Trigger warning: Violence, language
This story is inspired by true events.
Neha covered her head with the dupatta of her salwar-kameez and wrapped it across her shoulder. She put on the oversized black sunglasses borrowed from her roommate Kavya, who — along with the rest of the second-year students of Kasturba Medical College — was attending the first lecture of the day. Dr. Swamy was one of the lenient professors and students often got away with marking proxy attendance for their friends. As Neha checked the pen drive in her pocket for the tenth time, she prayed that Kavya would successfully mark her proxy attendance today — her life depended on it.
Leaving behind her Honda Activa parked in the hostel parking, Neha hailed an auto-rickshaw a hundred meters from the college gate. There could be CCTV cameras outside shops in the market where she was headed. Arriving in an auto-rickshaw dressed in a plain white salwar-kameez with her head covered and most of her face obscured by the oversized sunglasses would make her indistinguishable from the other women walking on the streets.
With the auto-rickshaw noisily chugging towards the market, Neha fought off a fresh wave of nausea as she recalled the threatening calls and obscene Whatsapp messages she and her friends had been receiving for the past six days. While the boys were being threatened with their limbs being hacked off and their eyes ripped out of the sockets, the girls were being terrorized with warnings of brutal rapes and horrifying acid attacks. The message was loud and clear — withdraw your testimony or face the consequences.
Due to fear of backlash and pressure from their families, ten out of the twelve students had already withdrawn their testimonies, including the boys and girls who had been hospitalized. After all, the right-wing organization they were up against had strong political affiliations and big muscle. In the past few years, the organization members had been accused of vandalism, ransacking and violence against minorities, but unfortunately, there had been no convictions.
The Mangalore city air was heavy with humidity, but Neha felt a fresh chill sweep through her body as she imagined the repercussions for herself and her family if the organization found it was she who provided the incriminating evidence. Her fear was swiftly replaced by sorrow as she recalled the phone conversation with her family two days after the incident.
“I have already spoken to Mathur. Your testimony has been withdrawn,” Neha’s father had said on the phone.
Mr. Mathur was the Police Commissioner of Mangalore city and an old friend of Neha’s father.
“But Papa, how could you do that? I’ve been urging all my friends to testify. How can I back out?”
“You will do as you’re told. As it is you’ve brought shame upon the family.”
“I have brought shame upon the family?”
A heavy silence had settled on the phone line. Neha could hear her mother admonishing her father in the background.
“Beta, we care about you. We don’t want you to get hurt.” Her mother’s voice was taut with anxiety.
“But I’m already hurt, Ma. I’m hurt and you’re asking me to let them go scot-free so that they can keep doing this over and over again.”
“Beta, your father has invested a lot of money in your education. You know how much a medical degree costs...”
“I know Ma, but...”
“Do not spoil your future. One day you will get married. Who will marry you knowing that you were involved in this, this incident?”
It was the only time in the nineteen years of her life that a swearword escaped Neha’s lips in front of her parents.
Horrified, her mother had returned the phone to her father.
“If you do not do as you’re told, we’ll bring you home and get you married. It’s your decision.”
The line had gone dead.
Neha retrieved her mobile from her pocket and dialled Karan’s number. No response, again. With a pang of horror, Neha wondered if he had blocked her.
I just want to know you’re okay, she typed. Call me, please.
Neha replaced the phone in her pocket, bracing herself for the next step. The auto-rickshaw had reached its destination. Up ahead, Neha could see Ramu’s Internet Café, the seedy corner shop at the end of the crowded market. As Neha clutched the pen drive in her pocket and headed towards the Internet Café, all she could hear was the sound of her pounding heart.
Six days ago
“Never have I ever,” paused Raj, the lanky second-year student of Kasturba Medical College, “had two girlfriends — or boyfriends — at the same time.”
As four boys and two girls brought their glasses to their lips for a drink, Neha sighed. This game was turning out to be duller than she’d imagined. It was either that or she’d led a pretty boring life up to now because her drink lay untouched on the table.
Neha had never kissed in public — in fact, never kissed at all — never smoked a cigarette, never flunked an exam, never cheated on a test, never smoked a joint, never sang or danced in public, never travelled to a foreign country — heck, this was the farthest she’d been from her home in New Delhi. So yes, her life had been pretty uneventful.
