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This incident happened with me when I was in school. I had relationships after that, I got married and had a child, but it still haunts me sometimes. It scarred me for life.
Trigger warning: This has child sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and rape, and may be triggering to survivors.
The most unforgettable person in everyone’s life is usually their parents, a friend, someone from their family or a stranger who impacted their life. We cross paths with many people in our lives; although they may leave us physically their impact on our lives stays forever. Some we forget about, and some remain so etched in our hearts that we catch ourselves thinking, behaving, and living like them.
When this question came up, I pondered about who was the most unforgettable person in my life. So many people came to my mind – my parents, my family, my childhood friends, my teachers, my child, even my domestic help. So many people I could write about; in fact I could write pages about each of them.
But the real answer came to me when I was asleep, and I got up with a start at four in the morning.
This was something that I wasn’t looking to remember. It was something that had been buried deep in my heart for years in a little box I had put away. I never visit it and I never think about it with a conscious mind but subconsciously and unconsciously sometimes it haunts me and I hate it that I have no control.
My mind wandered off to three decades ago when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. I was studying in the eighth or ninth standard in school; I don’t remember too well which. We used to travel by public bus to and fro from school. Most times the bus used to be empty especially on the way back as it was off-peak hours. I remember sitting in the window seat each time I travelled back which my favourite seat, and most times I was lucky to get it.
One such day I was returning home from school sitting in my favourite window seat and looking out of the window, enjoying the view outside. I felt something on my back, there is generally a little space between each seat and the bus walls. I looked back and I saw a man sitting in the seat right behind me.
My first thought was that maybe he was holding the back of my seat and his hand brushed my back by mistake. I didn’t think much about it but after a while I realised that it was intentional, as he stroked his hand up and down my back, from the little space that was there between the seat and the wall.
How much that terrified me is something I can’t explain. I was very naïve, shy and soft spoken as a child. I looked around and there were hardly any people in the bus except maybe three or four including the conductor. They were all busy in their own world. I didn’t know how to react; this was a situation I was not ready for. I panicked and froze, my mind stopped working, and all I could feel was fear. I somehow came to my senses, gathered some courage and switched my seat, far away from that man.
I felt safe for a while and breathed a sigh of relief, but I didn’t realise that was just the beginning of my ordeal. The man switched his place too and sat behind me again continuing to touch my back. I switched my place two more times after and he followed me each time.
Till date I don’t know why no one in the bus realised that there was something wrong, and if they did realise it, why did no one stood up for me or came to help me. Every inch of my body shouted for help; I felt dirty and confused; I blamed myself for what was happening, and my mind was in chaos. I wondered if maybe it was my school uniform, maybe my shirt was tight, or maybe I have a face that attracted cheap men like him.
I was in tears; I was shocked and traumatised beyond words. I just wanted to go to the comfort of my home and I couldn’t wait for the bus to reach the final stop. The twenty minutes distance from the school to my house suddenly seemed like a couple of hours. It felt like I was stuck in a vicious loop and I couldn’t get out of it. My house was just next to the last bus stop, I expected the man to get off sooner or later, but he sat right there till the end of the trip.
When there were five minutes to reach home, I got up from my seat and stood near the driver’s seat at the front of the bus. The man got up behind me; I kept my distance from him and was glad that I was almost home. I have never been happier to be home than on that fateful day. As the bus stopped at the final stop and I was getting down from the steps in a hurry, the man rushed behind me and tried to grab me from behind but I ran away without looking back.
I couldn’t believe his guts, I couldn’t believe that no one in the entire journey saw what I went through, and I couldn’t believe what a coward I was that I didn’t know how to confront him and what to do.
I got down from the bus and ran to my building just looking back once and there he was standing and staring at me. I went home and I looked out of my window and I saw the man stand at the bus stop for over two hours. I have never been that scared in my life, I was fearful of going to school for the next few days. I hated travelling by bus, and my eyes kept searching for him. I was in constant fear that he would show up again.
I still remember his face and I would recognise him even now without batting an eyelid. I didn’t have the courage to go and tell anyone about this. I was self-conscious after that incident, I was always aware when people looked at me, I kept my distance and my eyes open. The naïve girl staring out of the window turned into an over cautious girl. I hated it when people gave me compliments for a long time; I thought the way I looked was one of the reasons he did what he did.
