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He cornered me on my way to the bathroom, singled me out in class, called me out of the classroom on silly pretexts…then started the harassment.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Priya Mani is one of the winners of the October 2020 Muse of the Month.
Trigger alert: Description of child sexual abuse, and may be triggering to survivors.
‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier? Why didn’t you trust us? And what drove you to put it up on instagram? Now all the students and parents know.The school office is flooded with calls. The schools reputation is at stake. Had you told us earlier we would have dealt with it privately.”
Swasti ma’am’s enquiry was anything but subtle. This was why I had not revealed anything earlier.
I remember going to ma’am in class 7 with severe abdominal cramps and a stained pinafore.I still recall the disdainful look she gave me and said, ”We girls have to bear this pain and more you understand. Every month I can’t give you permission to leave early.”
I never went back to her for anything after. Every menstrual period I just waited for the pain to go away, the nausea and dizziness to evaporate. Over the years I discovered muscle relaxants, hot water bags, cinnamon milk and a bar of dark chocolate could numb the pain if only partly.
In class 9, I was on the basketball team. Lokesh sir, our coach, was very encouraging. Our rigorous practice sessions ended with milkshakes from Lassi Bar and our wins with pizzas. Rohan sir, our history teacher was Lokesh sir’s friend and he would join us at times. He used to entertain us with jokes, boost our morale and encourage us with WhatsApp texts before and after matches. We all thought he was a really cool teacher.
Then one day close to my exams, I got a text message from him saying he was getting married in a month and Guna sir, a teacher from senior school, had challenged him with a dare…this is the transcript….
Rohan – Can you send a picture of your legs. It’s just a dare, nothing more. And don’t tell anyone please.
Me – Sir…(and I sent a random image of a pair of legs from pinterest)
Rohan – YOUR legs, Spoorthi.
Me – (I sent him a picture of my legs in my basketball shorts)
I wish it had ended here. But seconds later..
Rohan – umm…without the shorts, dear.
I was a precocious child and even at 14 could discern that the man had a fetish for long legs or was some sort of creep. After that I refused to wear practice shorts and wore thick leggings. I was always conscious of his presence and the hair on my legs bristled when I thought of him eyeing my legs like a hungry hyena. My mother thought I was ashamed of my unshaven legs and took me to the parlour. When I told her boys were staring at my legs she asked me to ignore them and concentrate on the sport. We should be able to wear whatever we want was her refrain. She lived in a self created utopian universe.
He cornered me on my way to the bathroom, singled me out in class, called me out of the classroom on silly pretexts…then started the harassment. He knew I had dated a couple of boys. He asked me if I enjoyed kissing them but that there were more pleasurable things…
I listened in silence ignoring the lewd remarks. I knew with the CCTV’s around he would not dare to physically assault me. Only Shabnam, my friend knew about Rohan sir’s pestering and would devise ingenious ways to drag me away. I couldn’t bring myself to tell my parents for fear of missing out on basketball.
My biology teacher who chanced upon me holding hands with Advaith in the park gave me the talk on raging hormones, sex and pregnancy after mildly chiding him and letting him off. I am sure the entire staffroom would have heard an exaggerated version of this incident. I doubted if anyone would trust me if I had spoken up about the harassment then. I had no choice but to wait. Only now the basketball sessions were unnerving.
The cat and mouse game continued for another year. I performed poorly at math and Rohan Sir offered to give me the question papers in advance. He thought I would succumb. He also threatened to take me off the basketball team; only that hurt.
I moved to junior college to a different campus, captained the basketball team and took up legal studies as an elective. I learnt more about abuse, manipulation and power.
When the school alumni posted a photo of the new vice principal- a beaming Rohan sir, something inside me snapped. I had a sizable social network. My Instagram story created a maelstrom among students, teachers and parents. A few other students posted about their nightmarish experience with the said teacher. My mother decided to take legal recourse and was kinder to me if only to assuage her feelings of guilt and confusion.
“Why now?” she asked me.
I replied, “I learnt from you, Ma. Didn’t you wait an eternity to divorce appa? Didn’t you hire a detective, compile proof, tabulate assets and wait patiently so you could be fully prepared for the court battle? For me the waiting game began then, ma, at six. Rohan Sir has a lot to lose now, Ma. If I had spoken then they would have hushed it up. He would have moved to a different place and continued his predatory tactics. Now he will lose everything- his job, his family, his daughter. He played the game of pursuit, I played the waiting game….
Editor’s note: Shashi Deshpande is a multiple award winner, the most notable of which is the Sahitya Akademi Award. While she has been widely published in English, much of her writing has also made its mark in Kannada and Marathi literature, the languages she speaks in her personal life.
Daughter of a Sanskrit scholar, she has read most of our mythologies, and, as she says here, ‘which she reads “against the grain”, from her own, feminist position.’ Her short stories, books, and essays are all ‘woven from Indian women’s lives, their day-to-day living deeply impregnated by religious, social, and political traditions, and gender relations determined by male power structures.’
The cue is this quote by her: “But for women the waiting game starts in childhood.”
Priya Mani wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: shutterstock
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