Thoughts

A piece written after the horrifying consequences of the Delhi gang rape 4 years ago

I have never been proud of being Indian. I have never considered it an achievement— I made no contribution to being born, and I entered the world in a country where the likelihood of my existence was statistically higher than most other places, given the population size and birth rate of our people. My only accomplishment was being conceived, and I had nothing to do with it.

As a child, when I was introduced to the word ‘patriotism,’ I was overawed. What a noble emotion it seemed to be— one that drove people to the extent of pledging to lay down their lives for their motherland! And as school introduced us to Indian history, I fully expected some figurative mental door to open and feelings of nationalism to come gushing from within. Nothing happened. I continued to be impressed by the dedication and determination of the defence forces and everyone else who took it upon themselves to ensure that India progressed beyond the superpowers of the world to the very top of political, economic and social hierarchies … but I never understood it. I never felt that love for the soil of our country that patriotic songs talked about.

Slowly, I began to understand why. When I was younger, I was only struck by the legendary Indian lack of civic sense. The incessant spitting and littering disgusted me. I found it absurd that people could rave about how beautifully clean USA is while simultaneously chucking plastic and ejecting entire mouthfuls of paan-stained spit from their mouths. At first I thought it was plain stupidity, but then I came to realise that it was, in fact, unwillingness to change and an uncontrollable urge to complain.

As I got older, I was introduced, via books and television, to more shameful aspects of our society— corruption, several forms of violence ranging from vandalism to gruesome murders to massacres. And all I could do was wonder how people could find it in themselves do such things.

And then, when I was 9, came the real shocker. My mother had educated me well about the ‘danger areas’ of my body. Nobody was allowed to touch me over my chest or anywhere below my navel. Furthermore, no boy was allowed to show me the parts that made him anatomically different from me and all my other girlfriends. No boy could even talk about these things until ‘a certain age’ that for all practical purposes was several years into the future. And so when I was touched by a man at an age when I was pretty much flat as a board, I knew that something bad had happened. That was when I learnt the word ‘molestation,’ though, being only a child, I didn’t understand the full extent of terrible things it encompassed.

5 years later, just after sex education began making its appearance in our Biology textbooks, I heard of ‘rape.’ And I was appalled. As time passed and I was exposed to more knowledge of reproductive biology and sexual crime, the terror became almost constant. And, like any other Indian girl, I was taught to dress a certain way when out without parental supervision, to come home at a certain hour and never to let a male person inside the empty house unless he was my father.

Soon, it became clear that none of these precautions was enough. Rape happened to women in burqas. Rapists attacked in broad daylight. Worst of all, fathers raped their own daughters. It seemed that the only thing I could do to guarantee that I would never experience the horror was to die.

Forward to the present day: a girl who was raped by no less than 7 men in a moving vehicle and thrown out naked onto the streets of our capital city to die— alone, injured, naked, traumatised, violated— has succumbed to the brutality that had been inflicted on her, after 12 long days of suffering. And I, like every other sane person in this country, feel a terrible, aching loss.

Though it was a horrifying story to even read about, I’m not sure why this particular story has affected all of us so intensely. There have been so many incidents— the first to come to my mind being the girl who was raped by a policeman at Marine Drive in Mumbai. And there are so many more we don’t even know about. Besides, we hear of so many other ghastly tales from other countries that we assure ourselves we are, overall, better off.

Maybe it’s the brutality of the crime. Maybe it’s the detailed news coverage. Or maybe it’s just that we’ve had enough. We have seen more crime than I think it was possible, for me at least, to even imagine. Assault. Molestation. Extortion. Rape. Murder. Terrorism. But the most disgraceful of them all remains indifference.

Whatever we call it— moving on, picking up the pieces, ‘the Mumbai Spirit’ (I find this one the most shameful) — we are merely fooling ourselves. Something happens. We protest. We demand. We wait. Nothing happens. We ‘move on.’

