On December 16, 2012, a young physiotherapy student and her friend, who happens to be a boy, board a bus after watching The Life of Pi in a multiplex in New Delhi. The story is of an Indian boy marooned in the ocean, with a Bengal tiger on his little boat. Written by a Spanish man who hadn’t visited India. It’s the story of a tiger that the author says is “a story with an S.” It’s your story. Only you can choose how you tell it.
The girl is from a family where girls typically don’t study, they get married. Yet, her father sells their ancestral land so she can go to school. She boards the bus at 8 p.m., late for Delhi, but her friend is with her, her friend who is a boy.
Will this bus go to Dwarka, they ask the conductor. He’s young, later they will call him The Juvenile.
Yes, of course, The Juvenile lies, even though the bus is not in service. He and his friends are high on drugs and alcohol, looking for masti, fun. Come on in, he says.
He steps aside. The boy leads the girl in, shielding her with his arm.
* * *
I land an hour before Sweet Smile, my former roommate from graduate school does. I scrub my face in the dimly lit airport restroom. I cannot scrub away the wrinkles near my eyes, or hide the three white strands in my waist-length hair. This is what forty-four looks like.
Sweet Smile, a quiet girl, walks down the corridor, her wild hair now tamed into submission with expensive de-tanglers and salon straighteners. The smile is still the same, the eyes exhausted, much like mine. Only, she’s a mother of two, married to my ex’s cousin, and I am trying to make the divorce official. We hug like we used to, almost sisters, roommates.
You look good, we say at the same time.
Across the hotel, there’s a diner on Times Square. There, bewildered tourists surround us, not used to so many choices or rude waiters. The scrambled eggs are cold and the plates are plastic, as throwaway as the thanks the Indian cook flings at us, as he hands us our coffees.
Is the divorce done then, she asks.
I shake my head. I’ve been alone for two years, it’s a formality.
She looks up, coffee mug in hand, her eyes searching mine. I let mine go blank on purpose.
* * *
For an hour, the private bus deviates from its normal route. Six men from neighboring villages near Delhi are in it, taking it on a joyride. It goes on Ring Road, round and round Delhi, a never-ending ride. The driver, desi hooch spurring him on, holds the wheel. Later he’ll say he was only the driver. He will also say she asked for it, since it was late and she was watching a movie with a man who wasn’t family. She asked for it. At this moment, the other men, hold the girl down.
Her friend protests, Hey, stop, how dare you!
The girl screams, You touch me, and I’ll kill you. I’ll make sure the police know. Don’t you dare—!
But the men dare. The Juvenile, who pretended to be the bus conductor, locks the doors. The other men take the girl to the back of the bus. They take turns, raping the girl. Over and over for forty minutes. One pushes the friend, who happens to be a boy, throws him onto the metal bus floor, hits him with a crowbar. They take his watch, wallet and cell phone. His bones break with each hit of the metal bar, thuds, like that made by the washer-men who beat the dirt out of clothes at the Yamuna river across the city.
He pleads, crying: Stop, stop, let us go, please.
In the back, the girl screams, over and over as the men enter her, tearing her jeans, her kurta. She is a physiotherapist student in training, a girl whose father sold his ancestral land to educate her. An outlier. A girl. Who shouldn’t be out so late in the night.
* * *
Do you know all the girls in the play, Sweet Smile?
Sweet Smile gets that it’s too early to talk about our lives after she moved to Miami and I to San Diego. She shakes her head, no, only Poorna, the main actress. She was in theater when we were in grad school, such a doll. Not sure if you remember her, do you, Madhushree?
I shake my head; there’s lots I have forgotten.
Poorna’s flashing eyes appear in Law & Order and trendy Bollywood movies. She’s producing the play. The story that says Delhi, my city, was the Rape Capital of the World.
