By Sanjay Jha
A year ago on December 31st she may have been with her family. Or her friends. Singing and dancing the night away. A young carefree girl of 23 years living a life of dreams. A student, an aspiring physiotherapist , part of India’s famous “ demographic dividend” story. All dressed up and ready to party. When the clock must have struck the midnight hour and the countdown had reached zero, she must have hugged and kissed her near and dear ones and said , Happy New Year ! In turn, they must have wished her the same, Happy New Year! Alas, for her this year it was not to be. Just two days short of planning for another new year in her life as it ought to have been, she was gone. Her marriage plans with her friend just a broken memory. December 29th 2012. RIP. She had joined the innumerable on India’s death statistics. A victim of crime, rape. Perpetrated on her by six men who used their brute physical strength to humiliate her and her male friend. But this was no ordinary death, no ordinary death.
It was a cold wintry evening in Delhi, and over the five years that I had spent there , the 31st of December always turned out to be one of the chilliest. My wife though is from Bombay ( as it was called then) , a city where if the temperature fell below 15*C it caused deep consternation, sweaters rolled out and the affluent contemplated buying electric blankets. Those days, the greenhouse effect and climate change were not yet fashionable terms. Our new-born was eight months old and coming to terms with strange endearing monsters in her life. Clearly, she was finding the familiarization process fairly entertaining. And the ogres, sufferable. Since my parents were over for a short vacation , we decided to sneak out for a quick break. We had never really celebrated a New Year’s in Delhi till then. But this was Gurgaon, considered a generous extension of the capital city and still to develop into a real estate goldmine. I was a member of the newly opened DLF Club, and our house was barely two kilometers away. Dressed in our snazzy best and after several unending warm hugs to our newborn who was left in the cuddly comfort of her over-exuberant grandparents, we drove off for our first New Year’s do in Delhi.
All was going well, the music was a cross-fusion between old retro and some bizarre concoction. Clearly, there was no pretensions of catering to connoisseurs that evening. Michael Jackson ruled the roost as did Amitabh Bachchan’s energetic Jumma Chumma de de. Of course, the perennial party favorite Jahan Teri Ye Nazar Hai from Kaalia remained the popular track that had everyone shaking their leg. We danced and laughed and laughed and danced completely oblivious of the fact that about five young guys had slipped quietly close to us. We were targets.
But it was when someone accidentally bumped against my wife on the dance floor that I got concerned. Because if it was a mere inadvertent brush , one expects an immediate apology or at least an embarrassment writ face that retreats into the shadows. But these guys were shamelessly grinning back , feeling triumphant about their apparent power to influence our evening plans. This was not accidental, it was deliberate provocation. We immediately moved away from them, and while somewhat rattled by this unexpected unpleasantness , treated it as just a bunch of rogues that we could easily avoid. We were wrong. They kept following us around. It is then that I first sensed the gravitas of an emerging threat. The sixth sense began working overtime, even as one foolishly believed that it would just be a transient interruption. They made loud noise, passed lewd comments and began to come within alcohol-sniffing distance. They wanted a verbal altercation , criminal delinquents always look for an excuse. I was not so enlightened then. I asked them to stop their loutish conduct and complained to the Manager who surprisingly looked drunk himself and was therefore of no use. In fact, he seemed to know the troublemakers at a personal level. If you think the crowds around are a natural rescue team, just forget it. Everyone who was seeing something getting out of hand was carefully distancing themselves from us , or thick-skinned enough to pretend that they were too busy to notice anything. We knew that the rowdy lot was beyond control, so the only option was to leave instantly. We immediately left the dance floor as unobtrusively as one could possibly do, and thankfully no one followed us. Feeling somewhat reassured that the hellish experience was behind us, we decided to have a quick meal, and thus checked out the dinner buffet. It was the second wrong decision of the evening that I still deeply regret. The gang of five made a boisterous planned return on seeing us and started making obscene statements, standing at close proximity . It was when I snapped back, that one sensed the dangerous territory one had got into. It was a New Year’s party in a fairly new club, the security and administration was weak, and frankly people cared two hoots about what was going on. The gang now threatened us verbally about undisguised physical intimidation and assault, and my wife and I endured the filthiest abuse ever. We had to get out , but how? What if they followed us again? The savior of the moment was a simple security-guard who intervened and told : Please leave. They are drunk. This could get out of hand. Anything can happen. I will hold them back. You run to the car and quickly drive-off.
We did precisely that, gingerly disappearing in the mad crowd still dancing to some cacophonous music and running quickly into our Maruti 800. If indeed we had been physically attacked, I don’t think anybody would have noticed or even cared to help. Once in the car, I drove like a mad maniac watching my rear-view mirror for appearing headlights. None came. The sight , sound and smells of home that night was like being welcomed to heaven perhaps. I went and lodged a written complaint the next day at the club giving full description , and followed it up for weeks. The club dismissed it as just another incident and said that they could not really do much. As it happened, that disturbing incident triggered several events in my life, one being a determined decision to leave Delhi at the first available opportunity. Providentially, I got a fantastic job offer from one of the world’s best bank’s and we headed for Mumbai. It is a city that despite its intrinsic madness I love probably more than even Raj Thackeray today.
For a long while , the cold evening of December 16th must have been like just another day in her life. A movie, a meal maybe , and then back home. And then another day to look forward to. Sunshine. Smiles. Winter in the air. And New Year’s round the corner. New resolutions, hopes, and dreams. When she boarded that bus, she was so innocent, so trusting of the people inside who would transport her home , to her parents and her younger siblings. But she was unaware of men, six of them, who instead awaited her with a repugnant macabre intent. They unleashed a ghoulish horror on her, in minutes perhaps, destroying her innocence and faith. Tragically, she must have seen and lived through the trauma of knowing that what was happening to her was a reality, a living nightmare . The world can be so damn unfair, unrelenting, and unreasonable. And yes, so lonely. She was after all being slaughtered in a moving bus in the glitzy capital city of India. It was an unequal fight, but her friend and she fought till the very end. A cheerful fun evening had suddenly met with fate on the dark side. Lives can change so dramatically, so abruptly, it is hard to decipher any meaning in them sometimes.
Today as everyone celebrates the New Year’s eve , whether you are dancing, eating, singing or having a drink or watching TV, for a moment, if only just for a moment, do find time to look up at the sky and stars , and hope, that somewhere up in the heavens she finds her peace there. Unknown to her, a few days ago, a bus-ride changed her life. And that of a nation. Forever.
Happy New Year!