In the US, it’s a horrific massacre with guns. In India, it’s a nightmarish rape and beating of a young couple in a bus. In my years in these two countries I’ve called home, no crimes cause as great a surge of outrage, followed by anguished introspection, as ones like these do.
There’s outrage, but there’s no end to these atrocities. There may never be. In a two-week stretch last July, we saw an Indian assault on a woman and an American gun massacre. In a two-day stretch last week, we saw … an American gun massacre and an Indian assault on a woman.
Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, and now Sandy Hook: each triggers a blizzard of hand-wringing over gun control and that unresolvable debate about whether guns kill people or people do. Columnists suffer conniptions trying to identify the failings in American society that drive men to these atrocities. Overseas, we non-Americans shake our heads in wonder: “Random, meaningless acts of mass killing are rare elsewhere in the world and yet so common in the Us”, writes Ranjona Bannerjee in a recent column.
Rare, newsworthy, and yet you can bet other events will soon crowd the fallout of Sandy Hook off the headlines—though only until the next outburst of inexplicable slaughter. And if such shootings are what Americans agonize over far too often, we Indians find regular hysteria after our women are attacked.
This has happened in Bangalore, Mumbai, Mangalore, Guwahati … and just days ago, it happened like this in New Delhi: Men in a bus offer a ride to a young couple. They then drive around the city, including through police security obstacles. Clearly unmindful of any possible repercussions, the men rape and beat the woman with an iron rod. Eventually they throw the couple, stripped and unconscious, on the side of the road not far from Delhi’s airport. They have so badly beaten her that her intestines—her intestines, no less—have had to be removed and she is struggling for life in hospital.
One front page report has these words I am struggling to comprehend: she “faces the prospect of never being able to eat a meal if she survives.”
The depravity of this episode shook us all. For me, it was a reminder of a Monday morning a few years ago at Mumbai’s popular Juhu beach.
Which is not so popular on Monday mornings, actually. Nothing at all like the hordes that swarm there on evenings and weekends. Which is why I took my son, on summer vacation from his school, and two friends there that morning. Two nine-year-old boys, a nine-year-old girl and me, and a long stretch of the beach nearly to ourselves. The kids stripped to their swimsuits and raced into the surf …
… suddenly, we were not-so-alone any more. From out of nowhere, about ten young men came to frolic in the water too, unnecessarily close to us. Perhaps two dozen people all told on a mile-long beach, and this group decides to have their fun almost on top of us.
Why? Clearly the attraction was the nine-year-old girl in her one-piece. Hard to stomach, but their lascivious glances told that tale. I asked them: when you have the whole beach available, do you really have to hang around here? Not that I was really interested in an answer, nor in the possibility of having to fend off ten testosterone-stuffed yahoos. We packed up and left.
Unnerving experience, but luckily no more than that. It served to further flesh out this sordid truth: there is almost no female Indian I know, from younger than puberty till well past retirement, who has not had an unpleasant encounter with men. Our nine-year-old friend, ogled on Juhu beach (though for her sake I hope she didn’t catch on). My wife, followed on her walks through our Mumbai suburb. My then-middle-aged mother, followed as she walked the family dog. A blogger, molested and laughed at by a coach-load of men on the Delhi Metro. My sister, then in school, pawed at a friend’s home in Delhi. A journalist, tormented by memories of a bus conductor squeezing her “nearly non-existent breast.” Her 11 year-old nearly non-existent breast, that is.
I feel ill thinking of what my daughter, nearly nine herself, will certainly go through.
Horrific as the details of the Delhi atrocity are, the sad reality is that Indian women are hardly surprised by what happened in that bus. To widely varying degrees, it’s happened to them all.
And even so, even commonplace as they are, such incidents invariably trigger the same anguished soul-searching. Consider: We are a nation of onlookers. It’s time for our intellectuals to stand up. This speaks of yawning class and gender divides. This speaks of unfulfilled and unfulfillable aspirations in our young men. This unresolvable question: Our Indian culture is to worship women, so how do these things happen?
And this perverse tangent from that last futility. After the July incident in Guwahati where a dozen or more men stripped and molested a young woman on the street, the head of the National Commission of Woman, no less, actually told us that women should watch what they wear. Why so? Because “incidents [like Guwahati] are a result of blindly aping the West.”
The blind aping, of course, that erodes our ever-worshipful Indian culture and drives our ever-respectful men to rape.
There are ways to answer all those dilemmas. But perhaps what Indian women really want is not to be worshipped, but merely to be treated the same as other human beings. Perhaps we should focus on reforming our justice system so that the guilty are swiftly and severely punished. Perhaps we’d be better off introspecting instead of blindly blaming the big bad West.
Perhaps, perhaps. Some of this is why reading about Guwahati and Delhi feels like wrestling with Hydra: come to grips with one aspect of the crime, and an entirely new one pops up. We are agonizing over the safety of women in this country, I thought, and I am wondering how I’ll ever take my daughter to the beach. Suddenly we’re debating the death penalty, and class divides, and Indian culture.
But since we are, let’s ask: when a gang assaults a woman in a bus, is that our culture? For that matter, when a gunman massacres kids in a school, is that American culture?
I don’t know. I do know that something seems to be eroding all right. This morning’s headline: “24-yr-old raped, set afire in Bengal by her neighbour.”