It took me some years to get over it and bury it in my heart. I never revisited it or spoke about it. There are certain memories that are better locked away. As I grew up and started going to college I realised it was never my fault, I realised that there are bad men in this world and no matter how hard women try, there is at least one you’ll encounter in your life. Actually more than one, we all know, don’t we?
Looking back my biggest regret is not hitting the man back or creating a scene. If something like that happened to me now, I would drag his sorry ass to the police station. I would never accept this behaviour from anyone ever and I would never let any man behave like that with any other woman.
The MeToo movement brought so many cases to the forefront but it was widely criticised as well. People argued, “Why bring it up after so many years?”, “Why did the woman not speak up when it happened?”, and “Why now, how does it help?”.
This incident happened with me when I was in school. I had relationships after that, I got married and had a child, but it still haunts me sometimes. It scarred me for life. At that moment I had no reaction. I was numb, in disbelief and in denial. This is not a normal life experience; no one expects it, so the body’s automatic response is disbelief and a feeling of numbness to the trauma. The second reaction is shame, self-embarrassment, and anger.
It is common to have flashbacks triggered by various things, or instances that sometimes push you back into anxiety and frustration. My heart goes out to women who are raped; I don’t think I am in a position to write about how they feel or their trauma. It is something someone will never know unless they have experienced it, and I hope and pray no woman has to ever go through it.
Rape is the fourth most common crime against women in India. According to the 2019 annual report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 32033 rape cases were registered across the country, or an average of 88 cases daily, slightly lower than 2018 when 91 cases were registered daily. (Source-Wikipedia)
Can these women ever get over it? The effects and aftermath of rape is different for different people, individuals suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), depression, self-blame and various other psychological issues. Let’s not get into the social issues that rape victims face, I would require a few more pages to write and still it wouldn’t be enough.
Is it ever possible for them to forget what they went through? We would never know but I can imagine. The most unforgettable person in their life is not their parents or friends; it is some monster that they would rather forget. Their most unforgettable moment is not the birth of their child or their marriage but the moment they went through hell, a moment that they wish never happened.
The next time when someone opens up and comes out, I hope we are not quick to judge. I don’t deny there are cases where women take undue advantage of the law but more often than not these are genuine cases and real incidents that happened. Not many women enjoy demeaning themselves and go around telling others I was raped.
It is easy to make judgements and say, “you should have walked out of your job” or “You should have raised a voice then and there”. Maybe they didn’t have any other option; people depend on their jobs, that is their only means of livelihood. Also sometimes it’s someone in your family, and raising a voice could disturb family dynamics, and other times you just are too traumatised to speak up.
One of my very dear friends, an ex-Miss India, a very well-known actress and model was sexually abused by her father-in-law. She told the same to her husband but he didn’t believe her. She got divorced and later married again; however her second marriage also didn’t last due to some reasons.
I have seen a cheerful, happy-go-lucky, loving, and hopeful girl reduced to someone who is paranoid and doubtful of everyone around her. She currently suffers from paranoia psychosis and schizophrenia.
Her family doesn’t wish the world to know so it will forever be under wraps. If it comes out, it will be news and might cause a lot more harm to her. All that she has worked for over the years will be destroyed in a moment. We all know how ruthless the media is. She refuses treatment and is very difficult to handle; her family is going through extreme hardships while taking care of her. The doctors say she is quite capable of self-harm, and if she doesn’t have medicines her condition will keep worsening.
What did she get by opening up? No one believed her and her whole life overturned in a moment.
This is just one of the examples of how a life is destroyed. If we look around there will be so many more. Let us encourage women and men who speak up, and let us refrain from judging them. For every one woman who supposedly ‘lies’ there are a thousand who are telling the truth.
Women need to feel safe and comfortable when they tell their truth, and not feel mocked and derided. It takes a lot of courage to speak up even if it is after a few years. For those who have gone through this and can’t speak about it – I am sure you have some reason and I don’t judge you; my heart goes out to you. I hope you can fight these inner demons some day, and come out stronger.
People – please speak up and act when you see someone sexually or physically assaulted. Be their voice when they can’t find their own voice, and stand up for them so that they learn to stand up for themselves someday.
Let us work together to make a world where no woman ever has to say #MeToo!
Image source: a still from the series Delhi Crime
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