That was the best thing about them.
We began to live together when we began to fight
We began to fight when we became unafraid of losing.
What were we afraid of losing?
I know I was afraid of losing him.
I was afraid I would be hurt
Now I treat words like falling leaves, not a sharp knife.
When I have no words to counter the barrage from him
I leave the room.
Sometimes I stay and make faces at him
I let him fight with me.
Because that is love
Love slicing through silence like curtains pulled suddenly.
Too much sunlight makes us wince
Sometimes the view distracts us.
Why are you fighting with me, he says
You know why I am fighting with you, I say.
We fight because the silence stifles us
We fight to find out if we are still friends.
I fold some fights in the pages of time
Letting them mature over years.
By the time I bring them out between us
Some of them have become stories to tell.
Sometimes we start fighting as soon as we meet
As if we must accelerate everything.
There isn’t time for everything
I didn’t die.
I broke many parts but I survived.
All of me didn’t live either.
I carried the dead weight with me for years.
That’s also why I cry.
At funerals where everyone else is dry-eyed.
When the bride begins to walk away.
In school, when children get on stage,
Crying brings me back from my dead.
For people who were gone before I was born.
I cry for children silenced by abuse.
I close my eyes not knowing where the tears come from.
I cry because no one else did.
Parents who hate and try to pass it off as love.
Learning to be indifferent because feeling hurts too much.
We must move on.
We must get up and dust our hands.
I cry because it is an ocean inside.
I didn’t know it.
It surprises me.
Tears come in waves.
I struggle to remember the faces for whom I cry.
I cry because he never did.
I cry because he learned to laugh when he wanted to cry.
I cry because I want to stop him but I cannot.
I cry because it bothers him.
It jolts him.
It might make him cry one day.
I’m not going to see this, I thought to myself. I’ve seen this before, and I don’t need to see it again.
The next morning, I woke up from a nightmare. In my dream, there was a dead body in my room. I knew whose body it was, I hadn’t killed her, and yet it had become a nightmare. I was trapped. What will I say to the police? Who will believe that I am innocent? I’m so badly stuck in this mess.Events began to come back to me. The reason I didn’t want to watch the video of a schoolgirl being groped and molested by a group of men on a street was clear to me now.
The line was crystal clear in my head. I don’t need to see this because this has happened to me too.
They were a group of boys in school uniform. I was an MA student. 5pm in the evening, broad daylight, a main road in New Friends Colony, Delhi. The evening shift of a boy’s school had just got over. I didn’t perceive any danger as I walked past.They surrounded me so tightly, I must have vanished from view for a while. After a while I stopped trying to get the hands off me. There were too many, too close and too violent. I looked for guards outside the closed gates of homes. There were layers of boys between them and me. I could not reach out. Why didn’t they see me?
I couldn’t go home later. In a daze, I called a friend from a PCO. He wasn’t home. I tried another friend. I had never been to her home before, but I found my way to it. We talked. She told me about growing up in Kerala.
The only person I spoke to at home was my younger brother. I don’t remember what I told him. He listened to me, somehow I slept.
Those boys. Some of them were shorter than me.
The horror didn’t fade for years. Schoolboys, I kept screaming in my head. You are children. What are you doing? What, how…STOP IT!
I wrote these words as the headline of this column before I started typing it: You are okay to be you. You have the right to exist. You are lovely, wonderful, beloved, valued. You, my child, you.
This is not just a message from a parent to a child. This is a message from me to me. A message that my children often give me.
Why does an act of sexual violence shatter one’s self-esteem so badly?
What did you do to cause this? What were you wearing? Why were you alone? It was stupid of you to take the risk. Why does it happen to you only? Where did they touch you? Why don’t you wear, walk, live, study safer. Why do you EXIST?
I knew one thing clearly. People who want to know the details are soon enough going to tell you not to make a big deal out of it. It was nothing, far worse happens, they will say.
Back off, I say to them. Back off or I will break your arms and sock your face.
Don’t tell me what to feel or what not to feel. It destroys my faith in my own responses. My pain is not my shame. Don’t tell me I am lucky nothing worse happened. Don’t tell me to hide it. And don’t put it on display for your convenience.
I was afraid of hurting my parents. I thought they would be confused and helpless. They would be angry and not know what to do with that anger. They would be afraid.
Something had died, I had not killed it and yet I knew I was going to have to defend myself. I would have to hide the body, hide my pain and deal with an unaccountable guilt. Quite like the dream I woke up from last week. I stayed silent.
