It is said that one side of our brain controls emotion, the other intellect. Why did the story of this unknown girl from a modest background, who stepped into a chamber of horrors when she had only gone out for some simple fun, touch us so deeply? Why was I so moved that I wanted to cry? Many of us who felt that way are fore-grounded in issues of rape by the state, by mobs during riots, by the powerful against the socially powerless. Many of us are also wary of media manipulation and its ability to “manufacture” revolutions as witnessed during the early days of the Anna Hazare movement.
So why were we so moved? Because it is always the personalized story that touches us. Statistics about people who remain unknown do not reach us. And this is not something that the media invented today—it is the way we have passed on our great legends and oral histories. The best books have at their core a moving central figure.
What made the story of this girl stay with us is her simplicity and vulnerability. There was a great truth at the core of this story. In the post liberalization era, there are millions of young girls moving from traditional backgrounds quite suddenly leading lives that appear to be superficially modern. This young girl epitomized that India: she had just stepped out of a plush south Delhi mall full of designer stores and was looking for public transport to return to her simple home some distance away. She could have been any of my cousins from small towns in eastern UP who love the malls, the movies, and save up their money to go there. She could have been any of us in an India that is getting rapidly urbanized.
We all identify with this even if we have not analysed our own emotions and strong response to this case. There has to be truth at the core of a narrative for people to respond beyond the early hype. Why did my teenaged daughter who has been raised in a home where communal, caste, state violence and international conspiracy theories are routinely discussed, respond to this tale more than any other?
It is an urban tale with signposts that she and a generation of city youngsters can recognize so she wanted to accompany me to Jantar Mantar the morning after the death in Singapore. This is the first time I have seen her follow an issue or a story I am engaged with. She saw a protest, very peaceful and calm, full of people who cared, met many friends, colleagues who had also come spontaneously. Perhaps the next time she will get engaged with the story of a brutality in a place she cannot relate to. I see this case as an education for her and other youngsters.
Ultimately, it is not the political class or the police who can offer solutions. Fast track courts and new laws can be debated and even become a reality. But if some youngsters who have been following this story can be sensitised, we would have achieved something in the urban space. Perhaps the hesitant young man who watched his friends ogle, harass or pursue a young girl who is saying no, will get the courage to speak out. Perhaps young and old men who sit indifferent in public spaces while women get harassed will examine their own responses. Perhaps some men will realize that being a man does not just mean pursuing or possessing a woman.
Women too have lessons to learn. Used to a staple fare of mainstream masala movies, I have never given much to what others have seen as vulgarity. I would always fight for the right of women to be attractive sexual beings. So with this disturbing case in the backdrop I found myself shocked into noticing some lyrics of a song filmed on Kareena Kapoor in Dabang2—" main to tandoori murgi hoon yaar gatkaale saiyyan alcohol se (I am a tandoori chicken/ swallow me with some alcohol)."
What do such words suggest? That a desirable woman is waiting to be cannibalised by a man? It sounded grotesque to my ears after what has happened. Does Kareena Kapoor, a fine actress, a role model for youngsters, from the first family of Bollywood, really need to do this? Perhaps she too like many of us never gave it a thought. She is just doing her job in cinema where each item number is “hotter” than the last. Perhaps a case like this will make someone like her reflect on images where women are depicted as wanting to be devoured by men. In the media too, we must now become conscious of how we objectify and trivialize women. Self awareness is after all supposed to be the beginning of change.