The Wrath of the Spurned: How Acid Attacks Life Beyond The Moment

(Now that the Supreme Court of India has made the laws regarding acid attacks more stringent — imposing a rather difficult-to-implement ban on sale of acid, and a more respectable amount of financial aid — it is worth looking at how this might change things for the better. You can also read this here)

Pragya was sleeping on the upper berth in a sleeper compartment of a train to Varanasi when she felt a burning sensation on her face. She woke up with a start — she literally felt her skin on her cheek come away when she touched it. “I jumped down and began screaming with pain. It was 2 am, my clothes had melted and people around me thought I was going mad. If it weren’t for the foreigner who recognised what had happened to me and called a doctor, I would’ve perhaps not survived,” she says, recalling with vivid clarity, the moment she was acid attacked in 2006.

The attack came merely 10 days after her marriage and, as she and her family were to find out in the following weeks, was the repercussion of a rejected marriage proposal. “The man was at least a decade older than me and apparently already married. They caught him and put him in jail in the next few months, but he’s out on bail now. None of it changes the fact that it took me over two years simply to recover physically,” she says.

Recently, two men on a motorbike threw acid on four sisters in Shamli. The case has made national headlines, as did another incident in Patna where two teenage girls were also victimised in their sleep. It is heartening to see an increased focus on reporting sexual crimes against women, following the December 2012 protests that were triggered by the gangrape of a girl in a moving bus in the capital.

It is important to recognise the special nature of acid attacks, seeing as they are generally perpetrated by somebody in the know. In the Shamli case, one of the accused is the brother-in-law of the victim. The girls wanted to go to town about their illicit relationship, and this was his way of containing the situation. In the Patna case, the attackers were spurned lovers.

“A general perception is that the male ego cannot take rejection lightly and seeks to overcome his rage through such an attack. This is complicated with the impulsive spirit of today’s youth, which cannot handle what we call ‘delay of need gratification’ – they don’t seem to find any sense of illegitimacy to their actions. Another explanation would be the lack of accessibility – the feeling of “if your attractiveness can’t be available to me, I will make sure nobody else can have it either”,” observes Dr. Arvind Mishra, professor of social psychology at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The notion of revenge is critical to acid attacks, since its intent is to ruin the victim’s life without actually ending it. Such attacks cause disfiguration that lasts for a lifetime, because the social stigma attached to deformation ensures that the victim would no longer have access to a social life, nor will she be considered a viable candidate for marriage. The fact that acid is easily available at kirana shops and supermarkets across the country, doesn’t help the situation.

The consequences of acid attacks can be very dire – considering the fact that this form is particularly popular in the low to lower-middle classes of society, the victims’ access to medical help might be limited. Basic operations to keep the victim alive could result in bills as big as Rs 50 lakh, or more, at times. Also, the facilities to treat first degree burns are few and far between. It was due to the lack of proper medical treatment that 23-year old J Vinodini died in Pondicherry after being attacked by her neighbour, and battling for life for over three months.

It is also within the momentum created by the December 2012 protests that the Criminal Law Amendment Bill was passed recently, recognising the various forms of such violence and raising the punishment bar for rape, voyeurism, stalking and acid attacks. Up till now, all these offences were clubbed under the ambivalent label of ‘grievous hurts’ in sections 320, 322, 325 and 326 of the Indian Penal Code, punishable by imprisonment upto seven years – legislation, or lack thereof, that itself showed just how seriously violence against women was being taken by the state.

Under the amendment ordinance, acid attacks, along with the others, are recognised as specific crimes and are punishable by imprisonment of upto 12 years, along with a fine of upto Rs 10 lakh. While this is a definite improvement, it still seems to fall short of the correction required in cases of acid attack, from the point of view of the victim. “The government has made provisions for a parallel amendment in the Criminal Procedure Code to provide compensatory medical and private aid for victims. But whether this will be followed through remains to be seen,” notes Madhu Mehra, director of Partners for Law in Development.

