The October 27th article Gang Rape, Routine and Invisible in the New York Times jolted me back to a day in April, 1975. I had been traveling with my five year old daughter Susan and we were on a bus, visiting the historic sites near Delhi.
That day, Susan and I exited the Delhi Travel bus, decorated with red and blue designs, and followed our tour group. We’d seen several historic places already — mosques and towers from the 12th century. But before we visited the next place, we stopped for a rest, a little food and drink. Inhaling the scents of cardamom and cumin in the food families had brought with them, we stayed close to one extended family, a grandmother, children and parents, all together on a special outing. They were Indians and had come from a rural area to see the sights in the big city, Delhi, and the interesting places surrounding the capital.
Under a tree that shaded us from the sun, I took out our food, wrapped in plastic bags which I always carried in my corduroy zipper bag. I cut a slice of bread and a chunk of cheese for Susan with my small, folding picket knife. There was always someone selling soft drinks, so she didn’t have to taste the water I carried, that had been purified with bad tasting iodine tablets. She drank big gulps from the bottle of Limca, the Indian equivalent of 7-Up.
Always sociable, Susan showed the little blond haired doll that I’d bought for her in Paris to a girl about her age and they played together, making up the stories little girls create with dolls the world over. I conversed with the others in the family by smiling and gesturing. Younger children ran around, laughing as they played. I could see the shimmer of heat wriggle in front of my eyes. It was a tranquil scene of family affection and laughter.
Susan and I were the only non-Indians on the bus, but felt part of the assemblage and stayed with the family as we walked into the site. We gazed in wonder at the red sandstone Humayan’s Tomb, built as a prototype of the Taj Mahal and later declared a World Heritage Site. Beautiful latticed windows outlined with white marble made its magnificence complete.
Susan and her new friend ran beside me as the group made its way around the 16th century structure. On the way back to the bus, I took a look at a side mausoleum. An old man walked with me. I felt completely safe, my family-for-the-day close by.
But then, a group of teenage boys and young men suddenly came up behind us and one roughly grabbed my breast.
“You’re a bastard.” I shrieked to the group of laughing young men. “You’re children, not men! Don’t you have your own girl friend? Is that why you have to attack a stranger?”
They listened and were quiet, shocked at my anger and critical words. But then they ran off into the clearing, between the trees.
Tightly holding Susan’s hand, I returned to the bus and told the group leader what had happened. I insisted that they call the police and search for the group of young men. The tour was delayed.
The expressions and manner of some of the others in the group showed me their discomfort. It was as if a woman shouldn’t have had the nerve to make a fuss over what was only youthful bad behavior and that I should have ignored male sexual aggression.
I couldn’t overlook it. I’d been assaulted and was furious. When the police arrived, they searched for the young men, some of whom were probably still teenagers, but they had long left the area. Still tearful and upset, I was reluctant to give up the hunt, but had to, as there was nothing else the police could do.
Was this relatively minor attack on me part of the culture that Indians generally ignore? Was it only a mild example of the culture’s tolerance of assault on women?
Just a week ago, in October 2013, five men were arrested in Mumbai, accused last August of raping a photojournalist. The Indian public is only paying attention because a woman died after being gang-raped on a Delhi bus last December and the world gasped in horror and revulsion.
These five men in this more recent case seem ordinary, according to what I read in the New York Times. Is this behavior what Indians tolerate? Are women so undervalued that such an attack could be ignored?
The accused men didn’t have enough work to support themselves. There was no way for them to escape Mumbai’s stinking poverty, in the slum where they lived, so they searched out ways to amuse themselves. Raping young women was what they chose for entertainment. Entitled to their fun, they supposedly had done the same to at least two other young women in the same Mumbai ruin that had once been a textile factory.
Perhaps, in April 1975, the culture hadn’t yet deteriorated to the point where such violent behavior among young men was commonplace. Perhaps I was lucky because I was part of a group and with a young child. Perhaps I was fairly safe because I was in a tourist area in the middle of the day. I wonder about my lack of fear back then, holding Susan’s hand and my instantaneous fury at the young men. If I were at Humayan’s Tomb today, it could have been so much worse.