Neha’s eyes were drawn again to Karan, sitting across the round table, the coloured disco lights from the dance floor brightening his face in all sorts of delightful ways. She wondered what he thought of her, or whether he thought of her at all. He seemed to prefer her company to anyone else’s in college and he often blushed in a childlike, innocent way whenever she caught him staring at her.
But did he love her the way she loved him?
Two waiters appeared at their table carrying plates of steaming paneer tikka, juicy chicken tikka and colourful vegetable platters.
The twelve hungry teenagers devoured the food within minutes and ordered another round of snacks. The game resumed with Priya, a portly girl with a shrill voice declaring, “Never have I ever been in love.”
Sounds faded and sights blurred as Neha’s universe shrunk to the space between Karan’s eyes — those gorgeous brown eyes that were looking right at her and conveying feelings that neither of them had been able to express. As though mirroring each other’s actions, Neha and Karan lifted their glasses and sipped their drinks all the while looking at each other.
Finishing his drink in a single gulp, Karan excused himself and went towards the exit of the pub.
Taking a cue, Neha followed him outside passing by a group of thirty-something-year-olds with children’s birthday caps balanced precariously on their heads gyrating to Badshah’s Abhi to Party Shuru Hui Hai (the party has just begun) on the dance floor.
Neha found Karan in the parking outside leaning against his Maruti Swift, a lit cigarette in his hand.
“All okay?” she asked, approaching him.
“All good,” he said, smiling. “So, are you enjoying your first party?”
It was a running joke among her classmates that how Neha Kapoor, the supreme nerd, had artfully avoided all parties in the first year of college and focused solely on her studies while the rest of her classmates had spent every weekend in a drunken stupor.
“It’s not so bad,” she said.
Karan chuckled. “It won’t kill you to admit you’re having a blast.”
The three drinks she’d had before they started playing the awful game dominated her senses. Neha wondered whether his lips had always been so full and red and juicy-looking or had she been blind the entire last year. Neha felt his hand on her arm, the pressure maddeningly exciting. His face was tantalizingly close to hers and she could smell the cigarette on his breath.
Wait a minute! Was he pushing her away?
“You’re drunk. Let’s get you something to eat, shall we?”
His voice seemed to be coming from far away and as Neha followed him inside, she realized with a pang of mortification that she’d just tried to kiss him and he’d pushed her away.
Neha cursed silently as she took her seat at the table, avoiding looking in the direction she’d been looking all evening. She nudged her friend Kavya sitting next to her.
“Meet me in the bathroom,” she whispered.
Kavya peered at her friend in the semi-darkness of the pub. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, I just need to talk.”
Taking extreme care to look anywhere but at him, Neha ambled towards the bathroom, wishing she could disappear. She pushed open the door with the Queen of Hearts sign hanging on it and entered the empty ladies’ bathroom. Roughly, she splashed some water on her face and gaped at her reflection in the mirror.
Three drinks and she’d transformed into a girl who tried to kiss a boy in public, a boy who wasn’t even her boyfriend. And the headache, oh the mighty headache building up behind her eyes! She should’ve stopped at one drink. The whole party experience was so overrated, Neha wasn’t sure she’d ever go to another party.
What was that?
Neha closed the tap and listened attentively. Somebody, a man, was yelling in the local language and she couldn’t understand a word. No, it was more than one man shouting. Loud, angry voices coming from just outside the bathroom door. The music stopped abruptly. The voices grew louder. What was going on?
Before Neha could reach the door, a girl’s scream pierced the air, sending a chill down her spine. With trembling, cold hands, Neha pushed open the door and peered through the tiny crack. The bright lights hurt her eyes.
A group of twenty-five men, all in a high state of excitement, had barged into the pub and encircled her friends. Their faces convoluted in fury, these young men were hollering at the teenagers in a language she couldn’t understand while making aggressive, threatening gestures.
All Neha could catch were the words drinking, smoking, girls and loose morals.
The second-year male students had formed a circle around the four girls, who huddled together in the centre terrified while the group of belligerent men hurled abuses at them.
Neha watched in horror as one of the men punched Karan on the nose. He stumbled backwards, holding his bleeding nose.
