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It All Happened In Front Of Us, And We Stood Like A Block Of Nothing; Watching

In this brilliant collection of stories for young adults, award-winning writer Paro Anand refuses to mollycoddle them, and exposes the secrets and sorrows and courage that are part of today’s life.

In this brilliant collection of stories for young adults, award-winning writer Paro Anand refuses to mollycoddle them, and exposes the secrets and sorrows and courage that are part of today’s life.

A girl dealing with grief; another who is witness to a horrible assault on a woman in broad daylight; a boy who pushes himself to the brink of extinction; teenagers coming to terms with their otherness. Her stories ask, how do you tell a friend that you are different from everyone else in a deep, fundamental way? How do you go back to school and face friends and teachers when your own family has betrayed you? And when you put your faith in Superman, does he deliver when the bullies come calling? Dark yet uplifting, unflinching yet deeply positive, these stories are a searing portrayal of the minds of today’s teenagers. In Paro Anand’s the Other, we are forced to examine our actions and inactions and every reader will find a fragment of themselves in the stories. An excerpt.

Trigger alert: This post contains descriptions of violence that could be disturbing for some readers.

I was on my way to school, walking along, unmindful of the people who passed me by, dodging dog poo and spit puddles on the road. Keeping my head down like a good girl. Books held firmly across my chest like a shield. Because, yes, I was a warrior. A warrior for having chosen school over staying at home. And my books were going to be my weapon of choice. And so, I hugged them to my chest so that my chest looked iron-board flat and did not tempt any passing leery man to casually put his claw out and grab without mercy. Me crying out in pain, and then shushing it up as others looked at me, almost grinning, wondering, did I like it. Like it? Are you crazy? It’s painful and humiliating. And I can’t even put my hand up and caress the soreness because who could caress their breasts in public? And so I clutched my shield of books and kept my head down as I headed to school, unmindful of those I passed.

Did she protect herself with something across her chest? Was she a warrior? Yes, she was. She fought. And if we had all stepped forward, she would have been a warrior still.

But I have never been taught, in school, at home, to stick up for the one who is vulnerable, to step forward and right a wrong. That justice is doing the right thing. None of us has been taught that. Instead, we are taught to protect our own skins, to look out for ourselves.  And we may be sick of our own impotence, but we were never going to stop them. Yes, we are sick of our blind eyes, but we don’t open our eyes, we don’t raise our arms up to stop that injustice. Even though she screams out. Bachaao. And whimpers, help me, help me. We turn deaf ears. Blind, deaf, mute. That’s us. That’s me.

And so, she may have been a warrior. But there was no fight left in her now. I watched the light go out, the fight go out.

They came from out of nowhere. I think. At least it was nowhere for me. I was busy looking down, not meeting any eyes. Being my own little warrior, in my own little world.

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But they caught her, not bothering about the other people crowding around. They were confident that this was a crowd of impotents. A crowd of inaction.  Not that there was anything special about this crowd. No, it was a crowd pretty much like any other crowd in this city. They knew no one was going to step forward to help her. And no one did. Not one of us. Us. Yes, me.

The attackers were not bothered that it was early in the morning, that temple bells had just rung, an azaan just sung. A time for seeking blessings for a good day ahead. A time for going about one’s business. And this was their business? Is this what they did for a living? They stealthily pushed through the milling crowd and cornered her as she was about to step off the kerb and cross the road.

They caught her right across the road from me. I heard the scream. And then everything seemed to slow down. Like the scream had altered time, thickened it, muddied it.

They caught her right in front of the crowd and they yanked her off the road by her hair. I saw the feet go out from under her. Saw a chappal fly towards the road as though it knew it was supposed be crossing. With or without her. It came flying towards me. Was it asking me for help? I watched it rise. I watched it fall. I watched.

They caught her as she fell and then they fell upon her too. The sari, yellow, turned colour as it disappeared to reveal legs. Bare and long and kicking and fighting. Kickingfighting.

I stood rooted across the street. It was as if the world stopped turning. Like someone had shouted ‘STATUE’ and everyone turned to stone. Except that everyone was looking at the firestorm of movement. There was no sound except the hitting, screaming, cutting.

Everyone stopped in their tracks. Those who were rushing to get wherever they had to now seemed in no hurry at all. They had nowhere else to be except here, watching a woman, or was she a girl, being stripped naked, being hit, being cut. Being assaulted. I cannot bring myself to say it…she was being assaulted in every which way…in every way that a woman can be assaulted.

Even from way across the road I could see it. And I watched.

I think I took one step forward. But I am not sure that I actually did. And I think someone held my arm and shook their head, telling me not to go forward. But I am not sure there was anyone who did that. I have thought about those moments so many times over and over that I may have put in details of things that I think may have happened. Or things that I wish had happened. Things that I wish I had done.

Like trying to stop them. Or at least taking that one step forward to put an end to the horror that was happening. But I am not sure I did. I don’t think any one of us took that one step forward in an attempt to stop it. And so no one put their arm out to stop me from taking the risk. No one needed to. I never took that first step either.

And the horror is that the attackers well knew that we would not. Take a step. Raise a hand. Raise a voice. Nothing. We stood like a block of Nothing. Watching.

Paro Anand has been honoured with the Sahitya Akademi Bal Sahitya Puraskar Award, 2017 for her book Wild Child, now published as Like Smoke with additional content. Her book, No Guns at My Son’s Funeral was on the IBBY Honor List and has been translated into German and Spanish. The Little Bird Who Held the Sky up with His Feet was on 1001 Books to Read Before You Grow Up, an international gold standard of the world’s best children’s literature. BBC Hindi selected her for their #100Women Project, a project highlighting the challenges and achievements of women in India.(Source: Amazon)

Excerpted with permission of Speaking Tiger, an extract from Inner Circle, Outer Circle from The Other: Stories of Difference by Paro Anand, available at bookstores and at Flipkart, Amazon India, and Amazon US

Image source: shutterstock

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