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She is sceptical because of two factors – the speed of convictions in India is nothing to boast about, and it isn’t possible to adjudge the capacity of the accused to pay the stipulated fine. “The government needs to recognise that this is among the most physically debilitating crimes. It must also acknowledge the fact that violence can create polities of its own kind. For the victim, it would be more important to get back on her feet. You can either make sure that you take up social transformation, but when you can’t even tell the Khap panchayats to shut up, you could at least ensure that the schemes or provisions you draft are water-tight,” she states.

In such a situation, does regulating the availability of acid make sense? “Not really,” says Mehra, “because it isn’t the ‘weapon’, but the intent that needs to be inspected. Ten years ago in Mongolpuri, we heard of a case where men on motorbikes were slashing women’s faces with razor blades. The government could slap restrictions, but there’s always a way to get around the law, especially for a product so cheaply available. We just can’t deal with disfigurement and that is what needs to be addressed.”

Today, living in near-complete anonymity in an undisclosed location, Pragya believes that she’s been luckier than most, thanks to a supportive husband and family back home at Varanasi. “I have no friends though – when I walk on the road, people ask me what happened to my face. There’s plenty of sympathy, but they don’t really want to associate with me beyond that,” she says.

She has now started working with Stop Acid Attacks, an NGO working to help victims with medical and financial aid. Her aim is to help girls come out of the trauma through counselling and group support sessions. “I don’t think I am abnormal – it is feeling that a lot of girls develop when their faces and bodies are maimed in this manner. I want to help them get back to their lives as before,” she says.

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You [already] Stink and Burn

Perhaps it should have been heartening to see so many people finally coming out on the streets, crying for ‘justice’, whatever it is that they mean by the word; demanding that our roads be made safer, that rape cannot be tolerated.

Perhaps it is the ever-growing cynic in me who just cannot find a hint of satisfaction or relief in the drama that is unfolding every moment in pristine Lutyen’s Delhi, in these beautiful winter days.

Perhaps they will pass a new law, there will be a new CM, there will be more police on the roads, the papers and TV channels will follow rape cases more doggedly.

BUT!

This is not the first time a woman has been raped to the brink of her death. This is not the first time the CM has shrugged off responsibility. This is not the first time the common man and his kin have come out in the streets. This is not the first time they’ve increased security. This is not the first time there’s so much excitement. This is not the first time – and it won’t be the last. Not the way we seem to be going about it!

Because rape isn’t an under-the-table act, where both parties can leave with some sense of satisfaction, gratification. It isn’t an assembly line product that has come to dominate psyches, turned into a status symbol, something that one MUST have, a sign of one’s affluence at the cost of another’s impoverishment. It isn’t a man, a regime that has his/its own way all the time. It isn’t an ideology, a religion, a policy, a piece of property. STOP calling your picnic a fucking REVOLUTION, for heaven’s sake!

Because if you think what you’re doing out on the roads – shouting slogans, burning effigies, calling authorities names, getting a shower-down by policemen, demanding death by hanging and/or castration – is a revolution, you don’t know shit about what it is like walking on the road, alone, everyday, with a mix of fear and stubbornness swirling inside you, making you nauseous and pumping adrenaline into your bloodstream all at the same time. Knowing that any moment now, you will face an ugliness that you never dreamed possible, even in your worst nightmares.

You don’t know shit about how everyday, you see it in their eyes, everywhere. That you’re being undressed slowly or hastily, depending on just how his highness likes it, your breasts are being weighed, your buttocks are getting spanked, and this may not just be foreplay. You know it because you can see the bulge in their pants that they will continue to thrust into your behind, your shoulder and everywhere else as you jostle for even the littlest space to stand in an overcrowded bus.

You don’t know shit about that lecherous uncle / cousin / male relative (even fathers!) who will leave no stone unturned to be with you in a closed, isolated space, touch you whenever possible, wherever possible, however possible. And just how the sight or sound of them fills you with an inexplicable dread, a sense of terror that can paralyse you down to your very puny soul.

