It seems like I’ve healed every few weeks or months or years. “You’re sounding a lot better since that one conversation of ours in the coffeeshop” says one friend. And I believe it because I want to. I must. Forgetting (somedays I call it self-deluding) is an integral survival skill. I don’t know if it is actually healing but most times I suspect it isn’t. Not really.
Right now, I’m remembering. And when I do, as at other times, it’s as fresh and real and vivid. I’m surrounded by clouds of words like ‘triggered’, ‘therapy’, ‘moving on’, ‘self-respect’, ‘gender politics’, ‘intimate partner violence’. Words. They are powerful but in the way of sedatives. Not healing. Not making wounds disappear.
I know there was never love. I know that now. But there wasn’t even friendship. Not kindness. Not empathy. Not respect. Not even human consideration. He treated me like a public toilet. All the things that one does in and to a public toilet. Yes.
I’ve never based my identity on my looks. It’s always been my mind. And he eroded that, one brick by brick. With words like ‘social whore’ and ‘fucking bitch’. With auteur opinions about what a pile of shit the Kala Ghoda Art Festival that I was a part of was, and how he as a Kolkata person had seen far better and how this was just Mumbai’s pathetic attempt to pretend at being cultured. With derision about my friends because they didn’t deserve basic courtesy. And eventually me. Because mistrust in a relationship is like bringing a sword to a friendly party. I did not do that.
I fell down deep into a black hole of his violent derision. I couldn’t find a foothold to claw my way back. I couldn’t remember what other people sounded like, let alone what compliments, support and affection felt like. It was as if those things ceased to exist, like they never had existed. All that was, was a pathetic WRONG that was my existence. Yet, my breath continued and I woke up every morning. Struggling to deal with the guilt of being alive though I was so WRONG to do so, coping with the punishment he heaped on me daily.
And this was way before the physical violence begin. When I’m asked why I didn’t leave (and I so often am), I have no answer. Why doesn’t the slime clinging to the sides of a well no one has used, leave? It’s going to be destroyed eventually anyway. So why doesn’t it leave?
In the years since then, I’ve built a stage called a personality. I’ve run so many stories on it. Of a performer. A writer. A community manager. A poet. A lover. A friend. A player. A swimmer. A gardener. A consultant. A thinker. A talker. A listener. A patient. An emergency contact. I work very hard to keep this stage up and beautiful. I am obsessive about maintenance and repairs.
But when the story closes, all I can see is the slime, the mold hidden under the stage’s foundations. I know the stage is always precarious because what can balance atop slime for long. I can’t clean it no matter how hard I scrub.
Because I am that slime. And each time I cry, it gets more runny and unstable.
This was also published to XX Factor awhile ago since it deals with gender politics. But this post is also about who I am becoming or maybe who I’ve always been or maybe that doesn’t matter.
Last week India’s #MeToo / #TimesUp movement rose (again), sparked off by Mahima Kukreja’s outing of standup comic Ustav Chakrobarty sending unsolicited dickpics and badgering underage girls for nudes. It set off a chain reaction examining the complicit parties, the enablers and patterns of predators. Thread:
Since then it has spread to other performance spaces, to advertising, to media, to journalism, to publishing and more. All these alongside Bollywood’s own filth outing with Tanushree Datta’s allegations against Nana Patekar. And across the ocean, the US is grappling with the same issue over a man named Brett Kavanaugh. Sharing this video here as the only positive note of this story:
On one hand, I am so glad that these stories are finally finding their voices. I cannot even begin to comprehend the trauma of carrying these toxic secrets for so long and there are so many, so many of them. Every morning I’m waking up in fear over which man I’ve known, read, watched, applauded, appreciated, spoken to, smiled at will be outed as the next sexual predator. We are in so much pain.
