The mermaid and the drunks

Updated 06 Oct 2020


The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

THERE is a pervasive mythology among well-meaning middle-class folks that tries to explain social strife and rape in action-reaction format. It was inevitable for the police officer in Pakistan to blame the woman who was recently abused by two men at gunpoint on a highway near Lahore.

His view was not dissimilar to that of Asaram Bapu, a Hindu guru whose followers included a prime minister. The guru blamed the girl who was brutalised in a Delhi bus in 2012 as it drove through the heart of the city. Asaram believed the girl should not have fought with the rapists, and instead called them her brothers for protection. The guru is currently in jail for rape.

The action-reaction approach posits, in the context of communalism, that if Muslims in India somehow behaved better publicly and privately — for example, by stopping to believe in the pipe dream of a laughable affirmative action, suggested by the kindly Sachar Commission or if they stopped divorcing their wives by snapping the fingers thrice, which they supposedly do at breakfast, lunch and dinner, chiefly to annoy Prime Minister Narendra Modi — the bias, real or exaggerated, among Hindus against the minority community would melt away.

Of course, one would like to do what it takes to put Hindus at ease about Muslims, but there is very little one could do about obnoxious myth-making. In a recent one, Lord Ram’s adversary mutates from Lankan king Raavan into Emperor Babar. That’s what a Hindu high priest close to Prime Minister Modi told his disciples. He said it was time to choose between Babar and Lord Ram!

The action-reaction approach posits that if Muslims in India somehow behaved better publicly and privately, the bias against them would melt away.

One has grown up seeing good and evil being represented by Ram and Raavan. But now the high priest had changed Raavan to Babar.

Historically, the Mughals were thick as thieves with India’s ruling elite, primarily the Brahmins and the Rajputs as well as Jain gurus. The rulers got Hindu epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata translated into Persian, not to alienate but to understand and befriend the Indians. Historically speaking, the first battle Babar fought in India was against a Muslim Pathan — Ibrahim Lodhi — and the last battle a Mughal emperor fought was against the British with the support of Nana Sahib, the Brahmin peshwa who with other Hindu rulers had declared Bahadur Shah Zafar the emperor of Hindustan. You won’t find these references in RSS textbooks, but these are hard historical facts.

The action-reaction argument in the Hindu-Muslim binary beggars belief. It’s like claiming that Jews in Germany might have been spared the Holocaust had they tweaked their public demeanour, perhaps by toning down their profiles as capitalists and communists, the two contesting ideological alignments many Jews favoured in equal measure.

Let’s stay with the argument anyhow. And, so, what could have been the reckless provocation by the hapless 19-year-old girl in Hathras that she was stalked, raped, tortured and left for dead in a mangled state in a cane field the other day by four upper-caste youth of the so-called martial clan of Thakurs/Rajputs near Delhi? Elsewhere, what do little boys do to become victims of rapists in the thousands in Afghanistan?

Expand the canvas of absurd action-reaction notions. Why is it that the UN peacekeeping mission had found Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans among its troops sexually exploiting helpless women in faraway Africa, or Christian soldiers of Nato doing likewise in Bosnia and Kosovo? How did the victims provoke the predators in the action-reaction format? And what did the Manipuri women do to be raped by Indian paramilitary men?

Or what of the open season on Kashmiris, and their harrowing stories of rape and torture by troops? Why are men of north-eastern India targeted by their facial features in northern and occasionally in southern Indian states too?

On the other hand, very often people may look alike, believe in the same God and speak the same language, but they inflict pain and horror on each other. Rwanda is a case in point. It’s difficult for most outsiders to tell a Hutu from a Tutsi, except that one is occasionally a bit taller, though not always. The two went to the same church and spoke the same language, even intermarried. In 1994, over about 100 days, up to half a million women and children were raped, mutilated or murdered.

There are the usual explanations for rape. It is an aspect of power play, of male domination. It is inflicted on a woman to humiliate and subjugate her or her community. By and large true. This line of argument, however, fails to capture the essence of perversion, the sickness described starkly by Pablo Neruda in his poem Fable of the Mermaid and the Drunks.

“All those men were there inside, when she came in totally bare./ They had been drinking: they began to spit./ Newly come from the river, she knew nothing./ She was a mermaid who had lost her way./ The insults flowed down her gleaming flesh./... Not knowing tears, she did not weep tears./ Not knowing clothes, she did not have clothes./ They blackened her with burnt corks and cigarette stubs,/ and rolled around laughing on the tavern floor…”

One cannot stop thinking of the Hathras girl as Neruda’s mermaid. Yes there is patriarchal power play writ all over the saga, but there is that less commented aspect of the human condition: impotent malice, the rottenness not known to exist in any other species of the planet.

What is the remedy? Social reforms that would even-handedly weed out caste hierarchies and religious superstition. A Hindu Ataturk, perhaps. That’s what the peers set out to do. Between Ambedkar and Ranade, or between Ram Mohan Roy and Tagore, there was an earnest push to rid Indian society of its debilitating social mores and traditions that produced its police and politicians, and its vigilantes and its rapists.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, October 6th, 2020