June 2013: Last fortnight, I wrote about Jiah Khan’s high-profile suicide. Here, I talk about another suicide, a story of quiet desperation that will never make headlines.
Robin started working with our family—my parents and I—in Delhi in the early 2000s, an earnest and smart 16-year-old boy from a poverty-stricken family in a small village in Bengal. Not to be immodest, but our family has always taken care of help as well as these guidelines being issued for ‘Compassion Day’, and Robin moved cities with us—first to Chennai with my ex-husband and I, then to Dehradun for my father’s palliative care, then with me to Mumbai when dad died, mum moved to Australia and I got divorced… and finally to Hong Kong with my Aunt Alice and Uncle Romi in 2007. Here, he earned upwards of 30,000 bucks a month, making him a veritable success story in his village, a young English-speaking, Facebook-ing mover-and-shaker NRI, buying land, putting his three siblings—one brother and two sisters—through school, and breaking the vicious cycle brought on by generations of poverty. Earlier this year, when Alice and Romi moved back to Australia, he returned for a holiday before starting another job in Hong Kong, where he’d like to stay.
A few Saturday mornings ago, I awoke to a flurry of cross-country/continent phone calls—Robin’s younger sister had set herself on fire, and was critical in hospital. And this is how and why he says it happened.
A couple of months ago, Robin’s older sister was being harassed in college. When he went to “sort it out”, the siblings were beaten by a gang of goons (30, by his account). So when his younger sister, studying in the 10th standard, got recurrently 'eve teased', she didn’t tell the family. Probably thought: what’s the point? Instead, when one of the boys tried to hold her hand on the street, she came home, doused herself in kerosene, and set herself on fire. And, despite the best treatment his dollars could afford, Jharna was dead a few days later.
There are so many things wrong with this tragedy. To start with, although one reads about such things, it is hard to imagine being in circumstances so disempowering and lawless that you’d get harassed in college and on the street, and your family beaten up with impunity for seeking redress. It is hard to fathom just how socioculturally important a woman’s ‘virtue’ is, or being so indoctrinated with the burden of ones own ‘virtue’ that being 'eve teased' and touched would lead to self-blame and suicide; a far cry from the topless FEMEN protesters ‘Still Not Asking For It’ who represent the way one thinks. It is hard to reconcile with the horror of this society, this system and this situation; hard to empathise with these protagonists.
But this is reality.
Incredibly, as if this recent trauma wasn’t enough, local priests have been preying on this beleaguered family: Jharna’s ghost is apparently haunting the village, and only an expensive pooja will get rid of it, you see. The family will pay, for fear of being ostracised.
What’s worse is that Jharna’s death will remain unacknowledged, just like scores of other women’s. The media will never tell her story—unlike Jiah, Jharna was just another young girl. And Robin isn’t going to file a police complaint in the interest of communal peace (the men who 'eve teased' her are distant relatives in his small village: one is an unmarried 36-year-old who apparently ‘loved’ the teenager), particularly because he’ll leave for Hong Kong soon. In measured words he tells me, “Didi, the fight for justice is long and hard, Ma-Baba mein himmat nahi hai. And who knows what these people will do to my old parents if we pursue them.” Though he’s angry (“Maarne ka man karta hai”), he’s also stoic and reconciled—“Our family is destroyed, what will we achieve by destroying theirs now? What’s done is done.”
Since much before the Delhi Gang Rape, us armchair activists have been discussing feminism, equality, female empowerment in our living rooms and fancy cars, in our high-brow English columns, while living free, independent, liberated lives ensconced in little bubbles. Our battles are against glass ceilings, for ‘evolved’ feminist concerns like judgement-free promiscuity, maiden surnames and independent choice. When I hear stories like this one, I can’t help but wonder at the frivolity of our elite concerns, in light of the female infanticide, dowry harassment, education and social discrimination, marital rape, etc that less privileged Indian women, the majority, face. I am reminded that there are so many Indias, so many realities, so great a divide between ‘us’ and the nameless, faceless, voiceless ‘them’. And that, for the aam aurat, there are far more basic battles yet to be won.
An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in June 2013.