Cry Rape and Be Noticed

Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan write together as Kalpish Ratna. They are working on a biography of Garcia d’Orta
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How the Delhi rape has wrought a prurient me-too madness in the media and the average citizen

A young woman was raped on the streets of Delhi. A month after the event, that sentence has reinvented itself.

Every word—except the verb—has assumed autonomy. Each word spins its own narrative. Each word shouts louder than the next, and silences the verb.

Very soon the verb will be drowned in the uproar. The waters will close over its head, and it will never have existed at all.

This is how the sentence changed:

A: Definite article: Loudly refuted by the outcry It happened to me too! It has now been replaced by all.

Young: Definitely the most powerful word in the sentence. The face of the challenge is young, and so is the face of the response. Even without the technology and pseudology of infinite replication, the echopraxic young control the narrative.

Woman: The weakest word, it has refused all identities except one of chronic unremitting victimhood.

Was: This word has managed to hang on by representing memory. It is oracular, it opens the door to déjà vu and continuum, it reinforces an immutable status quo and the fatalism of an ordained future. It is, really, the smartest word in the sentence because it robs the rest of the words of free will.

On the streets: I will take this as a phrase simply because in any Indian language it is a metaphor for vulgarity. The street is now the arena for discourse and debate, definitely prime time TV

Of Delhi: For Delhi, read privilege.

So amended, the sentence now reads:

All young women were, are, and always will be, (raped) on the streets of Delhi.

Meanwhile, the horrors of 16 December, the tragic loss of a young and beautiful life, and the repugnant crime itself, none of these are identifiable entities any longer.

That crime is lost, absorbed into a growing litany of grievances. In the manner typical of Indian bureaucracy, the file has been buried under another opportunistic mountain of files.

The story of the victim is now a fractal. The crime has become institutionalised as patriarchy. Together, they make up the pattern of a fabric being avidly marketed as authentic India.

In this new narrative, the rapists are no part of the story. They could be anybody, they are just ordinary people. They did what anybody would do under the circumstances. Oh yes, they must be hanged, castrated, sodomized, eviscerated, and dragged bleeding through the streets, because it will make us all feel so much better to get even. But they are really not to blame; it is the system that stinks.

For now, we can all be famous, but we had better hurry because every Indian— local, national, diasporic or occasional— stands in that queue, and you know how we get with queues.

I am trying to make sense of the white noise. What is Young India shouting about? The rapists? The police? The law? The judiciary? Yes, to all these questions. Yes, some of them are. They have raised nightmare questions and pressured the government out of its apathy and inertia. But these are a rational few.

Many many more are shouting to be counted. They’re shouting to voice their fears, their terrors, their certainties, as in: I refuse to be raped, I have been raped, I will be raped. They find themselves suddenly catapulted out of anonymity, empowered by their fear.

Indian writers desperate to reveal how they were ogled, groped, molested or raped in their brutish homeland get premium space in the international press. I discredit neither their experiences nor their narrative skills, but the clubbiness of it all appalls me. What is being outed here? India? Or the writer? What is being validated?

Everybody but everybody by now has a rape story to relate. National dailies are putrid with rapes, molestations, assaults, incest and harassments on every page. Women claim their handbags hoard kitchen knives, needles and chilli powder for self-defence. They avoid rickshaws, public transport, taxis. Bikes and scooters are inconceivable, and it is impossible to walk. I picture them imprisoned in a tetraplegia of dread.

But when I put down the newspaper and leave the house, life is at its exhausting usual, the city is a frenetic surge of feisty women all striving to hold their place in the sun.

Rape is violation. Its assault on the body implodes the mind, and makes it a crime like no other. Its fallout is diverse, its trauma is unpredictable. Following the knowledge of a rape, the mind is bludgeoned by this betrayal of life’s most basic instinct—how can that be degraded to this? Within the silence of this concussion, very many things can happen. This horrendous rape demanded that we listen to that silence. But we did not. Instead, we heard the Monkey Man.

Remember the Monkey Man? He haunted Delhi 12 years ago.

In early May 2001, people in Ghaziabad reported attacks by a strange creature, and the press quickly named him the Monkey Man. Very soon, people in East Delhi were describing him. They were hazy on detail, but were dead sure about who it was—it was the Monkey Man.

The Monkey Man’s victims were, initially, all men in their thirties who were attacked at night as they slept on charpais outside their jhopdis. They all reported the Monkey Man fled, leaving them with the merest glimpse of him. For a fortnight, 10 to 25 May, the police control room received 397 calls between midnight and 6 am, all claiming attacks by the Monkey Man.

The victims were from the poorest sections of Northeast Delhi. The police offered an award of Rs 50,000 and a city patrol was set up. A medical board was appointed to examine the victims. Their injuries were trivial—cuts, bruises, lacerations—consistent with accidental injury.

When questioned, the victims were no longer certain of having been attacked. They thought it must have been the Monkey Man since they had heard he was about. Everybody knew that. It was in the papers. It was on TV. They agreed it was just as possible that they may have fallen off their cots and hurt themselves.

Finally, the media announced that there was no Monkey Man. And all the attacks ceased.

