Mahavir Enclave is a bustling working-class colony at the hard extremities of New Delhi. Houses snake up here in haphazard bursts whenever their inhabitants can afford to elbow a little more space for themselves in the world. For an outsider, these seem less homes, more just slivers of precarious brick slapped together. But for those who live there, it is psychological solidity: a toehold, finally, on life.
Here, in a tiny mole hole of a room a few feet below ground, in a warren of other similar rooms, two brothers, 20 and 16, struggle to hold on to a dream. The elder is studying to be an engineer; the younger wanted to be an astronaut. But their frontrunner, the lively, quick-brained sister who birthed these ambitions—who made them seem so tantalizingly possible in this nether layer—is no longer there. She has morphed into a symbol: globally known now as Nirbhaya, which means “the fearless one.”
U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry posthumously honored Nirbhaya with an International Woman of Courage Award on March 8. A week earlier, in his annual budget speech, Indian Finance Minister P. Chidambaram announced a Rs. 10-billion (about $200 million) Nirbhaya Fund to empower and promote safety for women. Briefly the Indian Parliament considered dedicating a new criminal-law bill to her name.
Over the last three months, the story of Nirbhaya—a 23-year-old paramedic who was gang raped with unspeakable brutality on a bus on Dec. 16, 2012, and died 13 days later of her injuries—has triggered shock and outrage across the world and galvanized spontaneous and unprecedented protests in India. She has become an icon of resistance, a watershed moment. (Indian law forbids revealing the names of rape victims, so when an Indian media house came up with Nirbhaya as a substitute, it stuck: it encapsulated the spirit with which she fought.)
India can be a cruel place for women. Each day, the papers teem with stories of anonymous women raped, killed, and dumped in different parts of the country. Sometimes they are minors, girls no older than 3. The spectrum of chronic gender violence stretches even further: acid attacks, marital rapes, honor killings, female feticide, acute malnutrition, discriminative access to schools and jobs, the cultural misogyny rolls on. Of course none of this has abated since Dec. 16, but something has shifted in India. The response to sexual assault in this country will never be the same again. The silence has been broken. Women everywhere are speaking up more; men feel freed (or enjoined) to be more supportive. Some of the stigma has been yanked off. Laws are being revised; judicial and administrative machinery is being revamped. Clumsy and inadequate as it may be, the government is being forced to respond.
At one level, therefore, the story of Nirbhaya could be read as a tragic yet celebratory one: a simple, but soaring binary about courage in the face of immeasurable bestiality. But at another level, it is a window into a much more complex, perhaps even darker and sadder, narrative about contemporary India and the terrible collision of aspiration and frustration that has been unleashed within it.
Until Dec. 16, Nirbhaya was just one among millions of faceless young people in India trying to break through the stifling fixity of their lives. Her father, Badrinath Singh, had left rural Uttar Pradesh decades earlier in search of a larger life, but failed to find it. Having run through a series of petty jobs in small industrial towns, he had come to Delhi in 1983, his wife pregnant with their first child. Singh carried a schism in his heart. His own impoverished father had had money to educate only two of his four sons. One son now had a job in the paramilitary; the other had risen to be a judge. In stark contrast, the younger two were fated to remain casual farm laborers or scrabble together a life out of some urban fringe.
Understandably, education was the driving hunger in the Singh household. Working grueling double shifts, first as a watchman, then as a cargo loader with an airline, earning a mere Rs. 200 a day, Singh put all three of his children—by turns—into a private school that used English as the language of instruction. (English, in India, is the most coveted vehicle of social advancement and mobility.) “My father was determined to give all three of us a strong foundation,” says Gaurav, Nirbhaya’s brother.
“My daughter was different from the beginning,” says Singh. “She was hungry for school even as a toddler. And she was so lucky; she always got what she wanted. We only managed to buy this piece of land when she was born.” From that tenuous perch—the mole-hole home in the ground—the family had begun to build a life.
Nirbhaya—obsessive, industrious, optimistic, face always set inexorably to the sky—was the centerpiece of that life. She had an innate taste for fine things; she was determined to carve a slice of it for her family and herself. After fifth grade, she had to switch to a cheaper government school, because her father couldn’t afford private school for all three. By the time she was in 10th grade, she had started tutoring 25 to 30 neighborhood kids, in two shifts every day, to pay for her own fees and help her parents put her brothers through school.
