She wakes up in the middle of the night.
“There are bad men outside the house. One has dirty teeth. They tried to take me away…”
Bleary-eyed, I hold her tight.
“It’s a bad dream, sweetheart. No one will hurt you.”
She wants the lights switched on. I switch them on. I hold her tight, patting her, humming something. She won’t close her eyes for a while. She’s four years old. Where do their fears come from?
I shield our children from an overdose of news and mass media consumption. We don’t watch any television at home. We don’t listen to the radio and rarely watch new films.
It has been almost three weeks now since the news broke that a young woman had been gang raped in a moving bus in Delhi. Her friend and she were beaten with iron rods. Thrown off on a road in the city. Like everyone else, my husband and I were following the news with horror. The extent of her injuries, her battle to live, the sinking feeling that this was a nightmare she would not wake up from.
Standing behind my shoulder, our seven-year-old reads what is on my computer screen. Something stops me from changing the tab. I hold my breath. Any moment now, she is going to ask me what rape means. What is this word, mamma? Gang rape?
She doesn’t ask.
When the protests started in Delhi, when people began to walk miles to reach India Gate to demand justice, I let the news come pouring into our home. Police lathi-charged and tear-gassed students. I cried tears of rage. I showed pictures to the children.
“If you hadn’t been so young, I would have been there,” I said to them. “If you had been older, you would have been there.”
I tell them about friends who are organizing and participating in the protests. We meet them and listen to their experience. We hug them. Christmas parties are cancelled. On New Year’s eve, people got together at the bus stop from where the young woman and her friend had boarded the bus. There was protest music and theatre, to inspire us to never forget, to fight for change.
I wanted to be there. But I knew that I must be here.
“Mamma, you remember we had seen a film where a girl said, ‘I was bullied, so I bullied. The cycle must stop’,” asks my daughter at dinner.
“Yes,” I say.
“What does bully mean?”
“It means to be rude, to insult someone. Some grown-ups are very mean to children. Sometimes parents humiliate their own children.”
We carry on talking. They share stories. A bully is someone who takes advantage of your goodness. Who squashes your innocence and breaks your trust.
Last Saturday, I woke up and checked the news reflexively. Delhi gang-rape victim dies in Singapore hospital. It was not unexpected. The news that angered me was the next headline. Metro stations leading to India Gate sealed.
In my life, I have done exactly what she did, many times over. As a university student in Delhi, it was my experience that late evening buses were safer than the overcrowded ones in the daytime. After dark, public transport buses had lights on inside and there was usually enough room to be safe from being groped and mauled.
One evening, I too had boarded the wrong bus outside my college. I realized there was no one else on it except male staff as soon as I got on. There was no reason for them to have stopped and picked me up from the bus stop. The bus slowed near the first traffic light. I jumped off from the open door. I was a 22-year-old film student, leaving campus after a late project, on my way to join my family for a late night show. I remember the film we saw that day. I can never forget the look in the eyes of the men on the bus. I held my brother’s hand and went to sleep in the theatre.
I cannot write about this. Yet, how can I not write about this today?
At times like this I realize the privilege of being a parent. Life frustrates me less. There is little room for despair. I can rage, I can cry, I can go silent from shock, but there is no choice but to recover. To carry on the conversation, to be the world that our children deserve.
I used to think that becoming a parent had made me weak. I had lost my stomach for violence. I realize now that this is my superpower. I can no longer stomach violence as entertainment. The full-blown horror of it hits me harder than before. I see the insanity of it with a clarity I cannot gloss over.
Children can smell our fear and apathy like it were cheap new paint. And that’s the stuff of their nightmares. We have no choice but to get up and be the change.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three.
Also Read | Natasha’s previous Lounge columns