Nirbhaya (the fearless) – Nisar Ali Shah

Sir Edmund Hillary, the mountaineer, was once asked why he climbed mountains. He answered: “Because they are there.”   If a question is put to a serial rapist why he raped women.  He may emulate by saying because they are there.


Photo William Burdett-Coutts

Man-woman and man-mountain relationships have always been tricky.  An assault on a mountain does no harm, assaulting a woman does irreparable damage or death.  The most horrible cruelty and death in recent rape crime history occurred on December 16, 2012.



Jyoti Singh Pandey, 23, boarded a bus in Delhi with her male friend going home after a cinema outing. She was set upon by six men already on the bus and brutally gang-raped her.  Her friend, AwindraPratap Pandey was badly beaten, gagged and knocked unconscious with a long, sharp metal bar.  While half dead she and her friend were thrown out of the moving bus. The whole world was shocked and condemned this horrible crime in the most condemnable terms.


Photo William Burdett-Coutts2

For weeks her name was not revealed because India does not permit a rape victim’s name to be published.  Her parents agreed to publish her name. Until then, reporters called her Nirbhaya, which means the fearless one. This gender-based crime was widely reported globally and the world has not fully recovered from the shock of this intense brutality perpetrated by six rapists against this unfortunate physiotherapist.  She died from her intestinal internal injuries in a Singapore hospital after two weeks in intensive care unit. We were shown how the metal rod was used in this extreme sexual violence. The audience was stunned in disbelief to watch this powerful simulated rape scene, the struggle, and the cries of the actress. Some people were moved to tears.



This story was retold on the stage at the South Bank Centre, London, from 21 to 24 May to packed audiences. It was a sold-out show for all four days.



The popularity of this stage play, produced by Yaël Farber, was such that this could have continued for months or years, but the Indian performers were on a short tour under the yearly festival called Alchemy, between 15-25 May.  I saw the show on May 22.



The tragic death of Jyoti broke culture of silence on rape crimes with an astonishingly loud bang that cannot be ignored.



Encouraged by the worldwide media support, five women participated in this reality theatre and narrated their experiences of being raped when younger.



Ms Neel said that she was forced into marriage at 12 years old, she did not love him and was reluctant partner. Her husband attacked her when she was 14. He demanded dowry, but her family could not provide one. He wanted to sell her, when she refused he threw acid on her face and fled with their five months old son.  She spent six months bandaged up and could not move. She looks horribly defaced.



Another woman told the audience that she was raped by a stranger in her own flat. She was confronted with an intruder waving a knife and threatened to kill her. She said she struggled but was overpowered and was raped on knife point.  She suffers from psychological scars. The rapist was never caught. The third woman told her experience of being raped by a close relative when still a young girl.  Her nightmare is not over. She told the audience that she is regularly groped in New Delhi crowded buses where people travel virtually on top of each other. The other two women had shared their harrowing accounts in a straightforward manner without fear, “Shame” or inhibitions of being similarly abused.



Police figures indicate a rape reported on average every 18 hours, rape cases rapidly rose between 2007 to 2011.  Nirbhaya case was the only conviction among the 706 cases filed in New Delhi in 2012.  New Delhi has the highest number of rape crimes among India’s major cities. A rape is committed every 27 minutes in India.  Rapes occur in all countries, but New Delhi has earned a name for itself as a rape capital of the world.



Nirbhaya is the live stage play. The BBC has also made a documentary, Daughter of India, about this tragic event which was shown here on March 4. The government of India has banned it from being shown in India, fearing the reaction and subsequent chaotic demonstrations by women’s rights campaigners who are more active now than ever before. Farber’s idea of staging this play illustrates graphically that rape in caste-ridden and male dominated India is widespread and nothing much is done about this plague. Five Asian countries, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and newcomer Nepal,  took part in this sixth year’s Alchemy extravaganza.



Those who missed this extraordinarily colourful event with installations, posters, and big audiovisual TV screens all over Royal Festival Hall will have to wait until next year.



The writer is a Londonbased journalist Email: n-shah@sky.comNisar Ali Shah