Life under the flyover revisited

Back in 2009, I wrote a romanticised take on the Life under the flyovers in Mumbai. I wasn’t in the mood of making any social point then and was just curiously observing an aspect of the life in this city. But a few events in the recent past made me revisit this story.

Two separate incidents of brutal attacks on young girls occurred towards the end of August-beginning of September. The first child a 5 year old was brutally sexually assaulted and left for the dead. She belonged to a family of pavement dwellers in Kandivali and had been picked up from her mother’s side in the dead of the night and brutalised in a chawl nearby. The second was another 5 year old girl whose family lived under the flyover overlooking the Borivali national park. This child too was picked up from her sleeping mother’s side and brutally attacked. Her body was discovered nearby the next morning. There was speculation that these brutal attacks, spaced within 10 days of each other could be relate and so we went to check this Borivali case out.

The national park flyover is a long one. On the city end of the flyover there is a traffic police thana. The cops pointed out to us that the said family lived at the fag end of the flyover, towards Dahisar, around 300-500 mtrs away from this thana. As we walked below the flyover, we saw many jobless men loitering around. We asked some if they knew about the incident, most said they had come there only that day. Then there were families who seemed to have just landed in the city, their bags by their side, sitting under the flyover to escape the weather.

As we proceeded towards the Dahisar end of the flyover, the landscape started changing. The soil was more damp, with the leakage from the dripping flyover or because of frequent urination we couldn’t tell. There were bundles of clothes stacked up everywhere. At some places clothes were put up on a clothesline to dry. A few children were playing about and one man pointed at an old woman, lying on a bed while minding the porridge boiling on a chulha nearby. This woman he said was the child’s grandmother. The grandmother was in a bad condition, her throat was all choked up and she couldn’t speak much, only informing us that the rest of the family was at the police station. Neighbours, also living under the flyover, told us that such a thing had never happened before. They hadn’t yet thought of tying their children to themselves, but hugged them tight while sleeping.

Since the grandmother was unable to speak much and seemed to have smeared some white powder all across her throat, we shot the locality and headed to the police station. There we met the girl’s parents. They seemed to be in their late 30s, early 40s. They had 6 other children who along with a few older ladies of the community were all waiting at the police station to hear about the investigation. Their oldest was about 15 and the youngest was still an infant. The girl’s mother had the same problem, she was unable to talk much and when she did it sounded like a squeal. She also had white powder on her throat. When asked she responded that she and her mother had cried two days straight and now could barely talk; they had applied chuna or limestone to their throats to ease them.

The father held his composure for a long while, telling us about how he and the eldest had been to their native village in Rajasthan the night of the incident. They were labourers who came to Mumbai in the months there was no work in the villages. Rest of the time they stayed back in Rajasthan. For years, their community would come to the same area and stay under flyovers or on pavements as they didn’t know anyone in the city and short term accommodation wasn’t possible on their budget.  The wife had discovered the child missing the next morning and after a search they found her body dumped close by. The mother claims to have been sound asleep and says she’d have killed the accused if she had seen him snatching the child. The father breaks down only while describing the child’s condition, her face he wails was completely disfigured. He fails to understand who could do such a thing to a child.

Among the cries of woe also comes the problem of bureaucratic procedure. For 2 days now, they have been at the police station they say and they haven’t eaten since morning, it is around 2 pm. The DCP had walked in for a briefing and the station officers see us and a few local journalists poking around. The family then gets a fresh batch of wada pav.  The family tells us their children are being questioned if their mother was having an affair with some rickshaw driver or other frequent visitors of such areas.  The husband vouches for his wife’s loyalty. This is the second case I have encountered where the police investigation focuses on the conduct of the women in the family as necessary for investigation. The first one was the death of a Dalit activist in Gondia, where the police arrested the wife and a neighbour saying they burnt the man alive. The man in his dying declaration from a hospital bed named some upper caste members of the village. Investigation is still going on in the Gondia case.

