A literary character’s unfinished note describes disappearing women from streets of Delhi

So All is Peace
Book Excerpt 

A City without Women


Women have begun to disappear from the streets of Delhi. It sounds like a new Agatha Christie story. ‘The Mystery of the Disappearing Women’—the latest whodunit from the queen of crime. Where shall we look for them? Are they there? Were they ever there? They are certainly present as numbers and statistics in the now digitized but previously painstakingly analogue records of the census bureau. The numbers that say that there are 7.8 million women in Delhi, and that they have actually increased by 1.6 million from the 6.2 million who were present in 2001. OK, to be fair, they are occasionally spotted. As glass faces in high rise buildings; as a swish of a sari or salwar or skirt in a mall; as the vegetable seller who leaves the market before the sun sets whether or not all her vegetables are sold; as the beautiful, heartbreakingly young beggar with an incongruously small baby in her arms on the traffic light dressed in a lehenga whose intricate embroidery even the dust-coated, diesel-fume reeked hopelessness of her setting cannot quite camouflage; as the student walking past hurriedly to catch that U-special bus. But for a category of persons who form 43 per cent of the population of the city, the sightings are ephemeral and erratic and mostly as one part of a couple or a third or fourth part of a family. The few single women on the streets are purposeful, intent, unwilling to attract attention, even less willing to catch anyone’s eye. There are no women loitering about on the street corners, no women enjoying the sludge in the ridge greens after an unusually intense Delhi rain, no women relishing the tapestry of aroma in the Old Delhi spice market, no women lying down in the grass to soak in the winter sun in Nehru Park, no women playing cards to prolong their lunch hour in the spotty grass enclosures near the squat-grey Soviet era central government buildings. No woman out on the streets of Delhi just because she feels like it.

The other day while watching a scene in a movie where the hero and his friend return very late at night from a party in a taxi, I told Tanya that that can never happen with two women. This kind of casual returning very late at night. Not without there being multiple questions about the safety, the probity, the appropriateness of two women being out alone at night. What was she doing out that late? The top-notch lawyer on TV had asked of a high society daughter-in-law of a senior government minister, who had jumped off the roof of a five star hotel and killed herself. Not why she jumped. Not who was responsible for her suicide. No, those were secondary questions in his eyes. Why was she out that late? Wasn’t her being out alone that late enough of a cause for her to commit suicide? Perhaps only call centre women—back-ending in another country’s daytime and calling themselves Ann and Beth and Sally to fit more easily into the irritated mouths of those irate customers who want to know why their refrigerator or their X-box or their holiday vouchers have not been delivered yet—and to use that old-fashioned term, ‘call girls’—working for the pleasure of the other sex and calling themselves Dolly and Mona and Lily to fit into the fantasy of their paying clients—are permitted to stay out late.

The spaces for women have been systematically, methodically truncated. Not by any dictate. That would be too obvious. There are no boards outside buildings or on roadsides stating—like the infamous boards from colonial times that raise our heckles every time we are shown them in our movies or our books—‘Dogs and Indians not Allowed’. No, there no boards saying ‘Women not Allowed’. But open a map of Delhi and there they are. The many, many places where no woman can go and the many, many more places where no woman can go after sundown. A temporal and areal-shrinking of their boundaries. They make themselves small, dowdy, inconspicuous and yet they are spotted and targeted. The violations are not always large, something that they can specifically touch. Not with their fingers and sometimes not even with their imagination—did he really rub himself standing against you when you sat on the corner seat in the bus or did he keep swaying against you because of the bus driver’s erratic, whimsical overtaking through the crowded Delhi traffic?—but they remain in there like the rotten core you find inside a perfectly formed walnut shell. The insidious knocking down, of the body, of the self, one day after another; the odd, sometimes seemingly accidental and sometimes brazen touch, the long, leering stare; the comments about sizes and shapes and the texture of any body part, even the knees. Sometimes you can’t even mention the intrusions without sounding paranoid. Rotten core inside a perfectly formed shell? How do you know it is rotten then? How do you know it is rotten then?

But sit down, breathe deep and ask a woman. Any woman. They are there. Subtly and brazenly diminishing them. Breaking them down little by little. With their words, with their actions, with their policies. The women may not actually be raped on the street. Although that happens too and that happens too often. Rape Capital. And that is not really surprising is it? Considering that for a long, long time, although no kissing between two adults was allowed on screen, and no men and women were allowed to openly express or even acknowledge their love for each other except in a mostly paternalistic—worshipping the flowers at your feet—kind of way, at least one attempted rape or a full-fledged rape was a mandatory part of almost every Hindi movie. Somehow the script, whether set in an urban bungalow with a large central stairway and manicured gardens or in the rolling rural greens with snow-capped peaks as the backdrop, always managed to spread out to accommodate a graphic rape with evilly contorted lips and grasping hands. And in every movie the raped woman—her bindi askew, her blouse sleeve torn, her sari missing or mussed up—had to kill herself because no woman could continue to live after that kind of assault, could she? As if like the boy about whom I had read years ago in Reader’s Digest, who lived inside a spaceman bubble and would die of infection if there is a breach in his bubble, her entire being is hymen-wrapped whose rupture would end her existence, her right, her very potential to stay alive.

Even today it is the rape victim’s face and the rape victim’s name that is pixelated, blotted out, fictionalized like it is she who has committed the crime and it is she who should be ashamed for carrying the body, for being the body that was assaulted. The much-touted fund set up by the government after the horrifying rape of 2012, ostensibly in the name of the victim, to help other victims of her kind of assault, does not even bear her real name. Her name Jyoti that means light cannot not be allowed to glow after being a victim of the darkness that a rape is, can it? Instead the fund is called Nirbhaya—fearless. But who is fearless? The raped or the rapist?

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Deepak said this morning not leeringly, not sarcastically but straight, matter-of-fact, ‘Women have an extra opening that, like a hole at the bottom of a safe makes all the locks useless and all their insides available for the taking.’

Making them worry more about the length of their skirt than the expanse of their minds, issuing the diktat that women should not be allowed mobile phones because that will give them the freedom to talk and to plot at will, deciding what dress they can wear and how, what places they can worship in and how, deeming them impure for six days each month and nearly twenty per cent of time in an entire year, making them scale the crevasse of propriety, probity, honour and responsibility before they make any decision, using the lexicon of shame when speaking about the life-giving elements of their powerful life-giving bodies, fettering the bodies to chain the minds that want to soar . . . and they have succeeded have they not? The chains hang large and thick inside and

It ended there. Layla seemed to have run out of time or motivation or ink. The note was written the old-fashioned way with a fountain pen. Raman could recognize the fountain pen script almost immediately. Both sisters seem to like writing with a fountain pen and if he remembers right, their handwritings too are almost identical.

There is no date on the note. No hint of when it was written, under what circumstances, who it was addressed to or what purpose it was meant to serve. Then, there is Deepak. Who is he? Raman wants to go back to the hospital to check on Tanya and to talk to her to ask her why Layla has written what she has. And to speak with Layla too, if possible. But no, that is impossible unless she has miraculously regained her consciousness in the few hours since he has left Satya. There is something raw about the unfinished note, something peeled and exposed and bleeding like a brain when the cranium is cut open. That curiously compact and yet squishy lump of material that looks like nothing else in the world and yet contains the entire world within itself.

[Excerpted from the chapter 'A City without Women']

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