When journalist Namita Bhandare, who had never before held a placard or shouted a slogan, joined the assembly at India Gate in New Delhi last Saturday to protest the gang rape of a 23-year-old girl, she says: “It was an entirely spontaneous gathering. There were even people who had come with their mothers-in-law, children, just to register their presence, and there was such an overwhelming feeling of having had enough.” The accumulated rage of the masses, Bhandare notes, while it throws up more questions than answers, has served to bring issues surrounding gender, violence and social double standards to the surface where they are visible and potent.
At Carter Road in Bandra, Mumbai, that same evening, attending a solidarity march were Jasleen Sabharwal, Apeksha Walia and Namrata Poddar—all working women in their late 20s. “When it comes to safety of women, we are curbed: you do this, you do that. That is not safety. You have to create something for us to safeguard our interests. I want to leave at 3 in the morning, I will, screw you,” Sabharwal says. Social media has had a huge impact on all of them. It’s why the collective could gather, they say. They also know it’s not enough. “We are on the street protesting because we wanted to be seen. Because nobody is looking at us. Nobody is reading our tweets. Nobody is reading our posts. We are here to show the powers that-be that it’s not just a Delhi issue and not just a Delhi case. It’s about women’s security everywhere,” Poddar says.
The anger is not random. It is focused and articulated clearly. Each is assigning blame pointedly; demanding answers.
The great middle-class rage that exploded at the gang rape had been building for some time. As adman and playwright Rahul daCunha, expressing shock that a man he had once worked with, was convicted for throwing acid on a woman’s face, put it: “It’s that crime, corruption used to happen to, and be committed by someone in the hinterland. It wasn’t people like us. Now this stuff has reached our back doors. It’s in your face. How do you not confront it?”
Its triggers have been many; the average citizen’s sense of security was shaken by the obvious lack of preparedness or ability of the government to react post 26/11. The obfuscation of justice in the 1984 Sikh massacres, the 2002 Godhra riot cases, and scams—from Satyam, 2G, Commonwealth Games, to coal and Adarsh—have only served to erode a sense of trust in an increasingly corrupt and inefficient system. All pretexts—from community to caste and class, religion and language—have been flayed by political parties with vested interests even as roads get more congested, infrastructure projects are delayed, and the cost of fuel, gas and housing, rise. Trust is at an all-time low and pressure, at an all-time high.
As the stresses increase, our bodies too are evolving to accommodate the need to cope with constant triggers.
Sumantra Chattarji, a professor of neurobiology at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore, has been studying the amygdala—almond-shaped nucleii in the temporal lobe of the brain that deals with emotions such as fear, anger and stress—since 2002. The amygdala dictates how large an individual’s response is to such stimuli.
Through experiments on rats, Chattarji proved that exposure to sustained stress created cellular changes in the amygdala and the hippocampus, and even a brief, yet severe, episode of stress can lead to delayed changes in the amygdala, well after the original traumatic experience.
These delayed changes—manifested as the formation of new synaptic contacts on cells in the amygdala—are believed to underlie the anxiety that is seen in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In September, Chattarji’s team announced results of a continuation of that study; that the injection of stress hormones could help treat PTSD, which has great impact on the therapy of patients of trauma—war, terror attacks, and debilitating grief. It is a state simulated in everyday life, Chattarji says: “In an increasingly stress-driven society, constant provocation impacts our brains. It’s like always being on alert for danger, in a perpetual state of abnormally high fear and anxiety.”
The impulse used to react to a video-game stimulus is the same as that used to react instinctively to danger. Constant use puts you on constant alert. The result? A trigger in everyday life may easily elicit an exaggerated and disproportionate reaction. It is what slows down children and the elderly. “The use of this impulse needs to be reduced,” Chattarji says.
Delhi-based film-maker Vandana Kohli, a Film and Television Institute of India and University of California, Los Angeles graduate, recently documented Chattarji’s work as part of her film The Subtext of Anger, shot with experts in the UK, US and India over a period of three years. “There is a sense of rage globally, and it is changing the way our bodies function, the way we think and it is becoming what defines our interactions as individuals. Not just in India, but across the globe. If anger is the dominant emotion of our age, then that is something for us to think about,” Kohli says.
This is a rage that can go either way. It is a helplessness that Mint executive editor Niranjan Rajadhyaksha describes, in his column “Kejriwal, Carroll and the middle-class voter” (Lounge, 27 October), as the rage, a Dodgson’s choice, that will reach tipping point in the next election, if well-channelled. In NDTV’s Barkha Dutt’s column, for the Hindustan Times, she catalogues it as a sense of exclusion that derives from the denial of a level-playing field against a closed circle of influence (“A sense of exclusion”, 27 October).
There is an overwhelming sense of being crushed and a complete disconnect with a government that refuses to acknowledge its role. “We are not a government that crushes people,” Salman Khurshid, the then Union law minister and current Union Minister for Foreign Affairs, insists, on the phone from New Delhi, trying to explain away his outburst and threats at Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal’s accusations of corruption. “We are a compassionate, considerate, accommodating government. In societies where social anger is being easily manipulated, that is seen as a weakness. People come in with the third-rate, half-baked concepts of the West, and look to make triggers of everything. There are the Wall Street protests and there was Vietnam 50 years ago; there is always rage. Any system has fringe elements. But we are a viable democracy. We are a system that has learned to live.”
Raghu, anchor and executive producer of the aggressive reality show MTV Roadies, a show known for its provocative volatility, says over the last decade he has watched young people deal with this increasing frustration towards a system they feel they need to fix. “Young people 10 years ago were not grappling with so much pressure. The feeling of being stifled is increasing, and there are few outlets for it. There is a show like ours, where the freedom of expression is unrestricted, and there is the digital domain—social media. Where else can young people go today to be heard? They have a lot to say,” he says.
MTV India channel head and executive vice-president Aditya Swamy says: “When you put 15 hot-blooded strangers in a room, the conflict that results is inevitable.” The show consciously uses anger as a tool to channel the aggression of teenagers, more so in the audition phase. Swami says: “It is a stripping down of a person until you take them beyond the comfort zone. It is not mindless anger. It’s an ‘I’ll-show-them’ focused aggression. The anger of the young is transformative.”
As Poddar, Walia and Sabharwal insist, their protests do not come from a place of fear. They come from anger and frustration. Poddar articulates this best: “I could have gone abroad to study or settle. But I didn’t. This is my country and if it’s broken; damn it, you jolly well fix it.”