You don’t know shit about how your dreams, your identity, your entire being is subservient to your safety, which is just politespeak for your family’s honour, that nondescript sense of selfhood that rests almost completely on the girl’s sorry shoulders. You have a job that keeps you out late? Imagine the possibilities! How can you not be panicking yet? After all, worrying is our prerogative, beta.

(By the way, if you do know all this and are still screaming your head off in the streets, for your and fellow sufferers’ rights, then aww, you poor little naive thing. Even my rant here on this webspace that nobody reads isn’t half as bad as yours.)

Why do you talk about it, and those who do the deed, as if it were exclusive to you and your environment? Rape isn’t an isolated act, much as it may require isolation as a condition to facilitate its happening.

Rape doesn’t happen because the girl (or boy) was looking soo unbearably sexy that no power in that dot on the time-space axis could’ve stopped her (his) molestation.

Rape doesn’t happen because the rapist harbours exceptional degrees of lustiness. Nor does it happen because the night brings out their romantic side.

Rape happens because society, and you, let it happen. Because you don’t stand up against offences of any nature in public places such as, say, the Metro. Heck, you don’t even get up to give your seat to the old/ pregnant lady standing in front of you, that’s how blind you are! Rape happens because we live in a repressed society where girls and boys are segregated, having boyfriends is seen as criminal, sitting and talking with a boy in a public place warrants a lock-up, being beaten-up, where prostitution remains illegal and sex is seen as a depraved, corrupt activity. Rape also happens because Hindi cinema glorifies masculinity, which in turn has its source in violence and sex. Rape happens because power equations across class, caste, gender lines are changing – lines that were drawn by the very people who are climbing lampposts and posing for pictures at India Gate today, not-waiting to put them up on FB to show they’re so with it. Rape is not one man’s crime, it is even yours when you tell your daughter/sister/mother to stay indoors at night, even though all you want to do is protect them.

At this rate, rape will continue to happen. Even as you lot are ‘protesting’ – which, come on face it, is just asking for revenge – there were at least three more cases reported in today’s newspapers. Do you think your shouting is loud enough to drown out their urges inside their heads? Doesn’t look like it.

Rape will also keep happening as long as you think that women need to be protected. The presumption here is the male is and always will be an animal, naturally. That’s like, WTF? And all you women, you buy into this crap because it makes you feel better in your cramped existence too.

Rape happens because in the friction caused by shifting plates in the continent of patriarchy, there’s a little squeak that the woman manages to edge in sideways now. Because when boys with bloated heads from small towns arrive in the National Chutiyaap Region, otherwise known as the land of promise, they see all these…the girls!…calling the shots! How could this be? Meri ma toh mere baap ki jooti ki dhool chaat-ti hai, ye kya anarth ho raha hai yahan?!

Rape will keep happening because you mothers don’t slap your sons enough and continue to let them turn into such egoistic, horny bastards.

Rape will keep happening as long as educationists and the moral police (who should be sent back to the 17th century) believe there’s much glory in segregation and separation, not realising that in the process, they turn this ‘other’ into this fantastic, exotic creature that must be had at all costs.

There are other reasons for rape to happen too, but the overarching reason it actually goes DOWN (ALL puns intended) is because the girl’s body is thought of as a site of control. Even as you yell from the ramparts of the Parliament for equality, what you should be fighting for is to gain control of your body. Free it from this omnipresent gaze, free yourself from being conscious of this gaze.

The only way you can really stand up for the poor girl struggling to get off ventilators now is by swearing to change how you think and how you let others around you think.

By some twist of fate, she’s a hero today instead of being a victim for life or even dead, and that is the only good thing to come out of this charade. She will live respectably where countless others have perished.

But her life will be in vain if you don’t realise that this is not one incident, this is not the 9/11 of India, but something that, sadly, happens everyday, several times a day.