The DCP says that the two cases seem unrelated and that they have some definite leads already in the Kandivali case thanks to CCTV evidence, no such luck though in Borivali. The father keeps asking us and the police to do something soon to find the killer.

A few days after this, the police arrested a suspect in the Kandivali case, showing that both cases are unrelated. The Borivali case is unsolved so far. The child is lost and we haven’t been able to visit the parents again. Most likely, they’ll be under the same flyover, going about their daily jobs, with little time to mourn a life. Maybe days from now, the child will be a distant memory, one they give in to only in the dark of the night, when the roof above their head, the flyover has fallen silent. Maybe, they’ll never return to Mumbai the next season.

In the annals of the Mumbai police, flyovers are known as gambling and drug dens. There is not much policing done though in these dark, damp places because in some ways it is logistically impossible. During the day, the families living beneath it, conduct a very public life. Loud spousal spats, drunken antics, parents physically abusing their children, all this is for everyone to see. At night, these eerie places fall silent. Famished men and women seek succour beneath the flyover in a city where there is no space for anyone anymore. One could say that the solution is to evacuate all these people from under the flyover, hand it over to some corporate who’ll perhaps develop small gardens or other recreation there. But what happens then to these people? Where do they stay? No one seems to have an answer to that. Crime and basic family life co-exist in an uneasy equilibrium under these flyovers. And sometimes, some family, like that of this child get unlucky. As their neighbour put it, “Pehle kabhi aisa kuch bhi yahaan nahin hua hai, par ab kya karein, jo ho gaya, so ho gaya”. (Nothing like this has ever happened here before, but what to do, what’s happened, has happened).

(P. S. The 2011 census says there are 57,416 homeless people in Mumbai, but with the floating population, this number is sure to be much higher).

 

Is sexual abuse gender specific?

The wonderful IHM has again written about a topic I have been thinking a lot about in the last few years. This is her take on male sexual abuse. And while I was going through the comments, I found another gem where a male adult talks about what happened to him.

Over the years, the stories I have heard about male sexual abuse have amazed me for their lack of clarity and ease with which those who have been ‘lucky’ or ‘male enough’ to escape it deride those who could not. There are also the myths. One of them is that its the sexually frustrated auntie who might have done it. The other bigger one is that it is someone who is part of the LGBT community who did it. Well truth is, more often than not, it is just someone who is a sexual bully who does it to the boy who probably didnt even know such a thing existed. Most easy victims are the ones who havent yet explored their sexuality arent they? Also it ensures that the victim wont talk about it out of fear. A sexual predator is a sexual predator, period, regardless of his/her orientation.

The problem with the male victim is he cant say it happened to him, not that it is easier for the girl to say, but just that society has a mentality that such things dont happen to men. If it was part of the hostel ragging, then admitting to it is facing ridicule from the rest of the gang. And oh, the ‘man enough’ crowd would always wonder why you couldnt fight your way out of it. The sad part is that the male victim might get a similar reaction even from close family. It is similar to how the ‘girl must have invited it’, in case of a guy, it is ‘why didn’t he fight it’. Rarely do victims of either gender find someone compassionate and understanding enough to help them soothe the pain.

The ‘man enough’ or ‘woman enough’ crowd has another allegation too. After the victim talks, suddenly they start viewing him differently, looking for signs of homosexuality. This I have found particularly revolting. I have heard quite a few comments about ‘you know that incident has altered him’, ‘you see how he is more feminine’ etc etc. For God’s sake, sexual orientation is not infectious. The trouble is it is very difficult for men and some women to digest that a man can do this to another man. As I read somewhere this is because you cant blame the boy for inviting it. Suddenly you stare at the stark reality that a sexual abuser is just a vicious bully, that it is not about sex but about domination. That is a harder pill to swallow, the basic evil of anyone’s mind. So we choose the easy way out as always, blame the victim. We wonder why he couldnt fight, we wonder if he has turned gay.

