Who’s the ugliest of us all?
By Bachi Karkaria
The mirror has ‘Murder Most Horrendous’ written across it. And it has been scrawled in baby-pink lipstick. Which 10-year-old girl hasn’t dipped into the forbidden pleasures of an adult dressing-table, and smeared her face with its magical potions? On being discovered with her little hands in the make-up kit, the adult response may range from a more expert demonstration to an indulgent smile to perhaps even a cautionary spanking. The normal reaction would not be a rod shoved up a tiny anus rigid with fear and incomprehension. Even by our brutalised norms, even in the most distorted of power equations, such innocent delinquency surely cannot result in death.
It can. It did. The sexual abuse and murder of Sonu, the 10-yearold Mumbai housemaid, has made the blood run cold. But it haunts us with a worse spectre because it does not offer us any of the convenient escape routes. It affords no indignant pedestal from which we can assert our own superiority, and demonise those on the other side of our smug cordon sanitaire.
The act did not take place in a slum where despair systematically shreds human dignity. It wasn’t perpetrated by an alcoholic sozzled out of his wits, or by a manic paedophile with no control over his lust. It took place surrounded by the lulling assurances of middleclass prosperity.
In an upmarket Lokhandwala apartment, amidst the everyday ordinariness of pressure-cookers whistling, TVs blaring, and matrons dressing up for matinees, a 40-year-old housewife, turned into a monster. Roma Bhatia caught her 10-year-old maidservant trying on her mother’s make-up, flew into a rage, pushed an aluminium rod up the anus of this child not older than one of her own three kids, bound her hands and feet, and left her to bleed to death while she went upstairs to her own flat to wash away the gory evidence. And blithely answer the phone. All the neighbours, immersed in their self-absorptions, never heard, or saw, or cared.
What is going on around us? More to the point, what are we doing ourselves? Our cities are full of Sonus. It’s scarier to know that they aren’t short of Romas either. Or of the likes of Rajesh, Roma’s marine engineer brother, who was the first to be presumed guilty; he was accused of raping and murdering the 10-year-old servant girl whom he said he found hanging from a ceiling fan on his return home. Nor is there a shortage of the Madhus and Vinods, Roma and Rajesh’s parents who scrubbed the blood off their designer floor and furniture before taking their feigned shock to the police.
Little girls much younger than Sonu stagger up and down our swankiest buildings lugging loaded bags and fat babies. How can we blame loutish dhaba-owners who make little boys slave from dawn to midnight, throwing them a pittance and leftover scraps, if that? It’s not much different in flats crammed with gadgetry and greed. Haggard mothers leave their daughters to our mercy, in the mistaken belief that they are saving them from the terrors of the street.
Why spare such pity for an impoverished, illiterate, disenfranchised servant girl, when daughters-in-law of expensively educated, sophisticated society-celebrated families are subject to the same atrocities, with the add-on of incest? Why even sympathise with the outsider bahu, when our own daughters are measured only in dowry? And what tattered excuse can we find to cover up the shame of seemingly empowered women who are not only subjected to these humiliations, but dish them out too?
As social transitions and globalised desires assert their implacable demands across a wider domain, it’s going to get uglier. The distorted face staring back from that scrawled Lokhandwala mirror is ours.