For most of my life, I used to consider myself lucky. I’ve had a beautiful childhood, doting parents who have given me the liberty to make my own mistakes, an amazing environment where I can mingle around with whoever I pleased, the freedom to date whoever I want to and, the most important of all, an education. I had never, and have never, taken my privileges for granted. Until recently; I began to think – Lucky? Why did I consider myself lucky? Isn’t all this what I am supposed to be receiving anyway?
Not really, as the current state of affairs clearly exhibit. My eating what I want to, sitting however I feel like, talking and spending time with people of my choice, dressing up in what I feel looks good on me, and going out whenever and wherever I want to, are things I need to be eternally grateful for, it seems. Because, several women and men in my country, and across the globe, are surviving on the other end of my spectrum of luck – they are being subject to patriarchal norms and traditions, strict societal codes of conduct and in the simplest of terms, archaic brutality.
Ever since the documentary on the Delhi gang rape that took place nearly two years ago has been in circulation, albeit the ban, there have been talks. Rumours and opinions. Arguments and debates. Anger and fury, directed at various people – the rapists, the government, the documentarians, the lawyers, the politicians, the godmen, the system. My anger, however, is directed at just one person – me.
When I was about nine or ten years old (I can’t really recall), I was molested by a man who could not have been a day younger than fifty. My dad had taken my brother and I to a busy street, to pick up some groceries. This was when we lived in Mangalore. It was a cloudy evening; the first drizzle of the season came down on us like a welcome respite to the coastal heat. Dad left us outside a store, and walked up the road to buy some milk and fruits.
I was a happy-go-lucky child. My thoughts were all rainbows and butterflies, pastries and Barbies; my mind had no place for violence or spite. That evening, I was wearing a long, yellow dress – so long that it actually hid my toes. My brother, who is two years younger that I am, was running around, talking about what he and his friends had done at school that day. I noticed an old man looking at us and smiling; it didn’t strike me as strange because Mangalore is known for its friendly inhabitants. He walked up to me and asked me for my name. I don’t know why I did it, but I gave him a fake name. He then continued the conversation, asking me where I stayed, and somehow, ended up behind me. Suddenly, I felt one of his hands wrapping around my throat, and the other, slipping into the armhole of my dress. He then pressed my nearly negligible breasts so hard that tears sprang up in my eyes. I tried to move away; he bent lower and whispered, ‘Move, and I get your brother.’ So for the rest of what felt like eternity, I stood quiet and still. He slid his hand into my panties. Once he had his fill, he stepped away and asked me ‘Want to come with me?‘, pointing towards the bus depot that was opposite us. I stood still. From the corner of my eye, I saw Dad returning. I ran up to him, tugging my baby brother along. I turned back to see where the old man was; he was walking fast into the depot. The only thought that was on my mind that evening was – I hope he dies and I hope it hurts bad.
Years passed; every other day was peppered with lewd glances, whistles and howls, sniggers and perverted tunes. I would hold my head high, my chin up, and ignore them all. I would buy short dresses, sleeveless tops, go out with my girlfriends and boyfriends after 7 PM and eat Chinese food. Life was seemingly good.
Summer vacations and Christmas breaks were spent at my Grandmother’s place. I have three brothers (two cousins), who I’ve spent most of my childhood with, and we were equal in every way. We played, cooked, destroyed appliances, studied (grudgingly), ate and spent sleepless nights together, talking about how we would never grow up, and how things would never change. One day, while having a shower, my aunt knocked on the bathroom door furiously and said ‘Open up!’ I did, and she entered the bathroom. She stared into my eyes hard and with the ugliest scowl she could manage to contort her face into, she asked me – ‘Did you tell your cousin about menstruation?‘ My reply was an honest No. ‘I don’t believe you. He said you told him. How else would he have known? Shall I call him in and show you to him like this?‘ she screamed. When I didn’t respond, she left the bathroom in a huff, without closing the door. Suddenly, we were not equal anymore, and something had changed.
A few summers later, we were bitten by the Church bug. We used to spend an unbelievable amount of time in the Church compound, playing with others our age, volunteering to scrub the floors, and our favourite, serving at the Altar. Go figure. But we loved it. I loved it. I must have been 14 then.
