When the Vigil Ends: A Cautionary Tale

Rewire Community's Dance to Empower team performing 'Azaadi' on the steps of San Ramon City Hall, in honor of DV Awareness Month, 2021.

Shailaja Dixit describes an incident experienced by her and her peers, Roohi Agarwal and Yamini Dixit, just an hour after they ended a vigil in October 2021, on the steps of San Ramon City Hall, in honor of DV Awareness Month. 

Questions are always raised about why a victim ‘chooses’ to do something or not in the moment of crisis. Solutions and resolutions come pouring in from people outside the crisis or those seeing it with the wisdom of hindsight. We just never know how we will react or what we will do in a situation until it happens to us. And many times, the body and brain unfreeze from the trauma hours, days, weeks, or even years after an incident. It is important that survivors are believed whenever they choose to speak up (and some may never), and that their response is met with compassion and acceptance — their experience is validated.  

They share their experience in hopes that it generates a dialogue. There are so many layers to be unpacked in this experience-and no right or wrong answers really. They thank the San Ramon Police Department Officer who was prompt and compassionate in her response to their call. 

When the Vigil Ends

It is about 8:30 PM. 

Not too light or dark. 

Not too lonely or crowded. 

Not too cold or hot. 

Just about right for the three of us to stand by our cars and chat excitedly.

It is an hour after our vigil ended. 

Or so we think… 

***

In our excitement, we do not notice him. 

Clad in black pants, a black jacket, a cheerful red shirt pushing against his potbelly.

What catches my attention is his curly mop of hair, intense and black.

And what I notice next, chills me to my bones. 

It is his gaze. 

Indescribable – but every woman knows that gaze. 

Especially if you grew up in Delhi. 

That’s how our work started – in 2012. 

When finally a rape case in Delhi broke through the winter fog. 

Nirbhhaya. 

The Fearless One. 

***

I feel fear prickle at the back of my neck. 

I watch him amble slowly towards us. 

The conversation stills. 

Telepathy. 

A code we all know. Long forgotten. 

We watch warily. 

He ambles, loops, goes behind a building close to us. 

We resume talking. 

I guess someone would ask later- why didn’t you run out of that place at once?

We had just finished a vigil at the steps of San Ramon City Hall.

Raising a roar to break cycles of violence. 

We three were in no mood to run. 

And yet… 

****

There is the unmistakable quickening of a heartbeat as he appears again.

My mind flies back to my brother-in-law’s words as we part after the vigil.

Will you be safe?

You’ll be ok? 

How we laughed at him! 

Do be gone we said. 

This is America. It’s San Ramon. This is us. It’s just a dinner, we said

***

By instinct, we break up our chatter and go over to our cars. He is circling us yet again. 

I look back from opening my car and NO! 

He is unexpectedly closer to my sister who is belting her kids in.

Before I can fully grasp what is happening, he has sped closer.

Brushed his hand against her thigh, muttered something in her ear.

My body is rigid with disbelief. 

Old imprints are rising in new red relief. 

Hands, eyes, whispers, pinches, pushes, pulls, pokes, prods.

I am boiling and frozen at the same time. 

Now my blood is rushing to my ears. 

And yet… 

***

All three of us are calm. 

We gather back in a protective circle. 

What did he say, asks my friend. 

He said nice car, says my sister. 

Nice car???! 

He is walking this way again, says my friend suddenly. 

We look at each other- it is the moment of truth. 

Attack? Flee? Freeze? Deflect? Diffuse? Defer? 

Call 911 now, I blurt. 

My friend looks at me – I have the police emergency number, why call 911.

Fine! Fine! Just call!! NOW!! 

***

So we decide to report him. 

The officer at the other end is now talking to my friend. 

She is concerned, detailed, specific, rigorous. 

His hair? His height? His clothes? His weight? 

His race? His language? His features? 

Is he armed? 

We are chilled for a microsecond… 

We don’t know. 

Is anyone hurt? 

No. 

(Not visibly at least) 

Where is he? 

He is getting closer again when it dawns on him what is happening.

My friend always did talk in strident tones! 

God bless her. 

He takes off. 

Fast. 

Gaining speed.

Now he is running. 

Faster and faster. 

He has taken off his jacket. 

Melting into the night. 

Swallowed by the gates of the neighborhood across the road.

The dispatch car is on its way. 

We part ways. 

***

It is two hours after our vigil ended. 

Or so we think… 

***

Three co-founders of a local nonprofit 

Fighting gender-based violence 

On a sidewalk 

Two hours after a city-wide vigil. 

As my sister wisely says, 

You cannot make this s**t up. 

***

It is now three days after our vigil ended. 

Or so we think… 

***

The police have not found him. 

We have not yet talked about it. 

The first question comes at long last. 

Tentative, birthing from the silence in our group chat.

Why didn’t I scream? 

Next question 

Why didn’t I attack him? 

Next question 

Why did I keep standing there? 

Next question 

Why didn’t I listen to my brother in law? 

Next question 

Was it really that late or isolated? 

Next question 

Next question 

Next question….. 

Until we remember the answer. 

We can never ask a victim why they reacted the way they did.

And this includes us. 

***

It is now four days after the vigil ended 

Or so we think…

***


Shailaja Dixit currently lives in San Ramon, CA, and is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Rewire Community. 


 

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