[ by Charles Cameron — Draupadi in the Mahabharata, the anonymous med student recently gang-raped on an Indian bus ]
Some people go out on the oceans and watch and wait for whales to “breach” the surface — you know me, I go out on the interwebs and search for fragments of scripture and myth to breach the surface of the daily news — as when a minor warlord in Aleppo reports seeing angels, or Gregory Johnsen quotes the prophet Hosea in the title of a post on Waq-al-Waq.
Today’s main sighting concerns the rape of the young medical student in India, one of many tragedies in the tapestry of griefs and joys we all live with, and perhaps one that will make an incremental shift in global awareness.
It seems to me that India has had her share of violence both during and after Partition — most recently the Babri masjid takedown in Ayodhya, the Gujarat riots, two major sets of bombings in Mumbai, swathes of India under Naxalite influence, and so forth.
I’ve been noticing references to the recent rape, but not really following it in detail until today, when this Al Jazeera report, Rape of Draupadi: Why Indian democracy has failed women, caught my eye.
The author, Dinesh Sharma, quotes blogger Nilanjana Roy — the other person whose writing on the subject had particularly moved me — to list earlier instances of anti-woman violence:
Sometimes, when we talk about the history of women in India, we speak in shorthand. The Mathura rape case. The Vishaka guidelines. The Bhanwari Devi case, the Suryanelli affair, the Soni Sori allegations, the business at Kunan Pushpora. Each of these, the names of women and places, mapping a geography of pain; unspeakable damage inflicted on women’s bodies, on the map of India, where you can, if you want, create a constantly updating map of violence against women.
For some, amnesia becomes a way of self-defence: there is only so much darkness you can swallow.
When I’d first read that on Roy’s blog, I’d been saddened as much by my own ignorance of the named events as by the litany of sorroes Roy put together.
But it was Sharma’s invocation of Draupadi that triggered this post:
Draupadi, heroine of the Mahabharata epic, is bold and forthright even in adversity. Her husband Yudhisthira succumbing to his weakness for gambling, stakes and loses all (in a rigged game), including his wife. Draupadi challenges the assembly and demands to know how it is possible for one who has staked and lost his own self to retain the right to wager her.
Duryodhana, the winner of the bet, insists that Draupadi is indeed his to do with as he pleases and orders that she be disrobed. Furious at this insult to her honor, Draupadi loosens her coifed hair and vows that she will not knot it again until she has washed it in Duryodhana’s blood. As she is disrobed, the more her sari is pulled away the longer it becomes. It is this event which turns Draupadi from a contented, but strong willed wife into a vengeful goddess.
Until I saw the title of Sharma’s piece, I hadn’t thought of Draupadi — but she’s the quintessential figure of the woman wrongly treated in the rich mythology of the subcontinent, and thus offers the appropriate background against which to see the terrible event.
Draupadi is celebrated for her devotion to Krishna, the anonymous woman raped in the recent incident on a bus for her devotion to education, medicine, healing…
As Sharma says:
The perennial question has to be asked – “Who will protect Draupadi’s honour?”