Becoming a parent is nature’s way of reminding you that you are, actually, entirely powerless. That there is nothing you can do to permanently protect your young. And unfortunately, your happiness and your sanity lie — like the heart of a fairytale prince — inside their beings. You’d feel the same way for anyone you care for – an aged parent, a friend or a pet. Except that because we’re hardwired to feel responsible for our young, parents probably feel this more viscerally.
During the 1993 bomb blasts, I was stuck in Worli, inside a bus that took way too long to reach home. The city had heard about the explosions in Worli; while we, inside the bus, hadn’t. Frantic, my mother walked up and down our street, accosting strangers and asking them if they knew of people returning alive from South Bombay. I was mortified when she told me about this, and sniggered, ‘If I was dead, how would they know?’ That desperate parental love was something that I would discover only later in life.
Growing up in the ’70s, safety was a given for me. My mother, a career woman herself, worked late, took public transport and travelled alone. I know that her mother fretted all the while. When I grew up and was reckless, mom fretted in turn, but never ever imposed her fears on me. And I used to believe — firmly — that I would do the same for my child.
But now I wonder. Should I encourage her to be wild like we were? Or should I teach her an altogether more sophisticated art — that of not taking risks? Realistically, there’s no controlling what happens to you or your loved ones; but instinctively, you want to do everything possible to ensure safety.
And somehow, the Delhi gang rape has made us only too frighteningly aware of this. Unlike the countless, equally brutal rapes one has heard of — in feudal set-ups, army-occupied territories, riot-situations, police-stations; of women, boys, toddlers, girls, men and transgenders — this instance seems somehow epoch-making. That terribly brave 23-year-old has come to sum up our collective helplessness, anger and fear.
Now that our shrill TV anchors have moved on, and it’s not a headline anymore, one wonders, what next? Exactly what is being done to deter rape and to make the post-rape process less brutal for survivors? At some level, rape happens because individuals, communities, and institutions send out the message that violence is fine when it is targeted at the vulnerable. What are our families, schools and government doing to send home the message that it is not?
Of course we need stronger legal deterrents for rape. But more importantly we need structures that unquestioningly support survivors. We need police officials and politicians who truly believe in equal rights and don’t spout the scriptures at us; we need modern forensic rape kits; and we need some serious tracking of repeat offenders (like the Shirdi man who raped and killed a 6-year-old in 2003, got out of jail, and recently raped and killed another 9-year-old).
When it really wants to achieve something, our system is dogged. Remember the family planning and the Pulse Polio campaigns? Perhaps we need similar campaigns — persistent, omnipresent — for gender equality and human rights. Campaigns which will engage people at the mohalla, school, village and police levels — so that everyone hears about human rights, and understands that violent, forced touch is unacceptable.
As always, I come back to the question: what do we tell our kids? How do we tell them to be careful without toeing the nutty-right-wing line? To be free to act and dress as they want, but to be vigilant? To scream and hurt the assailant back if they are ever attacked?
Above all, how do we tell them that most crucial thing? That if they are ever attacked, it is never, ever their fault. No matter what the police, the politicians or the neighbours say.
Anita Vachharajani writes children’s books and is constantly trying to Switch Off Something