I have not watched the viral video from Guwahati. Not even a glance.
When I first read about it online, I took my hands off the keyboard. I walked out of the room.
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.