* * *
For 45 minutes, the bus circles the same roads. The closed-circuit TV monitor near the Munirka traffic light tell the story to the world later. Through the December haze, among the honking cars and buses, the girl and her friend are trapped inside the bus. They knock the friend unconscious, striking an L-shaped rod used in mini buses as a wrench on his torso, over and over. It is repetitive motion, practiced, slow, as if these men have executed this scenario many times, with strangers.
The girl fights when they rip her clothes from her. She bites their arms, their hands when they grab her. She sinks her teeth in flesh when they pin her down. Stop she says, but they don’t.
Don’t, she says, but they do.
I’ll make sure they catch you, she promises, when they laugh.
They stop for a bit. The alcoholic rage subsides with the cold water slap of reality. The teenager looks at his friends, one still grinding inside the girl. What should we do, they wonder. The teenager grabs the L-shaped rod.
Beating her with it, he raises the iron shaft over and over. She screams but the windows are darkened and shut. No one hears her in a city of millions, in the capital of the country. No one hears her. Then the teenager pushes his friends away: Stick the rod in her, c’mon! Kill her already—she says she’ll go to the police, the bitch.
The men, their eyes frantic, lust and rage mixed with spittle and filth, take the rod, smelling of car grease and kerosene, take the rod and shove it up the girl’s vagina.
Outside, the city moves at its pace–loud, noisy, alive, bright.
* * *
We head downtown to the play. It’s chilly, even though it’s May. Sweet Smile and I watch the women who arrive to attend the play, it’s mostly women. We forgot to bring tissues.
I warn her, There will be tears, you know.
She shakes her head, I know…
We laugh because we’re sure of what’s in store for the next 75 minutes. It’s a large, dark stage with bare stage props. The actors sit in rows next to us, heads bowed. Everyone hushes, as if in church, as if spotting the actors at the same time. The actors, dressed in black, walk down to the stage. The audience collectively moves forward, a hypnotic draw to these strangers.
Nirbhaya, the fearless, an ethereal girl, the only actor who sings in this cast, calls out from the makeshift bus. The audience sighs with the cast. Poorna steps forward.
* * *
They shove the rod into her vagina, tearing her uterus, intestines, abdomen. The men slip into a musical-chairs type of dance, take turns, sweating, slipping in her blood, cursing her for bleeding so much. The bus keeps moving, round and round the loop around the Capital City, followed by the closed-circuit TV that records the white bus with black tinted windows, the off-duty sign blinking.
The friend wakes up, begs for mercy. Let us go please, sirs, let us go. We won’t tell anyone, let us go.
They yell, Then why did you go out alone with this whore, so late in the night, eh? Whores, slutting around late night, and you. You’re her pimp or what, huh?
The girl moans in the back, he cannot reach her.
Two hours after they board the bus, when the girl falls silent, The Juvenile lifts what the friend thinks is rope out of the girl. The friend who is a boy can’t see clearly, since his glasses are broken. He thinks it’s rope. Later he finds out that The Juvenile was pulling out her intestines with his bare hands. The Juvenile picks the girl up, and tosses her out on the street from the moving bus. He kicks the boy out next. They are both unclothed, a shirt between the two of them. The boy looks up to see the headlights of the bus heading toward them. The girl lies motionless, naked in the path of the bus.
Move, move, he tells the girl who doesn’t. He pulls her with his broken arms, shielding her body from the men in the bus targeting her dying body. The bus swerves past, missing her by inches.
The night still continues. Delhiites still shop like Christmas is their festival, much like Diwali. They drive past the girl and boy, unseeing. They walk past, and skirt around, no need to confuse their lives with these two.
The boy covers her with the shirt, himself with no clothes, his arm and leg broken. Help us, he asks passersby.
Next to him, the girl lies bloody, half her intestines pulled out by a wheel jack handle.
But this is Delhi, and it is 11 p.m. It is December, close to Christmas. No one wants the jhamela of rescuing a rape victim and her injured friend. What with filing police reports, then one would also have to worry about defending oneself when the police accuse the rescuers of the wrongdoing? Not savvy Delhiites.
An off-duty police officer stops by. He covers the girl with his shirt. She is alive, she breathes still. She says, hospital, please.
