This Monday at 5:30 pm, several hundred men, women and children marched silently in Kodaikanal, through pouring rain, to demand justice for the children and women raped in Kathua, Unnao, Surat and elsewhere. Kodaikanal, a township of about 40,000 people, is a relatively quiet town in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu, except in April and May when tourists swell the crowds.
Locals had been talking about some kind of demonstration, but there wasn’t much of a case to make for it. The Cauvery dispute was more pressing at the moment, some said; these were not our immediate issues, said others. And most of all, what difference would it ultimately make? This, after all, is the question underlying every kind of demonstration. A rape culture has dominated for so long that the public has grown weary of seeking a solution. Also, Kodai, as locals call it, is the kind of place you find to escape all of this. But is escape even possible? Isn’t this a national disease?
In the end, it was the heavy downpour that almost did us in — soaking banners and protesters. I was among those who marched. I left Delhi last year for Goa, and this summer, I am visiting the town I grew up in. Not living in a metropolis can often make you feel irrelevant, far from what makes things move in this country. The South also works on an alternate news cycle, sometimes unheeding of what goes on in the North, though always under the impression that bigger, badder things are happening there. “You will be so bored,” many Delhiites told me, preferring the Capital’s deadly pollution to what they saw as a kind of social death. What happened in the South, they wondered, outside of Jayalalithaa, Rajinikanth and regional disputes they couldn’t fathom?
Growing up, I had never participated in a protest or march in Kodai, while I have been to many in the Capital. Many were also marching for the first time in this town — our utopia in a way, though not without its share of violence, rights abuse and strife. Awfully, with the tourists who make their way up the mountain, comes a lot of unwanted advances and harassment of women, including rape and molestation. These men sometimes simply don’t know how to behave. They hang around the lake and around schools looking for an extra inch of skin, for women who might let down their guard in this “different” town. The lack of a regular dating culture and the subsequent frustration of many men who don’t know how to get close to a woman without assaulting her add to a far-reaching crisis in India — short of giving them rubber dolls and sparing the real-life little girls, it is hard to think of immediate solutions.
Which is what makes it more important than ever for people in our quieter places, for our minorities, to speak up. If they don’t speak, they lose their voice in the din created by fundamentalists and extremists. If they don’t speak, our corners grow more invisible and isolated. They may be small in number, of no immediate consequence to those in Lutyens’ Delhi, but they give voice to the anomalies and articulate the small problem that escalates into the big one. And if the Centre doesn’t listen, it is losing valuable perspective. After all, many of the crimes we discuss on national news are birthed in small places. Criminal behaviour can begin here. Education and awareness needs to, as well.
On Monday, people spoke of how these rapes and murders concerned us, too — to a small crowd of tourists and locals, mostly men. The men seemed to be listening, not merely gathering around for a spectacle. What was wonderful was that many men marched; they spoke, listened, and demonstrated. If even one person thought again, if even one was deterred from sexual violence or helped someone affected by it, the march had been useful. Towards the end, we walked back to Seven Roads, the central junction in Kodaikanal. Before we set off on our own paths, we paused. Next to me, an old schoolmate stood with his baby daughter, a serene infant with a serious face. She reached out and grabbed his placard.
(The writer is a freelance editor and journalist)