13 Men by Sonia FaleIro

E-book, 71 pages
Publisher: Deca Stories (February 2015)
Language: English
Selected by Mary Mount

“A powerful piece of nonfiction from a brilliant young writer, showing us the reality of lives in rural India that are rarely visible to outsiders.”  —Mary Mount

When 20-year-old Baby returns from Delhi to West Bengal to care for her ailing mother, the people in her village shun her. But when she falls in love with Khaleque, an outsider and a Muslim, rural gossip explodes into shocking violence and Baby faces a moment beyond anyone’s worst fears. A work of literary nonfiction, of true crime, Sonia Faleiro’s 13 Men goes beyond journalism with this elegantly written and fearlessly reported account of one of India’s most shocking crimes.

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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 their prey with bamboo sticks and were giddy with the anticipation of savouring the fresh meat. They argued logistics all the way home.

If they roasted the meat on an outdoor fire, as they wanted to, they would attract the envy of the entire village. They1 lived in Subalpur, a forested neck of land in a remote corner of Birbhum district, located some 117 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 at your house2?” 

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 her wiry little frame jangled playfully 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. Out of trucks that arrived at the site, the young women hauled spires of bricks and mud 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 family3. 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, 38-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 who slunk around, 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.

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[1] “They” are the Santal people, members of an insular Indian tribe that, following recent improvements in infrastructure and communications, live in a state of social, political and cultural flux.

[2] According to a Guardian article about the case, Baby earned around £40 per month as a cook – far more than the villagers would make as day labourers.

[3] Santhal people are tribal in the truest definition of the word – trials and major decisions are made by group council and even deities are worshipped in groups. The group is valued highly above the individual. 

  • 13 Men
  • 13 Men