Book Review: The Orders Were To Rape You

Trigger Warning: Mentions of sexual violence and genocide

In Purananuru, an anthology of four hundred Tamil poems written by more than 152 poets between the first and third centuries C.E., emperors were exalted. Their wisdom, and their valour in war were celebrated. But women were assigned certain roles. They were the martyrs’ mothers, widows, and daughters. Did women do anything other than beating their breasts, and wailing?

But in the Tamil Eelam war, women were on the front line, wielding weapons, brandishing courage, and battling to take back the land that belonged to them. The oppressors quelled their spirit by unleashing sexual violence on them, and on hundreds and hundreds of civilians who were displaced, and dehumanised.

In Meena Kandasamy’s The Orders Were To Rape You, the Tigresses, the female fighters of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, share their stories reluctantly first, and freely later in their poems. Every page is a lament. Every story is a reminder to challenge patriarchy, to not turn away when waylaid by injustice, and to question the Tamil moral universe that hurls misogynistic judgement on survivors.

Women raped as a weapon of war are potent tools for political mobilisation and grandstanding oratory, but in everyday life, they are viewed with derision, suspicion, shame.

Meena Kandasamy constantly asks herself, and the reader, why should the survivors be asked to live through their trauma again by relating their stories? Some of them choose to give words to their stories because they want Justice. But when will they receive it?

This essay is an exercise in intimacy. It questions why women on the margins have to trade in trauma for a chance to be heard.

When Meena Kandasamy was a teenager, she ‘lusted after’ the Tigresses, she confessed in her essay. A teenage girl, whose wings were clipped by the patriarchy entrenched in her own support system, would naturally be inspired by the images of women, wading through the woods, with AK47 in their hands, and reclaiming everything that is rightfully theirs. Tamil liberation was directly linked with Meena Kandasamy’s freedom from everything that incarcerated her in the Indian society. The Tigresses were here idols. But, after she met them in flesh, the images in her mind receded to the background.

Meeting a female Tiger in the flesh broke my own naive carnivalisation of war. When I encountered these women personally, the image I had constructed of female militancy shattered. Nothing had prepared me to brace for the reality that these powerful women would be so vulnerable.

In the first portion of the book, Meena Kandasamy writes about the documentary project which later turned into this essay. The passages in which she explored the differences between presenting the survivors’ stories on a screen, and through words, were particularly poignant. In the second portion of the book, Meena Kandasamy introduces the reader to poets who resisted across the globe. Their works are replete with metaphors of graveyard, dry lands, death, and pain, accentuating the truth that injustice somewhere is injustice everywhere.

I see the book’s cover, and think of the poetry and pain in it. There are silhouettes of women lunging. There are rifles in their hands. When I focus on the cover softly, I see blotches of blood. Blood is omnipresent in the lives of Tigresses. When they went to war, they were killed, and violated. When they stayed back, they were still violated, and tortured. When they fled the war, the violations took unimaginable forms in foreign lands. I am often told that bodies are our only homes, and we should look after it. And the more I read about gender-based violence, I realise that bodies are not homes; they are cages. How can something feel like home when there is no safety and freedom!