The answer, my friend, doesn’t lie in retribution, in castration, in revenge, because that is only enabling a vicious cycle. It lies in education. Unless we learn lessons from history, as modern as last year’s fascinating summer, things will never change.

That is, of course, unless all you’re looking for is cheap thrills over the weekend, in which case, ignore all that you’ve read so far. Obviously, you are the MAN of the moment.

Last Call: What the FUCK do you mean by a rape CULTURE?! Can you please think before you let these words come out of your mouth?!

The illogic of small big-big things.

Beware of the night, they whisper.

In the black, there are always, and only, shades of grey.

A vortex, it will slurp up the white, like a Hoover,
Burp and beam, from Jaapan to Jalandhar.

Replete with satisfaction, it will leave red.
In your face, on the road, on your sheets.

And then Society will come a-knocking.
And all they’ll be able to see anymore is the mud.
Horrors. No blairwitch, this. “She wouldn’t listen”
Is all they’ll have to say, passing it on.

*Facepalm*. Life’s sucha bitch.

She’s Got A Wayyyy…..

“FIRST J&K WOMAN TO TOP STATE CIVIL SERVICES EYES UPSC” scream headlines across newspapers and all of them too-many news channels and the internet today.

Clap Clap Clap.

Can you imagine the politics that might be playing out behind Sehrish Asghar’s many identities on this momentous day of her life? A woman. Topping. the Kashmir Administrative Services. AND eyeing the Indian Administrative Services.

Or do we always end up imagining too much?

———xxxx———

Anderson, sire, thy words rankle,
like them birthmarks on my ankle! 

This story is not about undermining a woman’s choice to wear or be what she wants.

…It is about perceptions and generation gaps.

So, a couple of evenings ago, ma and i were gluttonously popping pani pooris at that famous stall in GK1’s M-Block market. We were also silently indulging in our second favourite pastime in markets (no prizes for guessing what is at number 1) : Voyeurism of the Venus-ites. It is by now common knowledge that while men check out women everywhere, women, too, check out other women more often than they size-up the mans on the prowl. And what is it that we’re checking for? A quick 5-second once-over can take in clothes, make up, hair, shoes, accessories, nail color, waistline, other lines and sizes and come to conclusions as to the nature and character of the studied specimen (speciman? speciwoman?). If you add another 2 seconds, judgements can be doled out if you have the ‘right’ company: all you need to do is raise eyebrows and make eye contact at the right moment. The smile is passed, the shoulders are shrugged in a it-takes-all-kinds-to-make-a-world way, and some bitchy part of the soul is satisfied at the one-uppance. There is nothing monumental about this process – it happens everywhere, all the time. But, I theorise, and thereby digress from my story.

So, ma n i have moved on to aloo chaat and somehow look up from the plate to take in this sight: three young women whose figures suggest they practice anorexia regularly, doddering up the street in painful high heels. The shortest of them wearing what seemed to be only a corset ( of the undergarment-of-yore variety, and therefore decidedly not classy ) and tight, terribly low-slung jeans, poker straight hair, heavy eyeliner, thick mascara, a peachy pout. Extremely conscious of herself, she has the air of one whose feet are barely making contact with the ground, she’s so high on how good she thinks she’s looking. Frantically gazes down at herself to check that just the right amount of skin is visible. Comes off looking like a brainless tart.

The mother and i quickly look at each other, smile. Grimace is more the word actually. We’re both tch-tching in our heads till the tittering trio are out of earshot.

And then, ma says, she’s clearly a small-town girl grown too big for her boots. Iske toh par nikal rahe hain, aur dekho kaise!

I say, yeah, well, what can one do? more tch-tching happens.

And then it occurs to me, hah! look at us, how arrogantly we talk, like we were born into the big-moneyed, big-city ranks. 11 years here and just look at us!

We laugh at ourselves. But then comes the punchline from the learned one: True, we’re middle class people, belonging to small towns. We’re bourgeois to the best of our abilities, but we never EVER behave like that. Never have, never will.