“She hardly had any friends. She never had any time,” recalls her mother. “She was always busy, always rushing. She’d wake at 6 a.m. for yoga, rush to school at 7 a.m., return at 1 p.m., give tuitions till 6 p.m., and then study herself.” Despite her ascetic schedule, Nirbhaya loved gadgets, streaking her hair, and trendy clothes—netted tops and high heels were her favorite—and she always strove to speak in English, often even to her mother. She hated going back to the village her parents were from. There was nothing there for her. “She was always dressed like you,” her mother says, pointing to my jeans. “She didn’t like traditional clothes.”
“Both she and I worked double shifts. Sometimes we could only afford to eat rotis and salt,” says her father, “but there was a wonderful atmosphere at home. We were working to improve our lives. We could feel the good times were going to come.”
In 12th grade, Nirbhaya decided she wanted to study medicine. Her father told her he couldn’t afford even the application forms. “She literally fainted with anxiety,” he says. “When we revived her, she told me, give me whatever money you’d have spent on my wedding for my course; I’ll pay for the rest.”
In 2008, Nirbhaya left for Dehradun—a town five hours from Delhi—to pursue a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy. (Neurosurgery fascinated her, but she failed to clear the national entrance test; she kept her interest in it going, however, with additional reading.) In Dehradun, the hard routines of her childhood took over again. To pay her way, she joined a Canadian call center and worked nights, sleeping only two hours every day before rushing to class.
In the end, she came home barely a few weeks before she died, after four years of being away. She had landed an internship with a prestigious hospital, bought watches for her family and a laptop for herself, and put highlights in her hair—fire red, golden, and snow white. Her taste in music had moved from Bollywood to Bryan Adams. In all her textbooks, she had proudly prefixed “doctor” to her name in neat handwriting. “She was finally going to enjoy the fruit of all these years of striving,” says her mother (sangharsh is the word she uses in Hindi, with its inflection of striving against great odds, layered with intense sacrifice). “But that joy was taken from her.”
I ask the mother her name. Asha Devi, she says. His mother’s name “means hope,” Nirbhaya’s brother Gaurav emphasizes with conscious irony. He’s stopped going for his engineering coaching classes; his sister’s death has set him back three months. Now he’s preparing to take the entrance exams on his own instead. “I still dial her number every time I have a question about my application forms or some decision I have to make,” he says.
Nirbhaya’s father lies back dispiritedly on the bed. He’s developed a bad infection in the knee. His youngest son, Saurabh, no longer wants to be an astronaut. His ambition now is to be a doctor and live out an unfulfilled dream.
The harsh ironies pile up. The family sitting disconsolately on two beds crammed against each other will soon be gone from here. The government has promised them a middle-income house of their own; they’ve also been paid a compensation of Rs. 3.5 million, partly by the Delhi government, partly by Uttar Pradesh. Nirbhaya’s kept her promises even in death. She’s pulled her family out of the nether region. She’s made good.
“Except it all tastes like sawdust,” says her father.
Dec. 16, 2012. Awindra Pandey, 28, a broad-chested, soft-spoken engineering professional, picked up Nirbhaya from her home in the afternoon to take her to a movie in a tony South Delhi mall. It should have been an ordinary, happy day. There was Christmas cheer in the air. The pair watched Life of Pi, loitered in the mall a while, window-shopped, then headed home. It was early in the evening, but none of Delhi’s infamously testy auto rickshaws was willing to go the distance. The couple coaxed one to take them halfway to a bus stop. No public bus came around. A white chartered bus was parked close by. A young boy beckoned them to enter. Anxious to get home, they did.
According to media reports and the police, in a slum cluster not far away from the bus stop, six young men had gathered earlier that day to drink. They played marbles and cursed. One can imagine how the booze must have smudged their heads, erased the squalor of their lives, made them feel zesty, reckless, bold. It uncorked a deadly cocktail boiling inside them. They were sick of being matchstick men, sick of the shining alien city always bustling outside their reach. They wanted a piece of the action. They wanted to feel like kings of the road. One of them was a bus driver. He drove schoolchildren by day; the vehicle lay with him by night. Police say he urged his raucous friends out for a joyride: “Let’s have some fun,” he said.
First the gang found a carpenter returning from a day’s work. They lured him onto the bus, stole his cellphone and the Rs. 8,000 in his pocket, then dumped him on the road. They’d tasted blood. A feral exhilaration must have gripped them. They wanted more.
