Dilli Diary: A strange act of violence 

Can there be a rational explanation for irrational aggression?

The upper- and middle-class people build a sense of self and security inside semi-gated colonies (Photos: Akhil Katyal)
The upper- and middle-class people build a sense of self and security inside semi-gated colonies (Photos: Akhil Katyal)

Akhil Katyal

It took only a second. I had parked my two-wheeler next to the pavement on the Ashram–Jangpura flyover as it sloped towards Bhogal. The early evening was still sunny. There was hardly any traffic. I’d been getting calls constantly and thought I’d check them before moving on.

I flipped open the helmet visor. From the corner of my eye, I noticed a guy jumping over the railing on the road divider, before getting back to my screen. The next thing I knew, a sudden red haze, up close, then a tremendous burning. He had thrown a fistful of red chilli powder into my eyes.

I have little to compare that pain with.

Over the years, I’ve had dislocated shoulders, foot fractures, iron gates smashing into foreheads, and two-and-a-half heartbreaks. But this was way up there.

Not least because of the shock. All I could do was blurt out, slightly pathetically, “Arrey yaar, kya (Hey, what the…)?” The next few seconds bewildered me. Through that red fog, I saw him ambling away.

He was in no rush. He turned around on hearing me, waved back casually with half a smile on his face, and shrugged, as if he’d only accidentally brushed my shoulder. I don’t think I heard him clearly but I saw the gesture, and him mouthing what sounded like “Arrey ho gaya, arrey bas. (It just happened, take it easy).”

Meanwhile, the burning had become unbearable. The pain worsening by the second, I drove, lurching down the flyover, looking for someone who could give me water. Twice, during this disoriented, halting descent, I turned back to look, instinctively expecting some kind of a move from him—maybe him running down towards me, him suddenly up-close, trying something—but no, he was calmly walking in the opposite direction.

Not a hint of panic in his body language, he was already at the flyover’s peak. Months later, I am still trying to explain the incident. I have four theories juggling in my head.

The first is attempted robbery. Most of my friends, family and the Jangpura eye doctor I rushed to that evening suggested this. The doctor recounted several recent incidents of purse- and chain-snatching in the area, none involving lal mirch though.

She cursed him liberally while writing my prescription. But everything she said sounded like the standard RWA variety of fears, by which the upper- and middle-class Khatris of my neighbourhood build a sense of self and security inside the semi-gated colony.

The thing is, it didn’t add up. The guy didn’t try to snatch anything. He did not reach for the phone in my hand. He didn’t try to overpower me to take control of my scooter. In fact, none of his actions were speedy, except the throwing. He was calm, smiling even.

After the deed, he simply strolled away. Folks suggested that maybe he was counting on me to be so incapacitated by the burning that I’d sink down to the pavement. If I’d done so, they implied, he’d have rushed off with the scooter or the phone or the wallet.

I heard them out, saw their point, recalled when my phone was snatched while I was waiting for an auto-rickshaw outside my university at Kashmere Gate, or when I’d seen four men smash a moving car’s windscreen with metal rods, on a dimly lit road near Asola Bhatti, on the city’s sparser edges—late at night, not by daylight and certainly not on a road I crossed every day.

Which is why, the second theory: class resentment, of sorts, a kind of social schadenfreude, that German word for the joy one experiences over the harm suffered by another.

At the back of my mind was the memory of having read about incidents of cars being ‘keyed’. When I looked it up later, this was confirmed by a hysteric online subculture among car-owners bewailing their vehicles having been ‘vandalised’ by someone running a key or a blade against shiny doors or hoods.

In these forums, car-owners from Chennai to Chicago mooted many reasons where, apart from parking- related scuffles, personal feuds and drunkenness, the primary explanation offered was the ‘jealousy’ of some people towards other people owning ‘nice things’.

If we discount the class prejudice of their commentary, they were essentially reading it as the revenge of the have-nots against the haves. In the couple of seconds that I saw him, I had read the young man as ‘working class’. From what I remember, he was wearing a ragged black sweatshirt and lowers. In that instinctive blueprint we carry which immediately slots people at first glance, I had placed him thus.

He might have slotted me too. A class breach could be surmised between us. I had no car but my scooter looked new, only four months old then. It was winter. I was wearing a blazer, old but ‘fancy’, which I’d bought more than a decade ago when I was going abroad for my PhD. A class differential was easily projectable. Maybe he’d had it with folks like me that day, resentful of our conspicuous ease in the city.

Maybe one of ‘us’ had said something bad to him that day, humiliated him. Any one of us could’ve crossed his path and paid the price. It just happened to be me. Maybe I am over-reading, ascribing noble intentions in order to assuage the inexplicability of the act. There was a third theory which occurred simultaneously.

Dilli Diary: A strange act of violence 

Perhaps the guy was struggling with a mental health condition or substance addiction, which made him act the way he did. This is saying as much about me as him, but apart from reading him as ‘working class’, I had also read him as ‘vagrant’.

Later on, I rehearsed newspaper reports in my head in which ‘experts’ of all kinds— doctors, psychiatrists, NGO-wallahs— spoke of mental illness among the Delhi homeless who suffered high levels of food deprivation, extreme exposure to physical and sexual violence, and substance addiction—the last working as a reprieve, a momentary exit, a dose of forgetfulness from a difficult and violent dailiness.

Maybe, I speculated, the guy lashed out because of this. He didn’t mean to harm me. He could not help it.

But a fourth theory still lingered. The idea that this was broadly motiveless, that the pleasure lay in violence in and of itself. This theory suggested that it was less about this guy than about the ‘brutalised ambient’ he and I both inhabited, an idea also suggested by my friend, the writer Vikramaditya Sahai.

We live in a time when gruesome videos—of targeted lynchings and sexual assault, mobs vandalising places of worship belonging to religious minorities and false videos purporting to show child kidnappings and organ harvesting—circulate regularly on our phones, engulfing us in a world of increased brutalisation.

Creating a society saturated with images of spectacular violence. Triggering a sustained erosion of fellow feeling. In this climate, strange, eccentric, scattergun acts of violence can erupt anywhere. What else might explain that man carrying fistfuls of red chilli powder in his pocket to be thrown at a stranger one evening?

(AKHIL KATYAL is a Delhi-based poet, translator and teacher)

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines