The Santos Family vs Silent Spectators


The Santos Family vs Silent Spectators

Illustration: Saachi/Arré

In 1964, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered in a Queens street in New York. According to a New York Times report, 37 (or a dozen, depending on which account you choose to believe) people witnessed the crime, where Winston Moseley stabbed Genovese once and returned to sexually assault and kill her. No one attempted to interrupt the murder nor tried to inform the police until it was too late. The NYT report winds down on a chilling note: “A man peeked out from a slight opening in the doorway to his apartment and rattled off an account of the killer’s second attack. Why hadn’t he called the police at the time? ‘I was tired,’ he said without emotion. ‘I went back to bed.’”

It’s been 54 years now, but Valerian Santos hasn’t got even this inadequate answer from the people who stood and watched his son die. None of the many bystanders, who witnessed the crime, came forward to help him. Keenan and his friend Reuben Fernandez were killed outside an Andheri restaurant in suburban Mumbai on the night of October 20, 2011 after saving the girls in their group from being molested. Keenan was only doing what they he had always been taught to do by his father – to intercede, to intervene.

Intervention is what Valerian Santos believes in. He has aged many years in the seven that he has spent in the public eye but still he fights against this “bystander effect”, where witnesses to a crime refuse to engage with what is unfolding in front of them. In fact, the larger the crowd, the less likely anyone will offer to help, involved, as they presumably are, in a mental roulette of passing the buck.

Valerian Santos didn’t raise his children to pass the buck. He raised them to never be a bystander to a crime, even if intervention comes at the cost of life.

Valerian Santos wants no part of the bystander effect and does not excuse himself or his family under its pretext, in spite of everything that has happened.

Kevni Pada is a quiet Catholic neighbourhood lying on the cusp between Andheri and Jogeshwari, on the leeward side of St Blaise Church. Casa de Santos, a beautiful bungalow where Keenan Santos once lived, is located in the shadow of the church with coloured mosaic walls. When I visited in 2016, the church’s bulletin board announced, “Life begins when you step out of your comfort zone.” It’s a message Keenan would have approved of, and one that his family continues to abide by.

The Santos family of three faced me in their quiet living room in the aftermath of the judgement that has finally delivered justice for their son, five years after his death.

The mood was far from jubilant but neither had the family’s lives come to a halt. The little patch of green outside the bungalow was in bloom; a pressure cooker was going off in the kitchen. Their beautiful golden Labrador, Buddy, came and sat at my feet as I sipped my Tang.

Talking to the Santos family was far easier than I had anticipated. Valerian Santos is not despondent – if anything, he’s angry at the apathy of the world. What keeps him awake at night is not his son’s death. It is the vision of the three girls accompanying the young men, sitting hysterical on the footpath amid a pool of drying blood, surrounded by an unmoving, unhelpful crowd of men and women.

Valerian Santos wants no part of the bystander effect and does not excuse himself or his family under its pretext, in spite of everything that has happened. He and his younger son Shane had recently stood in the way of a 40-member mob that was trying to enter their colony after someone was caught during a robbery. They go on making these difficult choices, refusing to let the circumstances that led to Keenan’s death influence their decisions.

As I listened to them, I was a little stunned that this man had overcome every protective parental instinct and pushed his children to stand up and fight. It is perhaps, the toughest choice a parent can make.

Years ago, on a pleasant October evening, my mum and I boarded a rickety DTC bus from Delhi’s Talkatora Stadium where I had swim practice after school hours. The lady seated next to us was shucking peanuts and casting the shells on the bus floor. Driven by my adolescent indignation, I told her to stop. Instead of being embarrassed, the woman let out a torrent of high-decibel abuse, not one word of which I understood save for the threat that I’d be cast out of the window along with the peanut shells. She even tried to whack me. My alarmed mother was at my elbow within seconds, bellowing at the woman to back off. Once we got off the bus, however, she whirled around to scold me. “What was your problem if she was littering the bus,” she asked. “Why couldn’t you let her be?” My badass mother – who I’ve witnessed dragging a harasser off a train; sheltering her help from a drunk, abusive husband – surprised me. As the urge to protect me took over, she didn’t care about doing the right thing. All she cared about was my safety.

“Safety” or self-preservation is everyone’s primal instinct but in a parent, that instinct is multiplied manifold. Keenan’s parents, however, seem to have suppressed it and in doing so have saved more than one life.

Three years after Keenan’s death, Valerian found himself being scrutinised by a young couple at a mechanic’s shop – the young woman had noticed his bike’s license plate, which bears a picture of Keenan. They finally mustered the courage to speak to Valerian and told him they wanted to speak about Keenan.

It was only then that the father learnt that Keenan had saved the woman from being assaulted a few years prior. She and her then-boyfriend had been accosted by two men after a late-night show outside the desolate lanes of Chandan Cinema in Juhu. According to the woman, her boyfriend had run away at the first sign of trouble, but Keenan had appeared out of nowhere to first chase away the two aggressors and then to drop her home safely. In all of this, neither Keenan nor the young woman asked the other’s name. She had recognised him only after reports of his death made headlines.

“Her husband told me that she has a photograph of Keenan in her room,” Valerian said, his eyes bulging behind his bifocals. “She gets up every day, addresses him as bhaiya, prays to him, and only then starts her day.” They wanted my blessings to be able to raise their son the way Keenan was raised, Valerian tells me, that if the boy ever witnessed a situation like his mother was in, he should know how important it is to intervene.

I took their leave, pausing at the tribute wall outside their living room, which bears fraying pictures of Keenan and Reuben. Sheldon, Keenan’s younger sibling, recalled his prophetic last words, spoken a few hours prior to his death. He had made fun of Keenan’s clothes before he left for the restaurant, and the big brother had turned around to tell Sheldon, half in jest, “People won’t care about the clothes you wear. It’s what you do that they will remember you by.”