When young, I always fancied a mouthful of sky. One reason was that a TV series by that name was the first such Indian series in English, back in the times of staid Doordarshan; the second was that it featured Milind Soman. However, a large part of it had to do with the image those four words conjured — of a whole wide world that could be just mine, yours, anyone’s.
Then, one grew up, to see the sky recede — and not just due to the haze.
What was its colour that day in September when a girl in Rajasthan ran down nearly a kilometre terrified and naked, having been separated from her friends and reportedly gang raped by three? Was the sun harsh or were there clouds over it? If she ran barefeet, did the road burn her soles? In that terror, how many did she pass by? In cars, on foot, till someone came to her help? And yet, she ran, not daring to stop. Was that road lined with scraggly bushes or, after the monsoon that still lingered, new life? Did the fragrance of rare desert flowers fill the air? Will she ever forget, any of it? Will she get onto a scooter again for an impromptu trip with friends? Was it the first-ever such outing she had had? How many stretches like those will she avoid? What time of day? All hours of night?
Because, let me tell you, we don’t forget. The day we made the mistake of not wearing the right bra, the day we forgot to cross our arms over our chest as a group of boys passed by, the day we stood too close to a road as a car lurked near, the day we let our guard drop just for that second in a crowded bus, the day we took a lift and a presentable young man who was suspiciously sweaty dropped one off with that haunting warning to “not try this next time”.
But the Rajasthan girl is forgotten already, just a mere statistic in our rape record, with only those now lingering in our memory whose details are more horrific than the others. As ordained by the courts, she is cloaked in silence — stripped off any detail of her existence, but for that act and the ‘victim’ tag. It is for her good, sure, but it also helps us sleep more peacefully, without any guilt triggered by the hint of an association. A reminder of a similar place, similar incident, a narrow escape perhaps?
Like the others since ‘Nirbhaya’ (rendered ‘fearless’ in renaming because it sounded so good to our ears), like the Hyderabad woman who was set afire and prompted Andhra Pradesh’s ‘Disha Act’ (giving rape cases a ‘direction’?), the Rajasthan girl is being systematically erased.
If she picked up a newspaper these days, she would know the world has moved on parallel to hers (there is no greater distance than that which separates parallel lines, someone once hauntingly wrote). She would learn that the mighty Indian State is promising to secure not just “our Kashmir” but another one across the border, that its concern runs to those fleeing “persecution” in three different countries (if they tick the right boxes), and that while she remains unacknowledged, ‘justice’ was served in the form of four killings in cold blood in her name.
She would also learn that the government is onto another project: building a temple to Ram in Ayodhya which will “touch the skies”. As that kilometre-long road stretches before her, the irony won’t escape her. Surely, a government giving God a helping hand to Heaven could restore a 12-year-old’s mouthful of sky?
But, am I seeing all this the wrong side up? It may not be god or government, standing on each other’s shoulders, that is probably giving her sustenance right now. It may be the fact that, down here, the ground is irretrievably shifting, even if most days we can’t see it. At home, my sky seems puny in comparison to what my 14-year-old, clear about what she wants, unapologetic in her demands, uninhibited about seeking them, considers within her reach. Outside home, I see others like her, dusting off minor and major battles, defying every doomsday prediction that has them beaten.
God can keep the grand temple, these two girls would tell me — pointing out the women across the country who last week left idols quaking on feet of clay.
National Editor Shalini Langer curates the fortnightly ‘She Said’ column
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