The off-duty policeman stops a car. Safdarjung Hospital chalo, jaldi, quick!
* * *
The play was written because everyone around the world was affected by this rape. All the actors felt a connection that made them share their own stories. The actors change with each city they visit, London, Edinburgh, Mumbai, New York City. But Poorna is constant.
Poorna says, Men, women, come up to me, to us. They tell me it’s happened to them. Hands up skirts while traveling on buses, men attacking men for their orientation, a graze of the breast while leaning in the local passenger train. Acid thrown in faces. Sometimes kicking an unborn child in the belly. It’s happened. To all of us.
Sweet Smile nods, yes, yes. The woman on the other side of her leans on her husband, he puts his arm around her. I look away.
I touch Sweet Smile’s arm, I’m sorry, I whisper.
She squeezes my hand. She doesn’t ask me what for.
* * *
The men on the bus return to their shanties, neighborhoods hidden from view, covered by asbestos sheets shielding the view of riff-raff from middle class neighborhoods. One by one, the men are dropped off near their homes, one-room shacks, small homes with stolen cable, water, electricity and with families living one step away from the footpath. The haze of brain-addling chemicals clear off. After dropping off the other men, including The Juvenile, the driver and his brother pull the bus on the side street. They had done this earlier, picking up unsuspecting passengers, robbing them, throwing them out the bus. The brothers clean the bus silently, first bleach, strong chemicals washing the blood from the floor, seats, windows.
The neighbors call the bus owner who was one of the rapists that night, by a nickname. He’s “mental.” He flies into rages, drinks too much and gets into fights. People leave Mental alone. After the police find out the white bus with tinted windows was circling Ring Road, for almost two hours, they arrest the men within a day.
Political pressure is huge—the Delhi police need to do this right. The government wants it to be a lesson. The public calls for justice. Feminists protest on wintry streets. College students call for a bandh, a city-wide strike.
Overnight, the cable stations call the girl, Nirbhaya, fearless, Damini, lightning, Amanat, treasure. The public can’t get her real name, because she’s a rape victim. Indian law protects her name, her respect. The public cloaks her with noble names as she struggles to stay alive.
* * *
Poorna talks about Nirbhaya being fearless. What was it about Nirbhaya that made everyone sit up and think about themselves? Poorna, of the flashing eyes, curly hair and Law & Order fame, tells the audience (?) about abuse when she was nine. . This part makes the audience hold their breath.
She whispers, He was an uncle, my father’s friend. Someone Amma trusted. Someone who told me my dress was beautiful. And I liked it. I liked it.
Next to me, I watch Sweet Smile. Her eyes water. She looks for the tissues we forgot to bring. I offer my scarf. She smiles, shaking her head, and uses her sleeve. Our eyes don’t meet.
The next actress, an independent film star, lived in the neighborhood next to mine in Delhi. Same thing, different year, rape, disbelief, mistrust.
The Next Actress sits, her legs spread apart, not a “good girl pose.” They called me a slut because the servants would take turns when Ma and Baba were away at the club. No one knew. I was eight. My brother would sleep next to me, on his bed, his eyes shut tight so he couldn’t see. But he could hear. He could hear.
The Next Actress doesn’t smile. She makes eye contact with all of us. Direct, dark, stark. We stare back.
Nirbhaya makes them talk. One by one by one. Not just from India, but women from all over the world. Nirbhaya lies within them.
* * *
Nirbhaya lies in Safdarjung Hospital in South Delhi, multiple lacerations in her abdomen, internal hemorrhage, genitals and uterus mutilated, on a ventilator, alive, breathing, communicating, still alive.
Mental didn’t look right to us ever, slightly crazy, the neighbors said of the driver.
You’re taking away both our sons, his old parents cried, when the driver and his brother were arrested, and taken to the police station, TV camera crew following them.
I’m a woman too, what about my rights? How will I survive, asked Mental’s angry wife, roughly rocking her small child.
