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It is always most difficult to name and shame someone who is well-known to you: in a very personal post, Sonia Chatterjee writes about the sexual harassment she had faced as a child from a family friend.
I grew up in a household where speaking the truth was not just encouraged but diligently practiced. Baba always believed that when one speaks the truth, one always stays true to their conscience. Besides, the stated facts always stay the same. Ma had the same version personalized when she had asked me to always be the first one to let them know the truth, even if it was something that might leave them appalled.
Such principles shaped my nature and character in such a way, that I grew extremely close and comfortable with my parents. I knew that I was believed in my house and was it was one of the strongest factors that built my confidence. The only not so likable attribute that I developed because of speaking the truth was my inability to sugar-coat my words or be diplomatic in my approach.
#MeToo was a movement that started last year, that exposed monsters like Harvey Weinstein. Since then, there have been skeletons tumbling out of closets everywhere. However, it is only recently that this movement gained mass momentum in India after Tanushree Dutta called out Nana Patekar in a decade-old case of harassment. And for the past few days, there have been stories about media personalities, journalists, writers and stand up comics. People like Utsav Chakraborty, Gautam Adhikari, Kiran Nagarkar, Kailash Kher and many others have been called out by women who have faced harassment in their hands. India has finally woken up to #MeTooIndia and #TimeUp movement.
Amidst all this, I realize how pathetic the state of affairs is in our country. Is there any girl who has not faced harassment at any level ever? Right from being groped in crowded buses, receiving unsolicited pictures of private parts, getting masturbated at and being felt up, the list seems to be endless. Beyond a point, every girl has learned to keep her sixth sense in the maximum alert mode and be armed with a device for protection like a pepper spray. Even I have had the most horrible experiences. Most of these abusers were random people whose perverted minds derived pleasure from such sickening acts. But what does one do when this kind of sexual predator lurks in their closest circle!
S has been a family friend for ages. His father had been my Baba’s friend and mentor. Despite the huge age difference, I grew up calling S as Dada (elder brother in Bengali). I had met him many times as a child and always found him to be affectionate and caring towards me. So, I was taken aback when I felt his hands brush my chest area on the pretext of picking up a paper from the table. I was barely thirteen then. But I was so sure that it had happened by mistake that I forgot about it soon. Unfortunately, this started becoming a pattern very soon. I met him during family functions and festivals and each time he made me so uncomfortable that I started avoiding him. The mere sight of him would make me run indoors. Sadly, my parents loved him like their own son and they could never understand my sudden disappearances. The hide and seek game went on for another two years till it was my board exams and I was excused from attending all events until I completed my exams.
After my board results, he had come with his wife and his infant son to congratulate me. I had no option but to meet him. On the pretext of appreciation, his hands lingered on my shoulders longer than necessary. I was disgusted at this sick man who had no hesitation in feeling up my bra straps in front of his own family. I wanted to tell my parents about him. Knowing the kind of open communication we followed in the house, this shouldn’t have been so difficult. Yet I kept thinking of my father and how disappointed he would be after knowing about this man. I chose to stay silent not because I thought they would not believe or support me but because I didn’t want to shatter their faith in someone they loved so much.
It became a little easier for me after moving out of my hometown for graduation. I returned home only during vacation and avoided meeting him in every possible way. When abuse comes from someone one grows up knowing and believing in, it is plausible to develop trust issues with people of opposite sex. I was always on an alert lest this was repeated by someone else. It was quite heartbreaking that at such a point of life, I was surrounded by people who either didn’t believe that sexual abuse was predominant in most families or they simply chose not to talk about such issues.
After moving to Delhi next, my trips back home were confined to just annual visits once a year rendering it improbable for me to bump into S anymore. In 2004, when Baba was admitted for an emergency surgery, Ma informed me that it was S who had run pillar to post arranging for all the requisite facilities in Kolkata. By the time I could reach Kolkata from Bangalore, Baba had already been successfully operated on and S had proved to be their pillar of strength. I was going through such disturbing thoughts that there were days where I convinced myself to believe that I had imagined most of the incidents. My family had only enhanced their feelings of gratitude towards S while I was fighting my inner demons.
However in 2011 when S took it upon himself to take care of my wedding arrangements, I knew that I was heading towards a nervous breakdown if I didn’t talk about his behavior to someone immediately. T and I had been friends for twelve years before we decided to step up our friendship to a life-long partnership through wedding vows. In the one decade of being his friend, I had known him to be extremely non-judgemental. Also, I didn’t want to start a new life filled with so much emotional baggage. In April 2011, I had come down to my hometown for the Ashirvaad ceremony (Engagement in a traditional Bengali style). I had been waiting for the right moment to talk to him and it happened when we went out on a date exploring Kolkata by ourselves.
I don’t remember what got me speaking but I had suffered in silence for so long that I felt suffocated. Probably, it was also because T was ready to hear me out sans prejudice. I told him everything and he listened to me without questioning any incident. He comforted me when I cried, hugged me when I sounded doubtful about myself and held my hand as I shared the traumatic experiences.
By the end of this conversation, I felt relieved. For years, I had kept imagining what it would be like when I tell the truth about sexual abuse from a close family friend. In my mind, I had cooked up scenes of my character being questioned and my words not being trusted because somewhere I had also started assuming that it could have been my fault. But never for once did I think that when I tell the truth, there was also the probability of someone saying ‘I trust every word that you say and I am going to support you unconditionally if you decide to take any action against this.’ These were the words that T said before he dropped me back home that night.
For the past seven years that we have been married, T has stayed true to his words. During the wedding rituals when S had told Baba about his willingness to carry me as the brother of the bride along with my cousin brothers for the saat feras, I had suggested that I would prefer to walk instead of being carried outside by a bunch of men as per the ritual. T had spoken up for me. During the marriage reception, when we stood to receive gifts and presents, T had made sure to be around when S came to wish me.
Over the months, at every single encounter, not only did T ensure that he stood by me, but he also helped me muster enough courage to face this predator. S had finally picked up the cues and probably realized that T knew about his true nature. It was his turn to start avoiding us. We had met S and his family on multiple occasions in the past two years but it is amazing how the tables have turned now. It is S who seems to be too busy or preoccupied to meet us these days.
Having lived all by myself for twelve years of my life, I had realized that my defense is my responsibility. I have called out and confronted men who made me feel uncomfortable. But it is always the most difficult task to name and shame someone who is well-known to the victim. The stakes involved are too high. The emotions range from disbelief to disgust but from my personal experience, I can share that though speaking the truth might require a lot of courage yet it is the first step towards the healing process. And if you have someone in your circle who needs to be heard, please do it patiently and without judging them. It is important to trust them if they have decided to share a sore incident of their life.
Author’s note – I chose to talk about a dark incident that killed a part of me in the initial years and made me go through a trauma that I bore for a long time. It is only when I decided not to let it overshadow a new beginning that I finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. So, if you want to share your #MeToo story with me here or anywhere on my social media page/DM/PM,Whatsapp, let me assure you that I am going to hear you out and trust your words. Sexual abuse is a hard reality but it is time to let the molesters know that we stand in solidarity to face them heads on.
A version of this was first published here.
Image source: shutterstock
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With two post-graduate degrees and eight years of corporate experience, I quit my banking
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