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Scrambled bystander

The day empathy died

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Suresh Krishnan had an epiphany when he saw the newspaper the next day and recognised what had happened. Not guilt, remorse, fear or disgust, all of which would shortly follow and consume him in the months to come but pure and simple elation as though the scales had fallen from his eyes. "Epiphany, yes. I wouldn't call it anything else though it's a shame to talk in such terms, " says the 26-year-old MBA and engineering graduate who has recovered enough to talk about his trauma. Our society rightly reveres Samaritans who respond to strangers in distress but there is a whole invisible army of people who, because they turned away when they should have looked, have become strangers to themselves. Men and women who are victims of failing to bear witness. 

Kerala has generally had a proud history of people being proactive when they saw a crime in progress or came upon a hit-and-run victim. But, as Krishnan's story shows, a helping-hand is no longer the straightforward moral and practical act it used to be.
On February 1 two years ago, Krishnan was on the shuttle train from Kochi to Shornur when, in the very next compartment to the one he was in, a one-armed vagrant tried to molest 23-year-old Soumya who was at that time alone in the ladiesonly bogie. When she resisted him, the man threw Soumya, a salesgirl returning home from work, out of the running train. Some people in Krishnan's compartment thought they heard a woman repeatedly scream but after some argument decided against stopping the train.

Krishnan himself was sure he didn't hear anything and he was furiously on the side of those who said they should be thinking of getting home and not wasting time imagining things. As the men in the compartment continued to argue and the train lights receded into the distance, the vagrant raped the grievously hurt Soumya next to the tracks. She was later found lying unconscious and died in hospital after a few days.

He learnt of the rape the next day in newspapers and once the initial shock faded, the insight Krishnan gained was that the peculiar, vicarious existence he led was the main reason for his reluctance to even entertain the benefit of doubt. "Here I was, someone who tweeted regularly, instantly declared my likes and dislikes on virtual platforms, wearing my cause on my status messages, thinking that I was doing everything I could to be involved with the world, " he says. Yet when the moment came when he could have, should have, shown more involvement, he was found totally wanting in empathy. "All along I was mistaking alienation (from the real world) for participation, " he says.

For all his agony Krishnan did manage to achieve closure and clarity, a luxury denied to many others who have actually gone out of their way to help. A few months ago, Philip Kurian, a consumer durables wholesaler was returning home around 10 pm when, on the Kochi bypass, a 100 metres ahead of him he saw a bike swerve to avoid an auto that shot out from a side road without any warning. The auto sped away but the bike rider and the pillion rider, a woman, lay sprawled on the highway. Kurian braked, pulled over to the shoulder and rushed to the couple. He noticed blood oozing out of the man's ears. The woman wasn't even stirring.

He single handedly moved both to the kerb even as more vehicles pulled up and a crowd started to gather. Kurian was dialling for an ambulance when someone from the crowd suddenly shouted, "Don't let the car driver go. The reckless fellow rammed into the bike. " Kurian froze even as he felt a hand on his shoulder and a few young men menacingly closed in on him. Then providentially another voice spoke. A local man appeared on the scene and said the auto was responsible for the accident. Kurian felt the tension dissolve. Soon an ambulance was on the scene - the couple on the bike survived - but says Kurian, "I will think twice before trying to help anyone again. "

The Genovese Effect - or bystander apathy - has been well documented but in Kerala, with its combustible mix of old fidelities and new resentments, the Samaritan impulse is like a Bermuda Triangle where the moral compass gets hopelessly scrambled. "We are increasingly witnessing a situation where people turn away from an accident or crime and remain unapologetic about it. Their defence is: 'It's not my business', " says Dr Vijaykumar, a social psychologist and trauma care consultant. Reprehensible as it is, various experts however believe that individuals alone can't be blamed for this.

"What in effect a person means when he says 'It's not my business' is that he already has his hands full. It's a genuine predicament in our inordinately stress-filled lives, something that needs to be acknowledged if we need to remedy the situation, " says sociologist Dr K Rajalakshmi.

The exact arc of cultural and economic reasons, of public demeanour and private compulsions, has not been worked out but various scholars here, taking a cue from postmodern studies, believe that it is linked to some of the schizoid demands of modernity. How, for instance, in practice, and by default, we place self interests above that of others but are at the same time denied the licence to fully recognise its implications.

As the Chicana feminist author Cherrie Moraga puts it in This Bridge Called My Back, "Coming to terms with the sufferings of others has never meant looking away from our own. "

All scriptures talk of how each of us know loss but not the same loss as others, that, as the Hebrew Shul says, "there are as many objects for tears as there are tears, of how we are late, but not for the same dream". It is something that Suresh Krishnan, wise now for his years, has imbibed so that he won't be surprised again as badly as he was on the train that night. Soumya's scream for help had been all too real.


*Some names have been changed on request

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