“We don’t look at the stars in the universe and say how tragic they are, how bruised they are, even though that is what they are. We look at them and speak of the beauty they contain. The inspiration they give us. Even though stars are the scars of the universe we don’t see them as these broken pieces of gaseous matter, we see them as these majestic astrological blessings that give hope to billions. What if you saw yourself in that same light, or better yet what if you saw others in a similar way.”
Many of you will have seen a You Tube posting about a man being bombarded with invectives by a lady whom he tried molesting inside an Indigo flight. The lady video-recorded the man apologizing even as she went on telling him – and the rest of the passengers what he had tried to do, – saying it was a mistake, mistakes happen in life, he has a daughter at home too. A later posting shows the same man at the airport, actually smiling and repeating it was a mistake. He was subsequently taken to the police station and released on bail.
I know the man. Many moons back I worked in an advertising agency and I was the copywriter who wrote his company’s ads, I met the man several times, even went to Orissa for photo-shoots of his factory and he was unfailingly polite and well-spoken, a Harvard Business School sophisticate and even at that young age, when living in India made you very aware of the need for self-preservation, it did not once occur to me that this gentleman could ever molest anyone. This was Mr Ravin Jhunjhunwala, the CEO of Orind, an Orissa-based refractory manufacturer. There has been an exponential growth of his company (s), with resultant growth of his financial and other clout, from what I gathered on the net yesterday.
But even as I saw this clip, after the first shock of realizing the identity of the man, I knew the lady was right, and this man had indeed done it. And as I discussed it with several people, all friends I thought I knew well, I realized that many people believed (yes, I know, it beggars belief, but it’s true) he was framed. The girl wanted something out of him and thought it was a good chance to get him to grovel and settle out-of-court/out-of-the-knowledge of others. My flabber was truly gasted when I understood this. It is possible that this idea will gain credence and it will all then become like Goebbel’s truth. You see, someone as important and rich as him would never do that, it was risking too much, they argue. They will also tell you how a person’s dignity and honor might be assaulted and vandalized, but that this can only happen with the tacit support and surrender of the victim. Except that, these sorts of people never really think of the risks involved – their sense of power has them thinking they can get away with anything, as I am sure most do. The Tarun Tejpals of the world are pure Teflon people, nothing sticks and their lives go on as normal after the really short public memory focuses on a new topic.
I have been abused by my own uncle – systematically over several years till my mid-teens and it was not a mistake, these things are never mistakes. I realize now that I should have spoken out, that I should never have waited to have him abuse me repeatedly, over years; in some convoluted way of thinking I felt I was to blame and it was up to me to keep the sanctity of an uncle-niece relationship. All it takes is once, I know. He got away with it once, and then there was no turning back from there – it set the pattern for the future, my future, which is still broken.
And yet. And yet, I know this – and don’t ask me how, I just do – that if I did mention it to anyone, even my mother, fear of breaking the delicate fabric of relationships would have probably made her not say anything. Maybe she would have behaved differently towards the man, cut off ties with him, but that is pure conjecture, – and it would never have been anything more severe than that. The elephant in the room, which marred my childhood, my playing in the sun, my relationship with friends and cousins, and later on with my husband even, ensured I was living a nightmare in the darkness of my soul.
Later on, in boarding school, I realized this sort of abuse, by people one knew, was almost par for the course for girls. Being a boarder gets you the best of friends, and we share realities and lives like siblings. That elephant in the room was no elephant, it was a hated piece of furniture. That did not make it any better for me. People later asked me why I did not speak out right at the beginning. As I write this blog without naming the person, having a large family on both sides helps, there will be a guessing game on among cousins who read this today.
I read somewhere that a frog will jump out of boiling water. Maybe it was this saying which led me to, years later and several times, put my foot in a bathtub full of near boiling water, one foot and hand slowly, the other foot and hand and then the rest of the body. Nothing happens, there is no urge to jump out, you feel hot, but even your skin does not get scalded.