It’s forcing a mirror to all of society and not just its toxic males. A few men I know have been outed at predators. Did I know? Did I suspect? Was that action that I shrugged off, actually an indication of something more sinister? Should I have laughed at that joke? Should I have warned this person? I introduced these people; what if one person took that as a trust guarantee and do I carry some responsibility if anything happened? What am I missing in the world and about the people around me, today?
So many of the stories I’m hearing have not even made it out yet because the victims fear that they are too young/unimportant/powerless and that their predators are too famous/rich/powerful. I am grappling with recognising that the victim of an assault or harassment can build an unreal sense of the perpetrator’s power while trying not to invalidate their feelings. How can you say “I believe you” and “No, that’s not true” at the same time?
Then there was the outing of someone I knew slightly and hadn’t really liked (though not because I had an encounter of this kind with him). He was outed by someone who in the past, has enabled my own abuser despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The question that hung over me was ‘Should I support someone who did not support me?’. It was a time of personal reckoning, figuring out who I wanted to be. I’d thought these aspects of my character would be set and figured out by this time in my life. Clearly, character is a lifelong process of testing. I passed. I don’t know that I feel good about it. Is feeling like I was denied justice, a better feeling to live with than guilt and vindication?
This same person, along with a lot of other people also put out a call asking to be told if they were friends with an abuser. It made me really angry at first. And then I realised, people don’t know what they’re asking for, when they ask for that door to be opened. When the sheer magnitude of this truth hits them, many recoil and their reaction is to assume they get to judge whether they should take action or not. No, I say. The minute you ask for the truth, you are asking for the victim’s trust. And the minute you bring judgement in, you are violating that trust. Complete trust in return for total lack of judgement is the deal. Here’s my thread on this matter:
Having said this, I’m realising that maybe I invite confessions and sharing from people just by talking about these issues. Over a decade ago, when I wrote this post about child abuse, it provoked a volley of reactions that I did not expect and did not know how to handle. I considered quitting blogging. A friend told me that I had stood for something and that mattered to the people who were sharing with me and that I had a responsibility towards them. I interpreted that to mean I’d have to be a space of listening (since I’m not qualified in any other way to advise, heal, police or protect). If you read the above post, please also read this as the conclusion of that. I am rethinking this now.
I asked a close friend (a survivor and an activist) for advice. This person asked me how many people who were spilling their truths onto me and expecting me to rescue them, showed up for me back in 2012? I could argue that some of them were too young, some too married (like this is an illness that renders one incapable of logical and just thought towards unmarried people), some not strong enough (as if strength is a talent some are born with and which becomes public property to exploit). My answer was…NOBODY. I have tried hard not to become cynical about people since then and I’ll admit I often slip up. I cannot forget that I live in a world that enables and applauds my abusers for the same things that they attack and condemn me for experiencing. It is so hard to feel empathy for enablers, even harder than feeling it for the perpetrators.
And finally, I am realising how easy it is going to be vomit, to dump, to offload resentment and rage. Neither of these are logical or fair-minded. They just are — powerful and unstoppable. I’m trying hard not to talk about my own experiences partly because I do not want to co-opt the narratives of the people speaking up for the first time and partly because it might become a case of Chinese whispers with people blaming my perps for things they did not do as part of the pervasive ‘Men are trash’ feeling. As justified as that feels, I know I cannot live with those feelings. I just can’t.
Mercifully a friend who’s been away from all this rescued me in a single conversation last evening by asking me to remember to retain my capacity for joy. That’s all. We each have to live with the consequences of our actions, our emotions and our words. What’s most important in the long, long run of life? I choose joy.
This picture was shot by a sweet young photographer at an Open Mic event in 2012 when she spotted the flower in my hand.
