Dear Jyoti

I’ve never met you, but I think you were better off because you’d never met me. I’m guilty of a crime I believe to be unforgivable.

from Uttama 

 

 

 

 

Dear Jyoti Singh Pandey*,

I thought you were going to live. I was optimistic. Maybe I was just scared. Either way, for you, I chose life over death.

Not everyone did, though. Some said you’d be better off not surviving. That maybe you’d be spared a lifetime with the memory of such a devil act.

I wanted to hate those people, but some of them were my friends. I was shocked. Is this the world I live in—where death is a safer haven? Is justice in the afterlife more likely than in the courtrooms of a democracy?

I’ve never met you, but I think you were better off because you’d never met me.

I’m guilty; guilty of a crime I believe to be unforgivable.

I couldn’t finish reading the article when it first came on screen. Right now, I’ve paused the interview on television, the one your friend and only witness was brave enough to give. I wanted to scream loud enough the whole of India could hear me, but I haven’t said a word. I wanted to find someone who would do something to help, but I could only think of you.

I confess my crime: I forget.

I read, I share information, I run awareness campaigns. But I forget.

I sign petitions, join protests, make posters. But I forget.

Because it’s a crime I commit so often, I’m afraid.

I’m afraid I’m going to forget you. And I’m more afraid everybody is going to forget you.

You are respected and admired by people who don’t even know you. You will be seen a martyr—not just for women, but for human strength. You will go down in history, be kept in records, and there will be some people who will never allow the tragedy of what you endured to get diluted by time and trivial progress.

But most people, the ones who didn’t know you, those who get enraged as easily as they get distracted—will be guilty of my crime. As their news feeds update, memories thin, and inner voices get drowned out by louder broadcasts—they might only do so much as say one day, ‘Remember years ago when that girl got gang raped in Delhi? That was awful.’

I understand where they’re coming from, though. I’ve stood there. I’ve thought, ‘What’s the point?’ The task ahead—of changing a mindset, of reforming a law, of disbanding a ring of corruption—seems so daunting that a small step like writing an article feels like a speck of dust on an over polluted metropolis.

But then I remember you again, and force myself to find out horrific details. I reread your father’s words: “I am proud of her.”

You told your friend you wouldn’t have reported this to the police. Why? Would you have been one more amongst millions of women sentenced to a lifetime of deafening silence?

But I understand some of the reasons. And that’s precisely why my crime is so grave.

Some progress, like anti-rape laws, fast-track courts, and increased public safety for women, will carry on with or without my inaction.

But the real problem—the one that disables women from reporting heinous crimes, the one that allows the president’s son to get away with idiotic remarks, the one that makes police officers force rape victims to marry their attackers—that problem continues to exist because of me, because of ordinary, well-intentioned people like me.

In our day-to-day lives, we do very little to change this outdated idea that for one reason or another, women hold value in relation to men.

They can be disposed of, quite literally, as you were—under a flyover of a capital city or in the missing pages of a father’s will.

They can be used, abused, and blamed for bringing it on by baring their legs. They can be treated as second-class citizens in any country. They can be taunted on the street, groped in a nightclub, or smacked at home.

It’s small details that feed demons. However slight or subtle, it is the accumulation of every single act of inequality that builds up and eventually infiltrates a society to internalize that women can be treated, and can expect to be treated, unfairly.

Your father said he hopes parents will teach their sons to respect women. I’m skeptical. Most will think this doesn’t affect them; that the monotony of their routines has no connection to this outlier of an incident.

But everyone’s actions have impact. They reverberate from the inside out.

I’m sorry to tell you that as parents, we are also guilty of my crime.

The next time we tell our daughter to pull up her sari blouse lest cleavage be misinterpreted as a tarnished reputation, we’ll forget you. When we watch TV serials that dramatize patriarchal attitudes and pressure our daughters to fulfill all the requirements of her husband’s family, we’ll forget you. When we let our son get up off the dining table without clearing his plate, we’ll forget you. When we know our brother is hitting his wife, but don’t say a word, we’ll forget you. And the next time we look at a woman from head to toe and judge her dignity by her clothes, we’ll forget you, and have disrespected you.

I suppose we can’t always remember everything. But right now, while this is in front of our eyes, we owe you more. If we can’t protest, the least we can do is reflect on what happens in our homes that perpetrate this unjust mentality.

It’s possible our inaction to address gendered attitudes in our families and in our culture leads to exactly the kind of arrogance that presumes a woman can be treated the way you were. I shiver when I imagine those men laughing to themselves, thinking they would get away with it. Because other men have.

Jyoti, I’m so sorry.

I know that if it had been me on that bus instead of you, I could never forget. That if this happened to any other parent’s child, they would never forget, either.

But I’m most sorry that it takes so much in order for us to remember.

Your father said you wanted to live. I find comfort in knowing that.

When I have my own children one day, I won’t forget that my words at home get sewn into conversations my son will have at school. I won’t forget that despite concern for her safety, I will not blame my daughter for wanting the same freedom as her brother. I will pay attention. I will stand up for myself; I will speak out. I won’t change the channel, turn the page, or look the other way. Even if there isn’t anything I can do to help you, or someone like you, I won’t presume I can’t do anything.

I will remember.

And I will remember you.

May you rest in peace.

 

*In tribute to the incredible strength of Jyoti Singh Pandey, victim of a gang-rape in Delhi. May we never be indifferent to the horror she endured, and always find a way to change.

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