As we set out, my colleague asked if we had remembered to take the candles. Another colleague nodded, patting the bag on his lap. We looked out into the traffic, the trees, the people. None of us spoke.
I am still not sure what to say. Somewhere, the details I have read and re-read seems to have gouged out sections inside my head – an assault on reason.
A friend who works in theatre described a scene – a person stands on the stage holding something heavy. After a while, she said, you start feeling that weight. You start feeling the shiver in her hands, the pain threading through the muscles, the furrows on her brow. There’s recognition of yourself in this other person; somewhere the boundaries swathed by our skins grow indistinct. The one on the stage doesn’t need to explain her pain; we sense it, understand it. We empathise. We are humans.
When humans communicate, every act signifies something. But some acts shatter the sense explicit in communication. They are not within the comprehension of what ‘human beings’ can do. Even animals don’t do this to their young. Who are they who have committed this act?
Some say monsters, some say fanatics, some struggle for words.
This is what I think – they are people. I’ll repeat, They are people. They are people who want to communicate to another set of people, see, this is what we can do. This is what we are capable of.
The others who are watching are shaking their heads, saying, no, no, human beings can’t do this. They on the other hand are insistently saying, this is what we want to tell you, and we have been telling you this for a long, long time. Why don’t you listen? What will it take for you to listen to me? When will you pay attention? Why don’t you do what I want to you to do? Why don’t you submit?
There was a small crowd at the Town Hall. The three of us went up a few steps, and sat down. Someone passed us a black sign with ‘Shame on the country’ written in white. My colleague and I held it aloft. A child came to us, took out three black ribbons from a plastic bag and gave them to us. I saw the ribbons tied around heads, around arms. Two older women in sarees, from the group that had organized the protest, sat behind me, and seemed to know everyone around. Young college students sitting nearby discussed sharing notes from a class. A few steps behind,a line of young women held up a series of signs. In the front sat several men. Slowly the crowd grew.
There was a TV news van with its telltale satellite dish, and other folks from the media, with cameras, mikes, and tags identifying their affiliations. Many used phones and cameras to click photographs; some clicked selfies. One man seemed to be atop an invisible turntable tuned to slow, rotating with his phone held horizontally.
At that moment when you make someone submit to you, even if they are shaking their heads, saying, no, no, even screaming out loud – you have power. That is what power over someone is. You get to decide whether to listen or not. You get to decide whether to stop or not. You get to decide what they can do and where. Whom to touch and when. How to touch. You decide the meaning of all this. You decide the when, where, how, and why. You write the story. You have the power. Power lets you negate the other person’s personhood. At that point, you are not having a conversation – you are saying, this, this is the conversation. The other person is not a person anymore, is not human anymore.
Who are they who have committed this act? They are not animals, for even animals don’t do this to their young.
They are people, who don’t think the ones they have power over are people.
Just then a car arrived, a white sedan, bearing a tallish man with a mop of curly hair and a huge smile on his face; that face you see on some people entering a wedding hall – an assurance that I am dressed for the part. He said something to the crowd; from his expressions it felt like one of those impolite familiarities – oho, you seem to have put on so much weight!
The man was dressed in a shirt and a Nehru jacket and had a tag on – he too was from the media. He kept beaming around, as if now that he had arrived, the party could finally begin. He seemed to know some of the men sitting in the front. The pleasantries seemed to continue.
Meanwhile, some of the organisers gave short speeches, unrehearsed and heartfelt. Some paid attention, others did not. After the speeches, one young man shouted ‘Beke beku’, and we shouted back ‘Nyaaya beku’.
The man in the jacket shouted, ‘Beke beku’, and the crowd automatically responded, ‘Nyaaya beku’. He seemed pleased.
Who has this power over people? That’s where politics comes in. It is a game we have designed to allocate and use power. Roads, electricity, water, schools – all this is administration. Who gets what, where, when, how, and why and who has power over those stories is politics. Political power means you get to decide whether to listen or not. Whether to tweet, or comment, or murmur displeasure, or bludgeon it into others’ skulls and bodies. Political power means you get to decide whether to start something or stop it. Political power means you get to decide what they can do and where. Political power decides whom to touch for what and when. Political power decides how and how much to touch. Political power lets you decide the meaning of all this.. Political power lets you write the story.