* * *
On December 19, three days after the bus ride, Nirbhaya has her fifth surgery. They remove the rest of her intestines. She has sepsis, pathogenic bacteria in her blood, circulating through her heart, brain, and remaining organs. Her parents sit next to her, sobbing. She asks, did they catch those men?
Her mother says, yes, they did.
She’s on life support, the doctors say a miracle will save her. The friend who happens to be a boy, has multiple fractures. He’s in shock. She says she will testify, she’s on life support.
Her father tells the world, My daughter didn’t do anything wrong. She tried to protect herself. I want the world to know her name. Her name is Jyoti Singh Pandey. Jyoti means light.
Her mother says later, she was the light in our lives. She was the ideal daughter. Her mother’s eyes are dead.
Politicians protest at the atrocity against women. The Chief Minister says the best treatment will be given to the dying girl. College students take over India Gate, where middle-class Delhi families go in the summer to admire the capital city and eat ice cream. In the cold winter, Delhi and Jawahar Lal Nehru University students protest.
They shout: When will the police listen? When will a woman be safe in Delhi? Do something, do something!
The six men are produced before the Delhi Magistrate, their heads covered to hide their identity. The Juvenile is tried as a minor. The public asks for the death penalty. The Juvenile will go to a detention center, and be released in three years. No one will know his name, or whereabouts, because he’s a juvenile. In 2015, also around Christmas, The Juvenile is released.
* * *
Later, in a documentary, one of the rapists says, Now, see with all this uproar, what have you modern people done? After this, when someone rapes a girl, they’ll make sure she’s dead before they let her go. At least that way, they won’t be caught, eh?
Mental’s brother smirks at the camera, his unkempt stubble hiding his contempt. He’s on death row, still alive. Mental was found hanging in his cell, a day after he was arrested, two days before Nirbhaya underwent her fifth surgery to remove what was left of her intestines.
* * *
The actor whose father tried to kill her for kissing her co-star in a movie, stares at us, eyes dark, long hair down her waist.
The woman next to me sobs into her husband’s chest. Shh, shh, he whispers.
I turn to Sweet Smile. She raises her eyebrows, What, Madhushree?
He asked me to choose. He did.
* * *
The police spray cold water to break the protestors in the winter fog. Ten days later, the politicians debate on better medical care for Nirbhaya. She’s barely alive, but it’s easier to move her out of the country. The youth need to be controlled. Women are enraged at the police who aren’t moving fast enough. Politicians make chauvinistic remarks that the press seize and dissect on cable TV in a streaming newscast.
Most of Jyoti’s intestines, kidneys, and liver are gone. Sepsis seeps in, microbes take over her weakened body, her temperature skyrockets, burning her brain. With her eyes, she asks, I’ll get better, no, Ma? Her mother cries through the glass partition.
Outside the hospital, the college students keep vigil in the cold, lighting candles: Nirbhaya, we are with you.
The Delhi Chief Minister worries about riots. Jyoti’s mother waits, as government officials decide on what to do with this young girl’s deteriorating body. The Chief Minister’s team says: Mrs. Singh, prepare your daughter’s funeral. Till then, we will try to save her in Singapore.
Why Singapore, asks her mother. Where is this Singapore, she wonders.
It’s the city with the best medical transplant team, the staff says. If anything, that’s the team that will save her, God willing. But till then, be prepared.
The parents watch as their daughter, sepsis spreading through her body, is bundled out of India.
* * *
Mental kills himself. He was found swinging from the long iron bars on his tiny window in the jail cell. Tihar Jail criminals have a code. Raping a girl is fine, but pulling out her intestines is just too much. No one mourns Mental.
The politicians convene. The remaining rapists are in danger, they decide. If they’re murdered by other murderers, how will the politicians gain from this terrible, and immensely profitable tragedy?
Shall we put the rapists in a safe house, the ministers’ minions ask, worried.
No, no, that would be favorable treatment, the ministers opine.
Okay, solitary confinement, then?
