Truth be told, I didn't watch the Hathras horror on TV channels. I didn't want to watch. Actually, I couldn't get myself to as I simply could not bear to watch.
What was the point in watching TV to see what had happened to a 19-year-old girl allegedly gangraped and left to die? The media was anyway a madhouse, journalists, through this week, shrieking while chasing the car of “maal ki maalkin” Deepika Padukone.
As it is, even for an irreparable “let’s find a bright spot in the gloomy news” person like me, this week has been icing on the sorrow cake. Like we did not have enough to deal with in 2020! Iconic singer ; Bangalore’s Covid cases spiking; the pandemic showing no signs of ending; health problems of an uncle I am fond of; the naming in the Delhi carnage chargesheet of Saba Dewan and Rahul Roy, a socially committed conscientious filmmaker couple I know; farmer protests over the newly passed farm bills; the passing, at 97, of , the unmatched artist and illustrator of our childhood treasure Chandamama; and the acquittal, total ba izzat bari, of those we thought we had with our own eyes seen bringing down the Babri Masjid in 1992.
It has been slap after relentless slap of sad stuff in our faces. Yet, when I did read of and watch videos of the Hathras girl’s mother throwing herself in front of the ambulance, begging to be given her daughter's body, and of the police cremating – wait, not cremating, but burning evidence of four upper caste boys snuffing out the life of a young Dalit woman – I felt numb. Then a searing pain took hold of me that I wasn't sure was anger or a muffled wail. Like, you just wanted to sit and cry at what this magnificent country has been reduced to. Before you could sigh, though, along came the former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju who said sex was a natural urge in men, next only to food. Because of unemployment in the country, men were unable to marry, and these sex-deprived men, well, unleashed themselves on the first woman they saw.
Strangely, I didn't want to post any clip or video that I had seen, any comment, rant against Adityanath and his policemen, or rage about what a girl must go through every single day in the innards of India, while walking to the fields, cutting grass, simply going out to relieve herself. Every video that I watched – put out by that fabulous Tanushree Pandey of India Today who kept following the police around, a reporter who is a spark of hope in the hopeless journalism scene – made me only ask, “Is anything going to change just because I rage?”
Will hashtags stop rape? Will #nocountryforwomen or #betibachao slogans?
The rot is so deep it just won't do to merely lament. I sat around lunchtime with my mother, when she usually flips through Tamil channels to catch old movies. She stopped on a scene in which the “hero”, played by Parthiban, stands under a tree, slapping around a woman whose hair is open, the kumkum on whose forehead is half erased, and who is crying and begging the hero to stop beating her. Villagers run out of their homes and gather by the tree, but no one dares stop the man from slapping the woman. After the slapathon subsides, we get to know that there is also an infant under the man’s feet, and that the slapping is “punishment” for the woman having an affair and becoming an unwed mother. How dare she didn’t “control herself” even when a man wooed her?
Finally, an old man questions Parthiban's hero, "How can you get yourself to hit a woman like this?"
The hero slaps him too, asking, "Potthukittu varadho paasam?" Oh, you are brimming with affection for her?
He then goes back to slapping the woman. He grabs her by the hair and demands to know, "Oru pottachhi'kku ivvalo thimira?"
“Pottacchi”, if you don't speak Tamil, is a cringeworthy, extremely derogatory term for a woman. (The normal usage would be penn, pombalai.) Thimiru means arrogance. “What right do you, a woman, have to show arrogance?"
A line so casually said, so normally lapped up by an audience – the movie, Pudhiya Paadhai, was a fair hit in its day – just like a million other lines and scenes that populate our movies, our conversations, our culture and sanction violence against women. We are okay with it, and that’s the rot.
Yet, there’s no point calling the country a rot-hole, as a dozen posts and tweets that I have seen describe it. If it really were a rot-hole, would you and I be angry? Wouldn't we be siding with the creeps who defended the policeman whom Tanushree Pandey asked nonstop: "Woh kya jal raha hai, sir? Woh laash hai ki nahi hai?”
What’s burning there, sir, behind you? Is that a dead body or not?
So, no matter how angry you are, pause and think calmly. Rape doesn’t happen in India alone. Japan too is grappling with it. Al Jazeera reports how sexual assault is commonplace for schoolgirls on public transport in the east Asian country. So is much of the Middle East. As recently as five years ago, England and Wales recorded the most sexual offences per lakh inhabitants among European Union countries, the UN found and announced an “international day for elimination of violence against women”.
The point being: let's go beyond the blame game. Let's find ways that make people actually alter behaviour. Choose what you want to work with that can change attitudes towards women. Choose who you wish to engage with, choose which individual or organisation you want to support that is working at the grassroots level to make people realise that caste is not a license to kill or rape someone “below” you in the social heirarchy, to help boys understand that girls are not their playthings.
Choose which script you will back, which film you won't watch when it contains needless violence, objectifies women as sex objects, and normalises sex crimes. And when you get that powerful as a person, choose which scriptwriter you will get people to boycott for saying “Oru Pottacchi'kku ivvalo thimiraa?”
Vasanthi Hariprakash, former radio and TV journalist, is the founder of Pickle Jar, which tells the stories of a vibrant and changing India. She tweets @vasanthihari.
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