When Language Failed Us

(An edited version of this was printed in today’s DNA.)

Patient X is not the first woman to be gang raped and beaten in gruesome fashion. If there’s one thing these past weeks have shown us, then it is that incidents of sexual violence upon women happen entirely too frequently in India. But there was something about the case of Patient X. Language failed us. How do you describe a young physiotherapist who has been gang raped, left for dead and who gave an official and detailed statement to the police while fighting to stay alive? To talk about her without revealing her identity, do you rechristen her or leave her as anonymous as treasure marked on a pirate’s map? Fury, outrage, helplessness – these proved to be limp, inadequate words for the feelings that coursed through so many, feelings that made some take to the streets in New Delhi. We looked for words to describe Patient X, her experience, our reactions and came up empty. But still we kept trying. She was a woman, not a girl. She’s not a victim and as of 4.45am (approx.) on Saturday, she’s no longer a survivor. She is the inspiration for a movement that will hopefully not fizzle out now that she is a silent statistic.

The most dangerous thing about statistics is that they can be manipulated and in Patient X’s case, this is already underway. There were rumours last week that the powers-that-be in Delhi whisked Patient X off to Singapore for treatment with the hope that this would dislodge her as the one around whom the protestors rallied. Whether or not this is true, the fact is that the spin doctoring of Constable Tomar’s death, the attempts to equate protestors with rabble and shifting Patient X to Singapore did divert attention from rape legislation. In legal terms, this is now a case of attempted murder, which means the spotlight has already shifted from rape. This in turn means that the dialogue Patient X inspired is perilously close to winding down. On one hand, this means the clamour for death penalty or chemical castration for rapists is less, but then so are the demands for reforms and revisions that we desperately need to bring about in India. A well thought out to-do list, covering everything from legal reform to social mindset, has been compiled by lawyer Karuna Nundy on her Twitter account.

It is, however, going to be one very long haul because misogyny is deep-rooted in us, both men and women. Even while the protests have caught the attention of national media and “gone viral”, Indian political figures continue to make callous, offensive statements like Abhijit Mukherjee’s comment about protestors being dented and painted (I’m reasonably certain that “dented” was actually Mukherjee’s attempt at pronouncing “dainty” waylaid by a thick Bengali accent) and Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar’s pronouncement that a prostitute can’t be raped. The dialogue that a vast section of the country is engaged in seems to have eluded people like Ghosh Dastidar and Mukherjee entirely. If this is how leaders with access to media and education react and if these are the ones setting examples, then how can we hope for the less privileged to think differently?

As I write this, I’m sitting in Kolkata, which, wrapped up in Christmas lights and winter chill, is at its prettiest. So far, I’ve not heard of any protests, peaceful or otherwise, in this city.* Till now, I’ve kept my distance from the placards demanding death penalties because I’m yet to be convinced that such measures bring about attitudinal shifts. Today, however, I’m desperately hoping to locate a protest and yes, it is more for my peace of mind than anything else. Today it feels oppressive to flit from one year-end festivity to another, pretending I’m not haunted by everything I’ve read about Patient X – her fear, the trauma her body suffered, the grief of her family, the way everyone from politician to activist has used her to forward their own agenda. My fear — and it is genuine fear, rather than cynicism — is that we will not change. That we will forget about her and it’ll take another woman suffering something even more brutal to push for change again. Today though I’d like to believe, even if it is for a very brief moment, that hope and change are in our midst.

The sad truth is that there are no prompt solutions. What we can do is work towards dismantling the prejudices that seem to be almost intrinsic to Indian society and enable perfectly ‘normal’ men to commit heinous sexual crimes. The rapists and molesters in this country are friends and family. They’re not out of the ordinary and there’s something about our patriarchal society that nurtures misogyny. That’s what we have to change. It’s not going to happen overnight or en masse, but perhaps it’s not delusional to hope for a next generation less scarred by prejudices.

At present though there’s only despair and this terrible grief.  And a prayer for the woman who should have been able to take a bus home after watching a movie. May she rest in peace and may the rest of us not squander the opportunities that she paid for with her life.

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