A young man, holding a three-year-old, arrived late. In his other hand, he held a home-made placard that said ‘Justice for Asifa’. He seemed a bit unsure about what to do, and hovered near the periphery of the steps. And then I couldn’t spot him – he was now the crowd.
As the sun turned mellow, the candles came out. They had jackets made of paper cups so that the hot wax wouldn’t hurt our protesting fingers. If you turned, you could see all the wicks alive and warm, flickering a little in the wind. A little girl, her hair pulled back into a pony tail, was being interviewed by the man in the Nehru jacket. He was shouting something to her, words I could not hear. I asked the woman sitting behind me, and she explained that the little girl was articulate and expressive about her anger, and how constitutional means needed to be followed. He was trying to provoke her and she stood firm, not wavering a bit.
There is a game called ‘Baffa baffa’. Participants are separated into two groups. One group is taught a set of rules – verbal and non-verbal. The other group is taught a different set of rules – verbal and non-verbal. In one version of the game, a participant is then asked to go to the other group and interact with them awhile, and come back and report how the other group communicates. Typically, this participant comes back and makes fun of the others – what you know, even if it was made up just a while ago, is familiar. The unknown makes you uncomfortable or afraid, and sometimes the way to deal with unease is by making fun of that other group, tearing it down inside your head, so that you can feel better about it.
Religion and culture helps us decide who these ‘others’ are. It is a game that we design. At times, it seems like religion, politics, and power are acts of nature – something that cannot be fought with, changed, reframed. That’s bullshit.
Institutions and ideologies are not like natural objects, forcing themselves on our consciousness with insistent force and reminding us that we have been born into a world that is not our own. They are nothing but frozen will and interrupted conflict: the residue crystallised out of the suspension or containment of our struggles. (From ‘The Self Awakened’ by Robert Unger, a Brazilian philosopher and politician)”
Some people raped a child, a child, a child, a child. They drugged her, beat her. Some say that is ok, that these people are ‘misled’. Others choose not to speak about it, till that silence threatens the political power they hold. It is about politics, religion, power. It is about people not thinking that some others are humans.
‘Beke beku, Nyaaya beku’ is what the crowd shouted most of the time. ‘Justice for,’ shouted the person in the front, and the crowd shouted back ‘Asifa!’ A woman standing to our right was probably a lone dissenting voice that said, ‘All women.’ When the person shouted ‘I am’ and everyone replied back ‘Asifa’, I could not join them. Somewhere it felt very wrong, to say that I am Asifa.
I understood where the sentiment was coming from. Since the Je Suis Charlie campaign, I have seen other campaigns use that slogan. Even before that a newspaper lamented, ‘We are all Americans today’ after the twin towers were attacked in North America. Though we didn’t feel the same about the Iraqis and Libyans.
I do understand that sense of shared sorrow, the sense of solidarity in saying, I feel what you are feeling, I can empathise. But somewhere the name stuck in my throat. I couldn’t bring myself to say it.
I understand – this is not ‘our’ struggle – there has never been an ‘our’. Caste, Nationality, Religion make me complicit in known and unknown ways. The privileges I have cannot be shrugged away, unseen. I can only try to be an ally. To keep alive that bit of shared humanity within, I have no choice but to try.
After the protest wound down, I left with three other women. We walked through the rain, a steady patter, toward the Metro station. The city blinked, the inky night drizzled with streetlights, signs, and headlamps. We entered the uniform white gullet of the station; and plonked down on metal seats.
I saw so many of my friends. They have all become so old, she said.
The old guard of feminists, people who fought on the streets, who raised their voices again and again and again. One of them was sitting next to me, her hair wet, her foot tapping, counting the seconds for the train to arrive. We waited together.
Sruthi Krishnan is a writer and researcher at Fields of View.