Trigger Warning: Sexual abuse
There is a market in my city where you find cosmetics and fast fashion products at affordable prices. It is characterised by large crowds, a sea of people moving in haphazard waves. My cousin took me to the market to buy a few items for a home event. She must have been 17 or 18 and I must have been 11 or 12. A weirdness had crept up in my body and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the mounds of flesh developing on my chest. A man came cutting across the traffic of peddlers and squeezed that mound of flesh. He left without any marker of identity to agitate against except a shapeless arrogance of manhood. I was left stationary in the midst of the bazaar. Eventually, I took my cousin to a corner and told her incoherently. “But you should have made noise, we could have done something” she had then said. I’m 26 years old now, and I often sit and think if I should have behaved differently.
I went to school in a yellow and black petrol-run auto. Those autos stuffed children in tens in an acceptable rules-defying fashion. I was sitting idly on the wooden strip opposite the main cushioned seat holding the rails above. A man came on his bicycle from nowhere and groped me and went away in a flash. Everyone witnessed my shame. The driver told me that I should have done something to stop him. I still think if I could have defrozen my body out of shock and kicked his bike.
I had once gone to cycle in the neighbourhood with a cousin. We lost our way while coming back. When we finally came back home, our parents were fuming with anger and fear. My cousin was acquitted of his adventure but blows of patriarchy were unleashed on me. I was supposed to forget it because they were scared of the “kinds of things that happen to girls”. Since then I have been thinking how do I disrobe myself of this body?
It was a cousin’s wedding and the house was full of chores and people. We were often left unsupervised. I was 14 years old and he was a few years older. My cousin made me into a subject of his sexual exploration. He would often come for me when I was sleeping. I wanted to confront him for twelve years but I couldn’t. Sexuality became synonymous with harassment for me. I struggled with this body of mine and for him, my body was replaced by others. When he was accused again, all family came together to rubbish it. I left home to study and on the way dealt with all the scorn that my womanly body had to bear. He stayed at home. I was angry at him, and the times I was not, I was pitiful. I read this book and that, and I forgave him. I told many people about it, silence was not my language. He had a Brahmanically-approved marriage which I attended and wished well for him. What is this morality that I’m constantly balancing my rage against? My trauma had no bearing on his dowry. He was mainstreamed into the society by marrying in the sub-caste. He has a daughter for whom I feel love. When her birth was lamented, I felt anger in my veins. I often wonder if he wishes for people like him in his daughter’s world. Every time I met him, I performed normalcy.
I was 18 and had gone to the big city to take an entrance exam. I stayed at a cousin’s place. Her husband called me his daughter and constantly invited me to sit on his lap. I had to sleep in their room that night. That night passed so slowly for me. I reported it to my mother. When my cousin learnt of it, she called me ungrateful. I never went to their house. But I had to namaste (greet) him, whenever we met.
I was on an overnight journey back to college when the conductor groped me on the bus. I thought I imagined it in sleep. The conductor would not let me deboard out of an empty bus at an empty bus stand. I still gave him ample benefit of the doubt. When I reached my hostel, I went to my friend’s room and wept. But what was the need to take an overnight bus, everyone asked. I asked myself too. I did not dare to take a bus for many days.
I have lived under the shadow of harassment all my life. It puzzles me endlessly as to how this is not the most important issue of everyone’s lives. When men get together, do they talk about it? Or do they just make our fear and trauma about themselves? Should they be eligible to feel wronged because we are their daughters, mothers, aunts, sisters, wives and friends? Do they know what it is like to carry your body on your head? We walk in two different worlds. Isn’t it a marvel that we still go out? I know that there are roads I have to travel, so much more as a woman. Every path I take lends so much to the enquiry of my womanhood. Though the events in the preceding months had shaken my faith in my journey. I often dreamt of going back. But who am I without this journey? I have to take these roads even though they make my feet heavy with chains. What is this labour of fear!
