Four days after the 23-year-old woman, who died early this morning, was gang-raped in a Delhi bus, the headlines of the Deccan Herald read, “Minor Raped in City Shop.” A 15-year-old girl in Bangalore (where I live) went to the corner shop (we all have one) and didn’t come home. Her family discovered her there, nearly naked, hands and legs bound with her own dupatta. She reported that the shopkeeper and his two friends had teased her, pushed her inside, closed the shutters and raped her. The Delhi rape also received front-page coverage. The remaining pages of the same issue contained the news of a young boy’s murder, two suicides, a kidnapping hostage found dead in a canal, a five-year-old sexually abused in Bidar, two separate road accidents in which a total of seven people perished, the death of a militant in Kashmir and that of a civilian in Manipur, both during military encounters.
All of this in a single day. And it is only what the Deccan Herald had room to print.
What happened in Delhi has provoked, and continues to provoke, an outcry across India, as it rightly should. There have been protests and slogans. There have been vigils and calls for revenge. There has been, above all, rage. But rage is a peculiar emotion. It is incandescent and gratifying, but it is temporary. It cannot sustain itself, or us. It burns out and leaves us cold and empty. Still, day after day after day, the news continues to pour in, demanding attention, demanding further rage. And, gradually, something terrible starts to happen. Rage is replaced by resignation. We read, but we do not feel. We know, but we cannot bring ourselves to act.
We have developed, in this country, a capacity for living alongside tragedy and neglect and suffering, a way of moving through our cities with a firm clamp on our senses and our hearts and our minds. It is a deadness that creeps into all aspects of our lives. Garbage piles up on our streets, but we have learned not to smell it. The din of traffic is deafening, but we have discovered the trick of blocking it out. We step over feces on the pavement — dog, human, cow — without pausing in our conversations. We avert our eyes from the man urinating against the wall. From the child with the rheumy eyes and bloated belly. From the woman curled up in the corner. From the collapsing buildings and factory fires and army encounters in remote forests, from the murders and suicides and rapes. From all that is too much. We draw back into ourselves, into our homes, shrinking and shoring up our lives until they end at our doorsteps. What lies beyond is, to us, a broken world, impossible to comprehend or control, and so each time we step into it we are half-asleep, fully armored, already prepared to ignore what we know we will find.
But now and then, something happens that is so precise and so awful, it cracks the armor wide open. A young woman gets into a bus and is beaten and raped by six men. An iron rod is shoved into her. Her intestines are crushed. She is flung onto the road like a piece of trash. In a Singapore hospital, she dies.
Even the most deadened of us are stirred. Rage begins to quicken and flow in our veins. We cry for the castration of the rapists. We call for their deaths. We spend ourselves in rage. And, spent, I fear we will sink back into the habit of resignation, into our private worlds, waiting for the next thing to come along that is awful enough to crack us open again.
Rage is vital. We cannot do without it. Rage is what makes us spill into the streets, screaming for justice. It is what makes us pressure policymakers and law enforcers to do their jobs better. It is what makes us challenge the vile and damaging remarks we have been hearing from our politicians. But rage will not suffice. We also need compassion. Compassion, from com – “together” and pati – “to suffer.” To suffer together, in other words. In a way that will remain with us long after the headlines move on — and they will — to something else. To suffer, and keep suffering, in a way that envelops and yet extends beyond the young woman whose death we are now mourning, beyond the boundaries of our own lives, to cover the sum of everything we know. In a way that recognizes and participates in the suffering of the people we will never meet, as well as the suffering of people we see each day.
Compassion, unlike rage, is a daily emotion, requiring effort, requiring imagination. It is exhausting in its own way, but it will not crack us open the way rage does. It will peel us away instead, layer by layer, until we have nothing to hide behind, and no need to hide behind anything, and we can leave our houses and see, maybe for the first time, what kind of country we live in.