Archive for July 20th, 2018

#Metoo #Wheniwas11

The recent case of the 11-year-old child being raped by multiple men in Chennai was deeply disturbing. It also made me realise if a 11-year-old child can speak up about the abuse and inform a concerned relative (her sister), then as a 33-year-old I should also be speaking up.


#WhenIwas11 I got molested by a 55-year-old drunk man on overnight train, heading back to Chennai. I was sleeping in the middle birth and he was sleeping on the top birth. I was travelling with an adult. I was deep in sleep, but was having nightmares; suddenly I was jerked into consciousness by pain. I woke up to find my skirt pulled up, my underpants rolled down and the creep groping me. I screamed and screamed and screamed till the lights came on and I dissolved in a weeping heap.
A crowd had gathered and the TTR came. The TTR, crowd wanted to beat him up and file a case at the next railway police station. The adult with me said No; they’d rather not report the matter. What was worse than the assault was what followed….That day, I remember kneeling down (as punishment) and a voice yelling, – “Do you know what she did today? She seduced a fat bald 50 year old man!”
I didn’t know what “seduced” meant. I didn’t know how babies were born. I only knew I felt cheap, dirty and untouchable. Someone, something gross, repulsive beyond words. The adult blamed me for choosing not to wear a petticoat that day. For me being an active kid, loving to run around, play games, I’d always hated restrictive garments ….but the comment stayed with me for years – I’d always wear petticoats, pin my duppatta on both sides – be the worst-dressed dork at MCC- then one of the most liberal colleges.
And this safe space of shabby dressing stayed with me through the college years, through my work life; only lately have I started making an effort to be more presentable; to atleast iron my work clothes. I told myself it didn’t matter how I dressed, it was who I was. To my puzzled friends, I played the part of a geek, too immersed in the world of books to care for clothes, perfume and makeup. I didn’t tell them it was my safe space.
I’ve faced other instances of more severe sexual assault as a teenager. But this time I’d learnt my lesson – I didn’t tell anyone. To speak about it was to invite blame. Meanwhile to my extreme suprise, I became an extremely popular student both in high school and college. I had enough and more boys asking me out on dates. Even, now (to my surprise) men ask me out – and it has acted as a balancer — my relative popularity and wide circle of friends — something that keeps at bay all the negative feelings and body loathing I’ve grown up with.
However, the after-effect of the sexual assault and the self-loathing that followed went deeper and had more serious consequences. When I was 18, I discovered when I was bathing that there was a huge lump on my left breast. I was aghast at the size and my heart kept thumping to this rhythm, “cancer, cancer, cancer.” I finally worked up the courage after a week to try and seek medical attention. The doctor was horrified. “Why did you keep quiet for so long? Why did you let it grow? How could you have not noticed earlier? If this lump had attched to the skin or bone it would have turned cancerous. What were you thinking?” How could I tell him I hadn’t noticed because I hated me, myself, my body – loathed it beyond measure.
And then I remember a voice telling, “She has been planning this. She wants to use this as an excuse to skip her final year exam.” I shrivelled up inside of me and wanted to die. The unfairness of the comment hit me hard. In the first place, as my MCC profs would attest I was an above average student; one of those intelligent, but lazy students who gets 85% at times; but also 45% because I couldn’t be bothered. But I’d always mananged to scrape through a 70-75% average by burning the midnight candle in the night. I’d never flunked an exam till then. But that time I did – I flunked 8 of my papers. What I hadn’t anticipated was my brain to stop working; for fever, flushes, high temperatures, headaches to plague me till the point of surgery.
Another aspect of child abuse victims is their silence; their total and complete silence and resilience. Physical pain is something we are used to. It’s the emotional pain that can be blinding, mind-numbing and send us down on a downward spiral of hopelessness and despair. So, when I had the breast surgery, I remember the doctors complimenting me on my cooperation. I didn’t flinch when they poked needles into me; or sucked out vials of blood. It was the same when doctors bound up my leg when I fractured it the second time. I didn’t cry out. I just gritted my teeth and clamped hard on a towel. And even worse, I didn’t cry out when the pathetic pretense of a human being — legally called my husband — was beating me to a pulp, when I was 7 months pregnant. Foolishness, bravery? It was the same, when Indra was born. It was a natural delivery and I cooperated to the utmost, despite the pain; despite local anaesthesia being administered just 5 minutes before she was born. The silence – I would say has become so much a part of me; a longstanding habit too hard to break; the ability to not let physical pain factor in your thinking process, your functioning.
When the doctor’s took out the lump, they put it in a jar of ether – a tennis-sized ball with tendrils of my pink flesh still clinging to it. They showed it to me and said by the size of it – it was probably growing since I turned 14. Something as simple, as easily detectable as a lump, I’d failed to spot because of my extreme body loathing. So when someone next tells you about their sexual abuse experience – you could just listen and not judge. You might end up saving them years of misery.


