The Heroine of the Slum
The ruthless defender of life.
The following is a true story from the book “Half the Sky,” which focuses on one of this era’s most pervasive human rights violations: the oppression of women and girls in the developing world. This is a summary of one story from the book and I’ve made revisions/tweaks to it.
***There is violence in this story.*** Please read at your own discretion.
Photo credit: Ron Hansen
Outside the city of Nagpur, India, is a slum called Kasturba Nagar.
People that live in this slum are called Dalits, or the “untouchables.” Dalits are members of the ‘lower-caste’ system. They live in shacks, can barely afford proper clothing, and their ditches smell of sewage.
Poverty and crime are so prevalent here that even the police are afraid to go in to help. Not like that makes much of a difference anyway… The police are rarely interested in protecting members of a low-caste system. They’ll often turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed in a slum made up of Dalits.
With lawlessness being so rampant in the slum of Kasturba Nagar, it was difficult to stand up against the gang members. Dalits that dared to rise against the gang risked theft, gang rape, or even murder. Despite those risks, one woman chose to stand against them.
That woman was Usha Narayane.
Crimes Committed by the “King of the Slum”
Akku Yadav was a higher-caste man who also lived in Kasturba Nagar.
For 15 long, dreaded years, Akku terrorized the Dalits by raping or killing anyone that challenged him. Rape was (and continues to be) stigmatizing to the reputation of a woman and her family. So much so that Akku knew he could count on the women and girls to stay quiet.
It didn’t stop there though.
Akku was VICIOUS with his attacks.
He once raped a woman right after her wedding. Another time he stripped a man naked and burned him with cigarettes, then forced him to dance in front of his 16-year-old-daughter.
Another time, he took a woman, Asho Bhagat, and tortured her by cutting off her breasts in front of her daughter and neighbours. Then, he cut her into pieces on the street so everyone could see what was left of her. One of the neighbors, Avinash Tiwari, was horrified by this and planned to go to the police. But, Akku butchered him as well.
That’s not all…
Once, he and his men gang-raped a woman, named Kalma, just ten days after she gave birth. She was so ashamed that she covered herself with kerosene and burned herself to death. The gang pulled another woman out of her house when she was seven months pregnant, stripped her naked, and raped her on the road in public view.
When one woman went to the police to report that she had been gang-raped by Akku and his gang, the police responded by gang-raping her themselves.
That’s how Akku earnt his reputation as “the king of the slum.”
How could the Dalits possibly escape this blood-thirsty world created by Akku Yadav? What choice did they have when the law wouldn’t even protect them? When quite the opposite, it would purposely prey on the weak? Where could they turn to for salvation? … Nowhere… and that’s the reality of millions, billions of people worldwide.
Tyranny Fears Education
Afraid of Akku and the risks of women or girls being alone, many Dalits pulled their daughters out of school and kept them at home. As a result, many women and girls in Kasturba Nagar continued to have no access to education.
But Usha Narayane was different.
Despite living in the slums, her parents had saved every single rupee they earned, and insisted that their daughter had an education. They knew this was the only way out of the slums.
Fortunately, that hard work paid off because Usha graduated with a degree in hotel management. Now, she was a 28-year old, educated woman with the confidence of a lion.
That’s the reason Usha’s family had been the only family that Akku didn’t torment as much — because he worried their education would make them too effective at filing complaints with the police authorities.
…Little did he know how correct he would be…
The Day Usha’s Life Changed
When Usha was preparing to take a hotel job in another city, she went back home to Kasturba Nagar to visit her family. That was the day that changed her life forever.
On this day, Akku raped a 13 year-old girl. Feeling arrogant about his achievement, he and his gang went to Usha’s next-door neighbour, Ratna Dungiri, and demanded money. For no other reason than he felt celebratory and this was his messed up way of celebrating. The gang members also destroyed Ratna’s furniture and threatened to kill her family.
When Usha came home, Ratna told her everything that had happened. Usha couldn’t stand this and encouraged Ratna to go to the police but Ratna was too afraid. Why would she ever feel safe going to the police? In her life, she’d never seen the police on her side.
So, Usha decided to take matters into her hands. She went to the police to file a complaint — a brave endeavour, but an easy task for an educated woman.
The police then told Akku about the allegations made against him, and he was livid.
War Declared on Usha
Furious, Akku and 40 gang members showed up at Usha’s house. Akku held a bottle of acid as he shouted for Usha. He yelled:
“You withdraw the complaint and I won’t harm you!”
To protect herself, Usha barricaded the door. She yelled back saying she’d never, ever, ever give in. Though she was showing such great bravery, she was afraid for her life.
She called the police — who said that they would come — but they never did. Meanwhile, Akku kept shouting and hitting the door:
“I’ll throw acid on your face, and you won’t be in a position to file any more complaints. If we ever meet you, you don’t know what we’ll do to you. Gang rape is nothing. You can’t imagine what we’ll do to you.”
Usha shouted back with all the strength and shaky courage she could summon, but all Akku replied with were graphic descriptions of how he would rape her, burn her with acid, and then kill her.