My tragedy is the only person I ever truly mentioned this to was a brother, who, of course – in keeping with everything that happens – is now dead. With him died my courage to speak about it, the little I had. I just do what I can to protect my son and my niece and nephew and other children I know and love. I have learnt to bury my real feelings, the deep loathing I have even for myself. I failed my cousin, the only person I managed to tell apart from my brother, and she promised to stand by me and fight with me, the ‘cult’ that is the Indian family, where you have to subscribe to the rules of the game or be ostracized. I failed her because I am a coward, and even after a couple or more decades, I still don’t have the wherewithal to upset the nebulous status quo of the larger family structure. I think sometimes it is easier to look at death than it is to look at this pain, because yes, death is irrevocable, and the grief lessens in time, but this is relentless and irreversible. I have yearned to reach out, to end the silence, but I don’t think, really, that too many people will care, and will resent the disturbance I brought to life in general by coming out with the truth. My childhood was idyllic in so many ways, perfectly irritating siblings who made life miserable for me in my childhood, boys ganging up against the sole girl, just as they should be, who became dearest friends when we grew up, a wonderful suburban lifestyle, great parents who cared so much, and very loving relatives, by and large. Except this. And the fear that if I did say anything, some chilling yet thundering voice would lash out and tell me to shut up and tell everyone I was lying. It manipulated and twisted my natural sense of trust and love. I was constantly fearful of being belittled and I bent over backwards to try to please people and be in their good books.
And then, I realized that this uncle was not the only man who would do this. Other people close to the family did it too. My self-respect reached nadir point – there must be something wrong with me. I could not afford to feel the full range of feelings, I would not allow myself to feel the pain, outrage, vengeance, confusion. I managed instead to short-circuit them and go numb. My feelings went underground and I still carry that need to be liked by people I love. And I get used by them, and it hurts and my self-worth takes a nose-dive and then I ingratiate myself again and the cycle goes on.
All I knew was pain, and all I felt was desperation. My cries for help were never direct and so no one understood. No matter how hard or long I cried, I could not stop what had happened to me. It did not happen in adulthood, but the feelings remained. Betrayal is too simple a word to describe the overwhelming shame and pain, the loneliness and isolation I experienced as a child. I got stronger as I grew older, yes. It’s easier to pretend it’s not there than to acknowledge the horrors buried in the deepest parts of my mind. The violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud, but the fear of the victim to violate this social compact is worse. I can only think about it in a fragmented and often contradictory manner, and I am aware than sometimes this undermines my credibility. I sway between feeling numb and reliving the years, between normalcy and the almost crazed desire to speak out the truth to the world. Remember Orwell’s doublethink?
I know I have chosen this silence. Nothing can be done, I tell myself. The inevitability of nothing was totally supreme, overriding everything. No way out, no way through. I told myself I can only accept the unacceptable. Nothing was wrong and the wrongness of this awesome nothing seeped from me. Only a few recognized it and in recognizing it for what it was, raged against it and reached out to me, but I cannot reach back, I realize. Even if there were a few who were ready to fight for me, I am unable to fight for myself. I could no more shatter the frozen silence. The façade of self-confidence I was constantly raising and repairing still falls off, and falls off in front of those closest to me. The rest understand nothing. And honestly, they are not interested in marauding the set-up, changing the fabric of their lives.
Sometimes when your mind is quiet and you listen closely, concentrate and you might hear children weeping silently. I do. And as I do, I become ever vigilant of how my son and my niece and nephew are. I am aware of the slightest changes in their behavior. So, as I said, if you can’t quite hear the children’s cries, then listen with your eyes. There are children around you who have learned pain and suffering before they ever had a chance to even experience life. Never ignore their cries for help, for all they wish is that you will rescue them. They are living around you but it does not feel like home to them. Just listen and you’ll see them.
If you do see the video, you will notice how not a single person comes to speak for the girl, they are standing and watching as she records, but don’t lift a finger at the man.