It was at that precise moment that pandemonium erupted with first flying through the air, crushing and snapping and breaking bones — a congealed mass of humanity shoving and yelling and crying, heads and limbs sticking out at grotesque angles.
Neha tore her gaze away to look for the staff of the pub, the manager — somebody who could help — but there was nobody in sight. The older party-goers seemed to have fled, leaving the teenagers at the mercy of these goons.
Trying to be inconspicuous, Neha hunkered low on the floor and dialled Mathur uncle’s number with shaky hands. It was 11:05 P.M.
Mathur uncle picked up on the third ring. “Neha, is everything okay?” His voice was alert and tense. Clearly, the call had been unexpected.
Neha relayed everything as clearly and precisely as she could.
“I’m dispatching units right away. I’ll be there in ten minutes. Lock the door. Stay in the bathroom.”
Neha closed her eyes, teardrops running down her cheeks. Her friends were being beaten to a pulp by these fanatics and all she’d done was make a phone call while hiding in the bathroom like the coward that she was.
The screams were piercing her eardrums, firing bolts of agony to her brain. She couldn’t just sit here and wait. She had to do something. But what could she do? If she went outside, she would get beaten up too. How could she help then?
Neha glanced at her sneakers, grateful she wasn’t wearing heels and turned on her phone’s camera. She opened the bathroom door and pressed record.
The longer Neha witnessed the dastardly act, the more she felt infuriated and emboldened. She stepped out of the bathroom in her black knee-length dress and her red sneakers, zooming in on the face of each attacker one by one.
The girls had been yanked away from the boys and were being slapped and dragged by their hair by a group of ten men who had surrounded them. On the other side, the boys were being brutally kicked and punched by another group.
Neha drifted towards the exit of the pub while continuing to record the ghastly events. When she was sure she had captured every man’s face on camera, Neha put her phone away and whistled loudly.
Some men turned around and spotted her. They began yelling at each other.
“Catch me if you can, assholes!”
With these words, Neha turned on her heels and sped towards the exit of the pub.
A group of men dashed after her, breaking the circle around the girls, who pushed the rest of the men out of their way and hurried to the exit.
Fear pumped through Neha’s veins like adrenaline, propelling her through the parking and towards the main road, deserted at this time of the night. Fifteen men were chasing her, bellowing and cursing and making obscene gestures. Neha wasn’t sure how long she could outrun them or where she could go. Her college was 6 kilometres away and even if she ran all that distance, she didn’t think her pursuers would stop at the gate.
As Neha turned left at a traffic signal, she could hear the Police siren blaring and just a moment later, the headlights of two Police jeeps blinded her. She paused and spun around to see that the men had stopped, turned 180 degrees and were now running away from her and the Police jeeps.
The fusty, windowless cubicle of the Internet Café contained a bulky monitor hooked to a C.P.U. at least ten years old.
As Neha plugged in the pen drive, her mobile began to ring.
“Karan, where are you? Are you okay?” she said breathlessly.
An ominous pause.
“Neha, I’m okay. Listen carefully. I called to say goodbye,” he said in a hoarse voice.
“What? What happened...”
“My parents have transferred me to another medical college in another city.”
“Why? Where are you going?”
“I can’t say. Look, I’m sorry. Just stay away from this whole business, okay? It’s the only way to stay safe. These people...” His voice trailed off.
“I have to go now. Goodbye, Neha.”
The line went dead.
Neha stared at her mobile feeling like the whole world was spinning beneath her. A news app on her mobile flashed a news report about a statement by the founding member of the right-wing organization that had attacked them six days ago.
These girls come from all over the country, drink, smoke and walk around in the night spoiling the traditional girls of the city. Why should girls go to pubs? Are they going to serve their future husbands alcohol? Should they not be learning how to make rotis (Indian bread)? Pubs and bars should be for men only. We wanted to make sure that all the women in the city are home by 7 P.M.
Neha gaped at her phone in mute disbelief.
The computer screen prompted her to create a new account. It was the anonymous account through which she intended to upload the video and broadcast it.
Neha brought her hands to the keyboard and began typing the account name — A woman of loose morals.
Author's note: To read about the true events that inspired this story, search for “Mangalore pub attack.” Sadly, the 26 men charged with the assault walked free due to “lack of evidence” despite the assault being caught on camera.