Wednesday, January 16, 2013

An Open Letter to the Joan of Arc of India

Dear Stranger,

Today, it’s a month since you left us. I have never met you. I don’t know your name. I have not even seen any pictures of yours. All I know is that you became a part of my consciousness on a cold December day in a foreign land. When I read about the violence perpetuated on you, my stomach turned and I found bile rising to my throat. I can’t tell you how guilty I feel for reacting like that. How disgraceful that my cowardly writer self had only this pathetic response towards your martyrdom.

I had nightmares and was unable to sleep for a week without your screams reverberating in my ears. When I ventured out to meet others, friends and acquaintances I have made in this country and they asked me about the ‘Delhi Incident,’ I found it difficult to answer them and hurriedly changed the subject. Their questions made me feel guilty. I wondered whether I felt that way because being a guest in another country somehow I don’t feel responsible only for myself but also for the country I am coming from.

A friend asked me on Facebook in the aftermath of your tragedy as to why I had not posted about the incident on my blog. His question angered me. I wanted to ask him whether any homage could capture the anguish that millions of Indians felt about what was done to you. Words after all can only take us that far.

I have grappled with what happened to you ever since I read about the incident that cost you your life. I think I am finally prepared to lay some of those ghosts to rest today. And I want to do that by apologizing to you and also to all the women in my country for what was done to you. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with the part I have played in this crime.

Yes, you heard it right. Today I have finally found the courage to take responsibility for my role in the heinous crime committed against you.  Although like I mentioned earlier I have never met you, or seen you or know your name. But I know now,  I started being complicit in the crime from my early teens when as a school boy I decided to succumb to peer pressure and join the boys in teasing the girls, only so that  I could belong.

Even though something about the entire thing felt wrong and I knew that I would not like it if my sisters were targeted with similar teasing, rife with sexual innuendos. But then we were canny enough to have the unspoken pact in our group even in those early years. We would spare the women from each other’s families but as for the rest, it was okay to harass them with lewd cat calls and comments about their anatomy.

A few months ago, I watched a Hollywood film with one of my favorite actors Edward Norton in it. It was called American History X. It is not a great movie but one of the moments from it stayed with me. When the racist protagonist tries to trace the roots of his hatred against African Americans, he goes back to a dining table conversation with his father when he was still in school. His father warns him not to get swayed too much by his African American teacher and allow him to swamp the class with minority propaganda, read African American literature.  The protagonist realizes, albeit a little late, that was the first time the seeds of hatred were sown in him.

I don’t think my father ever told me that eve teasing was okay, but one of my older brothers along with his friends certainly stood at street corners and whistled at girls. I noticed him a couple of times on my way back from school. He was a hero not just for me but also for other boys in the locality. Maybe like me he did what he did because he saw older boys than him turning into heroes by harassing girls. But I don’t want to make excuses either for him or for myself. 

I know today the roots of the violence that was perpetuated on you lies in the early socialization that we men give ourselves. That we like to believe it is okay to harass women with a look or a comment or even that ‘accidental touch’ we force on them when we are young. And because we get away with it, some of us go to the extent of committing the kind of gruesome violence that brooks no limit.

When I read the most evil among your tormentors was the youngest, not yet an adult, as the law defines it, I was shocked and yet not surprised. Being the youngest in the pack, he was seeking affirmation from others. He wanted the respect of men twice as old as him and thought he could get it by showing his might on a helpless you. That has always been the process by which the youngest member gets acceptance in a gang that wants to lead trough violence. This was also true of the eve teasing boy gangs of my childhood. The youngest and the weakest had to commit the most outrageous act to gain acceptance.

 I have also been responsible for laughing at anti women jokes that are cracked sometimes at the so called sophisticated parties and dinners. Sickeningly enough, I have chuckled when a friend chanted Manu’s bile- “Dhol. Pashu, Shudra aur Nari... Saare Taadan ke Adhikari.” None of that was harmless too, much as I deluded myself at that time. Every anti women comment made by respectable men and even more unfortunately by some women has played a part in fostering the hate crime against you.In making the culprits believe they can get away with it. 

I don’t know whether all this makes sense to you where you are right now. But in admitting what I have admitted to you today through this letter, I have also set myself free.

Free to empower my fourteen year old son into thinking that there is nothing like ‘harmless fun’ when it comes to disrespecting a woman. So that he does not imbibe the rotten legacy of believing women like to be teased a little, they like to be harassed a little, and when they say a no, you can turn it into a yes, as long as you persist.

Free to impart that it is not okay to spew abuses that have to do with other people’s mothers and sisters.

Free to share that I have failed in my role as a father if I am unable to communicate to him that women are equal to him and to be a man, the first test for him is to respect women, all women and not merely the women from his family.

In your martyrdom, you united an entire country. You brought the powerful to their knees and made them acknowledge that they had a part to play in the crime that was committed against you.

But I like to think the greatest light you have lit is the one you lit inside men and fathers like me who know now a war has to be waged with ourselves to prevent other heroes like you from sacrificing their lives.     

Rest in Peace.

Vijay Nair


  1. Well written, and yes the change can only come when we as parents teach our sons to respect women from childhood, and also to stand up against those who disrespect them

  2. Honest confessions from a bold and courageous man! Well written, Mr Nair. But only men are not to blame.....women and mothers are to be blamed equally. I only hope we learn to follow the path put in words to bring about behavioral changes most needed in our society.
    Vinita Khanna January 19,2013

  3. Beautifully written and thought-provoking for us all, men or women.