Incredible! In more ways than one.

Recently, I watched a movie The Best Exotic Marigold hotel where a group of elderly British people make a conscious choice to live their golden days in a retirement facility in Jaipur, India. They all have their unique reasons for doing so – one goes to get a hip replacement, one goes looking for lost love, one goes due to financial difficulties. But the movie is not the reason I decided to write the blog. It is because of all the memories the movie brought back. Memories of incidents, memories of people who came in our lives for a brief time. Incidents that made me fill up with inexplicable pride that I was born in India, incidents that made me enraged over the cunning of some of my fellowmen, incidents that made me indignant against how, many in my country, were treated, incidents that made me want to hide my face in shame, and incidents that made my heart melt at the show of human kindness.

Sean and I hosted many friends and family from the United States during our six-year stint in New Delhi. The movie brought back memories of how India can be a complete onslaught on an individual’s senses. Nothing can prepare one for the country. No matter how many tour books one reads, how many videos one watches, one can’t comprehend India unless one has felt the full-fledged blast of the country on one’s sensory organs at arrival. The smell, the explosion of colors, the multitude of people, the complete disregard for personal space, the honking cars, the errant cows, the street dogs, the weaving auto rikshaws, the little make shift shops along the road – the little composites of the larger picture. And hidden within the chaos is the amazing sunset over the river Ganges in Varanasi, the silhouette of a fisherman’s boat drifting idly on the Hooghly river as the sun sets over the horizon, the tiny little nameless flower growing from the crack in a concrete within the moldy buildings of a city, the kind auto driver advising me, like one of my own, to give a warm bath to my rain drenched children as soon as I get home, so they don’t catch a cold.

The question that friends and family asked me often was, how did we deal with the abject poverty staring right at us, wherever we went. My brother-in-law was very disturbed by the people, little children and elderly folks, begging on the streets. I said ‘We have to learn to look past them because it is impossible for us to help each individual that accost us! You have to ignore them, develop a slightly clinical detachment or else, their sorrow will engulf you!” He said, “I can’t. I simply can not!” At the end of his visit, the poverty, especially the little children begging on the streets wore him down. I remember him breaking down in tears after sitting at the train station in Agra, surrounded by little children asking him for money, food!

I realized, after watching the movie, how bewildering India must have seemed to the visitors who came to tour. Living in the midst of the chaos, I didn’t completely empathize with my guests. While they shuddered at the sight of little, scrawny children hitting the window of our air-conditioned car in the hope of money, I nonchalantly talked on about the sight-seeing I had planned for them or the place I intended to take them for dinner. Their focus was somewhere else, I realize now. Since I lived with the problem, it ceased to be one, for me.

Sean developed his unique way of dealing with beggars during his eight year stay in Kolkata and Delhi. When elderly beggars asked for alms, he folded his hands and bent his head – the Indian gesture of Namaste. As they insisted, he smiled and did the namaste again. With children, he established a relationship by either juggling (he does juggle relatively well) or making funny faces or asking them their name in atrocious Hindi. The result was unadulterated, joyful laughter. The white man playing the fool. It never failed to elicit a smile, a laugh.

Every Saturday, we went to the American club where we played sports, ate pizza and swam. At a traffic light, about 5-7 children ran to the cars asking for money or food. They were led by a wild haired, young girl of about 12. She managed the kids, led them to the cars and when the lights changed led them safely back to the sidewalk. But it always made us nervous to see them weave between the chaotic traffic. They came to our car as well. Sean rolled down his window and shook their hands, I smiled and baby Sahana gave them toothy grins from her car seat in the back. One very hot summer afternoon, Sean offered the wilting children his water bottle filled with Gatorade. The faces were worth watching. They had expected plain water but what they tasted was so much better, what a treat. From then on, it was not money they wanted but “Bhaiya paani, paani” (brother, water, water)! We started carrying extra bottles of Gatorade to share. They drank quickly while the light was red, passed on the bottles to us as the light changed and swiftly moved back to safety as the cars started moving. The girl made sure each child was safe. She did a lot of talking and laughing, all in Hindi. Sean responded with a big grin and some broken Hindi. Neither understood what was being said. I smiled at the exchange.

A couple of days after Rakhi, the girl brought a rakhi to our stopped car and tied it around Sean’s wrist. Rakhi is a beautiful festival celebrating love between a brother and a sister. Sisters tie strings around their brothers’ wrist wishing long life and happiness. Brothers swear to protect their sisters. I won’t go into the whole spiel of gender discrimination here. Suffice it to say it is a festival of love, the intentions behind are beautiful and good. Anyway, Sean was touched beyond words. We didn’t have anything to give her. So the next time we met Sean got her a warm, soft shawl to keep her warm during Delhi’s bitter cold. She touched the shawl in delight and felt the softness against her cheek. “Accha hai, bhaiya!” (Its good, brother) and ran away as the light turned green.

We continued to see her and her charges for the next few months that we lived in Delhi. We never saw her wearing the shawl ever and wondered if she got to keep it, after all. Then we left Delhi…..and I forgot about her. Till I saw the movie, and the young wild haired girl came back to my mind. Now I don’t stop thinking about her. I wonder how she fared. Did she find happiness or is she still roaming the streets, begging or selling….herself?

Moving on.