One day, after I finished my Altar service, I hung the altar robes (the others were already waiting outside. I could hear them talking); I turned around and saw that a priest from the Church was standing behind me. He was an old man, with hair greyed by Time itself and a long silver beard reaching half his bent frame. I wished him – ‘Good Evening Father, how are you?’ He said nothing, and slowly hobbled towards me. After a while, he responded ‘I am fine, child. All done for the day?‘ I nodded in response, all the while noticing that he was edging closer to me. Suddenly, he reached out his hand, and went for my breasts. Shocked, I moved away, and then regained my composure – ‘He must have wanted the candle stand that was on the table behind me‘, I thought. He turned towards me again and reached for my chest once more; this time, he succeeded. His hand brushed against my breasts, and his mouth curled into a hideous grin. I ran out of the room. Suddenly, I hated Church.
When I was 16, I used to attend coaching classes for a ridiculous competitive exam. Trust me; it was such a waste of time. Nevertheless, I agreed to attend the classes because Mom wanted me to. No biggie. Dad used to drop me to the coaching centre every morning. In the afternoon, once the class was done, a friend and I would board a bus to the Majestic Bus Depot, and then take another bus to get home. I thought, ‘Why did I ever fuss about public transport? This is nice; plus, it’s so inexpensive!’ One afternoon, we were walking towards our bus, in the Majestic depot. I was wearing a blue and white shirt and a pair of jeans. Comfy clothes for the sweltering summer. A man, walking in the opposite direction, groped my right breast and as if nothing had happened, continued to walk away. ‘HEY!‘, I screamed and ran behind him, while my friend followed me screaming, ‘Sssh, let it gooo‘. I ran behind him, caught hold of his collar and screamed – ‘What the hell, you asshole? Think you can grab me and I won’t do anything? Don’t you have any shame? I’ll beat you to death, apologize right now!’ By this time, a crowd had gathered around us, and it did what it does best – keep mum. The man smiled sheepishly and said ‘No, not me. I didn’t do. You must be mistaken.’ But I wasn’t. I never forget a face, and I certainly will not mistake an innocent man for a sick pervert. I yelled, ‘Admit that you groped me and apologize, or I swear I will find out who your mother, wife or sister is and I will tell them what you have done!’ At this, he said ‘Sorry‘ in a faint voice which only I managed to catch. But it was enough for me. I was pleased at my bravery, and walked towards my bus, leaving the crowd with their mouths gaping. While boarding the bus, it happened again – this time, the man groped really hard from behind. When I turned to see who it was, I couldn’t figure him out because there were just so many people trying to push their way into the bus. From then on, I have never travelled on an intra-city public bus.
My brother and I are very close; we fight and forgive, laugh and cry, judge others and ourselves, and accept each other just as we are, no strings attached. I simply loved his courage and his way of looking at situations differently. While conversing with him one day, we began to exchange childhood stories that we previously hadn’t. We spoke of our neighbours in Mangalore, our friends, the building watchman and his annoying children, and swapped other stories. When we were speaking about a common friend and her tuition classes, he said, ‘Do you remember her tuition teacher – that old man who used to say I remind him of his son?‘ I nodded in agreement. ‘He used to take me aside and stroke my crotch’, my brother said, with no shame or guilt in his eyes. But there was something else. Helplessness. Anger. Fury. ‘I was so small; I didn’t know what to do. When I tried to make an excuse and get away, he’d say that he’ll be back tomorrow. I don’t know how he caught me all the time. I stopped playing in the building because of him.’ He also spoke of similar incidents that took place – one in a bus stand, another inside a public bus. ‘I didn’t know what to do; who would I tell?’ I then realised that he didn’t have to look at situations differently; situations looked at him differently.
I have a decent social life; I go out almost every other day with different groups of friends. I enjoy going to different places, staying out late, sometimes not coming home that night. I drink, I dance, I sing. I wear sleeveless dresses, skinny jeans, short skirts, crop tops, and daisy-dukes. I love to travel; I’ve been dying to go on a solo trip to Hampi!
