When the Dust Settles

There’s a glut of terminology here. Call it the Damini case.

This was a case that shook us all. At least, all of us relatively privileged urban-ites. Some of us rallied and raised our voices, and lobbied for change. We denounced the horrific attack, on the internet, on television, with friends, on any sounding board we had access to. We hoped and prayed for the victim’s survival. When we heard the news of her death, we hoped and prayed that it wasn’t in vain. Above all, we felt our very souls quake at the sheer horror of the violence that this innocent woman (and her friend) faced.

Two months and ten days to the day of the event, the dust finally seems to have settled. There will be a brief revival when the perpetrators are sentenced, but by and large, ‘Damini’, as she has been called by the media, is no longer at the very forefront of news coverage and public memory. Yet, something did change.

Moving along in the morning traffic, I watch as Delhi hustles and bustles and huffs and puffs as it heads to another grueling day at work. Life as usual. The usual ragged people selling tissue boxes to posh South Delhi commuters at the traffic lights. The same impatient honking. The same continuous, barely audible undercurrent of unprintable language from the youngish fellow driving me to my destination, all directed at fellow commuters. It’s all the same, and yet it’s different.

At the bank, a small TV set suspended off the wall blares out news of yet another gang rape. The agent pauses for a bit. Then she catches my eye, and her mind switches back to my portfolio.

At a dinner party, we laugh about how corrupt our respective workplaces are. I laugh harder than most, not being part of a corporate workplace anymore. Eventually, the laughs dry, and the topic changes to the government’s new ordinance regarding rape. The atmosphere becomes serious, not because of the law, but because of what it took to create it.

Over dinner, I talk with my wife about Nishtha (our daughter), about the weather, about rhododendrons, and about perhaps visiting the National Gallery of Modern Art sometime. The conversation turns to culture, and then to Delhi, and then Delhi’s culture. An odd silence follows. We both know why.

Buried under the overwhelming normalcy, there’s a sense of vague, barely perceptible unease. As the city pulsates and gyrates and dances its dance of folly, there are moments of disquiet that break out when one isn’t quite looking. What do these moments mean? Are they symbolic of a paradigm shift? Is our misogynistic culture finally changing?

Regardless of whether or not there is a significant change in popular culture, I believe it is safe to say that of those who are alive today, few will forget the Damini case over their lifetimes. I am nearing forty, and yet, I do not remember a case in Indian history that resulted in so bold a questioning of the status quo.

And yet, we remember in different ways. To some, Damini will be symbolic of Indian womanhood, a reminder of our ‘sisters and daughters and our mother at home’, an innocent, helpless persona victimized by a group of deviant males.

To others, she will be the one who brought to the forefront a social issue, the issue of gendered violence, an issue that has long been taboo in public discourse, an issue that it was vital to raise.

To other still, Damini was one of many, sacrificed at the altar of a patriarchal culture bent on putting women in their place, a culture that she fought against in as direct a manner as is perhaps possible, for which she paid the ultimate price.

The manner of our remembrance defines not only the incident in our minds, but just as well the very essence of our attitude towards the multifarious structures that continue to oppress women today. Perhaps more precisely than any straight-talk, it describes our view of a society which is mercilessly exploitative to any unfortunate victims of patriarchy, exploitative in ways that are much more subtle, but not much less damaging, than the one this unfortunate young woman was forced to reckon with one evening in the National Capital.