New Internationalist

Not until it happens to you

A thief attacked my husband Stan last week. As the police led him away and Stan stood there covered in blood (the thief had head butted him in his face, leaving Stan with a bloody nose), I was conscious of a million different reactions racing through my brain. Anger with the thief, fear and horror, never having witnessed this kind of violence before, except in movies. Disbelief that someone in my family had been attacked unprovoked.

Local villagers advised: ‘Tie him up and thrash him. To an inch of his life. The bastard will be back soon enough. He’s constantly in and out of jail.’ We politely declined and let the police take him away. But as the cops cuffed and kicked the thief into their van, stomach churning, I called my son and said: ‘Tariq, for God’s sake, don’t let them beat him up.’

Years of defending human rights on paper automatically conjured up visions of police brutality, custodial torture, etc. And we were dispatching him to the lions den! Tariq replied: ‘He’s a pro, mum, total veteran. He’s threatening to tell the judge pa hit him and he’s covered in old battle scars, including a slit throat.’

When the cops put the man into the cell, he caught hold of the bars with both hands and smashed his forehead against them so his head started bleeding. Standard practice apparently, for the benefit of the judge. Equally calm, the police didn’t bat an eyelid. They burnt some string which they’d cut off the thief’s wrist and rubbed the ashes onto the bleeding wound. We presumed this would make it look like an old injury. All in a day’s work. Routine stuff apparently.

Tariq and Stan, novices at the game, watched the proceedings in awe, open-mouthed. Stan is a veteran of many protests and demos from the 1970s on. So he’s been in jail as a protester and political prisoner. To be on the other side of the fence, go to the police for protection was a completely different experience.

The man would be out in a couple of days. The police didn’t really want to be bothered with petty theft and didn’t think they could book him really. Because Stan was covered in blood, the inspector looked up from the pile of paper work he had to complete. But, he said with a shrug, we can’t really do much with these petty cases. Not worth the time and effort. Not to mention the paper work.

Left us thinking. The poor and defenceless have to learn to cope without protection. People learn to keep their heads down and hope they don’t incur the wrath of local gangsters, mafia, etc. In Bangalore, we are middle class, with loads of connections because the old school tie works and there are friends in high places, in unlikely places, the police, the civil service, ministers.

Being attacked gave us an insight into what it must feel like to be totally vulnerable and without power. I went through a kaleidoscope of emotions and feelings. Myriad thoughts, insights and perceptions flashed fleetingly through my mind. On injustice, the law and the lack of it. But also what it must be like to be a cop dealing with crime, petty theft, and rape every day of your life. Wondered what the thief thought. He was hardened, a seasoned professional, used to being beaten up both in and out of jail. He appeared unperturbed, took it all in his stride.

So this is just a blog post about an ordinary incident which could happen to anyone. But until it happens to you, you can’t imagine what it feels like. And suddenly from being the writer, the person who interviewed umpteen vulnerable people, dalits, adivasis, women who’ve been raped, victims of a pogrom in Gujarat, it was a weird feeling to stand there and look at a man who attacked my husband and know that he’d walk free. Women in Gujarat talked to me about their rapists and the men who murdered their loved ones strutting around, gloating, laughing in their faces. I sympathized, felt angry. But at the end of the day, I would get on a plane and go home, far away. It didn’t touch me personally.

As I left Bangalore, I said a silent prayer, keep my son safe please. And I understood, really understood, what those women meant when they talked about feeling vulnerable and unprotected.

Yet, that’s normal for millions of people all over the world.


Darkness and light… Photo by Lomo-Cam under a Creative Commons licence.


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  1. #1 Soph 25 Feb 11

    Mari,
    I relate to your story. As an Australian I was mugged at knifepoint (but not injured) whilst travelling in South Africa. It's not until it happens to you that you really can grasp what the people go through, and, as you point out, what happened to your husband is pale in significance to some of the atrocities that others face. I was empathetic before it happened to me, but after my experience I had a whole new respect for what some have to live with. It's something I continually struggle to grapple with, as to why some are born into societies of despair and violence, while others are not.
    I hope your blog enables others to relate to the experience that 'we're all in this together'...or so we should be.

  2. #2 mari 25 Feb 11

    Thanks Soph..merely writing abt issues, for me, was an entire world away. This experience gave me so many more insights, made me think differently about so many things
    mari

  3. #3 Iris Gonzales 26 Feb 11

    I hope you and your family feel better. I hope nobody ever experiences violence but the world is not a perfect place. Thanks for bravely sharing Mari. I wish you well.

  4. #4 Alpheen 27 Feb 11

    Not until it happen to you

    That was really close to home and pretty scary!
    Having grown up in Banswadi we have had many an incident of petty thieves over the 50 plus years that we have lived there, but I don't recall any of us being attacked by the theives in the way Stan was.
    I guess our Guardian Angels have been protecting us over the years and we pray for continued protection
    I am so relieved that it was not worse than it was.
    Thanks Mari for sharing your thoughts and feelings so well.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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