I was hoping that my last column for 2005 would not have to deal with the dreaded R word - rape. But the horrific rape and murder of a call centre employee, Prathiba Murthy, by a taxi driver in Bangalore on December 16 has forced me to address this eternal issue yet again. More so because of a heartfelt e-mail by a young reader. I am quoting sections of the mail from this young woman as I suspect this is what several others would have felt when they read about Prathiba's rape and murder:
"Today, when I read about Prathiba, I couldn't believe it. Dear Ms. Sharma, I don't suppose you can answer me but will it all ever end? will there be a day when we do not have rapes? For the first time, after reading about a rape and murder, I simply broke down. I feel absolutely hypocritical and shallow about how normal my day is - I couldn't eat much today - but can we do anything about it?
"Almost everybody I know reacts to rapes saying, `Oh, forget about it; don't make yourself miserable thinking about it; what can you do anyway? One must go on with life, be "practical".' ... I don't deny that I have to go on with my life - what else can I do? Stop living? But I refuse to live in a world where a rapist can contemplate, plan, and perpetrate what he plans and finally get away with it. It is unbearable what happened."
I salute the passion of this young woman and the fact that she is not willing to just sit back and read about another rape and forget it. She wants to know what she can do. By refusing to be complacent, she is already contributing. There is nothing worse than accepting that things will continue the way they are and that there is nothing we can do to change them.
Inside the BPO world
But coming specifically to the incident in Bangalore, it has given us an insight into a world that is often referred to but rarely inspected closely. Thousands of young men and women in India are now working in BPOs, earning the kind of money they could not have dreamed of at their age. They work odd hours and inhabit an unreal world, culturally and geographically far from their own realities. Yet, many families, who would otherwise not permit their daughters to do night work, have accepted them working in call centres. One of their assumptions is that despite the strange hours of work, their daughters will be safe because "the company" will take care of them.
A new film on these call centres gives us a little bit of insight into the reality, or rather unreality, of the lives of call centre employees. "John & Jane" by Ashim Ahluwalia, which has already been shown at the Toronto Film Festival and is due to be presented at the Berlin International Film Festival early next year, is a fascinating look at the many worlds of these young people. The feature film length documentary is almost stranger than fiction. But it is about real people as it follows the lives of six call centre employees.
Unravelling the BPO
The film shows these individuals working all night in artificial light, speaking with a strange accent and using different names. They are trained not just to speak like Americans but also to think like them. There are frequent lectures about American culture and values. After a night's work, they return to their small cluttered homes in Mumbai. One of them lives in a slum, another in a run-down flat. A young girl turns to religion while a young man prefers to be stoned most of the time. The man from the slum dreams of becoming a professional dancer, the man in the run-down flat is determined to become a billionaire. The film also shows a romance blossoming in the call centre leading to a marriage. But the only time the couple can meet is in the break between their shifts - one works mornings and the other nights - when they meet at a fast food joint in a shopping mall. More unreality - unreal food in an unreal environment.
Seeing that film and hearing about Prathiba's murder made me wonder if that sense of disjuncture, between our reality and the world these call centre employees must connect with during working hours, infects their lives. While women who have to commute at night, or use public transport, are forced to remain alert at all times because they are aware of the dangers, women who are led to believe that "the company" takes care of all their needs might just let their guard down. Is this what happened with Prathiba?
After the murder, call centres have suddenly become alert and are formulating new security policies. This is better late than never. But the very fact that they have had to think about this now, even when they operate in cities like Delhi and Bangalore that are known to be unsafe for women after dark, suggests a great deal of complacence on their part.
To come back to my young friend, whose mail prompted this column, I can only say that she is right to "refuse to live in a world" where rapists can get away with it. Making the world safe for young women like her, or for any women, is not entirely in our hands. What we can do is to refuse to let this issue die down, to just disappear, to be forgotten.