Light a candle tonight

A few years back, I wrote a poem in response to a 2006 CBC Radio Ideas show about Dalits or untouchables. (See Rocksalt: An Anthology of Contemporary BC Poetry, Mother Tongue, 2008).

Mung Beans   (for Bujji Govinda)

A widow, she hitched a ride home from the market.
A fruit seller.
Two men in the cab of a truck. An old man on the bench in the back,
so she climbed in.

I would kill myself, she says, but what about my children?

The truck pulled over under a tree.
The driver and his companion told the other man to leave.
She knew then, she says, and she was afraid.
They spread her out on the hard bench
and did things to her for maybe an hour.

All rapes are the same, really, and each one is its own:
each man’s whiskers a different shade of hard
each man’s prick with its own insistent voice. One man’s knees
got sore and so they took her outside to the soft ground under the tree.
When they ran out of things to do they looked for other utensils.
That’s when she ran.

I pour mung beans into a jar and dust catches in the back of my throat.
I rinse the beans and pour the water down the drain
to find its way back outside into the ground.
The beans are not exactly round.
On one side there’s an umbilical scar: the hilum.
Just below its white indentation,
the radicle. This is the nub of the first root.
Nosing its way toward moisture, it splits the dark skin.

Washed and washed and washed again,
the bean meat swells. We eat the sprouts: the pale root,
the first leaves’ little flapping wings, and the dust from Bujji Govinda’s feet
running through the tangled vines. Mung beans, she says.
They tripped her and she fell.

She is a loose woman, the policemen say, to be hitching a ride like that
alone in the dark. What did she expect?
A Dalit.


When I heard about the young woman gang raped on a New Delhi bus and subsequently dying, I felt the despair many of us feel when we’ve been thinking and writing about these issues for many years. When I read about the Italian priest who wrote that women are partially responsible for domestic violence because they don’t cook and clean well enough and wear tight clothes, well, I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry.

So I did both, and sat down to write. By doing so, writers can only hope that our work, in some way, shines a light into these dark places. Two recent examples illustrate this.

Upon first reading, Shauna Singh Baldwin’s The Selector of Souls, a novel about Indian women struggling to find a way out of domestic violence and the impunity given to men who prey on the vulnerable and marginalized, seemed more fantasy that reality. But seeing the response to the young woman’s rape – the calls for systemic change both in attitudes and in the justice system – we can hope that Baldwin is just one of the lights shining in that darkness, helping make transformation possible.

Set in the 1980s, The Round House by Louise Erdrich highlights the similar ways in which First Nations women have been targeted for abuse and the lack of zeal in the search for the perpetrators. Wally Oppal’s report from the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry presented the evidence for this in Canada in distressing detail, but an earlier work by Maggie de Vries, Missing Sarah, that tells the story of her sister’s path to the downtown eastside of Vancouver and Willy Pickton’s farm, challenges our attitudes in a way that empowers us. And one thing you can be sure of, reports of missing women are not treated in the same cavalier attitude today.

Like many of us, these women are writing in what often feels like darkness. But, as Amnesty International says, it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.
Light one tonight.