Minority report | (At) least common factor


Minority report | (At) least common factor

A 20-year-old female security guard grounded by her scared father wonders why she is drawn towards Parveen Azad, the widow of the slain Kunda deputy superintendent of police (DSP).

As India burns in its modern hell of crime and corruption, rape and retrograde mindsets, a bizarre network seems to be springing up among completely disconnected people, especially the youth, who are knitting among themselves a tapestry of shared empathy. They may have nothing to do with each other but find their predicaments reflective of some common angst—the angst of being young and disillusioned in India.

Listen to Asha Das. The 20-year-old daughter of a female domestic help, she was yanked out of her much-loved job as a security guard at Noida’s PVR Spice Cinemas by her scared father, a wheezy construction labourer who had migrated from a life of poverty in West Bengal when Asha was a baby. This was his reaction to last year’s Delhi gang-rape. The reason: on the second shift (at least for 15 days every month), Asha’s duty would end at 11.30pm. After another 20 minutes of signing out, changing out of her uniform and hopping into the vehicle that dropped female employees home, it would be well past midnight by the time Asha would reach her home in Noida’s Nithari village. A male family member would have to wait at the designated stop to walk her home. Every day, roadside drunks would pass vulgar comments at Asha. Once, when her mother went to fetch Asha, a bitter fight broke out; they barely escaped serious trouble. The Delhi gang-rape case, which sent a bloodcurdling fear ripping through every family in the country, made Asha’s father put an end to the nuisance for good.

Gone is the money ( 5,000 a month, plus overtime), the work of searching women before they enter the movie hall, the bonus of getting to watch snatches of hit films during morning shows when the crowds are thin and the city-type banter (as opposed to meaningless conversations she is used to in Nithari) with her colleagues. The warm, reassuring smell of fresh popcorn, the powerful thrill of getting to stop patrons from carrying prohibited items into the cinema hall for security reasons, the joy of wearing her pant-shirt uniform, too, have been snatched away. Asha is angry and it’s showing.

Crabby, afraid of being raped and aimless, Asha, who only studied till class V, has developed new behavioural responses. She compulsively sweeps, mops, washes, re-sweeps, re-mops, re-washes the floors in the house, washes even clean dishes and every family member’s clothes, and then folds them into frighteningly neat piles. This goes on through the day, even as her fingers are swollen and blackened by continuous soaking in water.

Her mother works in three houses as a domestic help, making 8,000 a month, and can’t stop screaming at Asha’s nonsense. Besides a frenzied attention to keeping her dupatta in place, her hair impossibly pinned up and standing around in a rock straight posture, Asha smiles easily but is unable to snap out of her daze. Her eyes become attentive only in front of the TV (the family also owns a small fridge and one cupboard) and in the last few months, Hindi news channels have been Asha’s favourites, never mind the many episodes she has missed of Hindi soaps such as Punarvivah and Pavitra Rishta. Nor does she want to worship the ground that Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra walks on (Asha’s former overpowering craze).

Of late, Asha has found a new heroine, a role model, a silent mentor called Parveen Azad. “Parveen looks so sad, fate is so cruel to Parveen, yet she is so brave, look at Parveen’s face, have you seen how Parveen was talking to the police sahib?” she asks. Parveen Azad is the young widow of Zia-ul-Haque, the slain DSP of Kunda village in Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh, who was murdered in March allegedly at the behest of former minister Raghuraj Pratap Singh, alias Raja Bhaiyya. Haque, the only Class I officer from his village, Zuafar, in Deoria district, was himself a role model for the village youth. He was 32 years old when he died and his wife is a final-year student of dental medicine. Two young lives, brutalized to dust.

Despite her devastation, Azad continues to stoically fight the system so that her husband’s killers are brought to justice. She turned down a job offer as an officer on special duty (OSD) in the police welfare department, insisting that she will only accept a DSP’s post. Surviving inside her tragic reality are nerves of steel.

Asha wants that steel. Not just to reclaim the smell of popcorn at PVR Spice and the right to wear her uniform, but to feel empowered, which she has never been in life. It is Parveen’s empowerment she craves for, not that of silly women in decorative saris in Hindi TV soaps who try, in vain, to stand up against oppressive men in their lives. Mismatched, uneven responses, you could say, but some are very revealing. “At least, I can be like Parveen in my mind. At least, I can go and protest against the recent rape of the five-year-old girl with all the other young girls on the roads. At least, I can clean my house of the dirt that exists in our society. At least…”

An (at) least common factor is uniquely uniting Indian youth. Today, it is a fear, tomorrow it could mint an army.