Yes. Oh, and the girl’s parents…? The father…he’s an airport baggage handler, no?
Yes, he is. But we can give him a desk job or something. And government quarters, the lower-middle class ones. How about that?
The ministers nod, that’s good. Will they talk to the press?
The minions say, we’ll make sure they don’t.
* * *
Sweet Smile asks again, Who, Madhushree, who?
My ex. Your husband’s cousin. He asked me to choose between him and you.
He said I couldn’t be friends with you, Sweet Smile. That you were poisoning my mind…
Why, I don’t understand…
That was the only way he could control me, have me. I found out later that this is what narcissistic personality disorder is. I didn’t understand then. I loved him. So I chose.
Sweet Smile’s eyes fill up, Oh, and I didn’t know why you stopped talking to me. And my husband. He is your ex’s cousin, after all.
Yes, I whisper back, you’re family. He made me choose, and I did. He controlled me. Sweet Smile, can you forgive me?
* * *
Jyoti Nirbhaya is in septic shock. Thirteen days after the bus ride, Jyoti dies due to multiple organ failure. Less than 48 hours later, she is brought back home. The politicians make her parents cremate her in the dark of the night. The angry public needs to be controlled. Her funeral doesn’t need to be made into a spectacle, a tamasha.
* * *
The audience cries along with the cast, as the actress lies on the floor, intestines being ripped out of her. The girl fights, escapes, is caught, fights and fails; the audience gasps. When I look at Sweet Smile, her eyes are wet. I realize I can’t stop crying either. I am hyperventilating. The sobs don’t stop. I laugh through my tears, and we both use my scarf.
I’m sorry, I tell Sweet Smile again.
It’s okay, she says. Again.
I can’t stop crying. I can’t. It’s nothing, I say, sobs heaving unnaturally. I’m not a crier, I tell her.
I know, she says, her eyes worried. There’s nothing to forgive, Madhushree. I’m glad I have my friend back after 15 years.
* * *
The audience has left us in the empty theater. We have to head to the foyer—Poorna will be arriving shortly. Sweet Smile needs to meet her.
We walk to the foyer, holding each other like sisters would, for no reason and every reason. We are silent. She listens to my silence. Outside, the audience members talk in hushed whispers, as if they’ve watched a loved one die. They smile at us as if we are familiar to them. No one is a stranger, everyone is grieving.
At the door, Poorna’s son waits for his mother. Sweet Smile hugs him, How are you?
He smiles back, then waves at his mother, who appears from the far corner. Poorna, face free of makeup in a bright shirt and skirt, curly hair in a bun. She signs autographs, takes pictures with people, fans.
Oh, sweetness, she says, hugging Sweet Smile. It seems they stay like that for hours.
Watching them, I feel the strength between them rise. The theater hall palpates with the energy of survival and grief. I can’t stop crying. I don’t stop myself either.
Poorna looks at me and smiles. Sweet Smile introduces us, she hugs me and says, oh, love. Oh, love, she whispers. I catch my breath.
I don’t know why I’m feeling like this, I confess, I wasn’t abused, I really wasn’t.
Oh, love, is all she says, hugging me again.
* * *
It is 2015. Her parents try to stop The Juvenile’s release. No one knows his name. No one knows what he looks like because he was a child when he pulled Nirbhaya’s intestines out.
Her mother says, what about Jyoti’s rights? Why should we give The Juvenile his rights now? How is this justice? How is he reformed?
The Juvenile had to be treated as a child, according to Indian law. He’s able to start a new life on December 20, 2015. Reports say he’s reformed, he is religious, prays five times daily. Reports say he’s afraid he’ll be lynched by the Indian public.
Justice has failed us, Jyoti’s mother says. Crime has won, we have lost.
Her eyes, long dead, stare at us.
* * *
It’s the truth you need to believe, to survive. It isn’t abuse if you really think about it. When does law and justice say the same thing? What you believe, is your truth. This is Fearless Nirbhaya’s story. Not mine. Not The Juvenile’s. Lest we forget.
* * *