Small Kindness

By ANIKA GUPTA

A year ago, a girl my age was raped in New Delhi.  Several days later she died of her injuries in a hospital in Singapore.  Her intestines were so badly mangled she would have required a transplant to live.  If she had lived, she would never have eaten without the aid of a tube.

My thoughts about things like this rape are like a tap left on, water running, the small incorrect sound flowing underneath everything as I step into the warm, neon confines of the Dunkin Donuts that has just opened in Green Park, New Delhi, two minutes’ walk from where I live.  New Delhi.  Where, for the past four years, I have been happily living.

Dunkin Donuts isn’t the first shop to settle down in this landscape, a little like a saucer coming to land.  Several months ago, Starbucks opened an outlet in Mumbai.  Taco Bell has a shop in Bangalore, where they fill their tortillas with spiced potatoes instead of controversial beef.  McDonald’s, like a mushroom, sprouts on every urban corner, offering fried patties made from thick slices of Indian cheese, a tofu-like item known as paneer.  In order to create paneer patties that mimicked meat, that wouldn’t disintegrate when submerged in supra-boiling oil, fast food engineers labored for months at labs and processing facilities all over the country.

The girl at the Dunkin counter is the same age as me (the same age as the girl who died.) Her eyes peer out, enormous, magnified by her glasses, from under the wide brown brim of her standard-issue Dunkin visor.  Her nametag says “Lalitha” and before I open my mouth, she places my order.

“Large latte to go, right, Ms. Anika?” she asks, grinning so widely that all I see of her face, all I could recognize, are her big eyes and her gleaming teeth.  I’ve been coming here almost-daily for the past three weeks, and she is totally thrilled to get my order right.  One of the big pleasures of morning coffee has become, inexplicably, the fact that I’m a regular at an American fast food chain I would never have gone to back in the United States.  Lalitha, who might not have had a job if it weren’t for this explosive intersection of Indian demand and American supply, is probably one of Dunkin’s biggest victories.  Not that they’d know it.

I take my latte down the road.  There are twenty small stores in this neighborhood market, including Evergreen, where I stop to pick up lunch.  I stroll through a metal detector, that I doubt detects anything, into the restaurant.  On the other side of a divider, vendors sell wrapped silver foil boxes of every imaginable Indian or Western dessert.  When Diwali comes, the festival of lights and also of sweets, Evergreen opens satellite counters on the street outside.  Every man has a function, and they operate with military efficiency.  But today business is slow, the white picnic tables in the main dining area sit mostly empty.  One of the waiters rushes up and takes the slip from the cashier’s hand before I can even grab it.

“Hello, ma’am,” he says, smiling from beneath his hat.  “Lassi, yes?”

“Oh, hi,” I say, because he’s the same guy I see here every time.  He volunteers to take the slip upstairs, and I sit on one of the picnic-style benches and wait. The girl who died was raped by six men on a bus.  After they were done, they threw her unconscious body into the street and drove off.  One of them will be charged as a juvenile.  Politicians refer to the victim as a “hero,” but her family refuses to release her name.

In the days since the attack, the awareness of it lies over everything, like a thin but almost invisible layer of dust.  When a cab driver picked me up on New Year’s Eve, he walked me from the door of his cab to the address I was looking for.  Delhi was never well-organized, and we had to take a few turns down winding neighborhood streets, shaded with the overhanging arms of decades-old trees.  Number 48 sits next to number 29. “K block” sits beside “X block” except for K-9, which lies ten streets away at the intersection of “W” and “M.”  Columbus must have felt the same, setting out with a compass, a destination and the ringing support of his sovereign – “Good luck!”  One time, I did in fact end up at the wrong party.  It looked like fun.  I considered staying.

As the cab driver and I wandered further into the darkness, I reconciled gratitude and suspicion.  I could rest assured that if something bad did happen – something awful, maybe the worst – many of our politicians might ask why I was wandering around in the night with strange men.  Open and shut case.

Thank god, the cab driver was not a rapist.  We arrived at the address, and he waved as I ascended the stairs.  From the balcony, I watched him wander back down the narrow streets in search of his car.  Someone, I hoped, would do the same for his sister or his daughter some day.

At the party, I met Indian-Americans and regular Americans, Indians and Indians-in-exile-in-New-York-or-DC, many here temporarily – or so we say – to grab onto the tails of a potentially fleeing opportunity.  It’s a great place to be, New Delhi.  There are great jobs, great things to learn, great people to meet.  Great ways to die, too: in electrical fires, sparked when an aging motherboard at last surrenders the ghost; on the road, hit by a semi-truck whose driver got his license by paying a bribe; of malaria or dengue, since mosquitoes collect in the open construction sites that are almost as common, these days, as McDonald’s outlets.  Well, nothing’s unique to New Delhi.  Normally, I don’t focus on this.  But then normally I don’t see headlines in world newspapers talking about New Delhi rapes.

