Sunday, September 1, 2013

Hungry City

I was born in Delhi. It was always beguiling, lots of places to go to, and middle class parents make it a point to introduce the city to their children. The bus to Fvara, the auto to Connaught Place, the long walk to India Gate on Republic Day, sitting on the bench at Okhla and watching the water tumble down, and then there is the straddling slowness of seeing caged animals with the lovely Old Fort in view. Yet, the rapist always lurked. Today, it is much worse. Thirty years ago, when the female foeticide statistics were reported, there was also the bizarre incidents of women being burnt to death in their own homes.
When I shifted to JNU in 1999, with my three daughters, when Shiv began his endless travelling, from which he found himself unable to keep in touch with the family, I found to my horror that I had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. I had packed up whatever we needed, hired two trucks settled in as Warden of Ganga hostel, and hoped that rearing three daughters on the JNU campus would be easier to do then travelling back in a Contract bus from JNU to Patparganj ( 45 minutes stranded in the South Ex traffic) and the children latch key kids. But from October 1999 to March 2000 JNU had its own resident rapist. He would lurk in the bushes and lunge at passers by, and they would somehow manage to escape and tell their horror story. Imagine my terror, now I was responsible not just for three daughters, I was equally responsible for three hundred women, far from home. All of them ranged from the ages of 20 to 30, had a sense of independence and the strong headedness of being protected at home and in an overprotected campus, where at a stone's throw, you would find a sentry.

The rapist roamed the woods for a long period of time, such that women were told to be in by 9 pm, and the gates were locked too, for their safety. This was most unusual in JNU, where hostel gates are never locked. The step had to be taken, since the rapist had now started to climb the iron pipes, and would knock on the doors of the women residents from the balcony. How ominous. Taking the step to lock the Hostel gates, was a collective decision from Proctor to Dean and Wardens. In Ganga however, the women took a strong position against this, since they were Scientists using their Laboratories in some cases, Humanity and Social Science Scholars using the Library till midnight, just as we had done on the same campus, three decades previously, and ofcourse there were courting couples, and activists engaged in painting banners for the elections who were equally irate.  What a furore there was, and allegations such as "Wardens are regulating our sexuality" and "Wardens are going too far" went to extreme situations. Just as it was getting out of hand, and we were in a terrible dilemma about the safety of women, and their rights to access the places they wished to go to, a  Security officer's wife was nabbed by the Rapist in the woods, and she being a strong Jat woman from Munirka nabbed his wrist in turn, and would not let go. However, he finally escaped from her but it was enough time for her to notice his features and soon, there were posters of the Rapist all over campus.

Today, coming back from my evening walk I saw a man, empty with hunger, poverty, endless drudgery and as we crossed each other, we covertly looked at one another. I moved on, then turned around, and he had stopped to stare at me. It was the emptyness of his face, not hate, not squalor, just the way he looked that reminded me of another episode.

Four of us walking back four years ago, in the Bhimtal hinterland, after a conference outing. My  collaborator, two others, all of us. walking on a narrow ledge of hill. And then a cool enquiring breath on my neck, which made me jump. Luckily, the others did not involuntarily jump with me, since if they had one person atleast would have fallen off the ravine. My collaborator's phone rang, it was her husband enquiring if all was well. The moon was out, we started to walk single file. I insisted it was a leopard. My colleagues from the conference just laughed.

The next day, a black leopard was sighted outside the conference organiser's house. It paced around all morning. The rumour was that a leopard had eaten the arm of  a woman the previous week, and wasn't hungry. I felt that corroborated my story. It had just sniffed at my neck.

So the man I encountered in the woods this evening was the one I feared. Every woman in Delhi has always lived in fear, why debate this? The government does not punish the rapists, because it is presumed that being eaten or violated is a natural fact which women must accept. By calling women Draupadi, they already, like Marx's self fulfilling propecy, send women on a certain path. By calling them Sita, they do the same, restricting their movements to the line drawn by Laxman. And then there is the one, they call Ravan's sister, who involuntarily fell in love,  whose nose they wish to cut off. This modern miasma of using religion to kill or maim or imprison or sexually violate women cannot work for the new generation. Citizen rights is the need of the hour,  for the indoctrination of the susceptible young by an ideology whether Wahabi or from the Mahabharat brings odd consequences in its wake. Why should men and women live continuously in fear, for men revile them for having given birth to them? After the attempted murder and a successful suicide in the School of Languages,  the murderer said before he swallowed rat poison, that he was a "Rajput", in short, a warrior. He kept repeating this caste appellation. Was this justification for bringing an axe in his satchel, and rat poison in his pocket to class? Worse, the lumpen proletariat who find some sort of warped ideological momentum in this, say brazen things like "Siv or Sakthi. Tension math lo. Kitni bar Neelkanth hua hai."
 The Asaram Bapu case is terrible in its connotations. All that we can hope for the City of Delhi, where we live and bring up our children, which we have made our home during our active years, is that it should revive the concern for Human Rights in the country on a mass scale, through public information and media channels. Too many women have been assaulted, raped, murdered, for the gaze is only the first moment of suspended thought, frightening by its very nature. If "under eighteens" are old enough to rape and disembowel, and are indeed being publicly socialised to do so as a matter of ideological warfare, in terms of class or caste or religion or gender,  then let them spend three years in Reformatory, and answer for their crimes in a Higher Court when they have matured.  There is no alternative to this time extended enquiry. or else like the currents of suicide which made the 1990s so dreadful in Delhi, the currents of rape will be with us until justice is rendered in such a way that citizens know that rapists and murderers are answerable for what they did. The Dostoevskyian moment of reprieve must come later, or else we will be subject to every passing fancy as a moment of violation regardless of age and gender.