By Deepak P.M.:
Note from the author: In order to protect the privacy of the survivor I have written this story in both point of view and third person narratives.
TRIGGER WARNING: Content contains graphic description.
“Look at her bro! She’s so hot!”
Sitting behind the two salacious classmates, I watched them snicker and blush as the girl they had just commented about walked past them. She had rolled up her skirt short, short enough to tease, a spark to set fire to the 22 boys, ahem, barrels of testosterone in my class.
“Such a sleaze!” I thought, maligning her to feed my envy and insecurity.
I heard their self-conscious albeit ill-restrained laughter from the other end of the classroom and walked up to the girls who had grudgingly befriended me. Sensing my arrival, laughing, they walked away from me. Guess today I’d be ignored even if I walked into a wall and disappeared. At their peak, I was the muse for their depraved amusement and at their nadir, they found ascension in my abasement. They are not completely to blame.
The two salacious classmates who sat in front of me had the habit of writing the names of all the girls in the class on the back page of their notebooks and passing it to all the boys in the class, asking them to rate the attractiveness of the girls on a 1-to-10 scale. One day, a student accidentally passed the notebook to me; I flipped to the last page with unrealistic optimism. I found my name, at last, on the list. I silently returned the book with a wan smile, my classmate discerned that I had seen my score, a flattering ‘-2.’
Whilst I vented my frustration by popping a painful pimple, I realised that pinning my hopes of peer acceptance and popularity on my physical appearance was like waving one’s hand and waiting for a bus that has already passed. The shrill wail of my flailing confidence silenced me. I could neither fully be and express myself, nor converse and connect with my classmates.
I was back at home and studying when I inattentively ran my hand across my torso. I immediately felt ashamed and incomplete. I couldn’t find the right curves and bumps that dictated the value of a girl. I sucked in my disproportionately sized stomach, puffed out my flat chest, and contorted my angular body in an effort to get a flattering selfie that would put the ‘esteem’ back in self-esteem. But only my aunt’s obligatory ‘like’ kept it company on Facebook, and the ensuing tears that ran down my face pushed my morale into a lonely corner.
I have always been a lanky, bespectacled girl, yes, the type that’s often stereotyped, but it rarely mattered. On the days it did matter, I would silently lie down on the sofa and place my head on my mother’s lap. She would gently stroke my hair and reiterate the pre-eminence of health and character over appearance. She would make me feel better about myself by asking me to confidently acknowledge my skills and strengths – I was self-composed, sedulous, and had a wry sense of humour.
For a precious minute, I had forgotten about the wall that existed between us, one that was built after I belligerently questioned her authority and opposed her rules and after she reacted by distancing herself from me. We barely acknowledged each other as I sat down on the sofa. The screen dimmed when the news of a teenage sexual abuse victim who chose suicide over stigma flashed on it.
I wistfully thought about our animated conversations; we always had stories to share. I wanted her help, I wanted to let her know that her teenage brat wasn’t okay – appearance and its appreciation, the need to look ‘hot,’ had invaded and incapacitated my mind like a malignant tumour. Disturbed and distraught, I couldn’t acknowledge or apply my morale-boosting skills and strengths. But the wall of estrangement had become too lofty to climb over and too fortified to break down.
The middle-aged driver my mother had hired to take me to school and bring me back home embodied our estrangement. Every time I glanced at his affable face, I felt flustered. He tried to strike up a conversation with me twice until I shouted at him with flagrant insensitivity. The dichotomy between my thoughts and action was unmistakable. I was unpopular, unloved, unattractive, and unfriended. The last thing I wanted to do was to disregard someone who had treated me with regard.
“Sorry,” I put my head down and remorsefully said.
“You looked upset when you got into the car, so I thought I’d just talk. I know that we don’t know each other but—I am sorry,” his voice seemed artificial and robotic; maybe it was because till yesterday concern and attention had neglected me.
With every subsequent drive, silence became more absent.
“I understand that—peer acceptance – uff! You should have friends who can see you for who you truly are and with whom you can truly be yourself.”
“I have one,” I awkwardly quipped.
One day, as he recounted his experience of being unloved and misunderstood by his parents as a teenager, like the scalding steam that violently erupts from a fissure, my pent-up emotions erupted. I cried, “I miss her—why doesn’t she love me anymore? Who’s there to love me and care for me? No one!”
He pulled over. His voice shuddered and then became steady as he embraced me and said, “I understand; I know your pain. Never say that again, please—I care for you. I’ll talk to your mother and make everything alright—everything.”