I was neck deep in a bad life. I had dramatically quit the respectable corporate-endorsed life two years earlier. I had wandered into something called Open Mics that had just started and very quickly I fell into a relationship with somebody I met there. Before I knew it, I was stuck inside a cage, tiptoeing around the ego and explosive emotions of someone who did not really like me, hated anyone and anything that seemed like competition. I stopped performing (or reading since that’s what we used to do then) because it was just easier than dealing with the punishment. I also stopped going out and meeting friends, stopped talking to people. This was partly because he didn’t like it but also because no one in the world was interested in knowing that a human being still existed under the label of ‘girlfriend’. I had also committed the crime of dating someone younger than me and living with him before marriage so I was made to feel like I should be grateful I was not getting whipped in the street.
My only outings beyond shopping for vegetables and domestic chores were the fortnightly Open Mics where I was grudgingly tolerated so long as I played the adoring/subservient audience. On one such Monday, I waited all day for evening to come. It had been a very difficult few days, struggling to cope with his family’s ‘Hum to ladkewale hain’ misbehaviour, his gaslighting abuse and my own financial worries (I couldn’t work but all expenses were still split in half). We left in total silence and walked to the road. As he hailed a cab, I said, “Wait” — the first thing that had been said all evening. I turned and bought this flower from a seller on the road. He raised his eyebrows, smirked and then fell silent, probably deciding to save his barbs for his rap set coming up later.
I know it’s a weird thing to carry a flower in your hand just because. Most people assume that a woman with a flower has been gifted that by a man (everyone at the venue cooed over how romantic he must be, noting the engagement ring on my finger as well — also visible in the picture). And of course, it’s an odd accessory to bring into a bar. But that night, this flower held my hand and my hope like no lover, boyfriend or friend ever has.
So when Iza Viola smiled at me and lifted her camera, I held out the flower to her. Always make room for the flowers.
Glee actor Mark Salling was found dead a few hours earlier. He was 35 and was found hanging in the woods. He was also weeks away from being jailed after being found in possession of child p0rnography. There has been a slew of hate messages of the ‘He deserved it’ kind on social media, in the past few hours. Which makes this story all the more horrific to me.
Child abuse is a terrible reality of our species. Can we allow ourselves to be softened, within a story of a powerful man who was a perpetrator? And yet, in taking on the monsters, do we not risk becoming those monsters ourselves? Mark Salling is dead. What further punishment can be meted out to him? Any hatred expressed now, lands squarely on his friends and family. Does anyone deserve to be punished for the crimes of a person they love?
*Image via Pixabay
Also, while this is not a popular idea, it is the fair one. Even pedophiles, rapists, terrorists and villains deserve the right to live. I do not believe that justice extends to the right to decide whether a person should live or not. Ironically a lot of the same systems that allow capital punishment also oppose abortion. You can’t selectively choose to wield power over life and death.
What is justice? Is it not different from punishment? Human beings, especially in large numbers may decide the fate of punishment. But justice, that is a higher force. Punishment and reparations are very poor human imitations or rather, temporary measures until justice can happen. Because justice is a force of nature, that happens – a systemic balance that may take some time, after oscillations and upsets.
Lest I be accused of insensitivity towards those affected by Mark Salling’s misdeeds, I’ll also say, I have experienced child abuse myself, at the hands of my music teacher when I was barely 10. It left scars. I saw him years later at the doctor’s clinic. He looked so frail, so tired and weak that all I could feel was pity. PITY. That’s all. And it wiped away any trace of other emotions I could summon up.
In The Lord of The Rings, Frodo tells Gandalf that Bilbo should just have killed Gollum when he had a chance. But, Gandalf tells him, pity stayed his hand and pity may have saved his life. I know this because it saved mine. The label of ‘Abuse Survivor’ does not define me or my actions. Abuse is just something that happened to me; it is not me. And I can trace it all back to that feeling I had when I saw my perpetrator. I allowed myself to feel towards him the way any decent human being would towards another, regardless of who they were or what they had done. And that allowed me to stay human, rather than a vessel of anger or hatred.
