The peanut vendor tightened the tarp on his wheelbarrow, ensuring to cover every bit of everything that was on it-the drum of peanuts, the stack of newspaper bags, the bag of coal, and the small aluminum pan he burnt the coal on. With the warmth of his coal fire gone, Niru double-wrapped herself in her shawl.
"Bhaiya, do you know what time the last bus comes?" She asked the smallish vendor who was now almost ready to wheel his wares to wherever his home was.
"Should be coming any minute now." He raised his hand. Niru thought he waved to her, but he was only getting ready to give a giant push to the cart. Off he started.
With him gone, with the street lamp only giving a dim, lethargic flicker, and with the shops behind them all closed now, the bus-stop became desolate in the uninterrupted darkness of the cold December night.
"Sham, let's take an auto till Dwarka." Niru said, feeling a bit nervous now. She only had enough money to get her closer to home. She imagined she could at Dwarka catch a bus already en route to her village. Sham looked at his watch again.
"Let's wait for ten minutes, and maybe then." He said, stretching his hands deeper into the pockets of his jeans, his fingers making a rough estimate of the rupees in his possession.
In silence they kept peering towards the oncoming traffic, to spot a bus.
'The movie was fun. The chaat after that even more yummy, made memorable by Ravi's constant supply of jokes and Sohini's constant bargaining for time with her mother on the phone. Wait till Ratna comes to know that we indeed saw the movie. She will curse herself for having left early.' With exams over in the afternoon, Niru's mind was filled up with the masti of the evening. The film's catchy tunes kept coming to her lips, and yet her mind was racing towards home too. She had been this late before. She would be fine, she reassured herself. Pappaji will probably throw a fit, but Ma will convince him, like always. Niru also told herself that she should better note the bus-schedule.
"There it is." Sham said, pointing towards a bus slowing down in their direction. Niru took a few steps, but then noted that it was a private bus. Before she could say anything, the bus stopped, and the door flung open with a young man beckoning to Sham and Niru.
"Jaldi karo, jaldi aao." He spoke like a bus conductor. He appeared in a genuine rush to do his last trip for the day.
Niru and Sham stepped into the bus that had darkened glasses.
Three years from that cold December night, Niru is gone. Gone, as in gone, obliterated, annihilated, massacred, slaughtered, shot, stabbed, poisoned to death. You say she was raped, and died of injuries on her own. You say she is gone because her body was weak and could not take the onslaught. You say she is gone because she should have weighed the pros and cons of refusing five men to mutilate her. You say this, because you are alive, because you are remorseless. And you are remorseless because you think a woman out at night is a woman to be plundered, just like a woman at daytime is someone to serve your home and nourish your brood. You take the day away from her, and you don't give her the night?
What hurts is that you come from a strong background of similar thinking. You come from, and will go back to, a baithak full of men who will say, "Why did the girl go out at night?"
"Why did she wear pants?"
"Why did she speak English?"
"Why did she study more than her matriculation failed brothers?"
"Why did she leave the house?"
And yet, I can assure you that every time you and your like-minded brethren utter such words, there will be a parent, a brother, a dadi, a nana or a friend, who will look around and say I will let the women in my life flourish just as much as I would the men. Our women will not just study to make careers, but they will enjoy lives just as they want. They will drive, dance, drink; they will get married, they will have children; they will get married, and choose to not have children; they will choose to not get married; they will divorce, they will re-marry. They will do anything and everything that any woman wants. You and your like will not snub them. Never.......and you still believe Niru is gone?
Niru, who was just another youngster, doing what happy and healthy kids the world over do. Niru, who is the kid in my kid, and the woman in us all.
Niru, who in her facelessness till now has become the strongest face of the modern Indian woman.
Niru, who in her namelessness till now is the strongest of all names -----NIRBHAYA---the fearless!