And whether we can admit it or not, we are ALL guilty of this most terrible of crimes. Sure, it is sad that courts still uphold archaic laws while failing to implement the more important ones … that politicians get security enough to keep a small community safe while criminals run rampant amongst the masses … that so many important figures still hold sexist beliefs about women’s status in society while failing to blame the minds of men for creating the discrimination … that communal, casteist and regionalist views are freely perpetuated while citizens are arrested for using their right to freedom of speech to voice their opinions … that civilized citizens are arrested for frivolity while people are killed in the apparent safety of their own homes … that young lovers are harassed for the tiniest form of expression of their love while reports of sexual harassment or assault are lost in translation … that laws dictate victims of crimes to live to remember the atrocities they went through while perpetrators must die without actual punishment …

But are we any better? Do we raise our voices against injustice? Yes. Do we sustain our protests until our demands are met? No. And do we then complain about the government? Yes.

We are liars. We lie about caring. We lie about wanting to make a difference. We lie about working towards progress. If we lived up to our promises, things would be different. Mindsets would change. Thinking would progress. Discrimination would regress. Criminals would fear. People would be safe. Justice would be served.

I sincerely hope I am proved wrong, but I do not believe we are capable of sustaining this uprising. Not just because this incident will soon fade from our memories, but because we fail to realise that the girl whose sacrifice has sparked this anger was not Amaanat, Damini or Nirbhaya but a young girl with her own name, face and identity, studying towards building the life of her dreams that is now just a could-have-been … because we fail to see the thousands of faceless victims that this girl represents, whose cries for help have snuffed out either by the criminals themselves or by the laws of our nation … because we fail to understand that crime happens by us, to us, amongst us and is a constant threat to the safety of our own families.

I have never been proud of being Indian. Today, I understand why.

Memories of Childhood

There are countless of us who have our most precious childhood memories hidden in a cosy nook, lost in a book

I was maybe 3 when I developed the conditioned reflex of smiling at the sight of a book. My mother had made it a habit to read to me as often as she could, and oh, how grateful I am to her for it every day! I, in turn, was enthralled by the world that could be found in those pages. How could it be that she could leaf through this rectangle full of sheets with funny symbols on them and see such wonderful stories unfolding before her eyes? I just had to learn to do that!

“What does that mean?” and “Where is that word written?” became daily questions, and their answers seemed much more interesting than admiring the multitude of brightly coloured illustrations so many of my books contained. As a result, I was reading long before I learnt the alphabet. My love for reading only deepened as I grew older, and anyone who knew me for 2 seconds knew that a book would be the ideal gift for me for any occasion, and my library expanded at an exponential rate.

Now, as I prepare to move to the other side of the world, I find myself surrounded by things I cannot possibly carry along, however much I may want to. After donating many kilograms of clothes and shoes, today, I turned to the gigantic bookshelf I am immensely proud of.

Having recently adopted greener ways and bought a Kindle, I thought that sorting out books to donate would be the easiest giveaway task of the entire moving process. After all, I only had to list the books I wanted in my collection and that were available as e-books, and then pile them in one of the large bags strewn on the floor.

I don’t know what made me open the first of the books. But when I did, I saw a sticker staring up at me. “Miss Amrita Bhardwaj. 2nd in class. Standard IV B.” That was when I realized how many memories I was giving away too. Countless similar stickers went by (clearly I was a bit of a nerd!), intermixed with numerous birthday messages, and several more random “Enjoy the world of _____” notes from all those loving people who had always remembered that a book was always the best way to make me happy.

There were so many complete series I had bought, thinking that I would save them and read them to my own children someday. So many thoughtful messages from so many friends. How was I supposed to just let go of all of that? I was completely unprepared for the onslaught of emotions just the sight of those pages brought back, even without being read. I was surprised to find that I still remember which ones my mother used to read to me before I learnt to do it relatively independently, which ones I had read while I was sick, and which ones I had hidden from her while reading because I couldn’t bear to have a daily limit imposed on fiction.

I have donated a fragment of myself with every book I have placed in a giveaway bag today, and it has left me feeling strangely hollow, despite the fact that I am already in the process of downloading their electronic versions. I had never dreamed that I would be so attached to those bundles of paper that adorned my childhood structure of pride that now stands half-empty in my living room. (There are some books I just couldn’t find it in my heart to part with.)

There is a ray of sunshine in the situation though: by donating my prized-possessions to a free library, I have been a source of happiness to many children who would not otherwise have been able to afford the joy of reading.

