a circle of disappointed faces, Baby sighed aloud. "Why don't I give you some oil to fry the meat in?" she said. The girls grinned mischievously. "What will you do all alone with Khaleque?" someone smirked.
The girls didn't think much of the mason. It wasn't just that he was a hairy fellow with a slinking air, or even that he was married. The villagers actually had liberated ideas about sex. Young men and women in Subalpur could have relationships before marriage, and widows were not condemned to live out their lives as social outcasts. But sex with someone like Khaleque was a different matter. The villagers of Subalpur belonged to an indigenous tribe called the Santhals, and they considered all non-tribals, even fellow Bengalis, as diku: outsiders. To enter into a relationship with a diku was out of the question. Khaleque was also a Muslim. The perceived foreignness of Muslims lent them a patina of untrustworthiness.
When news spread of the affair, Baby had been told by dozens of people to end it, the villagers said. She bluntly refused. "Whom I love is my business," she snapped. Baby has just left behind her teenage years, and she was small-statured, with a round, deceptively child-like face, but her composure was far beyond that of her years. When she and the villagers tangled, they grew angrier and angrier as she only grew cold. Her reaction was so unnerving that the villagers would later reference it as proof that she was capable of telling extreme lies under pressure.
The villagers' outrage grew, and they responded that there was no "I" in Subalpur. If Baby wanted to live among them, she would have to live like them. As they closed ranks in their dislike of her behavior, Khaleque's routine arrival— jaunty, smiling, and loaded down with gifts of vegetables, lentils, and rice for his young lover—became a source of rising anger.
On January 20, 2014, the day the girls killed the reptile, that anger boiled over. By the time the villagers were through, Baby would allege that thirteen men had raped her on the orders of the most powerful person in Subalpur. The charge would trigger a backlash among Santhals frustrated from centuries of being marginalized, provoke despair in an India reeling from a series of gang rapes, and make headlines around the world.
Excerpted from "13 Men" by Sonia Faleiro (Deca)