Friday, May 12, 2017

Dear Me and Dear You. Dear Girl.

By Anonymous 

Dear Girl,

I had barely put down my bag when you knocked on my door. I was sleepy and covered in a fine coat of grime from the Indian Railways, and my breath was an awful mix of stale toothpaste, haggling with auto drivers, and the night air heavy with co-passenger snores. All I wanted to do was plant myself under a shower and recuperate, reorient myself. Instead, I had barely put down my bag when you knocked on my door.

Your eyes were teary and I felt my stomach drop. The last time you had sought refuge in my room, you had told me about familial feuds and domestic conflict, and I had told you that adult problems were not in your control and that none of it was your fault. Today, you opened conversation with a confession that “he is asking me to sleep with him,” and my heart did a double-flip. I asked you to tell me more. Were you sure of what you were saying? Were the alien details of a foreign tongue confusing usage between ‘sleep near’ and ‘sleep with’? What did you mean?

That day, we had a conversation, my grime-coated “adult” hand covering your freshly-bathed one, your well-oiled, combed hair pressed against my dusty shoulder, your tears forming stain marks on an already battered kurti. I told you no one had access to your body unless you gave it to them. I told you none of it was your fault. I told you nothing had to “happen” for it to be wrong. I told you that just because you were an “unprotected” girl without a father figure, it did not make you fair prey. I told you it would be okay, and that you were safe now. I taught you the words to tell your story. I told you I was listening. And as I was telling you, I was actually telling myself.

I was thirteen. India was playing the finals of a World Cup, and the T20 craze was just catching on. Dhoni would finish the match with what would become his characteristic aplomb but I did not see any of it. It was September, I was away from home on vacation, and I was thirteen.

As Dhoni belted his sixes all over the stadium and friends cheered him on in a mad frenzy that only characterises cricket in India, I was in the next room. I don’t remember why I had gotten up; maybe it was to quickly take a bathroom break before the last few balls or grab a drink of water. Maybe someone had asked for something and everyone else was too rivetted to get up. Whatever it was, I was on my feet and in the next room. It was just me and a family friend, the host to us all that evening. I was thirteen. He was over ten years older than me.

I remember it like it was yesterday. I walked into the room looking for something and not finding it, turned around to leave. He grabbed a hold of my hand and pulled me towards him. I don’t remember the sequence of events too clearly so many years later, but I remember being pinned against the wall. He was roughly my height and not too strongly built but he had the advantage of surprise. I remember being pinned against the wall. I remember him kissing me, softly at first and then with a little more urgency. I remember feeling his tongue in my mouth as he pressed against me. I remember feeling dizzy, disoriented, light-headed. I remember concentrating on the cheering that I could hear from the TV screen, the hooting and clapping and urging proving the blanket of white noise I needed to just last those few minutes through. I remember focusing intently on the thwack of ball on bat, the yells to ‘catch itttt’ and finally, the overwhelming raucous cheering as national heroes lifted the cup on homeground. I never saw the helicopter shot that day. I was busy wedged between a wall and a man almost double my age at the time. I was thirteen.

It was very many years later that I learnt to associate ‘child sexual abuse’ with myself. I was in college and writing an article on the subject when too much of the research hit close to home. I put my laptop aside and wept in the recognition, not of victimhood or weakness but of the experience itself. It really had happened to me and it was not okay.

This journey of it being ‘not okay’ was long and arduous to say the least, much like most self-exploratory experiences with abuse. A few years after said man had ruined a cricket final for me, another man known to the family had decided to truly milk the hospitality of a dinner party at my house. I was helping Ma clear the dishes from the terrace where we had hosted guests and bring all the pots and pans downstairs when a voice from the shadows asked me to stop. It was a voice I recognised, one I had heard since I was a child, and I did. I remember what I was wearing that day, an almost costume-party-esque half-sari following some event that I had been to earlier in the day. He was sitting on the floor of the terrace, back against a wall, and asked me to join him. When I did, he leaned in to kiss me and I could feel tongue again. Luckily for me, I knew what was happening this time around. I clenched my teeth together, and fled even as I could hear my mother call for me to help wash the dishes. He acted like nothing had happened as I shook and quivered in the bathroom. I was fifteen.

Today, many years later, I look back at these men and I remind myself every day that what they did was not okay. I tell myself that placating me with reassurances of love and affection and deep care does not make it okay. I kid myself into believing that they were “good people” who did “bad things,” not just horrible human beings. Today, many years later, I still freeze when I find myself in a secluded space with a man much older than me, bracing myself for the move that my body has internalised as inevitable.

Dear Girl, when you told me about the man who was making a pass at you, I thought of my men. When you told me he was an uncle twice-removed, I thought of all the men I grew up calling Uncle. When you told me everyone loved him, I thought of the many civil social interactions I have had with them in the years that followed.

Dear Girl, if I were to give you advice today, it would be this.

Veiled compliments are more veil than compliment. For all the men who tell you that you are pretty and talented and intelligent, do not let their apparent admiration dull the atrocity of their action. For all the men who say you are “just something else” or there is “something about you,” do not let their vague vocabulary and placating condescension define how you see yourself. You are something else. There is something about you. You are pretty and talented and intelligent. But none of that is because of those men. None of that is for those men. None of that is the ‘because’ of why they touch you. Be strong.

Let yourself grieve. Cry. Yell. Fume. There was a point in my late adolescence that idle teenage fantasising about the First Kiss would cause panic attacks and uncontrollable tears. As friends sat around a bowl of chips and dreamt of Prince Charming and more, I could hear Dhoni’s thwack from the next room, a strong hand on my own, and a foreign object in my mouth. Every time friends laughed at “the weird ones” having “a thing” for me, even today I see a motley collage of men of all shapes and sizes, whispering sweet nothings of talent and beauty into my ears as a monstrous tongue snakes its way towards me. Do not be afraid to rage. Rage for what was. Rage for what could have been. Rage for what never will be. Rage for yourself, the You of Then and the You of Now. But do not rage at yourself. This is not on you.

Put the pieces together. The strokes of your painting have changed a little and the edges of the jigsaw may seem like they don’t quite fit, but it still makes a picture, and it is still yours. Put the pieces back together. Surround yourself by people you trust and love and one day, when you are ready, tell them your story. Draw your strength from the world around you and the goodness that exists. Remind yourself that that man on that day in that moment did not redefine the world in monochrome. Instead, paint your own picture around the dots, over the scars. Put the pieces together and tell your own tale. Sure, it may be flecked with grey or black or red, but it will be splashed, nay, drowned, with orange and purple and the pink of beachside cotton candy. It will be beautiful because you are beautiful.
Dear Girl, when you told me your story, I lived through mine. When I repeated words of quiet reassurance to soothe your fears, I called up the shadows that lurked within me and calmed them too.When I held your hand and whispered words of confidence into your soul, I reached out to another fifteen-year-old at another time and another place, and told her too.

Dear Me and Dear You. Dear Girl.

Be Strong. This is not on you. You are beautiful.