What If I Hadn’t Escaped The Stalker I Had When I Was 21?

Author & columnist Kiran Manral writes her first piece for a new column: "I think of the what ifs of the lives that sexual violence brought to an end, lives snuffed out, dreams snuffed out, trauma carried through a life that is inescapably divided into a before and after."

When I was in my first year of my M.A. degree course, I got myself a stalker. This was an ordinary, garden variety stalker. He would wait for me at the bus stop outside the railway station, at the time I would normally exit the station, and then stand behind me in the queue for the bus, his breath hot and scary on my neck. He would climb behind me onto the bus and stand behind me all the way to the university get off with me and follow me to class. Some days, he would wait outside the gate all day until I had finished my lectures and follow me back to the railway station. I changed my timings, I changed my route.

I don’t remember details of what he was like now, after all these years. All I remember is that he was possibly in his mid-20s, massively built, to my five foot three, and my heart still begins thudding in fear all these years later, my skin goes cold and clammy and the hair on the nape of my neck stands with the memory of the fear I felt when I realised he had arrived and was standing right behind me, quiet, a finger’s distance away, biding his time for I knew not what. And I knew, with complete certainty, that if ever cornered in a dark alley by someone as massively built as him, I stood absolutely no chance of escape.

This went on for a couple of months, months during which I lived on a constant precipice of fear, looking around me everywhere I went, imagining him in the corner of my eye, feeling his breath constantly on my neck.

I dropped out of my course, found myself a job as a copywriter in a small advertising agency where I wrote ridiculously upbeat copy for pressure cookers and non-stick cookware and electronics showrooms. Not quite the exquisiteness of language that I had hoped to dabble in when I’d signed up for my Masters in English Literature.

My excuse to myself then was that I’d got a job in advertising as a copywriter. I never did get back to completing my Masters and that will always be a fishbone lodged in the soft tissue of my throat for the rest of my life, whatever of it that remains. I got off easy, I realise in retrospect. I never saw him again, because I never went back to University again. I never went to that bus stop, that railway station again. I still get gooseflesh on my arms three decades later when I think about how terrified I was back then, living my minutes and hours in the fear of what could happen.

Why am I thinking of him now?

As I write this a young girl in New Delhi, the capital of the country has been attacked by acid, acid that the perpetrators bought off an e-retail site. A month ago, there was news of a young woman chopped up and pieces of her scattered by her partner. A few days ago, a woman had her 10-month old baby thrown off from the vehicle she was travelling in Palghar, Maharashtra, while she was being molested by her co-passengers.

And ten years ago, to this month, as I write this, a young woman returning from watching a movie with her friend was brutally raped in a bus, an incident that became the flashpoint to rouse the conscience of a nation. Nirbhaya, they called her, because by law a victim of rape could not be named. A name that was thrust upon her. Bravery that was imposed upon her like a medal, a medal she did not ask for, a medal that she would not have wanted. All she had wanted was the opportunity to make a life for herself, to get married to the man she was seeing, who had been with her on that bus but hadn’t been able to save her from the assault, himself brutally assaulted by the men raped her. She died from her injuries, injuries so heinous that she shouldn’t have survived, but she did, for 12 long days during which, the reports of how brutally she’d been assaulted horrified an entire nation. This could be them, young women in cities and towns thought, this could be their daughters, their mothers thought. This could be any of us. The protestors sat in the chill of Delhi’s December, facing lathi charges and water cannons and a head of government who completely misread the room. The people were angry, and it was anger that percolated down to every city, town and village. It was anger that would not be denied.

Why do I speak of a single instance of stalking I experienced decades ago in the same article as a horrific gang rape that mauled and mutilated a young girl, a woman being chopped up into pieces by her live-in partner, a harassment that ended in a woman losing her ten-month-old baby all in the same space? After all, nothing did happen to me, did it? I was not harmed, I wasn’t even touched. It was just implicit the threat of violence, the person shadowing me every single day, making me uneasy enough to drop my course. It was the appropriation of me without my consent by someone I did not know.

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Why do I associate these violent crimes with the plain vanilla of being stalked by a man who didn’t harm me? What do I have to complain about? Why does this still haunt me three decades later, haunt me so much that I need to write about it?

All this is so normalised that it barely shocks us anymore!

I write this because, as harmless as most people might consider this, it was a violation. A violation of my freedom to occupy public space unhindered. A violation that would have eventually escalated. Heaven knows what gruesome delusions of a relationship the creature stalking me had been building in his head.

From street sexual harassment, to stalking, to the heinous extreme of rape and murder, all these are part of the spectrum of violence a woman faces in her day to day. Women navigate the threat of these not just when they navigate the world outside the home, but within the home itself. And when you think of it, what place is truly safe for a woman in this country? She is even ripped out of the womb before she can be born, or smothered as soon as she is.

And it is because these are so commonplace that we’ve become inured to the horror of it all when it comes in the news. Stalking is not even considered serious enough to lodge a complaint until violence takes place, and even then, it isn’t enough to save a woman from a stalker who is demented enough to physically harm her, we have enough and more cases.

What if… the ‘what ifs’ that haunt every such situation

At times, I do wonder what the trajectory of my life would have been had I completed my M.A. and gone on further into academia? The stalker didn’t harm me physically, but he put me through months of terror I could not articulate. That is violation we do not consider. His actions caused me to stop pursuing a path that might have taken me in a different direction, I don’t know what lay there ahead of me.

But this is my path now. At 51, an ex-advertising copywriter, a job I took up when I dropped out of my M.A. course, a journalist, a path I meandered into after I laughed in the face of a pompous client at a meeting, an entrepreneur when I quit journalistic jobs that had become dreary and PR driven, a trend spotter, a qualitative researcher, paths that friends put me onto when I drifted, an author, perhaps the path that all these paths were leading towards because I never want to get off this one.

What if I had continued with my M.A. course, I ask myself this question occasionally. What if I had been assaulted by the stalker? What if I had gone through more months of being terrified each time I stepped off the bridge at the railway station and walked towards the bus stop? What if nothing had happened and I had been able to sit for my exams? The What ifs always haunt us, they’re the elegy to the ghost lives we never lived, the ghost ships that sailed leaving us on the shore as Cheryl Strayed so eloquently put it, and all we can do is wave to them, carrying with them a life we have not lived.

Mine is but a ‘what if’ that occasionally niggles, pops up occasionally, and then gets snuffed out by the here and now.

I think of the what ifs of the lives that sexual violence brought to an end, lives snuffed out, dreams snuffed out, trauma carried through a life that is inescapably divided into a before and after, a life that ends up being defined by what happened to you. And what you must bear as a psychic burden through the rest of your years, a laceration on your soul that even time is hard-pressed to heal.

I mourn those what ifs, because I know, it could have been me, it could have been someone I knew.

Author and columnist Kiran Manral writes her first piece for a new column we have started in 2023, a deeply personal take on a topical issue. You can find her books here.

Image source: a still from the film Ranjhanaa

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About the Author

Kiran Manral

Kiran Manral is an Indian author, columnist and mentor. She has published books across genres in both fiction and non-fiction. She lives in Mumbai. read more...

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