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IRONICALLY, JUST AT the time Kiranjit Ahluwalia’s case came to the attention of Southall Black Sisters, I was taking refuge from the shrapnel flying from the break-up of my own long- term relationship. I had asked to be excused from SBS work, and it was not until Kiranjit’s campaign was in full swing in 1992 that I had recovered my sense of perspective enough to want to be involved again.
My main role was writing, designing and organising the printing of some of the publicity materials for the campaign — posters and leaflets — in the cheapest way possible. I also wrote a piece and read it on ‘Comment’, the slot after the Channel 4 seven o’clock news, in the heady days leading up to Kiranjit’s appeal. All this while, the Kiran in my mind was the one in the only photo of her that seemed to be in circulation. But the Kiran I saw in the dock during the appeal - young and stylish and bent over with the weight of the entire world — was unexpected.
As luck would have it, on the day of her release, I was in bed with a bad back and my eyes streaming with tears because I couldn’t be at court to share the joyful outcome of years of hard work. Nor at all the celebrations immediately after.
Southall Black Sisters, a group of Asian and African- Caribbean women, came together in 1979 to campaign on a variety of issues affecting black women — most famously against the virginity tests being carried out on Asian brides by the immigration authorities. In 1983 SBS became a funded organisation, opened a women’s centre and started doing day—to-day casework — mainly with women fleeing domestic violence but also on other issues such as welfare benefits advice, housing and immigration problems. Until Kiranjit’s case, SBS had run campaigns about women who had been killed by their husbands or pushed into committing suicide. Kiranjit seemed a natural extension — a woman who had escaped domestic violence in her own way.
At SBS we had been talking about a book to record the struggle, and perhaps another analysing the issues piggy—backing on Kiranjit’s own story. Kiran herself was keen to participate, but first she had to sort out more important things like housing and the custody of her children. She was torn between wanting to inspire women trapped in brutal relationships and the pressure from her relatives to fade into obscurity and regain her status as ordinary citizen. We ourselves were galvanised into action only when Kiranjit met the Princess of Wales at the reopening of the Chiswick Refuge. The Princess advised her to write a book, all the press covered the story, and hacks of all shapes and sizes chased her to offer their services.
None of us wanted the story to be sensationalised. Besides, Kiran’s English would not quite mould itself to the “words from the heart’ that were waiting to tumble out. I approached a number of publishers, quite a few of whom showed interest. Kiranjit wavered from day to day, keenly interested in the book on one day and then, just as we thought we had an agreement, backing down again. Her newly acquired confidence, born of the campaign and successful appeal, was battling with the old uncertainties and nervousness. Finally, we were ready to go.
I started visiting Kiranjit once or twice a week. It was winter. She couldn’t afford to heat her house all day, so I would huddle up in a blanket and overcoat and warm my hands on a regular supply of hot Indian tea (boiled with ginger, cardamoms and cloves). We would stop only for Kiran’s delicious meals. We taped approximately eighty hours of conversation. The pain of her memories had not been dulled by the endless repetition of her tale to psychiatrists, lawyers, probation officers, social workers and others. She would sob like a child as she relived the cruelty and humiliation of her life with Deepak. She would drag me into her pain and we would weep together. She would then brighten up and ask me half affectionately, half mockingly, if I was enjoying the Hindi film (known for their tear-jerking qualities).
There were many things that Kiran could not remember or did not understand — tantalising bits of information which could round off the picture for the reader. Some of them I picked up from the hundreds of tiles and letters I have waded through. At the risk of disrupting the flow, I have put these in as inserts, because I did not want to tamper with the image of Kiranjit which emerges through her story.
Kiran wanted me to visit Crawley with her, meet some of the friends and relatives she had talked about, see the houses she had lived in and get a sense of geography and atmosphere to help me locate the events. We had picked a day in February when the roads were encrusted with heavy layers of snow, so we couldn’t make a quick getaway if Kiranjit was spotted by someone by whom she didn’t want to be recognised. When we drove into Crawley police station so that Kiran could show me the cell where she had been kept before she was transferred to Holloway, a policeman walked past, waved and said, “Hello, Mrs. Ahluwalia. All right? Kiran squirmed and tried to sink into oblivion. He was apparently one of the officers who had interviewed her immediately after the incident.
A gradual trust and friendship grew between us. We made jokes about killing and arson. She told me that her stock answer to the question about marital status on forms was ‘self—made widow’, and we hooted with laughter. On one occasion, when Kiranjit was relating how she felt haunted by Deepak after his death, the tape-recorder started sizzling ominously. Dissolving into nervous giggles, we switched it off and on in rapid succession, but were unable to get rid of the sizzle. Lust as we were beginning to feel well and truly frightened, I turned the tape recorder upside down and a few drops of tea dripped out. The imbalance of power, in which she was obliged to confide the most intimate details of her life whereas I was under no such obligation, riled Kiranjit. She would want to trade information, refusing to continue until I had answered a personal question.
I was therapist, confidante, careers adviser and debt counselor all rolled into one. Kiran would share her worries about her children, and would speculate about how her life might have been if she had done things differently at various turning points; she would feel consumed by guilt one day, thankful for her freedom on another. She needed to know that in one sense she could have done no differently, that she was brought to this point by the society which gave birth to her. She has come a long way.
Back of the Book
Now a major motion picture starring Aishwarya Rai as Kiranjit, Nandita Das, Naveen Andrews, Miranda Richardson and Robbie Coltrane.
Born into a privileged family in India, Kiranjit Ahluwalia came to England in 1979 to be married to a man she hardly knew. The next ten years were to be a nightmare of almost daily, physical, mental and sexual violence at the hands of her husband. There was no one she could turn to for help and support. Domestic violence was a taboo subject for many Asians in Britain, and family honour was at stake for anyone who went outside the family for help. Kiranjit, in desperation, killed the man who had tortured her for so long. Bewildered, poorly advised and speaking little English, she was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. In prison, she unexpectedly found a degree of freedom she had never known in the outside world. for the first time she was safe from beatings and abuse, and was able to enjoy the friendship and solidarity of other women who were in a similar situation.
Meanwhile, a campaign organized by Southall Black Sisters, a women’s group operating on a shoestring budget to draw attention to her plight, was gathering momentum. Media coverage of her case had made Kiranjit something of a ‘cause celebre’, and she attracted many prominent supporters, including Diana, Princess of Wales who urged her to write this book. She was released amid scenes of rejoicing in September 1992 when her conviction for murder was reduced to manslaughter on appeal. Regina v Ahluwalia has become legal history because it was a landmark ruling that paved the way for other women in Kiranjit’s situation to win justice.
|1||In the Bowels of Holloway||3|
|2||Let Him R.I.P.||18|
|3||A Kind of Freedom||28|
|5||Looking for a Gilded Cage||55|
|6||The Cage Closes||67|
|7||Upstairs and Downstairs||82|
|9||Nowhere to Run||102|
|10||Turning the Tables||116|
|11||Beginnings and Endings||129|
|12||Lies, Ties and Suicide||145|
|13||Teaspoons to Double Glazing||158|
|14||The Storm Clouds Gather||176|
|15||A Circle of Light||190|
|16||Another Life Sentence||216|
|17||Campaign and Be Damned||236|
|18||My Faith Returns||253|
|19||Through the Eye of a Needle||282|
|20||High on Hope||304|
|Epilogue: The SBS Story||322|