Awindra and Nirbhaya knew something was wrong within minutes of boarding the bus. Their skin prickled. There were only six men inside; the windows were tinted black. The door was slammed shut. As the bus set off, one of the men began to taunt the girl for being out late. Awindra tried to shut him up. The others immediately surrounded him like wolves. Nirbhaya rushed to defend her friend. Her defiance enraged the men. The altercation spun out of control. They began to beat Awindra mercilessly with an iron rod. As he lay pinned at the front of the bus, floating through bouts of unconsciousness, Nirbhaya was dragged, fighting and kicking, to the back and raped and bitten and sodomized in turn by the six men. When she resisted, biting three of them herself, they pushed the rusted iron rod inside her all the way to her diaphragm and ripped her intestines out. “An intestine is 23-feet long, ma’am,” her brother Gaurav had said stoically in his room. “Barely 5 percent of it was left intact.” The doctors who treated her said they’d never seen a rape victim so brutalized.
The men drove the bus in circles for almost an hour as they raped her. When they were done, they stripped the couple of their belongings, tossed them naked on the highway, and then tried to run the bus over the girl. Failing in that, the rapists calmly took the bus back, washed it clean, divvied up the spoils, and returned to their homes.
Nirbhaya and Awindra lay mangled and naked in the December cold for two hours before the police finally turned up. Cars kept whizzing by. No one stopped.
Nirbhaya’s story is a window to the terrible collision of aspiration and frustration that has been unleashed within modern India.
In a sense, Nirbhaya embodied a new India no one has a full measure of yet. India’s cities and small towns are full of young men and women like her: restless and on the move; hungry for an education, for jobs, for English, for social mobility, for belonging. They’re an Internet generation; they know there’s a wider world out there. They’re reinventing themselves with energy, dissolving—or at least challenging—centuries-old boundaries of caste and station and wealth. They love their families with a grave sense of duty, but they long to leave the old ways behind. If it’s to be a toss of coin, they’d rather look good than eat, rather have a TV set than a bed. They’ve sloughed off old skins, but not quite acquired the new. Just one chromosome binds them all: aspiration. They are the neo-middle class.
Nirbhaya’s friendship with Awindra was made possible by this new India. He is the son of a lawyer, a high-caste Brahmin; she was a Kurmi, much lower in that unforgiving ladder. His family lives in a three-story house in Uttar Pradesh; hers was cramped in the space it takes to park a car. Yet, introduced by a common friend, they felt instant affinities. They went on trips together to religious places, shared rooms, hugged, held hands, but stayed away from other intimacies, aware that beyond the cocoon of their friendship, a real and more questioning world awaited. They bought each other clothes, talked about their ambitions, discussed the Bhagavad-Gita, advised each other on their careers and investments. He introduced her to books like Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. He was a friend to her brothers, too, helping them choose their subjects, make decisions, write résumés. He spoke to her mother sometimes on the phone, but, aware of Nirbhaya’s discomfort, never visited their home. He always picked her up from the road outside. She called him “a perfect man.”
“We never thought of each other as unequal. Sometimes I felt my family and I were not of the same wavelength. But I could speak to her about anything,” he says on an early March evening, reluctant to dredge through these memories again. “Nothing else mattered. In friendships, you don’t have to be the same; you just have to complement each other. But she’s gone now, and I have only one goal. I have to get justice for what happened.”
Awindra paces about uncomfortably on a cane in a small hotel room, perching awkwardly every now and then at the edge of the bed. He’s still recovering from his injuries. He finds it hard to sit or stand too long. Three months have passed; so has the juggernaut of attention. No politicians are willing to meet him now; no one’s asking after him. Away from global attention, a harrowing trial is under way. He is the sole eyewitness.
“I don’t like being alone,” he says. “I am afraid to live with my thoughts.” He had gone to meet the dying Nirbhaya in intensive care on Dec. 20, four days after. He wore a jacket she’d bought him. Dates mattered to her: Dec. 20 was the day they had first texted each other. But she was sleeping, and he had to go again the next day. He says she was touched he’d remembered. She tried to hug him through the maze of tubes attached to her petite frame. In the end, she could only make a gesture of a hug.
It was the last time they would see each other. She died eight days later in Singapore, her genitals destroyed; her stomach hollowed out; wracked by septicemia, brain injuries, and multiple infections.
He had wanted to linger longer at the mall that fatal day. She told him she wished she’d listened. Perhaps they’d have missed the rogue bus. Perhaps they’d have earned the time to dare disturb the universe.
Perhaps, he says, he would have been with her all his life. In an interview with other media, his father said, “Perhaps if my son had made a very passionate case, we may have listened.”