My heart still goes out to the 11-year-old me. Confused, bewildered, too shy and so exceeding vulnerable! The one who taught herself to smile no matter what, no matter who!


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My first visit to Northern Karnataka proved immensly satisfying despite me having no working knowledge of Kannada or Hindi. And as to the Tulu or Konkani spoken in the region, I wouldn’t be able to make it out from Portugese or Spanish being particularly thick in the skull when it comes to languages.
The lack of literacy proved particularly daunting when I visited the Siddharudha Swami Madha and Nuggikeri temple. Because India has changed a lot in the last four years. As a child I remember regularly visiting the Mylapore Kapaleeshwarar Temple with friends, stuffing our faces with prasadam given by indulgent priests and letting our feet splash in the Mylapore temple tank as carp fish nibbled our feet, when we didn’t have money to buy them rice puffs. And sometimes the priests would ask about school, homework; and not once did my identity ever matter then. So it came as a somewhat slap in the face, when I took my friends to the temple recently and came across a board “Only Hindus permitted inside the sanctum sanctorum.” I, of course, had to respect religious sentiments and I stayed away.
But I couldn’t ignore the feeling of hurt – for years I had come to the temple, for years I’d watched the sun set against its silhouette as I took the bus back home, for years I’d munched on rice puffs outside the temple premises…. For my journalism college project, I took photographs of my favorite heritage buildings in the city like the St George’s Cathedral, Egmore Museum, St Mark’s, PWD headquarters, Madras University, Parthasarathy Temple and of course my beloved Kapaleeshwarer Temple. And while taking the pictures, I attracted interest and I found myself showing two priests all the photos on camera. They were interested and asked for copies. This was before the era of digital photography. So when I got the film developed at Moorthy’s at the exorbitant cost of Rs 6 a photo, I also set aside six for my new friends. And this was only 15 years ago. But today, the temple committee of the Kapaleeshwarar temple have obviously decided differently about things.
So, as I stood outside the Siddharudha Swami Madha I was wary. All the boards were in Kannada and I couldn’t ask anyone what was the done thing. Then I took a whimsical Dutch courage and in a spirit of fun, quoted RSS leader Mohan Bhagat to myself, “All people living in India are Hindus; even Muslims and Christians.” But to be on the safe side, I decided to stay away from the deity’s sanctum and started touring the outer precincts.
Now, there are multiple temples in the complex and since I saw a long queue at one end, I thought maybe that would lead to me to the most powerful deity and dutifully joined the line. The line was long, but patient and I was finally rewarded entry – only to find no God and instead a long row of people eating. It was the “Anadanam Hall.” I got out profusely apologising to the confused people in line and temple authorities who were welcoming and tried to get me to eat. I explained in broken Kannada that I wanted to know about the temple, and asked for directions to the main deity. They gave me and I set off, only to find myself at the temple book store.
I then decided I’d need google as my assistant before I do anything else absurd. And read up before entering the main hall. And that’s when I realised all my apprehensions were baseless. The Sadguru Siddharudha Swami-gal while he lived embraced people from all walks of life. He condemned caste practices and believed enlightenment/moksha was for all castes. Curious about the “rudha” in his name, I learnt that he believed himself to be a reincarnation of Shiva (Rudhrar). I sat for awhile in the hall, where the faithful recited prayers – the place seemed an oasis of peace and goodwill. While I am faithless, I can appreciate the faith of those who are deeply spiritual; who believe that all things happen for good for them that trust the Lord or who believe even evil happens as per a divine karmic plan.