There was nothing extraordinary about that young woman on the street that evening. I was ambitious, zestful, innocent and happy in my own way. I had lived the usual eventful life of a girl in the city. Like everyone else, I had been groped, pinched, rubbed, hurt, mauled, chased and abused in public spaces since the age of 12. I had changed routes and hidden in stairways on my way home from college, waiting for car-bound men to lose me and look for a different victim. I had known fear and dread. Once in a while I had used my elbows and voice well enough to be proud of myself. I had friends who had slapped their aggressors and dragged them to the Police Station.
It never occurred to us that staying at home might make our life safer. You know why? Because it doesn’t.
A visiting uncle suddenly grabs you and you know IT IS NOT A HUG. Family weddings, festivals, vacations, my mother’s tailor, the X-ray technician, the physiotherapist, your Maths tutor, the neighbour, the home delivery man…you can be fondled, touched, flashed, anytime, anywhere. And we are. If I say, raise your hand if you haven’t been physically violated in a place where you were supposed to be safe, there will be NO HANDS RAISED.
The dead silence, the repeated breach of trust in our private spaces makes them more dangerous than the brutal world outside. Nothing happened to you, we are told. Don’t tell anyone. We are left hurting where the wounds don’t show, and sometimes those wounds never heal.
We have spent so much energy forgetting and then being rudely reminded that each one of us has been victimized. Each one of us has been hurt, isolated and confused. Men and women, growing up in a world of casual, unreported sexual violence.
What is the difference between the world that I grew up in and the world our children are growing up in?
It’s a one word answer.
I am the difference.
Parents, teachers, mentors. We will not always be able to prevent the violence, but we are in charge of healing. We are the firefighters. Speak, scream, stand by me, we wanted to say to our parents. Be ready to deal with your hurt because that’s what adults do. They challenge dysfunctional systems in everyday ways. They break down walls with their anger and their strategy. They rebuild.
All these years later, I still feel afraid before speaking up. I worry about hurting my father by writing these words. The difference between then and now is that I know that I will reach out despite the fear. I am in charge of the world my parents and my children live in. And I am going to protect them.
Because you know what, it isn’t the worst thing being born a woman in this skewed world. An early taste of injustice unleashes your power to fight back. A victim who speaks up ceases to be a victim, she threatens the entire system.
Stand up and speak up, we are all in this together.
****** (This was published here and has nearly a 100 reader comments)
This conversation took place somewhere in the middle of the 25 day adventure trip that Afzal had gone for. From Benaras to Gangasagar on the Ganga: to cleanse, refresh, rejuvenate his exhausted and cluttered life.
Little women and I were adventuring on our own at home.
Madhab called. He wanted me to see and give feedback on the 3 minute trailor for his new film, Main bhi Kalam.
Ha ha ha, for a mother of three, you spend a lot of time on Facebook, he said
Maddy, sometimes I wake up in the morning and first thing, I feel like drinking half a bottle of whisky, neat.
Is it such a bad thing that I log on to facebook and check my notifications instead?
Ha ha ha, he said
Radhika and I
Exhausted in the late afternoon heat
On a news shoot.
Can’t remember right away where we were
Not Banda, not Muzzafarpur, not Raipur
Seems somewhere in Rajasthan.
I remember the hut.
Long, not square like children draw.
Big shady tree outside
Men sitting on a charpai
Invite us to sit with them
A large open space
Our taxi nearby.
We walk into a dark, cool hut,
Small children with pieces of dry roti in their hands
Big brown eyes.
Women offer us food
Roti and something wet to go with it.
No water, thank you, I say.
Even though my eyes are watering
Hot spicy food
For a hungry camera team.
I take a few shots afterwards,
A dramatic plough in the foreground
Others in the village
Migrant labour on city roadsides.
Silence all around
Our hosts, the amused, generous women
It hurts to look at them
To even think about them as I see them
I look away and
Try to shut my mind
Even though Mother Teresa
explained, Give to the poor,
Its better than giving to the rich
The car moves again
The girls will say
Mum, you said you will tell us a story
after we take this turn.
In their village
They were gracious hosts
In my city
They are beggars
(Find a way to change that story, Mama)
This is my world, he says.
Sometimes they intersect and make a cosy little nook with a rainbow above and the gentle soundtrack of a gurgling brook in the background.
Sometimes, they just touch. We can reach out to each other and hold hands.
Sometimes the circles float away, independent, but within sight.
I love you, A. I love you too, N.
The impact sends me off further. After a while, I have to stop, pull the brakes, float about in space for a while. Find my way back. At least to where we can see each other, even if from a distance.
(the melodrama of this journey….. my hurtling away and then returning, exhausted, but calmer…..I could be in one of those movies that I cannot watch anymore)
We are doing something very Important together.
I’ll tell you about it another day, when I find the words for it.