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Millennium Post

Raping the soul of Mumbai

It was a family holiday, with my parents, to visit relatives settled in the commercial capital of the country. Despite the presence of my cousin and trips organised by my aunt to Fashion Street and Linking Road, Juhu, Chowpatty, Hanging Gardens and Mount Mary Church, the usual tourist hotspots and picnics at Elephanta Caves and Madh Island, the city failed to leave a mark.

It was only years later, on a trip alone to the city now named Mumbai, as a young journalist, that Mumbai happened to me. It was the first season of the IPL and the first time that I was travelling alone, to interview some cheerleaders there. My mother was nervous, understandably so. So was my editor, a gentleman about my father’s age with a daughter of his own. But the sense of liberation delighted me. My editor had insisted that I finish my assignment and be back at my hotel room by 10 pm. But I remember lying to him and my mother and having dinner alone at a quaint Chinese restaurant.

On my way to my hotel from Lokhandwala, an extremely long and tedious journey, I remember falling asleep in the cab and being woken up by the cabbie outside my hotel. He knew I was new to the city. On another occasion, I remember another cabbie driving me from the Press Club to my hotel, which was right in the next lane, because he realised I didn’t know my way back. I remember shopping in Colaba and I remember standing alone at Nariman Point at 11 pm, or probably a little later, staring at the sea.

I was in love with Mumbai. It was for me the perfect place to be. No one turned to look or leer at a lone girl in shorts and ganji staring out at the sea at night. That sense of not being watched is intoxicating. This was way before the Park Street rape took the zing out of Calcutta’s party street and subsequent reports of crimes against women gave the Bengal capital the tag of being ‘unsafe’. But even back then, I couldn’t expect men and women in Calcutta to not stare, lech, mumble obscenities. When I moved to Delhi subsequently and late night outs became a thing of the past, I would often energetically champion the cause of Mumbai, crowning it the best Indian city possible for a woman to live in.

On Thursday night, as reports started trickling in of a young photojournalist being gangraped in Mumbai, I went over the memory of standing alone at night on Nariman Point, as one looks at a favourite photograph, well knowing that I will never be able to do so again. The last bastion of women’s safety in India had collapsed and I was left feeling cold and forlorn, like the rest of my sex.
Of course, this can’t be the first incidence of rape in Mumbai. But there was something about this case that made it symbolic. For one, it was quite early in the evening… approximately 6.30 pm, when the victim had gone to a deserted mill in the Mahalaxmi area to shoot some pictures as part of an assignment. Secondly, she was not alone. In a chilling reminder of the 16 December gang rape of a paramedical student in Delhi, here too, the victim’s male colleague was tied up by the rapists, before they assaulted her. The third reason, and it is bound to sound insensitive, is that she is one of us… you know what they say about tragedy hitting home.

On Friday, as journalists from across Mumbai, sporting black bands on their arms, took to the streets to demand safety for women, I couldn’t help but feel that finally tragedy had struck close enough to matter. Years spent in the newsroom has made me immune to the insensitivity of editors asking reporters about the profiles of rape victims. A victim’s family background, education, home location and the location of the crime are carefully weighed to decide whether she deserves a page one mention, an inside page splash, or a few lines in the ‘news in brief’ column. I have sat through debates on whether it is indeed a case of rape or ‘a deal gone wrong’. This time there were no such debates.

No, I don’t mean to say that journalists are the scum of society. What I mean is that they reflect the general human tendency of rating the importance of an event by the question, ‘could it happen to me?’ A rape in a slum on the outskirts of the national capital does not shake up a reader of an English daily as a rape in south Delhi. The 16 December rape victim was from the economically weaker section of society, but she didn’t draw national sympathy only because of the brutalities she suffered. She was a paramedical student, accompanied by an engineer and had just come out of a mall visited by the ‘cream’ of Delhi society. ‘This could happen to us’ was the thought that bound every protester demanding death for the rapists. And on Friday, as I sat poring over every fresh report on the rape coming in from Mumbai, I couldn’t shake off the uneasy feeling that this complacency where we don’t feel immediate threat to us is what we are paying for. Selective reaction to crisis must end.
Poulomi Banerjee is senior assistant editor at Millennium Post

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