The story of the gang rape hit the papers the next morning and began to spool out relentlessly over the next few weeks, horrific detail upon horrific detail. There are many reasons why this story caught fire in the public imagination more than any other rape in recent Indian history. There was, most of all, the unfathomably brutal violence involved. But many other things coalesced: the location of the crime, in upper-class South Delhi; the impunity of the attack; the fact that it was early evening; that she was accompanied by a male friend; that there were no complex caste or feudal hierarchies at play; that this was just random urban crime. That she was an average “wholesome” girl making her way in the world. Women across the country felt, “but for the grace of God, that could have been me.” She was Everywoman.
But there was other tinder for the fire: the chronic inefficiencies of the system, the habitual callousness of the police, the dull apathy of the political class, the new hyper-connectivity of the young. And something deeper and more inchoate, too: a seething restlessness that underlies Indian society today. A desire for better governance shot through with a fear of dead ends. As the comatose establishment failed to swing into action, young men and women across strata poured into the streets. Could something so colossal happen, and the Indian state would still lumber on as usual?
Nirbhaya’s own composure also alchemized the air. In the 13 days that she lived after the assault, she testified twice before a magistrate, giving a detailed and clear-eyed account of the attack. Startlingly, her doctors said she showed no psychological distress, no self-pity. She broke the mold: she wanted her name to be known; she wanted her rapists to be brought to account; she wanted them “burnt alive.”
Under intense pressure, the Delhi police made arrests in record time.
Within a week, six men were in custody. Ram Singh, 33, the bus driver; Mukesh, 23, his brother; Vinay Sharma, 25, a gym assistant; Pawan Gupta, 24, a fruit seller; Anurag Thakur, 24, a cleaner of the bus; and a 17-and-a-half-year-old juvenile—known as Raju—who worked odd jobs at roadside eateries.
With the arrests, the protests reached a crescendo. These protests encapsulate profound sociological changes underway in India. On the upside, they demonstrate that the vocabulary of feminism has percolated down to the street. For weeks, young people who’ve never been part of any formal political movement braved water cannons and baton charges, demanding not only better policing and a swifter judiciary, but also complete autonomy for women over their bodies and lives. India has a galling history of blaming women for the violence that happens to them. But now, when an older generation tried to mouth venal idiocies about how women should be chaste and cautious, the young turned on them with fierce scorn.
The protests also made visible a disturbing phenomenon: India’s increasingly illiberal gene. Nirbhaya’s desire to see her rapists burnt alive is understandable. But on the streets, too, the demand for justice morphed too quickly into a roar for revenge. For the most part, the media and political establishment followed suit: castration, capital punishment, and a reduction in the age of those deemed juvenile became the dominant discourse.
Nirbhaya’s rapists were demonic: there can be no argument about that. But if they’d merely been six deviant, psychopathic men, this story may have found easier closure. Perhaps then, hanging them would have weeded out an isolated virus. But even a cursory look at the back histories of the accused is proof that there are no such neat answers.
Rather, in a bitter twist, both the exhilarations and the devastation of Nirbhaya’s life are part of the same continuum. There is a terrifying sociology of rage and violence building up in the country. On March 15, a Swiss woman, on a cycling trip with her husband, was gang raped and robbed by six men in central India. The husband was brutally beaten as well. The archetype is hard to ignore.
‘An intestine is 23-feet long,’ her brother said stoically. ‘Barely five percent of it was left intact.’ Doctors who treated her said they had never seen a rape victim so brutalized.
As the new economy is forcing millions of Indians from their land and traditional livelihoods into hostile megalopolises, a storm of colliding worlds is being created. The glittering city with its bold new ways and siren images now sits in intimate proximity with rural backgrounds. The membrane that separated them is gone, but the divide remains. Frustration can be a very dark underside of aspiration.
In a dramatic development, on March 11, three months after the gang rape, Ram Singh, the key accused in Nirbhaya’s rape, hanged himself in his high-security cell in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. He and the juvenile had reportedly been the most savage of the assaulters. It is hard to know what drove him to take his life. Sudden remorse? Or just bottomless despair?
I was with Ram Singh’s parents in Ravi Dass Colony the evening before he committed suicide. Over the last few months, the media have described the colony in the easy stereotype of the squalid Indian slum—open drains, great poverty, families crammed like sardines into boxes. On the surface, Ravi Dass Colony is all of that, but there’s something more complex about it, too. Like Mahavir Enclave, where Nirbhaya lived, a kind of restless and optimistic energy runs in its arteries. Resigned acceptance, that old Indian status quo, is gone. Parents here may have started out as petty laborers, but their children have moved one rung up. They dress smart, talk smart. Yet for the most part they have to reconcile their new dreams with the harsh reality of their lives. This makes them sleeping volcanoes. Four of the accused rapists came from this colony.
