"Alert neighbours play saviour" reads the headline of a New Indian Express article on the shameful case of Hemavathi, declaring, "After almost four years of confinement, it was the watchful eye of the residents of Malleswaram 16th Cross road on 12th Main that saved [Hemavati], 35, from alleged ill-treatment by her own family."
This sweeping statement gets a lot of things wrong — including the years Hemavathi was confined — but most offensive is its heroic view of her neighbours. There is nothing laudable about remaining quiet in the face of blatant abuse. One neighbour, Seema Bhasin, admitted she had not seen the girl for over 10 years — but everyone living next door had heard her, as the Express reports:
Amrita’s next door neighbour Vijay Kumar said that he had heard cries of distress and desperation coming from this house since four or five years. He and a few other people from the neighbourhood decided to call up the police on Tuesday. "We used to hear sounds as though a person was shouting in pain and hunger."
In comparison, it took less than a year for the neighbours of an 92-year old Bangalore man to take action. His sons had chained and confined him to the terrace where he was forced to spend the day on the 4-ft long mattress covered with filth. Not that quietly watching an elderly person suffer for months on end merits a medal either.
It is easy enough to express shock at the behaviour of the abusive relatives in these cases, but no one seems inclined to question the apathy of the neighbours. According to the Hindu, "Most neighbours said though they knew there was something out of kilter with the family, they were hesitant to lodge a police complaint as they did not want to interfere in the family’s affairs."
And that's certainly the reason offered by Hemavati's cousin and neighbour Shiv Murthy who blithely told the Express, "We never interfered in their family affairs and only after this incident came to light we are going to their house after several years."
This appeal to decorum is all the more laughable in a society where nosiness is a way of life. All of us have experienced our share of unsolicited 'advice' on how to care for our kids, protect our marriages, tend to our ailing parent. We will cheerfully report his spouse's infidelity to a friend. Neighbours and relatives will rat out any girl caught with a member of the opposite sex to her parent. Indians are all for community policing — its highest form being the khap panchayat — when the consequences are borne by others.
We don't want to "interfere," however, if it requires taking on the burden of responsibility. So we look away if the crime requires challenging an aggressive neighbour or relative who is beating up his wife or kids. We politely see no evil that requires complaining to the police and all the legal entanglements that it may entail — unless, of course, it is an easy target. Neighbours in Shalimar Gardens had no problem dragging a young couple to the local thana for drinking in a car. But, god forbid, any of them should speak up if the crime entailed a violent husband or parent.
Our cowardice does not, however, prevent us from sitting in judgement of those who suffer. Hemavathi's father was a tyrannical and angry man who controlled his family, and regularly beat his wife — a fact confirmed by neighbours. Yet the same Ms Bhasin who kept quiet all these years tells Times of India: "The room where Hema was kept had no toilet. We often asked her mother to clean the room, as it would stink… How can a mother be careless and leave her daughter naked at home?" She now wants "some organisation or NGO" to "take care of Hemavathi and make her independent."
We Indians have high expectations of others but none of ourselves. We will be the first to pontificate on what others — the government, police, neighbours, relatives — ought to do, but are content to remain passive ourselves. We offer plentiful advice but very little assistance. We are eager to pin the blame on others while we offer innumerable excuses for evading responsibility — be it as bystanders to rape or a traffic accident or domestic abuse.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has," declared Margaret Mead. And as long as we remain thoughtless, indifferent neigbours, we will never be good citizens, or change the world.