Eventually, the gang members tried to break into the house. Desperate to keep them away, Usha turned on the gas the family used for cooking and grabbed a match.
“You break into the house, I’ll light the match and blow us all up. Back off, or you’ll get blown up!”
When the men could smell the gas, they began to back away.
While all this was playing out in real-time, word on the street spread like wildfire. The Dalits began to feel something inside of themselves that they hadn’t felt in a very long time: hope.
They felt so proud of Usha — of her education, her success, and her bravery. At this precise moment, she was symbolizing hope. Hope that devil could be taken down from his almighty throne.
So, the thought that Akku might kill Usha scared them. She was their hope and possibly, their savior. Plus, they thought if Akku could hurt Usha — who was more educated than them — then there was no hope left of them.
When they saw Usha fight against Akku and his gang, the Dalits picked up sticks and stones and threw them at Akku’s men, who began to back away. The Dalits then walked down the streets and made their way to Akku’s house to burn it to the ground.
Akku then went to the police who arrested him for his own protection. They told Akku they’d only release him once the Dalits calmed down.
Eventually We Pay The Consequences
A bail hearing was scheduled in Nagpur. Allegedly, Akku was appearing in court, but would be released on a corrupt bargain deal…
Hearing this, between 200-400 Dalit women gathered together and marched from Kasturba Nagar (the slum) to Nagpur (the big city) with the “high-ceilinged grant courtroom with its marble floor and faded British grandeur” (source).
Being poor and illiterate, the Dalit women felt inferior and weak in their sandals and old saris. But they still sat down near the front of the court — a place they knew would never defend their own basic human rights.
By about 2:30 pm, Akku walked into the court.
He walked in looking all cocky and confident. He made fun of the women who were there becase he knew the legal system wasn’t ever set up for them. There was no way for them to win.
Suddenly, he saw a woman he’d raped sitting there. He called her a prostitute and told her he’d rape her again. Outraged, she rushed towards him and hit him on the head with a slipper:
“This time, either I will kill you or you will kill me!”
Once she said those words, it was OVER…
All the women came forward and encircled Akku. They shouted and screamed and threw stones at him. Some pulled chili powder from their pockets and threw it at Akku’s face. Overwhelmed by the crowd, the police ran away.
All alone, Akku began pleading for mercy.
“Forgive me! Forgive me! I won’t do it again.”
The women pulled out their knives, passed them around, and stabbed him. Each woman had agreed to stab him at least once. In retaliation for having cut off Asho’s breasts, the women cut off Akku’s penis.
After 15 minutes, Akku, the 32-year old “king of the slum” had been killed by the women he terrorized.
The “King of the Slum” Is Dead
With blood on the courtroom floor, the women then headed back to Kasturba Nagar to tell their husbands and fathers they had killed Akku.
The slum was so happy it broke out into a full-blown celebration! The Dalits pulled money out of their savings to buy lamb and sweets and they shared fruits with each other, put on music, and danced in the streets.
There was of course, still a major problem. The police had arrested Usha because it seemed as if the attack on Akku was carefully planned and executed by her (even though she could prove that she actually wasn’t at the court).
The Dalit women decided that if they all said they were responsible for the murder then no one woman could be blamed. If hundreds of women each had stabbed Akku Yadav once, then no single stab could have been the fatal one, right?
“We all killed him. Arrest us all!”
The police eventually released Usha.
Fortunately, the killing highlighted the oppression the women (and Dalits) had experienced in the slum of Kasturba Nagar. Bhau Vahane, a retired high court judge, vouched for the women saying
“In the circumstances they underwent, they were left with no alternative but to finish Akku. The women repeatedly pleaded with the police for their security. But the police failed to protect them.”
Oddly, one of the conditions for Usha’s release was that she must remain in the area. (Why? I don’t know…). That was the day her long-awaited career as a hotel manager ended.
Stuck in the slums, she began her new life as a community organizer where she now uses her management skills to bring the Dalits together to make pickles, clothing, and other products to sell in the markets.
She wants the Dalits to start businesses and earn more money so that one day they can afford to get educated.
If anyone enters the slum asking for Usha (as many journalists and reporters now do), the Dalits will never reveal where her house is or which of the women she is because they are protecting what is noble, true and just… the heroine of the slum.
The Dalits are All of Us
When I finished reading this story, I could not believe what I’d just read. I was FLOORED.
There were three things that stood out to me from this story:
It was inspiring to see how one person can spark hope in a whole community. And how powerful that hope can be in creating change. Communities need role models - and that’s exactly what Usha became.
“Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” — Shawshank Redemption
It was also incredible to see how education can fill us with bravery, to see the possibilities beyond the status quo, to do the right thing and to fight tyranny. Usha’s parents were right - education is the way out.
More importantly, though, it reminded me that while a woman is the giver of life, she also has a powerful desire to protect it. A woman is peace, love, kindness, intuition, wisdom, and nurture. But push her to her limit, and she is also the ruthless defender of life.
This story is from the book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” by Pulitzer Prize winners (and journalists) Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I highly recommend this book!