How do you react to a man who is lying in hospital, minus three limbs?
How are you supposed to look when you step into the government hospital's trauma ward? Are you supposed to look extra-cheery, or deferentially sombre? Are you supposed to sit down beside him, and talk of the incident, in great detail, or are you going to stand awkwardly, say commiserating nothings and then go away, because... what can anyone say anyway, under the circumstances?
And what do you do when the man begins to sing? When you can see he's still a relatively young man, with only the first few lines forming on his forehead. A still-young man with a lean, tanned body, eight children, a strong sense of pride, and a strong, singing voice? What do you say when he sings an old pheri-wala's song: a woman's song, telling the bangle-seller to go away and peddle his wares elsewhere, because the man is dead, and his wife cannot buy these bangles.
How do you react when you meet his daughter, a girl who was gang-raped when she was still a schoolgirl? What sort of questions are you supposed to ask?
There was one part of me that didn't want to meet these people. That part was hoping that they'd (whoever 'they' were) protect the girl from people like me, from a city-dwelling mediaperson who arrives with a camera and notebook and asks intrusive questions.
But ultimately, there was nobody to protect either of us - her from my questions, or me from my dilemmas.
So, I sat there in the brick-paved courtyard of the office of the CPI (M-L) Liberation (incidentally, the only political outfit who has been supporting the family and spearheading the subsequent protests), across from the girl - now married, and carrying a baby in her arms - and her mother.
The winter sun was a little too harsh, and we were squinting at each other. At first, I just sat there, pen and notebook in hand, unable to begin. The first few questions were asked by the human rights' team who was visiting the place as well. I just took notes silently, and when, during a lull in the conversation, they all looked at me, I could only ask, "How old is the baby?"
Slowly, we began to talk.
Not of the rape. Only of court decisions, appeals, convictions, testimonies. Only of the pressure from the rapist's clan to withdraw the case. Only of the consequences of her father's fight, which led to his losing both arms, and a leg. And she told me she was not going to change her statement, not for love or money - "I'm not going to sell my father's faith."
And my mind wanders to Zaheera Shiekh and her ever-changing statements.
And back again to this girl - A baby to think of. A marriage to build. A father in hospital, incapacitated for life. Seven siblings. A mother who has already suffered a paralytic attack on one side.
Where does the courage come from?
And later, writing the story, one corner of my mind was telling me leave her out of this. Don't quote her. Don't use her real name... but she's already stronger than that. She's been strong enough to stand up on a stage, during a protest rally, and speak of the rape and the aftermath. She doesn't need me to protect her anonymity. She wants justice, not anonymity.
This once, I was rescued. I was spared from grief and tertiary guilt through the courage of this man and his daughter. But I will face the same dilemma a thousand times. One corner of my mind will always heave an extended sigh of relief when I do not have to deal with the victim. When I do not have to confront the ugliness of the human race, in the form of damaged lives, bitter memories. When I do not have to ask myself questions to which there are no answers.