Who among us today, if we were born Hindu, does not have at least one relative or acquaintance who hates Muslims? Who among us does not have friends – men and women thought to be moral and humane – that have closed their eyes to the brutal amorality of the ruling regime, seeing it instead as the political road to India’s salvation? Will they be able to carry on unchanged even now, after the people they voted in have sprung to the defence of the rapists and murderers of an eight-year-old? Will they fail even now to see that a girl of that age is neither Hindu nor Muslim but only a child?
The barbarism of victorious armies was meant to have been over and done with, and the founding of the League of Nations after the First World War came with the liberal belief – shattered by the Nazis – that civilised life was more or less inevitable. In the India where I grew up, the exploitative British regime was over, it was post-Nehru, a country peopled with liberal myths and socialist dreams. There were riots, the country did simmer and boil off and on, but in the end, it was agreed, the state and the judiciary would follow the Western institutions on which they were modelled. Until the early 1990s, when the Congress Party grew unbelievably corrupt and turned a blind eye to the Babri destruction, medieval brutality was, I thought, over: political enemies would no longer be poisoned, women and children would no longer be savaged as a matter of course to signal the conquest of a victorious army.
After their giant electoral victories, the new, democratically elected armies of the Hindu Right have proven the opposite.
I was about to catch a flight when the details on Asifa were published and as I tried functioning with the normalcy and efficiency airports demand, it became a steady drum beat inside me: when you were taking a train down from the hills, a voice inside me said, they shoved two pills down her throat to drug her; while you were making yourself toast, they shoved themselves into her: grown men took turns forcing themselves into a child; while you were walking into the airport, they bashed her head in with a stone; they raped her in a temple; they hid her under a bed; they strangled her with her own clothes.
After that, one of them joined the search for the missing girl. Because he was a policemen. Kashmir’s lawmakers then marched to save the policemen from being charged with rape. Women too marched to defend the rapists: because they are Hindu and the child who was gangraped and killed was the daughter of a Muslim goatherd. It is impossible, when this level of mental sickness and brutality have coalesced, to do anything more than fall into the silence of absolute despair. Until, that is, an overwhelming rage sweeps away the despair.
Around me, at the airport, a woman argued over why they had given her chicken noodles when she’d asked for veg noodles. A group of little girls were planning a movie outing on their first day of travel. I drank my lassi wondering why I had that strangely disjointed, disembodied feeling you have when someone close dies, as if there is a fuzzy glass between you and normal life. But nobody close to me had died. This was a child I had never known, a little girl who went out to bring back her family’s animals and then was drugged, imprisoned, raped, and tortured for a week before her head was battered with a stone.
A long-ago poem by Auden came back to me, sounding curiously anaemic now. “Everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster . . . and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/ Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky/ Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” That poem is about obliviousness, not indifference. The dogs who “go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse [who] scratches its innocent behind on a tree” have no idea there is someone being tortured, a boy falling to his death.
But what of those who do know?
I remember the preternatural hush that hung over Delhi after the Nirbhaya rape and am old enough to remember the countrywide horror over the Sikh pogrom following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. There is no horror any longer. These things happen, they happen somewhere else, they happen to someone else. At the airport there was no inkling of a national crisis. If you are affluent enough to fly, if you are not Dalit or Muslim, you are forever in a bulletproof, air-conditioned cocoon. But what is it like not to have the cocoon?
I went to a Muslim school in Hyderabad where most of my childhood friends were Muslim. At that age, I had nearly no awareness of my minority Hinduness, nor had my playmates much inkling of their Muslimness. I have a sense of where these friends are now: they are silent somewhere. They are feeling cornered somewhere, besieged by the sense of hunting dogs coming after them. This is not the country we grew up in together, the necessity of secularism drummed into us. The venality and cynicism of politicians was ordinary, normal, an unworrying aspect of how politics was done in our part of the world. It was still a country in which parents were more likely to teach you about morality and manners, not sheer human survival.
What can you do as an ordinary citizen trying to survive in a country run by criminal gangs? Mafias on a scale so large that they seem to exist beyond anyone’s reach. Mafias so clever at manipulating belief that millions believe their every lie? What can you do when you see your protectors turn into killers? And what can you possibly do as a solitary writer?
Everyone in wartime is not a soldier, nor can everyone in times such as these be a lawyer or activist. Masons, plumbers, teachers, doctors are still needed; there are still houses to be built, children to be taught, leaking taps to be fixed. For a long time I told myself my usefulness lay in doing my own work. Is this true or is it merely a way of legitimising my desire to somehow carry on living only as I know how to? I don’t have the answer.
Other writers say much the same: that the work of the writer is to write books that make people think, which alter their world even if for the few days they are reading that book. Writers are not investigative journalists, and for a writer of novels it is especially difficult to respond to events that are current, volatile. “It’s dangerous for novelists to point a plot at a moving target,” says Lionel Shriver. It is also true now that novelists are more usually valued when they write novels that are overtly political. They have always to bear the burden of being literary activists – how else, in this kind of country, can a writer remain relevant? Is it possible to construct perfect paragraphs while your house is burning?
In my small hill-town I teach spoken English to a girl of nine. She is a goatherd. She goes to a government school which teaches her quite little. She dreams of being an actress. After school, in the evening she sets off to bring back her family’s grazing cattle, waving a switch, walking into the deep forest with nothing but two dogs for protection. I walk with her for a part of the way and we talk, she in halting English, I correcting her pronunciation and tenses. Then I turn back and she carries on alone. Our town is safe, we say, she has only wildlife to fear.