By all accounts, Ram Singh—the said-to-be leader of the pack—was a scrappy, volatile man. He drank heavily. His neighbors spoke of him as “mental.” He had disappeared with a married woman for a few years, then returned even scrappier, saying she’d died of an illness. The night of the savagery, Ram Singh apparently came home and calmly cooked a chicken, ate it, and went to sleep. He had a mutilated arm from an accident on the job a few years earlier for which his employer had refused to compensate him.
“I wish he had died in that accident,” his mother had said, weeping wildly, the night before he committed suicide. “Perhaps my younger son would’ve been spared then. Now we’ve been shamed so much, we can’t even go back to our village. I wish they’d hang us with our sons.”
Her husband, a construction worker, squatted on the floor, head buried in his knees in absolute despair. A mouse ran about on their bed. Both had not an ounce of flesh on them. They were the archetype of the urban Indian dispossessed: skin, bone, and the grind of years.
As they spoke, the parents swung in dizzy arcs from guilt, shame, and angry accusation against the girl for being out late to bizarre conspiracy theories. The father seemed a bit unstable, flaring up in sudden bursts at his wife. “I’m sure Sonia Gandhi has a hand in this,” he said darkly once. The mother, though, was in a place of suffering beyond description.
“We’ve starved ourselves to bring up our boys,” she said. “What demon took hold of them? I always believed God lives within each of us. There were six souls on the bus that night. Did the voice of God not speak within even one of them?”
That question strikes at the inexplicable heart of this story. Barring Ram Singh, none of the other accused appears to have any history of violence before that apocalyptic night. Mukesh, Ram’s brother, was a mild young man (“a follower,” his mother calls him) with a passion for clothes and music. His clothes were always clean, his mother says. No matter how late he’d come home, he’d skip a meal, but definitely wash his clothes. Apparently that’s what he was doing when his brother called him out to drink that fateful night. His parents had just found him a girl to marry.
Vinay, one of five siblings, a gym cleaner and commerce graduate, was also known to be a polite young man. He had started working early to help his father, a construction worker and balloon seller, pay the bills. Their home was no larger than a train berth; the family of seven had to share it, living their dreams and desire out of that inhumanly cramped space. Standing outside that room, the debris of all the wasted years of effort hanging over him like a shadow, the father, a heartbreakingly dignified and stoic man, said, “I met my son in jail once. I’ve told him if he’s done this, he has to pay for it. He should be hanged.”
The fruit seller and the bus cleaner, Pawan and Anurag, have similar stories. Raju, the juvenile, though, was the most dispossessed of them all. He’d left home as a boy many years earlier. His father had become a vegetable after a brick fell on his head and injured his brain. His mother could barely scrape together a living for her children. Raju used to send Rs. 600 twice a year to her. For a few years, he hadn’t done even that. When the police reached her hut in the village—not even tenuous brick, just plastic sheets yoked together—she said, “I didn’t know my son was alive. I thought he was dead.” She hasn’t come to see him even once in jail. She cannot afford the ride to the city.
After he left home, Raju worked odd jobs for years at dhabas, India’s ubiquitous roadside eateries, mostly washing dirty plates. One of his employers, who was fond of him and found him to be a very efficient worker, has a telling story about him. Raju apparently came to him abruptly one day and asked to be made a manager of the eatery; he could not bear to wash another dirty dish ever again in his life, he said. Unable to make him a manager, but wanting to keep him, the manager raised his salary by Rs. 1,000 a month to do the same job. The next morning the boy had packed his bag and gone. He did not even take his last salary. For a couple of years there was no news of him. And then came the headlines about a demonic night.
To ask about the backstories of the accused is not to mitigate or humanize the brutality of Nirbhaya’s attack. It is to understand where it might stem from. By no means is rape the exclusive domain of the working classes. But as the stories of inhuman violence continue to flow inexorably in the Indian media, unless one examines the harsh landscape they arise from—a deadly landscape of squalor and hope and thwarted ambition—and the untapped rage that must inevitably underlie it, the wailing mothers of both assaulters and victim will never have their answer. There were six souls on the bus that night. Why didn’t the voice of God speak in even one of them?
Chaudhury is managing editor of Tehelka, a public-interest newsmagazine in India. From our April 12, 2013, issue; The Girl Who Fired an Outcry in India.