Truth is we dont want him saying all these things, we dont want him exposing the evil and our silence towards it, so we have to make it about the victim. Truth is that some of you know it could have been you, but dont want that reminder and so shun him. Truth also probably is that you might have your own reasons to side with the perpetrator. And truth also is that you know that the victim is so scarred already, ashamed of what happened to him already, that he wont challenge your gossip. Makes you feel powerful doesnt it? Wonder who really is ‘man enough’ there.

P.S. Yes, it is an angry post and I dont care what prejudice you want to form about me for saying this.

Sheltering and the effect it has

Siddharth Gautam Buddha’s story is very well known, but let me retell it for you. An astrologer told his parents that he would either grow up to become a Chakravarti or will renounce the world to become a saint. Scared at the prospect of losing his heir to ‘sanyaas’, the king decided to never show him any of the sadness in the world. The king thought that once cosseted in the comforts of the palace, the prince will become used to the good life and would never want to quit it. A normal experience of life was so to say banned for him. Siddharth grew up in perfect luxury and to ensure that he was totally shackled by the bonds of the ‘saansarik sukh’, he was even married off to a beautiful princess. But one day a charioteer made a mistake and took the prince slightly out of the palace bounds. The sights of misery that Siddharth saw put him off the life of luxury forever and finally he renounced the world and became Gautam Buddha.

I always have wondered had the king let Siddharth grow normally, maybe those sights of misery wouldn’t have affected him so much. As much as Gautam Buddha’s life is a lesson in enlightenment, it is also a lesson to society I believe of what fearful control mechanisms do to people. Take sex education for example. If we go by the theory that exposure to sex education makes children more experimental and pushes them to indulge more in amorous activities, then by that standard India’s more repressed states should have less of sexual crimes. But is that the truth?

I cannot say much about other states, but two examples come to my mind. Tamil Nadu and Delhi. These are two states where in most cases men and women don’t interact normally with each other. Boys and girls are taught at an early age to intensely dislike and distrust the other sex. So there is no communication and most of the children grow up looking at the other sex like they are some aliens, part fascination, part hatred. High school classrooms are full of sexist jokes and weird stereotypes about male and female behaviour. But the curiosity is always there and it takes the form of eveteasing, groping and rape.

My friend who studied in a pretty good school in TN used to say that they would make fun of any guy who was just friends with girls. Afterall, the guy had to be a sissy if he could only talk and not get any action out of her. And any girl who even deigned to talk to a guy had to be of a loose character. (I would not say this is completely true about every school in TN). My best friend and her boyfriend in Delhi have been dating for 8 years now. They are school sweethearts and no they haven’t yet done it. Jeeju’s friends tell him that she is definitely going to ditch him after all she hasn’t surrendered herself yet and not just that, they advice that the only way to keep her from breaking his heart is by making her physically his. Jeeju says, “main jaanta hoon un logon ne kabhi ladki nahin dekhi, kabhi jaana nahin ki sahi maynon mein relationship kya hota hai, kabhi mauka hi nahin mila na, isiliye aisa sochte hain.” How true.

But it is not just sex education, there are many choices in people’s lives that are forced upon them because of a fear psychosis. Parents of girls restrict them from doing lots of things thinking that if given freedom the girl will develop a mind of her own and might disgrace them. In this fear, they push her to such an extent, that in the end, more often than not, she unknowingly does the very thing they were afraid of. Some guys are brought up in a strict atmosphere because the parents believe otherwise the boy will take to vices. Mostly these are the very guys who tend to take up vices at the first taste of freedom in a college hostel or out of town job. People from smaller towns talk all the time about that boy or girl who went to ‘shehar’ and changed so much, mostly for the worse(according to them, may not be true actually). Why do they change? Because they were constrained for so long, that at the first chance they will defy everything their past life stood for. Rebels and for that matter even psychopaths are never born. They generally are the ones who were pushed into some sort of a corner, a corner that was either suffocatingly comfortable or scorchingly uncomfortable. The result is always the opposite of what is desired.

If only we learnt how to be more open and accepting!