My driver — the brave Hindi-speaking soul who tried to explain places of interest despite my blank uncomprehending stare — next took me to Indira Gandhi glasshouse. While the park was lovely enough, it seemed another extension of the Guindy Children’s Park, which has unofficially been dubbed “lovers’ park.” The thing about India is privacy is a luxury few can afford, so the braver of our romantic souls prefer to do their cuddling in public parks, while the rest of the populace tries to find non-lover-haunted places in the same parks.
Our next stop was Nuggikeri temple in Hubli. This temple is along the banks of Unkal lake and was lovely and serene in its lush, emerald green settings. However, boating on the lake had been stopped because of an overgrowth of invasive hyacinths. And the minute I saw the weed, I was like the British must have got here too. And my hunch was true. Apparently in 1880, the British set up a railway workshop and line from here to Bangalore. Where again, the notorious hyacinths — thanks to the British’s brilliant idea of introducing them in the Ulsoor lake — by 1930s had completely taken over the lake; choked and killed all native plants like lilies, lotuses, water chestnuts. At regular intervals, the Army does try to clean up the Ulsoor lake, but to no avail. The green devils come back!
But as we toured the city, I was feeling unsettled by the number of Chatrapati Shivaji statues I was seeing. They dot the city’s landscape and can be seen at every nook and corner. As a child I had loved hearing my mother read to me the tales of Shivaji. But with lately him becoming a symbol of Maratha aggression and anti-Tipu Sultan history revisionist sentiments – I could no longer feel the same way about him. And it left me wondering — how many more things will change – now that India gets more divisive? Ganesh Chathurthi has already become a festival of unease and closed doors for me in Bangalore. As a child in Madras, Christmas was a time to exchange pallaharams like rose cookies, Christmas cake, adhirasam, rava ladu, boondi laddu, besan laddu, kala kala, diamond cuts, burfi, thenga mittai, sweet puffs, with our neighbours. And for Diwali, Ramzan, Id we’d get delicacies in return — murukku, pal payasam, biriyani, chicken kebab. Every household used to celebrate Diwali back then and my parents would also buy fire crackers, sangu sakaram, mathapu, rockets for us, so we could take our pile and burst along with the other kids on our block. We’d compete as to who could best terrorise passing motorists. And Ganesh Chathurthi was another such a lovely festival we would eagerly take part in. Till I was in Bombay in 1992, and Ganesh Chathurthi was the mask behind which thugs defaced mosques and broke Church glass windows to tear apart Bibles. And the fear persisted, amplified by what I saw in Bangalore in 2013, when so called “revellers” on Ganesh Chathurthi wrote hate graffiti on the walls of the mosque adjoining my apartment.
To end on a lighter note….I also got to spot the famed Dharwad buffaloes and Murrah buffaloes — who are so different from their cousins in Tamil Nadu. While the Murrah buffaloes are massive in build, height and horn girth; the Dharwad buffaloes are a daintier lot — with horns that curve in, out, upward, in any direction. It was pouring so I was disappointed I couldn’t get nice photos of them; as some of my friends are cattle affindoes and breed Puliyakulam, Kangeyam, Umbalacheri, Tiruchengodu, Bargur, etc (some of them are the famed jallikattu breeds). I had to contend myself with buying boxes of super-yum Dharwad peda made from said buffalo milk and a bagful of sunset-orange Hubli pineapples!

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