Ever since the attack, students and activists have filled the streets, demanding better police response, better prosecution, a legal system that coherently and swiftly resolves disputes.  Instead, the government has suggested special courts and special procedures in cases of rape.  A “women’s carriage.” Only half a victory.

Over dinner, a journalist friend tells me that there are details about the attack that the most lurid newspapers have refused to publish, for fear of giving offense.  Like the cause of injury, the cause of death:

“They inserted an iron rod into her vagina.”

And for a moment the room goes dark, and I have to hold onto the table for some kind of support.  Three years ago I read Eve Ensler’s article about war rape in the Congo, and it went through my knowledge of the universe like a knife.  And even though I now know, objectively, that people will do anything to each other, anything imaginable, still I cannot credit that such things happen in a city where I live.  That people can do something like this to someone they have no reason to hate.

At night, the auto driver who drops me home waits at the gate until he sees me go through my door.  He’s not the first one to do this.  They have been doing it for years, although it took me a while to understand this gesture for what it was, to unpick the seam of suspicion.  My Uncle – whom I haven’t heard from in a while – has started calling me every week.  “I just want to make sure you’re okay,” he says.  To his credit, he avoids giving advice: he doesn’t say, “Stay home” or “Don’t work” or “Stop trying, brick by tree, to own and understand this city.”  Even if he thinks all these things, he doesn’t say them to me. As an entrepreneur perhaps he understands that the upside and downside – although not equal – expand and contract proportionally.

In a column – perhaps the best I’ve read about the incident – Ravinder Kaur says that the lack of access to safe mobility affects women without resources more acutely.  But sometimes there are no resources to address the most fundamental imbalances.  The imbalances between men and women, between life as it is and life as it should be.

At the New Year’s Eve party, people asked me the usual questions.  “Where are you from?”  “Where do you work?”  Finally, “Why are you here?”

Two years ago, I said, “Why not?” Today I say, blithely, shrugging: “opportunity.”  I say it to match my journey, like the other sock in a pair, to one made more than thirty years ago by my parents.  Sometimes, reading through the spectacular headlines about India’s promise, my mother laments that she ever left.  But that was decades ago.  Before economic reforms, before Infosys, before McDonalds.  Now, when she comes to visit me, I hear an accent in her Hindi that, despite its native origin, is in its own way just as strong as mine.

A week after it happens, she and I finally talk about the case.  She says, “I’ve been trying not to think about it.”  Years ago, when I first left her house, we might have had a different conversation when faced with the emerging dangers of the universe. She might have gotten angry, and I might have gotten defensive.  We weren’t used to the absence of each other yet.  Maybe because we are used to it now, it’s even harder to acknowledge how much of the universe lies outside of our joint control.  “I’m just sorry,” I say at last, “for the pain she must have suffered.”  My mother is the only one to whom I can admit the depth of my regret for a girl whom I will never meet.

I could break “opportunity” into disparate parts: the ability to earn money, to create an identity, to live alone, to give and take from the world freely, to celebrate life’s pleasures and its tragedies, to search out things that are mine.  I am not alone in this. The girl who died was on her way back from a movie with a friend.  If a hero is someone the world celebrates for her achievements, a hero is one thing she will never have the chance to become.  In a nearby village, the elders want to name a school after her. It’s a lovely gesture, but I can’t help but think of the girls who will pass under her name, as the boys might pass under the name of Mahatma Gandhi or, more contemporaneously, Dhirubhai Ambani, and shudder for a world in which heroism can still mean such different things for men and women.

My last stop on the walk home is the salon.  Here too I’m brought in with fond fanfare, seated in a nice chair, offered tea and coffee. Guru – his dark hair frosted blonde, a little flamboyant – turns my chair so I can see myself in the mirror.  With his blunt fingers he measures out a few fraying strands, allows me a minute to contemplate my own face as Narcissus did, astonished and captured by its brief unfamiliarity.

“I liked what you did last time,” I offer.  I have gotten the same hairstyle, essentially, twenty times.  He taps his chin with his hands, squints experimentally.

“Still, let’s try something different,” he says.  And from the sum of his words and the kindnesses and beauties of this world, I subtract the reality (weighted for probability?) of the girl who died and all of us like her who didn’t, at least not entirely. What we have left is ours.

 

 

Anika Gupta lives in New Delhi, where she works as journalist for the TV channel CNN-IBN. Her science and tech articles have appeared in Smithsonian and Fortune, as well as internationally. She also reviews fiction, and is always looking for a good book to read.

Small Kindness

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