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One weekend and a tale of two tragedies

by Oindrila Mukherjee
Friday , December 21, 2012 at 13 : 00

Now is the winter of our discontent - Richard III, William Shakespeare.

Newtown. New Delhi.

In the immediate aftermath of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook, an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, it was impossible for me to address the rape in Delhi. It was too much too soon. I found myself unable to make the switch from the images of the twenty little kids, and what they must have suffered just before they died, to those of the young paramedical student and her companion on a near-empty bus at night.

But the parallel between the two tragedies is haunting and unshakeable. Two senseless crimes involving unspeakable levels of violence within two days of one another. Two incidents that have provoked international horror and national outrage. Two crimes that are hardly new in the respective societies in which they were committed. Two acts driven by machismo and a predatory instinct.

Make no mistake: both shooting guns and raping women are acts of masculinity. There is something primitive about wanting to hunt prey or attack women, those weaker than yourself. Imagine six men, drunk on liquor and their own sense of machismo, cornering a young helpless girl and her frightened companion, on a bus, late at night, with iron rods and brute strength. Imagine the victim's whimpers of terror and her faint pleas for some mercy. How is this different from a defenceless animal in the wild being cornered by a group of stealthily approaching hunters, armed with guns?

It is saddening to think that both these tragedies are only the latest examples of recurring crimes in their respective societies. Every time some nutcase goes on a shooting rampage in movie theatre or mall or school in the US, it elicits a collective groan of 'Not Again'. Every time a case of rape is actually reported in the news in India, it triggers off some murmurs from the educated elite and then, almost instantly, dies down.

Earlier this year I happened to be watching a rerun of the hospital drama 'Grey's Anatomy'. In this particular episode, a gunman crazed with grief at his wife's death, goes on a rampage inside the hospital, killing doctors, nurses, and patients. The episode ends with the gunman's suicide, of course. He is a monster but he's a crazy monster, someone who had no real control over his actions or even thoughts, a monster whose life was destined to come to a violent end.

I was thinking about the depiction of violent crimes in pop culture last weekend when news broke of the gang rape on a bus in Delhi. Bollywood movies have long involved rape as the central crime, the one that spurs the hero or heroine on to revenge. Hit movies like the 1980 production 'Insaaf Ka Tarazu' (Balance of Justice, based on the movie, 'Lipstick',) used rape to set the hero apart from the villain, and to fuel collective rage amongst the audience on behalf of the dishonoured woman, usually a sister, in a society that claims to revere sisterhood. The first word for "rape" I ever heard was as a child, from Hindi movies "Balatkaar".

I can honestly say I have never heard the word "rape" as much as I have this year. Whether it was Republican Congressman Todd Akin trying to distinguish "legitimate rape" from other forms, or West Bengal's chief minister Mamata Banerjee declaring that rapes are caused by increased interaction between men and women, it seemed that a lot of people in positions of influence were trying to outdo each other in the Bizarre Comments About Rape Contest.

In America, many of the same people who would not support the right of a woman to have an abortion if she finds herself pregnant from rape also vehemently oppose gun control laws that would make guns and assault weapons less accessible to civilians. Their aggressive, testosterone-driven rhetoric sounds as chilling as any dystopian novel ever written. Nearly as chilling as the thought that in India's capital city a woman could get raped anywhere, anytime, with the collusion of the bus driver, the local police, even the local politician's son. That in their rhetoric, their vision, and their total lack of empathy for women, men can be such savages belies the very basis of civilisation.

Despite the conflation of cave-man impulses that govern both these crimes from last weekend, there are important differences to be noted.

1) Unlike the gunman in Newtown, the group of men who tortured and gang raped the young girl in Delhi were not known to be mentally disturbed. They had no underlying condition that might mark them also as victims, or direct attention away from the violence of the crime to issues such as mental health care. The only illness the rapists suffer from is depravity. Their act was not one of lunacy, but simply one of perverse self-gratification and entitlement.

2) The second difference is that rape occurs with more frequency in India than even mass shootings in America. Hundreds of women are subjected to acts of violence across the country every day, acts that are not recorded or reported.

What complicates the debate about possession of guns in America is the rationale of self-defence. If someone wants to keep a gun in his bedside drawer to fight off potential intruders in the dead of night to protect his or her family, should the government really say no? This is what makes not only conservatives but even some liberals ambiguous about gun control, and steers conversation towards different kinds of weapons, number of bullets that can be fired, and so on.

But rape? What possible justification can that have in civilised society? Contrary to what Todd Akin thinks, there is no form of rape that is legit. The absence of any ambiguity ensures there's nothing to debate in India at this time. But then, there never has been. And yet they have continued, unchecked. From relatively minor cases of sexual harassment, groping in public spaces, jeers and lewd remarks on the street, to cases of actual rape, such incidents have been common.

When I was a child, growing up in Calcutta, a city that by no means was an idyll, I always heard people associate sexual harassment against women with public transportation in Delhi. There were urban legends about women boarding crowded DTC buses with pins so they could prick men who tried to grope them. I have lived in the Delhi region both as a child and an adult and visited many times, but I have never dared to get on a bus.

Last week, Michigan, the state where I live and teach, came very close to enacting a new law that would allow people to carry concealed weapons in schools, day care centres, places of worship and other public areas. It was vetoed only in the wake of the shootings in Newtown. But for a couple of days, I had felt the stirrings of a new fear. The fear of walking into my university classroom one day and, without warning, seeing one of my students point a gun at my class. I have successfully avoided public buses in Delhi, but I doubt I could avoid classrooms in America for the rest of my life.

Fear is sometimes a good thing. Horror is even better. With all the differences in the two tragedies from last weekend, there is this one faint silver lining. That both nations are outraged like never before. Maybe 20 beautiful, smiling kids, being gunned down in an elementary school days before Christmas can finally move us. Maybe a woman being beaten by iron rods and raped until her guts spill out can finally move us.

It is interesting to note the widespread demands for capital punishment in India for this crime. One has to wonder what might have happened in the highly unlikely possibility that Adam Lanza had been captured alive in Newtown. A gunman on the rampage would have had to be stopped, surely, by bullets. But still, imagine for a moment that he had survived and been taken into custody. The same people in America who want more gun control are opposed to the death penalty. Those that want guns also want convicted criminals to die. How would this dichotomy have been resolved? This is merely hypothetical of course, given the circumstances. Adam Lanza is dead. The six rapists in India are alive. This, along with the nature of the two crimes, has impacted the aftermaths differently.

But in the end, there is this similarity. In Newtown, there are twenty-six families that will never be whole again. In Delhi, there is a young woman fighting for her life, who, if she lives, will never be whole again. After such knowledge, what forgiveness? What Christmas?



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More about Oindrila Mukherjee

Oindrila is Assistant Professor of creative writing at Grand Valley State University at Grand Rapids, Michigan. A fiction writer, translator, former journalist and an ardent tennis fan, she has also been a Creative Writing Fellow in Fiction at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. You can follow her on Twitter @oinkness.
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