On December 16th, 2012, a young woman boarded a public bus in New Delhi, India with friend after a late night movie show. Six people on the bus brutalized her beyond belief and threw her down the moving bus once they were finished with her. Her friend was beaten up and left to die. She clung on to life despite the odds – broken, mutilated, ravaged, brain-dead, but alive, breathing. She succumbed to her injuries a few days ago, on December 28th, 2012, after fighting desperately to cling on. Her body simply gave up.

Her fate and death stirred India into a huge protest against the indignities that women suffer and nudged the conscience of the whole world regarding the general attitude towards women, universally. Candle light vigils, marches with placards, protests against politicians and lackadaisical policies, accepting responsibilities that we all failed her, made it amply evident that people were not going to let this one go easily. This heinousness of the crime touched a raw nerve in the psyche of the nation. The fact that rape happens and goes unreported were brought to the forefront and discussed.

The bright young woman, a medical student, whose identity has been kept a secret, was given different names as movements and protests started against what she suffered – Nirbhaya (fearless one), India’s Braveheart, Amanat (treasure), Damini, Daughter of India. I know not if the woman was fearless. I am sure she was an Amanat, treasured by her parents, her family, ones who loved her. There have been no incidents cited that prove she was seeking to make a social change that night. She was a young woman, studying to become a doctor, she was full of possibilities, and she wanted a fun night out with her friend. She didn’t go out that night to become a martyr so people in India and the world could be shaken out of their complacency to do something about gender equality. She is a victim of a grievous crime, l don’t know why she is being called India’s Braveheart, but no matter.

What must have gone through her mind when this assault on her began, I wonder. Fear, first and foremost. Confusion, bewilderment, agony – ‘Why are you doing this to me? I am a human like you. You are hurting me so bad!’ Then she must have lost consciousness at some point, or at least I fervently hope she did because just the thought of the pain the men inflicted on her makes my skin crawl in horror.

Her death and the brutality done upon her opened the third eye of the nation – dare I hope? Will the women who are being subjected to rape, both marital and otherwise, and other form of indignities, garner enough strength to come forward with the tale of their woes and hope to be believed and vindicated?

And I wonder what led the six men to behave so cruelly towards another human? Was it alcohol? What did they suffer in their lives to become so dissociated with simple empathy? How much pain did they endure so they were capable of committing such unfathomable act of cruelty on another human? The men were from a slum in South Delhi, I hear. Does economics have any part to play in crimes such as these? Does education? The answer is no. Jessica Lal was murdered by the son of a minister. The wealthy kill and get away, the poor get caught – that is the only part economics play (Jessica Lal’s killer was caught, however)! And education? What is education in the true sense of the word? Does a degree from prestigious educational institutions make one truly educated enough to believe in human equality? It does not. Unfortunately, female infanticide happens in homes of doctors, professors, lawyers more than in the homes of folks without degrees from college. Aamir Khan, the renowned actor of India, did research for his reality show Satyameva Jayate and came up with the statistics that the rate of female infanticide still happening in the homes of wealthy and ‘educated’ is, in reality, much higher than the lower middle and poorer section of society. True enlightenment comes from opening one’s mind to accept, respect and value another. Rote learning doesn’t make one educated.

Enough has already been said, written, talked about women’s right. Many have voiced their opinions on hanging the rapists. I won’t go into that debate. I don’t have a solution to what will stop rapes right away. But I do think it depends on how we nurture and bring up our sons and daughters. Our actions today will determine what kind of society the next generation will create. First lesson they need to learn today is mutual respect. I still hear comments like ‘Don’t throw like a girl’ to teach a son athletic prowess or “Go wear a bangle and sit in the house’ to show a lack of courage in a male. As long as mentalities such as these exist, women will not be considered an equal to her counterpart.

What does woman’s equality mean, anyway? Men and women are different, physically and mentally. There is no denying that fact. But one needs to realize and respect that the contribution men and women make in society and in each other’s live are EQUALLY important. The roles of men being the bread winners and women staying at home are not rigid anymore, that line has been blurry for a while now. When men accept and respect that and when women start believing that their contribution in the family and their role in society are equally important, we can hope for gender equality. That is a first step – respecting another and believing in oneself.

It is a new year. January is a month of hopefulness, it starts off with new resolutions, new hopes, new beginnings. It is a month which tells us to move on from the mistakes of the past and build on the future. And we will move on. But we will not leave behind the innocent little children of Sandy Hook Elementary school. We will not leave behind the young woman who was brutally raped and beaten with a metal rod and thrown out of the bus to die on December 16th in New Delhi. They are moving on with us. We need them to remind us that enough wrong has been done in 2012 and the years before. We need to right those wrongs. Their memories won’t let us get complacent and self-absorbed. Their fate will remind us that each of us are vulnerable and unless we work towards a change, our loved ones could suffer the same fate. My hope is 2013 sees at least baby steps in the right direction – towards gender equality, towards social equality, towards a progressive mindset, towards true enlightenment, towards rehabilitation and prosperity. These words sound lofty and idealistic, but I do believe we are moving in the right direction. The Sandy Hook Elementary School killings, brutal rape of the young woman, other unreported rapes and other killings are stumbling blocks to prevent the forward march. But the uproar, determination, empathy and rage from the world that arises over incidents such as these prove that we are not going to tolerate such acts and these will not stop us from moving on – for the better.