Impassioned, he had unintentionally pressed his chest hard against mine and had stroked the lower part of my back. I knew that to misconstrue his heedful intentions as hedonistic would be an irreparable mistake, one that would push me out from the haven of appreciation, love, and respect into the blizzard of the ruthless world.
On the last day of my exams, we were traveling back home in the car, I was merrily humming a song that was playing on the radio when suddenly the lyrics, “Don’t you worry, don’t you worry, child. See heaven’s got a plan for you—Yeah” took on a sinister and sarcastic tone…
He ran his fingers up my leg and groped my thigh. The hand that covered my mouth swallowed my scream, as the other hand pried my legs apart. His facade came down as he forcibly slid my undergarment down.
In a tone that swayed between sympathetic and sadistic, he said, “Don’t be scared, cupcake. In fact, you should be grateful! That ‘-2’ wasn’t your score, that was charity. Nobody can even lie to you that you are beautiful. As a favour, as your only real friend, I am going to do something that no man with an iota of self-respect would ever do; I am going to touch you.”
He made me trace the outline of his body. He wrapped himself around me so hard that when the cool air from the AC reached my body, it burned and pricked. Then he inserted something inside me, thick, cold or warm, I couldn’t distinguish.
His foreboding voice beamed with the confidence I was desperate for, “I hope you won’t complain because remember, my entry into prison will be marked by your retreat into seclusion. And who are you going to complain to, anyway? Your mother has practically disowned you! The police? They’ll never believe you! They’ll probably laugh it off and the cruel character assassination carried out by them will leave you feeling like the perpetrator. Your family, school, and society will promptly arrive, not to sweeten your sorrow, but to rub salt into your wounds. Even then if you irrationally decide to report, I will hurt everyone you love and care for.
No one cares for you; I am the only one who acknowledges your existence. So, be a good girl, put your shirt back on, and smile.”
He was right. I couldn’t talk to my mother. My father, well, he only appeared when my marks deteriorated. They trusted him. I knew I’d be stigmatized and subjugated, and I didn’t have the courage to choose suicide over the stigma.
I curled up in bed. The setting sun cast a shadow over me. I couldn’t acknowledge that the only person who I thought loved me, had abused me. If I did, it would taint my memories with him; it would besmirch the moments when two misunderstood people understood each other. I didn’t know what to do.
Then something nudged me. I knew what to do. After the incident, I may have become depressed, disturbingly distrustful, overly afraid and apprehensive, and unable to maintain relationships, but I have a new friend. I decided to remain silent, and silence became my friend in the shadows.
According to statistics, every second child in India has faced some form of sexual abuse. In nine out of ten cases, the perpetrator was known to the victim and held a position of authority, responsibility or trust in the life of the victim. Only ten to fifteen percent of the total cases of child sexual abuse are registered. Behind stone-faced statements and statistics are stirring stories, this was her story.
‘Sex’ or words and phrases that contain the three letter word, be it sex education or sexual abuse, contain with it shame and stigma. Sex education is misconstrued as sexual education and not taught at home or in school, the price of this ignorance is paid by children who are unaware of the concept of consent, cannot differentiate between good and bad touches, and are unable to identify and report sexual abuse.
The fear of being critically interrogated and misunderstood by the family upon disclosure often deters a child from speaking about sexual abuse and other sensitive subjects. If the family is made aware of the abuse, and especially if the abuser is a family member or a known person, the edge of the carpet, the carpet on which family honour and family relations are placed, is lifted up and the abuse and its atrocity are swept under it. The family that supports and amplifies the voice of the victim has to brave the brazen-faced ostracization and prejudice meted out against them by the society.
The story doesn’t end once the tenacious child has come within the ambit of the law – the apathy of the police and their encouragement to drop the case discourages the child. The examination of the long-suffering child by a doctor untrained in child abuse examination, makes the child relive the pain of abuse instead of relieving it; the insensitive cross-examination, the intimidating presence of the abuser in the court, and the irrepressible fear of being responsible for the death or castration of a family member/friend can coerce the resolute child to retract the complaint.
Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act (POCSO Act), despite misguidedly raising the age of consent, has strong and adequate provisions to effectively address child sexual abuse and exploitation in a child-friendly manner but its weak and inadequate implementation often makes silence more appealing than the struggle for justice.
The journey towards justice is tortuous and torturous, and it is so because of government negligence and our ignorance. Let us learn from her story, because had the mother and daughter addressed the elephants in the room, silence wouldn’t have been her companion.
A version of this article has been published on the author’s personal blog.
If you are a survivor, parent or guardian who wants to seek help for child sexual abuse, or know someone who might, you can dial 1098 for CHILDLINE (a 24-hour national helpline) or email them at [email protected] You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.