Point noted, O mother. There’s a lesson in decency to be had somewhere in there.

On a related note, I urge you to walk the talk, get down and dirty at Slutwalk Delhi on June 25. Talk about inverting roles, taking to the streets and taking back the power!

Mise-en-scene

Location: The isolated room to the left of the main entrance at 802 Kailash, Kaushambi

Circa 2000: The barest of spaces. Walls: newly whitewashed. Floor: the dirty brown tiles, unkempt and untidy, as one is used to in public sector company flats. A small, very bare, pigeon-infested balcony. One diwan (to function as the bed) horizontally pushed up against the wall opposite to the entrance. One pista green study table in the opposite corner, next to the cupboards. A dressing table and mirror next to it. One steel almirah, holder of all off-seasonal clothes and my deepest darkest secrets, next to the bed. One broken bulb lamp. One tubelight. An old aluminium box has my pricest teddies displayed on it. Six months later, there’s an old BPL TV in their place and they find pride of place on the bed. The ceiling is a replica of the sky, only with green glow-in-the-dark stars and moons and planets instead of the real ones.

2002: The dressing table and mirror have been shifted to the fraction of a wall between the balcony door and the bathroom door. Next to the study table has appeared an old Akai TV set, replacing the BPL, now having been demoted from the parents’. The wall i face while studying now has a few posters, mostly of Tom Cruise and the Backstreet Boys.

2004: More posters. More of Tom. New study table. Imported from Papa’s office, it’s a big grey, blue and brown thing, very official, making me feel very important. And it is now where the bed used to be. The bed is on the wall perpendicular. There’s a two-level book shelf nailed right above the table with the top one reserved for the special books, the ones i like to read, and the lower one full of commerce crap. A carpet now hides the icky tiles partially. My first bean bag, which looks a little like a chess board, arrives.

2006: A big collage of photographs, cards and such up on the study wall. notes, time-table, quotes, poetry, butterflies, colors, people…all part of the wall. Tom Cruise and the Backstreet Boys now reside all rolled up in a corner of the cupboard now, gathering dust. The books change from Accountancy and Business Studies and Maths (brrr!) to Milton, Foucault, Shakespeare, Ghosh…over three years of literature compilation. The aluminium box is replaced by a proper TV stand and now boasts of a fancy new Sony music system as well. The study table also has some of my teddies, a few photo frames. One of the old masterbed’s side table is now the reservoir of my music collection, tapes and discs. They all soon become redundant with the arrival of a shiny new iPod Nano. As does the Akai, which is sold off and replaced with the Sony flat-screen as the parents upgrade to an LCD. And then arrives the treadmill.

2009: Two years away, and the room’s now a bigger storage den than the rightfully assigned one in the main balcony. All sorts of debris piled onto the study table, into the shelves, the cupboards. It wears the look of one ignored, abused and exploited. So we begin from scratch: take down the cobwebs, dust everything up, throw a gazillion things out, find other things that seem to have been misled into the space of Losing-It. The room is now purple. The curtains are purple. There’s a new chocolate brown bean bag, a Daughter’s Day gift. The new bedsheets i buy are purple and blue with many many elephants and flowers on them. A carefully crafted rosewood book case, a much craven thing, now towers over the TV. A new study lamp on the old table, paper flowers, paper lamps, knick knacks accumulated as gifts all find place on the corner stand, on stools, on the study table…on any flat surface.

2011: The music set, the treadmill, the TV are all out of working order, but they’re still here, too hard to let go off. Or maybe the hope is we can get them fixed and they’ll be running again. A split A/C to make the heat more bearable arrived the previous year. A pin-up board has posters from the Jaipur Lit Fest, postcards from McLeodganj, some of the oldest, nicest photographs, a redundant time-table and a ‘To Do-Doing-Done’ routine with no post-its under it. Two framed paintings of a sole woman, one communing with nature and the other playing the Sitar, decorate the wall opposite the main door. The balcony is now pigeon-free and is now the most functional space of the room with a washing machine installed in it. The most important thing on the study table is now a laptop – the window to the world.

