Valerian Santos is diminutive in build — with slightly hunched over shoulders and a wiry frame. But his courage is both gentle and gladiatorial, all at once. And his quiet, firm strength is remarkable enough to shame us all.
Valerian is the father of Keenan Santos, one of the two young men — boys really — who were stabbed to death for standing up to sexual abuse on the streets of Mumbai. When I met him last week, I marvelled at the stoicism with which he put aside his own personal tragedy to make a public appeal for safer cities, respect for women — and that rare and depleting human quality: compassion. In so many ways, his bravery was even more extraordinary than that of his son's.
Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandes did what most of us do not do. They took a stand; they did not look away. And for doing the right thing — what should have been just another evening out with friends ended up being the last day of their lives. When a bunch of mobsters and boors started heckling and pawing one of the girls in their group, Keenan and Reuben retaliated and stood up to the abuse. Within minutes the assaulters had knives and swords out and soon the boys were lying collapsed in pools of blood, their insides ripped out as 40 bystanders stared on passively, ignoring all pleas for help.
It would not be unfair to say that more than the mob it was urban apathy that killed Keenan and Reuben.
Valerian Santos describes that chilling moment when he found Priyanka, his son's girlfriend, draped over Keenan's body — distraught, hysterical and inconsolable. He says, even as a father who had just lost his son, his first instinct was to hold the young girl, give her a tight hug and send her home. He wants to know and understand the depth of heartlessness that made it possible for a crowd to first stare impassively as a murder unfolded before their eyes and then remain unmoved by the desperate, imploring grief of a young girl.
The Keenan-Reuben murders have forced the ugly underbelly of modern urban lives into full public glare. The facts are so blazingly brutal that we cannot ignore what they say about us, even if we try. First, they have exposed the irony of how emotionally unconnected we are as people in an otherwise hyper-connected age. We look at our mobiles before we brush our teeth; we tweet random strangers online and create the illusion of conversation, and we believe the internet has fostered new friendships and equations that were never possible before. And yet, the basics have broken down — the sense of community, kinship and humaneness appears to have evaporated. More brutal than the murder is the image of the onlookers who refused to help. Are we awfully apathetic or brutalised into numbness? Or both?
The murders have also confronted us with how anachronistic the phrase we use to describe sexual abuse is. 'Eve-teasing' is such a feeble little phrase. It fails to capture the intense invasion of space and privacy a woman feels when abused by men. And yet, perhaps it is used for precisely that reason. It's a non-threatening phrase that makes a crime sound so much more innocuous than the horror it really represents. Activists and lawyers have long argued that one of the reasons for the audacity of abuse against women is that the police do not regard it as a 'serious' crime. The phraseology we use to describe abuse and the mild punishment we apportion to it may have something to do with it.
Most importantly, the murders have made us confront how we teach our daughters to accept sexual abuse as an inevitable part of modern living. Listening to Valerian Santos, more than one young girl in the room spoke of how every time she was abused she wanted to fight back but was scared of the consequences. Many of them said they wanted to be strong enough to defend themselves or at least put up a good fight and not always turn to the men in the group as necessary protectors.
But almost all of them revealed that their own parents had conditioned them to look the other way and get out of the situation as fast as possible. So, while we are disgusted with the 40 men and women who stood by and allowed Keenan and Reuben to die, as women we must ask ourselves: are we becoming inured to abuse? Is there some part of us that has been trained and conditioned to stifle our outrage and our sense of violation? Isn't this where we need to begin the battle?
Valerian Santos was asked again and again why Keenan and Reuben did not exercise the 'practical' option and find a way of leaving the volatile altercation. He said he did not regret that his son died because it was better to "die than live like a coward." Articulated in his quiet, gentle way, it had no ring of unnecessary machismo to it. It just sounded like the truth of a principled man. Perceptively, he also said that had his son not been killed, there would have been no national debate and no moment of introspection. The incident would have just been regarded as yet another unremarkable incident of 'eve-teasing' that would not have even got a one line mention in the newspapers or on TV.
Valerian Santos wants to know what happens when this headline fades. After all, real life and real tragedies live in the space between headlines. I wonder whether we have any answers to give him at all.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal.