And they lived fearlessly ever after…
So then, what is it about this 23 year-old girl who raised the conscience of India on December 16, 2012?
Was it the barbaric way in which she met her end?
Was she the last straw that broke the back of an overladen camel?
Was it her young age, her thwarted ambitions and aspirations, or her
parents’ unfulfilled hopes, dreams and expectations?
Was it her last wish, to be able to survive and make it out of her nightmarish ordeal?
All the above perhaps, and maybe just something more.
She did not step out with her friend that night on a mission to alter the conscience of her country. She had no intentions to lift the blinders off the eyes of a male-dominated society either. She was clearly not out to get the media to christen her with a fancy new name. And it perhaps did not matter one bit to her or her family if she were labeled a brave-heart or not, while she struggled to survive at the hospitals.
Look again, look beneath all those glossy labels that were bestowed upon her and you will find just another young girl, with her whole life ahead of her. Someone who was out at the cinemas one weekend and stepped into the wrong bus on her way back home, for which she paid with her life. And yes, it happened in the ugliest possible way right around dinnertime in the capital of our country.
Over a decade ago, my college curriculum included a documentary titled ‘Memories of Fear’, a film by Madhushree Dutta. I still remember how sensitively and accurately it captured the fears a girl grows up with in her journey to womanhood and beyond.
What was called fear in my mother’s days became awareness for the world at large with the passage of time. The truth is that the vacuum that builds up in a girl’s stomach as she quickens her pace through a desolate road, looking back every other minute to ensure there is no other shadow lurking behind her, is nothing but fear.
Fear is the single common heirloom, that as girls in India, we all inherit from our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and friends. Fear for self-preservation, and of men who can do things to hurt and shame us. We learn to weave this fear seamlessly into our lives and never even realize when it becomes second nature. This perpetual fear eats into a woman’s carefree spirit and keeps her on guard at all times.
A friendly pat from an uncle on the bottom, or a male colleague’s claims of great working chemistry are both met with suspicion, followed by the cold shoulder. While we can turn a deaf ear to despicable remarks about certain parts of our body from a group of rogue teens, it takes longer to deal with the trauma of being groped on a crowded bus.
We figure ways of avoiding a run-in with the neighbourhood lech, and develop at least three different tactics of accepting coins from shopkeepers without having our palms unnecessarily felt. Even on a student budget, we willingly pay a premium for balcony seats at the cinema to avoid the flashers in the front stalls. As a general rule, we prefer the safety of aisle seats both in air and on ground. We have heard about hidden recording devices and two-way mirrors in changing rooms, and are alert even before we take off our stoles. We prefer to avoid places, situations and people who make us uncomfortable or give us the creeps. Many friendships do get affected, and sometimes, even years of trust come under scrutiny too. Personal freedom and professional progress are rarely unfettered for a woman.
Between growing up to be a lady and becoming independent in a society that is full of frustrated and perverted men on the prowl, it should not come as a surprise that girls grow up faster. Do we even have a choice?
As protests continue across the nation for this young girl who has lost her life most tragically, everybody seems to have their own views on what needs to be changed, who needs to be blamed or how the offenders should be dealt with. I do pray and wish that these protests and vigils bring about some meaningful change for all of us. But I also think it is time to dig a little deeper.
Decades past our independence, on the brink of a day when a jolly ride into space is no longer just a dream, it is a shame that in the world’s largest democracy, a woman cannot be guaranteed a life free from the fear of being manhandled, attacked, abused, shamed, ridiculed or victimized in any form simply because she is physically weaker. Long before we encourage our sons to be MBA’s, consultants, doctors, engineers or scientists, we need to teach them to first be humane.
They say that she was out to watch Life of Pi that fateful night.
Ironically, a movie that is a story of survival against all odds by relying on faith. She did not make it after a fortnight, but perhaps in her fight for survival lies a cue for all of us, to have the faith that we can indeed bring about change if we continue to make ourselves heard.
I am not giving up hope yet.
Someday, I hope little girls in my country will be living in a time when they can relate to fairytales again.