The medical board did not dither over the diagnosis: mass hysteria, or for the politically correct—mass sociogenic illness. It is triggered by an event that taps into a prevalent social anxiety, and before you know it, it’s happening to you.

The catastrophe of 16 December set off a panic that has gone viral because it has not been recognised for what it is. In recent times, most documented bouts of mass sociogenic illness have related to fears of war, terrorism, chemical and radioactive spills.

Two years ago we had the brief summer madness of Anna Hazare. What happened to that ‘movement’ of young India? It was rooted in nothing more than the conviction they would end corruption simply by being out on the street. How did they rationalise it? They did not have to. There was something magical in their belief then, just as there is now. Many of the young people out there believe all it takes to stop rape is a candlelight vigil. Many more identify so closely with the victim that they share her trauma.

Nothing about this is new. The world has seen tides of similar events and forgotten them just as rapidly. Some, those remote in time, survive as myth, like the raasleela of the Gopis of Vrindavan. Europe remembers the sex scandals of the witches of Loudon, a new book every year revisits something that happened in 1634. Americans recall the Salem Witch Trials but overlook Woodstock, the Beats, and the Mad Gasser of Mattoon.

All these stories are fascinating when they are happening elsewhere. We don’t notice them when we see them around us because we are in the play. Keeping us performing are the constant reinforcements from the media. All these crazes cease when that Great All Seeing Eye stops propagating them.

One aspect that all reports of mass hysteria have in common is line-of-sight emotional contagion. Monkey see, monkey do. It gives us an idea of how atrophied is our sense of free will. The absence of anarchy in the young is the first symptom of a sick society, and we have today perhaps the most conformist young. Oh, they are not rebelling just because they are out on the streets, they are cohering—doing what the next guy does because it is cool.

In the Anna affair, it dispensed no permanent harm, but 16 December bears terrifying potential. It has already derailed the issue by making it seem as though this is the first time that India has reacted to rape, and that the crime is ubiquitous and constant. Certainly, rape is under-reported in our country, and the UN figure of 1.8 rapes/100,000 women (2010) is highly suspect. Still, compared to Sweden and the United States, we are marginally safer. But if we had even one rape/1.6 billion, that would still be one rape too many.

Bizarre mass hysterias like koro where the population believes their genitals are shrinking and will disappear unless anchored are not very far removed from this present outcry of general molestation and rape. What this ruction achieves is a major distraction.

I will not be surprised if the six men who raped this heroic young woman walk free. They have already escaped the tsunami of blame that is swamping everything else in sight. It is growing more politicised by the minute and everybody is out to derive mileage from it. It is a decoy, really, a smokescreen. So, what is it that we’re not meant to see?

We have already crawled back into our zone of comfort. With that we abnegate any possibility of change. We are back to being the White man’s burden. American editorials rebuke, the British snigger. The BBC asks what is it with Indian men? The Europeans laud Indian women for refusing to take it any more. They collectively wonder what is wrong with India that it has taken us so long to cry out against rape.

Why is a rape in India any different from a rape elsewhere? Here too it is a crime committed by a rapist on a woman, not a crime committed by all Indian men on all Indian women through all time.

What manner of human being encourages discourse of this sort in the aftermath of a tragedy like this?

Someone who makes a living off it.

The floodgates are now wide open for more neo-colonial journalism. It is the 19th century redux, the orientalist’s wet dream, only more lurid, more ‘other-ed,’ more miserable.

And, we all know, there are millions to be made out of misery.

This is the rape we have invited on ourselves by an irresponsibility so naïve, it verges on the imbecile. Forget television, everybody knows that’s tamasha. But people still read the newspapers. And we have overwritten rape and underestimated its impact.

Crime reporting is as disinhibited as the crime itself. Besides being ill-informed and plain dumb, it often betrays a shocking degree of editorial irresponsibility. In any random group of readers there will always be one, or two, who will be excited by the danger of a forbidden or repugnant act. Not all of them will act on the impulse, but some do. This is even more likely when physical details of a crime are sensationalised.

When this story broke, I was swamped by one question asked by decent-seeming men and women. “The paper said her intestines came out—what did those men do exactly? Usually…” A delicate silence would follow as the speaker replayed the crime in imagination. The prurience of the average citizen is beyond all restraint, and s/he will probably never commit a crime of any sort. What then must be the prurience of a potential rapist?

The surge in crimes against women may not all be increased reporting. It is too early to tell, but already there are reports of ‘copycat’ rapes.

Another, equally disturbing effect, is that everybody will have an incident to report. Very few may actually make a police complaint, or go public with their story. Nonetheless, they will recall an experience of sexual trauma and experience its anguish as guilt, rage, blame, and eventually, despair.

Which is exactly what has been happening. Mass hysteria, and it is spreading.

If that sounds simplistic, here is some new science.

It has been suggested that the ‘emotional contagion’ of mass hysteria is mediated by the sexiest bit of the brain—the mirror neuron system. Mirror neurons, brain cells that legitimise ‘monkey-see, monkey-do’ are usually strongly inhibited. When they aren’t, we get imitative beyond reason. Madness becomes catching.

You can shrug this off, as I did. Or you could rope in the crowds at India Gate and perform fMRIs on their brains for free. Either way, the treatment remains the same: get real.