All those of you who don’t understand us lovers of books: please do yourself a favour and pick one up. It can be about anything— anything in the world. It can be any length— 50 pages or 1000. Just open a book and experience that feeling of getting lost in the pages where you are given just the story and your mind is free to imagine everything else. Feel that urgency to read just one more chapter … that temptation to skip ahead to the end … that strange mixture of both satisfaction and a twinge of sadness when you finish the last page. There are countless of us who have our most precious childhood memories hidden in a cosy nook, lost in a book. Gift yourself this unique joy found only in words. You will thank me later, I promise.

Driving Lessons

20 days = 20 lessons.

  1. Anything in the driving school’s car can dislodge itself when you touch it.
  2. When a herd of animals/children who have just been dismissed from school frolic joyfully in front of the car, it is NOT okay to scream, let go of the steering wheel and hide your face in your hands.
  3. When you have just begun your driving lessons, you will be overtaken by very old people … on foot.
  4. At least ONE lever will cease to function when needed desperately (most often, the wiper during the monsoon, or the headlights at night).
  5. Unusual traffic jam = traffic policeman.
  6. Footpaths are for losers. Pedestrians will stroll along in the middle of the road and NEVER respond to any amount of frustrated honking. You are expected to dodge all of them (not to mention the multitude of stray dogs, cows and, of course, the occasional elephant). Also, it is considered a sin for pedestrians to cross at the pedestrian crossing.
  7. Any route you wish to take WILL be dug up at some point.
  8. The more enjoyable a drive down a road, the more stringent the enforcement of the speed limit on it.
  9. At least 1/3rd of the people who give the left signal want to turn right, and vice versa, and will not hesitate to do so from the extremes of lanes. You are expected to anticipate this, because you WILL be blamed for any mishap that may occur. And of course, there are some people who like to keep their intended direction suspense and drive with both indicators on. It is advisable to stay miles away from such vehicles, as they may float off along any course unexpectedly.
  10. The probability of your car breaking down is inversely proportional to the amount of time remaining for your curfew.
  11. Signals are meant to be broken. You need not stop at each one. For some, simply slowing down and cruising across at any velocity below 50km/hour will suffice.
  12. It is perfectly acceptable to drive on the wrong side of the road if you do not wish to take a long U-turn because you will miss your favourite TV programme in the process. (The reason may be different, but police vehicles are also exempted from the drive-on-the-left-hand-side rule).
  13. During the rainy season, there will never be some puddles on the road. There will be some road in the puddles.
  14. It is your fundamental right to reverse out of a one-way lane. It doesn’t matter which way you go as long as your bonnet faces the correct direction.
  15. An auto rickshaw driver has the supreme right to signal change of lane (or lanes, as the case may be) with the show of 1/300th of a finger (or alternatively, a toe), most often the little one. This too, they will do only if they are in the mood for it (in which case you are lucky). Otherwise, be on the alert for them to drift off in any direction without warning.
  16. If you are driving in the leftmost lane, you are going too fast for it. If you are driving in the rightmost lane, you are going too slow for it. Driving in the middle does not help either, because in this case, the likelihood of you sending a dreamy pedestrian on his final journey increases exponentially. Your only option is to say a silent prayer, be on your way and hope for the best.
  17. The nut behind the wheel to whom honking is music, but overtaking is a crime, will always be driving right behind you.
  18. The nut behind the wheel whose velocity is steady at 1km/year and is impossible to overtake due to transverse oscillation, will always be driving in right front of you.
  19. Always be prepared for any object (living, or thrown by living) to appear out of thin air within 2 metres of your car, when avoidance of said entity involves a series of complex manoeuvres.
  20. This is the day you will be introduced to the engine, which, by the way, is NOT a shiny accumulation of steel, but a dusty mass of grey-black stuff rotting under the hood. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO FIX ANYTHING IF SOMETHING GOES WRONG. You will only end up worsening the condition or suffering an electric shock. The chances of either of these happening quadruple if you have no help at hand.

BONUS LESSON!!!

21. Your driving test will consist, at most, of making ½ a turn on a dusty ground at snail’s pace; with your instructor operating the clutch and brake for you (your only job is to turn the steering wheel).

At the end of it all, when you get your license (to kill), you realise that after 10 hours of lessons for which you probably had to miss several outings with your friends (what a horrible price to pay!), you know NOTHING about driving!