Every time we plan to go out at night, my friends ask me ‘How are you coming?’ and ‘How will you go back home?’ My travel companion is Lex, my trusted steed, my two-wheeled dynamo. And that’s exactly what I tell them – ‘I‘ll come by bike, and get home by bike’.
‘But that’s so dangerous! How will you travel alone at night? Ask your brother to come pick you up. Or stay over. Don’t be stupid, it’s not safe.’ I ask why.
‘Because you’re a girl…’
‘At least text when you get home’
‘Or take a cab; but even cabs aren’t safe these days.’
As part of the post-graduate program, we had to prepare a research report on consumer behaviour; we could choose any topic. I chose to research on consumer behaviour with respect to feminine sanitation products. My group members – all boys – also agreed to go ahead with the idea.
The day of the presentation – we were quite pleased with our report and our presentation. When I stepped up on stage to present my part, I caught sight of a bunch of girls from my class, their faces contorted in disgust. I could almost hear their thoughts; the thoughts of 22-25 year old, highly educated women living in Urban India in the 21st century:
‘Ew, why is she talking about pads and chums?’
‘Has she no shame?’
‘What will the boys think? What’s with this group’?
‘Didn’t they get any other topic?’
Why am I angry with myself?
Is it because I’m a woman? Or is it because I provoked the old man with my long dress, and the innocence of a nine year-old? Is it because I titillated the priest when I had my head bowed down in prayer during the Service? Because I stood up for myself in the bus station, when everyone around me was reveling in the scene? Or is it because I chose to be myself and did as I pleased, despite the circumstances not being woman-friendly?
I am angry with myself because it is my fault. It is my fault that I did not tell anyone when I was sexually molested as a child, my fault that when there were other rumours about the priest’s actions, I kept silent. It is my fault that I hoped that the crowd, that had gathered that afternoon around me and the pervert, would take some action or show me some support. It is my fault that I did not hug my brother when he told me how he was violated, and share my own story with him (although we both laugh at these incidents now, as though they were as trivial as us scraping our knees).
But it is not my fault that I was molested, groped, teased, pinched and stripped of all clothing in someone’s mind. It is not my fault that perverted minds are the way they are – I did not excite them with my clothing, my late nights, my make – up or my gender. It is not the fault of any rape or sexual abuse victim. It doesn’t matter what we say, wear, eat, do, where we go, what time we go, who we speak to or what we think. It shouldn’t matter.
We shouldn’t have to carry around an arsenal of pepper sprays and pocket knives. We should be able to roam around at 3 am in nothing but a crop top and a short lace skirt. We need to be able to take a cab or a bus home, without fearing for our lives. We need to be viewed as people, and not as sexual objects. We need to be able to buy sanitary pads and tampons without the newspaper wrapping and the ominous black plastic bag that they are typically accompanied by. We should not have to text our friends and brothers saying that we reached home safely; neither should getting home safe be considered a miracle. We should be able to enjoy our lives, no matter how young or old we are. We should not be raped – sexually, emotionally and socially.
We need to be treated, in every possible sense, on par with men. Men need to be treated on par with women. Sure, we are not always equal in terms of physical strength and emotional makeup. I know of so many beautiful women who are physically much stronger than any man I’ve known. I know several adorable men who are much more emotionally stable than women. I’ve met women who are well known in the drag racing circuit, and men who can whip up the best biryanis and pastas, period.
‘In our culture, there is no place for a woman‘, is what one of the lawyers blatantly declared in the documentary. In our culture, there is no place for such a mind-set. There is no place for rape, gender discrimination, sexual crimes, dowry, domestic abuse, religious intolerance, ghar-wapsi, inequality and violence. There is no place for lack of self-control, desire for dominance, archaic patriarchal views, sociatal norms on what is acceptable in terms of diet, clothing, marital alliances and the nature of relationships, and certainly, no place for rapists. For them, there is just one place. Hell.
(I dedicate this rambling to my brother, Jyoti Singh, the Rohtak rape victim, Suzette Jordan, and to every other rape and sexual abuse victim across India and the world – man, woman, old, young, alive, present in spirit, and to my friends, who are unable to share their stories.)