It is the night of December 31, 2012 and the New Year is only a few hours away. I am gathered with hundreds of others on the periphery of the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus to protest and be part of a movement that is taking shape in Delhi following the rape and subsequent death of a young woman. It is a cold night and we in the crowd are clad in heavy jackets and shawls. I get a place by the fire.
A passionate young student leader talks about how shameful it is that such an incident should take place so close to their university. That perhaps the ideals they hold dear are somehow constrained within university walls and do not have a chance to reach the world outside. The student gives way to a university professor, who takes the stage to talk about the incident.
Two poets render a Qawwali. They are funny and entertaining, the crowd is in splits. Through their humor a grim story of discrimination emerges, and the difficulties associated with being a Muslim in this country.
A group of young people take the stage. They are actors and social activists, an NGO and a theatre group. One of them is covered in bandages. We get to know that a few in the group were injured when police charged the protestors at India Gate, which was the hub of the initial dissent following the night of the incident. The actors are dressed in black – ten men and six women, probably in their early twenties.
The crowd is eager to hear them. I can see the excitement as people shift in their seats, and those standing change their positions and crane their necks to get a better view. A couple of young boys push their way through the crowd, huddling by the fire to escape the bitter cold. Close-by, a tall reporter with a camera takes his place in front of a standing crowd clearly blocking their view. He invites a few muted protests and grumbles. He pays no heed and pretends not to hear them.
The play proceeds. A lady makes her way across the stage, being trailed and leered at by a bunch of guys making sexual innuendos. “Kya mast cheez hai”, they say which translates to “what a hot thing”. The girl protests to which they respond, “What is the big deal? We only looked at you, talked about you, made a few ‘appreciative remarks’, so what is wrong with that?” The rest of the crew breaks into a song from a popular Bollywood movie. In the movie, the male lead is harassing a girl, while his friends perform a song and dance sequence in the backdrop. The girl is obviously being ‘difficult’ and needs to be reined in by the brash young man. I think of the Indian students at universities in America showcasing Bollywood song and dance routines as “Indian culture”. When did Bollywood come to represent Indian culture? And why is it so hard for us to portray something Indian that isn’t Bollywood?
The play continues but the setting has changed. Now a girl is walking down the street and a man is following her. “Don’t follow me,” she says. The man continues to stalk her. She protests vocally. He then pulls out a bottle of acid and throws it, aiming it at her face. She screams and falls to the ground.
Meanwhile, someone vocally asks the tall reporter to move out of their line of sight or get a chair. Others chime in. In the face of such resurgence, the reporter tentatively moves back and quietly slinks off in search of a better spot.
The play carries on. In this scene, a girl is speaking to her male friend. He is showing her his new cell phone, impressing her with its many features. Unexpectedly, he holds her hand and tries to force himself on her. She objects and tries to fight him. The rest of the actors surround them, chanting and drowning out her screams. They hold their hands to their ears, symbolically cutting out her screams while chanting in unison, “we have not heard anything…we have not seen anything…”
The theater group leaves. Others take the stage and have prepared speeches. Some are more impassioned than others. A lady activist talks about the difficulties of being a woman in this country. She has a commanding voice. Many in the crowd are visibly moved. She goes on to talk about a teacher from North-East India who was brutally raped. A girl in the audience cringes and covers her face with her hands. The lady continues “So what are we going to do about this?” and goes on to talk about social reformation and education among other things.
The clock has struck one; we’re well into another year. The fire is put out and as I walk home, I’m thinking “So what am I going to do about this?”