How many incidents can I mark? How many people could be blamed? Who all could be accused for not standing up? Earlier this year, I was sitting and dealing with my body which has been subjected to so much harassment. Not knowing what to do with it. One of my harassers was then celebrating his wedding anniversary. How easy was it for them? On a locked-down evening, the trauma revisited me. I questioned my mother. And it was the bluntness of her response that told me that I cannot live strangled in this narrative. I called my friend and let her hear me sobbing. “For how long will I lament about being violated in my own house?” I hate to practice the vulgarity of victimhood like a livelihood necessity.
So, I decided to speak up. I published the experiences of harassment by two family members. I did not take their names, but those who knew them knew them. I had no idea that I was writing many women’s journeys. It was moving to know this is not only mine but everyone’s. I wanted to sob again in the sturdy arms of my comrades who held me so securely in their love and trust.
I had a newfound authority that demanded accountability. I felt a little unsettled by this power and constantly checked against it. The family asked me if this was the right way of doing it. I asked them if this is the right question to ask me. I enquired where is their apology? And some of them muttered one under their breath. I received many hysterical responses. I have nothing to prove to you, I told them. I liberated myself of the burden of the proof. I felt indebted to people who supported me against family dicta. For doing the bare minimum. I was scared of being cut off from the family. I was scared of things not being “normal”. I was utterly surprised by the amount of himpathy I have in my heart.
I was shaken at the attempts at gaslighting me. I was confused if it did ever happen. I thought I imagined the whole thing. I woke up from dreams that I dare not repeat. One cousin said, “There could have been a solution but not a feminist one”. What does that even mean? I don’t want solutions. I am nobody’s counsellor. I don’t want to reform them. I want to just tell my story and go home.
Did it change anything in the lives of the harasser? No, I don’t think so. If it did, it was not relayed to me. Pain cleanses. It helps one find empathy and compassion. When I was a small girl, I was alone. There was nobody who’d speak for me. Like most teenage girls, too much unspeakable was being committed on my body. I finally wanted to speak for myself, to reclaim my own narrative. I wasn’t supposed to be this woman. We had to read prescribed books, pass examinations and then forget everything as bookish and impractical. But this sense of being a woman was inescapable. I walked on roads as a woman, I read books as a woman, I wore clothes as a woman. Very early on, I started hating my body. I simply didn’t want it. I wanted this brain sans body. The body which is sometimes fat, sometimes thin. The body which has to be guarded like treasure. The body which was violated and assaulted and chased. The body which limited our possibilities. There was no way to understand this in biology. I read all books closely.
How do I rationalise this world of mine where men can weaponise their bodies and stand before us. I cannot accept any men as messiah to fight against other men’s bodies. I accept fellowship only from women. Today I know many women in whose company, I don’t resent this womanly body of mine. And I know men in whose company, I feel like a human.
I want to document this to write my story in the family history of land and property and guns and marriage. I said what I had to and I feel steadier. I am angry but I am not burning in rage. Elif Shafak says that anger, when left alone, can be corrosive and addictive. My pain is not erased but I am not grieving. My experience helped me attain a unity that I’m spiritually interested in. I found my integrity and could cleanse myself of violence and untruth that came to define my body. As I move away from this, I feel liberated. I feel an acceptance for my body. This body that I want to wrap in shawls and dupattas on some days and on other days, I want to give up all that hides me like Lal Ded and Akka Mahadevi. There is no duality between body and mind. I feel closer to my authentic self. It’s pointless what I wear and it means everything. My body will be a vessel of my politics and spirituality. I want this body to hug and hold friends and family and lovers. It’s frivolous and profound. It is not only a site of violence, harassment, scorn and shame. This body is my only home now.
As bell hooks taught us, “Contrary to what we may have been taught to think, unnecessary and unchosen suffering wounds us but need not scar us for life. It does mark us. What we allow the mark of our suffering to become is in our hands.”
Featured Image Credit: Simlyn J/Feminism In India