This is the space i’ve called my room for the past decade. It has been the only constant thing through my teenage, supplying all that is deemed most essential by an adolescent, coming-to-grips-with-adulthood-and-the-big-city girl. In film theory, the representation of space in a scene affects the reading of depth. Perhaps, what populates this space i so proudly call mine is a portrait of me on different dots across the time-space axis.

Virginia Woolf felt that ‘A Room of One’s Own’ was the first and foremost requirement of a woman looking to become free. Mine sure gave me wings (thank you Ma and Papa), and yet, this is where i choose to come back to. I get what those breeding pigeons loved about my room. It is the same even when it changes. Warm, cosy, open. Home.

(ab)Use the language right!

Walking home from the bus stand the other day, at about 8 pm, on a road conspicuously dark on the eve of Diwali, a second encounter with an oversmart desperate loser on the road got me perplexed enough to yell out “Ch******, kaan ke neeche dun kya?”. Of course, the man in question, having completed his gesture of utter disrespect to a woman like me ( who must deserve it, ie to say ), paid no heed to anything i had to say or do after that, especially as i just walked on anyway.

Problem was, through all this, i was on the phone with Ma. You can only imagine the kind of shock that gave her, making her lash out at me for using such bad language and thereby inviting calamities. Impulsive retorts of this sort ought not to be made by decent girls from decent households. Or in any case, not while you’re on the phone with anybody, and definitly not your parents!

Meanwhile, i’ve felt abusive language is handy, especially if being spewed out by the likes of us who aren’t expected to do so. It takes them aback, shocks them ( this at least works right ) into not reacting soon enough and also makes it evident that the woman in question isn’t going to let things go without a fight, or in any case, isn’t going to put up with any more of it. Eveteasers are essentially cowards by nature, or drunk, not men in the real sense.

So would a decent girl like me let such filth out of her mouth again in public? I very much think so! So much for decency, ma, it’s a tit-for-tat world out there! (no pun intended, you filthy mans! ) 😀

Turn Turn Turn…Turn to Her

Of all the newness that daily living brings, today’s was an unexpected high. For the first time in 10 years, of which at least 5 i have spent travelling in DTC buses, i encountered a female bus conductor today. It was fate, i am sure of it…leaving home just the crucial two minutes late, getting onto a bus that broke down half a km later, then getting onto another, but jostled into a corner by Mama Sumo Hustler who took the seat i spotted first…and then, in that terribly filmy, slow-motion moment, when i turn my head, hair flying away from face to reveal super surprised eyes like those of a deer alerted, to hear the woman’s voice yell, albeit musically…”ARRE…ticket le loooo“…!

I approached her for my ticket. Saw the seat next to her was vacant, so asked her if i could sit there. To which she first said no, with an apologetic smile, so i didn’t push it. Then 5 minutes later she relents and lets me have the seat. Through the next 45 minutes i watch her go about her business as countless grizzly old men have gone in the very throne now accorded to her. Her maths sharp, her jaw set, her eyes alert, her tone gruff…She had me at ‘Ye lo’. 😛

Also for the next 45 minutes, i sat next to her, bursting with pride, as if it were my personal accomplishment, this miracle of a gender bender. And apparently, i was not alone in my surprise – the poor thing, who i am quite sure is younger than I am, was and is probably continually subject to stares, searching, puzzled, amused, lecherous stares but she just smiled at the nicer ones and avoided eye contact with the more dangerous ones. For some reason, i found my well of courage this time and stared down a couple of young upstarts (which is easy for this seat, like the ‘throne’, is elevated ). Every now and then, she’d look at me and smile, with rupee notes slipping out from one hand to the other, doing her mental calculations. A multi-tasker, i say! Next time, i promised myself, i shall speak to her, tell this story her way.

Of course, this overflow of joy in the name of feminism seems psychotic, but for now, hurrah for a new world!