Two cities, two separate incidents separated by roughly 24 hours. But both are a pointer to the urban India of today. A land of the blind, that sees only through a recording device. A country of the heartless that does not react to the cries for help. An India where a rape, a suicide is not violence or a terrible scar but merely a statistic.
On Sunday, in Visakhapatnam, a 30-year-old woman was raped by a drunkard. The crime did not take place, as you would probably expect, in some godforsaken corner of the largest city in Andhra Pradesh, in the night. The woman was raped on a pavement in full public view in broad daylight in Railway Colony, one of the more busy parts of Vizag. At 2 pm, for heavens sake, with people passing by, pretending to ignore the woman's cries for help.
The horror was recorded on a mobile phone by an autorickshaw driver, who thought nothing about trying to save the woman instead. A land of voyeurs like this driver, for who sending the 15 second clip by Whatsapp to his friends on his contact list must have been his feat to brag about that day. Though what eventually helped nab the rapist was the video clip that he subsequently handed over to the police.
A day later, in Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, utter desperation found an accomplice in kerosene and a matchbox. A family of four, including two children, immolated themselves in front of the Tirunelveli collectorate. Isakimuthu and his wife had borrowed Rs 1.40 lakh from private moneylenders at an exorbitant rate of interest (Monthly interest of 10 per cent). They had reportedly paid Rs 2 lakh as interest already but the harassment by the moneylenders and the daily humiliation did not stop. The couple petitioned the collector's office for help but it was not forthcoming.
Pushed to the wall, Isakimuthu and his wife set themselves and their two children, aged five years and one and a half years on fire. The horrifying act was captured on camera by those in front of the office and it took a while before onlookers realised this was a genuine suicide attempt. Rather clinically it was explained that it is rather common for aggrieved members of the public to threaten to commit suicide if the administration showed laxity in listening to their grievances. The four are battling for life in hospital, very critical.
There is something seriously wrong if an attempt to die is treated as if it is all in a day's work at the Collectorate. Where suicide is seen only as a tool to blackmail, not as a symptom of the failure of the system to provide succour. Where emotions are routinely killed by the weight and dust of government files and corruption of touts. Where red tape ensures relief is either denied or delayed so much that it crushes all hope. How can an India not grieve for a parent who stabs at his heart to set his own five-year-old and 18-month-old children on fire, I ask.
The Prime Minister talks of Stand Up India. No, Mr Narendra Modi, we are a `Sit Down India'. We sit and record when it is time to stand up. As Vizag and Tirunelveli prove, turning a blind eye is an option that is always exercised. These two incidents prove both cities lost their soul within 24 hours.
But never mind. India will not outrage over what happens in ``small town India''. The woman who was raped in Vizag will never be seen as a Nirbhaya because of her GPS status.
While it is too much to expect that every nook and corner of a city would be under police surveillance, the Vizag rape shocker is no good advertisement for the city of destiny. It shows safety of women is a very serious concern. It points to the gulf between reality on the ground - the footpath in this case - and the glitzy promotional videos that Chandrababu Naidu showcases in Chicago, Singapore and Dubai.
What do the two extremely disturbing incidents or the ones where we report about child abuse, say about us as a society. Are we increasingly reducing ourselves to a I, me, myself syndrome where unless something effects me directly, it does not merit my direct intervention. Where a retweet, a share, an angry icon on an unfortunate incident is deemed to be the good deed done for the day. Are we increasingly becoming a society living life virtually than in the real world? Are we living only for the virtual approval of others rather than a real approval of what we ought to do?
Ironically, the incident has taken place at a time when women across the world are recounting incidents of sexual violence they have been subjected to, using the hashtag #MeToo. While not taking away anything from the importance of such initiatives and the need to speak out, my worry is that the trending of a hashtag cannot be an end in itself. Because #MeToo, as Visakhapatnam showed, did not result in anyone rushing in to rescue another victim. So is #MeToo just a virtual bubble, even as all of us remain silent co-conspirators to acts of depravity?
The newspapers will report a rape in Visakhapatnam and a mass immolation attempt in Tirunelveli. What it will perhaps not report is that when the incidents happened, India's heart was not in its right place.