We slept late on our last day in Delhi. Our flight home wasn’t until early evening, and we only had a few things on our agenda for the day, so why not? I stretched in bed for a moment before throwing off the blanket in the chilly air. As I moved toward the kettle to start water for coffee, I grabbed the remote and turned on the television to BBC. The sound droned in the background as I watched the kettle for signs of life. The newscaster’s voice didn’t register immediately, until I heard the words, “The victim of a brutal rape in New Delhi has died in a Singapore hospital.”
I mindlessly stirred a cup of Nescafe and scoured the newspaper that had been shoved under our door. The article confirmed BBC’s report. She had died, with her parents by her side. She was their beacon, their bright, shining hope. Just 23 years old, her parents had sold the family’s ancestral land to fund her education as a physiotherapist. She and a male friend had been out to see a movie on the night of December 16th. They got on a bus to go home, and the unthinkable happened.
The incident had riveted most of the world soon after it had happened, and the protests in Delhi, and other parts of India, had begun almost immediately. When we arrived a week later, many parts of the city were still shut down as incensed members of the community continued to clash with police. As we toured the city on our first day, our driver continuously apologized for the fact that we were not able to enter certain areas due to police blockades.
How could I adequately explain to him that I didn’t care about that? I was thrilled that the Indian people were protesting a crime that affects, by many accounts, nearly 100,000 of their women per year, and goes largely ignored by India’s officials. I peered out the window of our car at the rusty, metal blockades that lined the streets, and the police in riot gear near the India Gate, where the bulk of the protesters were gathered. Had I been able to, I would have joined them.
Back in our hotel room on that day, our last day in Delhi and the last day of that woman’s life, we considered our options. We had intended to visit the National Gallery of Modern Art, but due to its location at India Gate, we surmised that it was unlikely we could reach it. However, I felt compelled to try. I wanted to be there at India Gate.
We left the hotel and found a moto taxi on the street. The mood was different, very different. The sun shone brightly, but very little else was bright about the scene on the streets that day. People were grouped together, eyes shadowed as they talked with each other. When we gave our desired destination to the moto driver, he shook his head. No, not possible today. Is closed.
We asked him to try, and with a shrug he agreed, so we piled into the moto. After a journey of a few minutes toward the India Gate area, the notoriously chaotic Delhi traffic began to thin, and as we got closer, the traffic disappeared altogether. What appeared in its place were those same metal barricades and heavily armed and armored police officers that I had seen a few days ago. We turned around.
The driver returned us to our hotel, and we decided to just walk around for a while, and have some lunch. I continued to watch the people, to study their faces and try to determine their thoughts. However, one doesn’t have to be a mind reader to know how they felt. The husbands held their wives’ hands a little tighter, the fathers kept their teen daughters very close, and the mothers clutched baby girls to their chests. Everywhere I looked I could see a protective arm, a hand, a shoulder, as the community surrounded their women with care. It was a gesture of sadness, fear, pride and hope that did not go unnoticed by me.
We eventually returned to the hotel to gather our things, and scan the news channels again. The young woman’s body was to be flown by air ambulance back to Delhi, and would arrive near the time our own flight was scheduled to depart. We wondered briefly if the crowds and protests would converge on the airport, so we left a little earlier than we had originally planned. However, the streets were eerily quiet, and the ride to the airport took only a fraction of the time it should have.
Once check in and the notorious Indian immigration process were completed and we entered the terminal, I looked to the tarmac outside the windows. I wondered if I could see the plane, or the procession that would meet it. I wondered if the air traffic controllers in the tower would say something kind to the pilot of that air ambulance as it made its approach. I wished that I could show my respect, in some way, for this young woman who was coming home.
As our Abu Dhabi-bound plane taxied on the runway, I looked again, in vain, for the fated aircraft. When we were airborne, and Delhi sank away into the night, I held my husband’s hand and sighed.
Her name was Jyoti Singh Pandey.