I also lived with an abuse survivor, years later and was in turn subjected to many forms of violence by him. My feelings about this are complex since the situation is so complex. In my better moments, I strive to see him the way I saw my music teacher. I fail, most of the time. Maybe we get weaker as we get older, or just more set in the ways we feel. It’s not easy living in a world that demands a black-and-white narrative. More than once I’ve felt pressured to admit that he’s a rogue, a villain, a monster deserving of nothing any human being would. But how can I forget that there is something human in him too? Monsters don’t toss and turn at night, plagued by harsh memories. Monsters don’t have breakdowns in everyday challenges. Monsters don’t struggle to breathe. Monsters don’t cry in the darkness when they think no one can see them. I think I retain these memories so I can tap into them when I’m feeling particularly hateful towards him and this happens often too.
Triggers are the worst part of surviving any trauma because they pull you back to the scene of the crime, long after your visible wounds have healed (or are supposed to have). Every mention or reference to abuse or violence takes me back to one or both of these men. When there have been too many such (and given that these are hot issues in everything from media, poetry, performance and law, it’s often), I explode into a mess of rage.
I cannot avoid triggers for long or realistically. It will mean cutting out vital parts of my life and that brings its own resentment. No, for me, redemption sounds like being able to look villainy in the eye and not be cowed by it. This means facing the villains and being able to see them as more. This is an ideal, mind you, and I fail often and badly at it.
Not to preach at all. But this is what I try and keep in mind: Be compassionate to the triggered. Be compassionate to the sinners. Compassionate is not weak. It takes something out of you to carry anger and to express it. Be compassionate because it means be kind to yourself.
I received a call from an old college friend. It went the way you’d expect such calls to go. A lot shrieking, plenty of laughs, some quiet introspection and a lot more “I am so happy to be talking to you.”
I really am. This is more than nostalgia. We spend our 20s running smack-dab into life and learning to deal with adulthood. It’s jobs, marriage, economy, kids, loans, new homes, first health scares. The 30s have been less frenzied but also lonelier. Slowing down to catch our breaths, realising we’ve taken on wounds that won’t heal unless we do so. It’s chronic ailments, debt, cheating, divorce, career changes, addiction, depression, suicide or at the very least the thought of it. I’m not completely out clear of this decade yet but I’m on the last leg.
My friend talked about some the struggles of the past decade, personal, professional and health and also how people never really understand. My friend thinks he is the only one. Maybe because I always did things on different schedule from my peers (the first dropout, the last one with a boyfriend, the last to get a job, the first sabbatical, one of the few as yet not married, an early entrepreneur), I understand this at some level already. But I frequently forget.
Recently I’ve found myself dropping off revived friendships and conversations, because I don’t feel like explaining a broken engagement or a rising corporate career quit to follow a creative dream. My life feels like such a mess compared to other people. I terminate before it can get to the dreaded question,
“Why can’t you be more normal?”
It is there, if not in words, then in people’s eyes hanging with questions they are too polite to ask. Or in very tense silences when neither I nor they know what to say, and we’re both thinking back to when conversations ran free in a way that we didn’t even know freedom could be.
Yet, as my friend shared, I realised, we’re all living through lives that look very different from the Adarsh Balak posters. Maybe it’s a generational thing, maybe this is real life. We’re surviving (or not) situations that we are unprepared for and for a number of reasons, we assume it’s our fault. We assume that these situations are aberrations from the perfect life, rather than the life itself. We also forget and keep forgetting that all things pass, all things change. And most importantly, we forget in a spectacularly isolating manner that we are not alone. Maybe we go on so long with nobody actually seeing us as we are, that we start to believe the universe does not want to see us. Reconnecting to someone who saw us, at least once long ago is a reminder that we are not insubstantial ghosts. We are. We bear witness to each other’s lives.
In this same group, I pinged someone who used to be a dear friend with ‘Remember me?’. Her instant reply –
“The first feminist of our batch!”
This tickled and charmed and befuddled me in so many ways. Was I? Did I even know what feminism was? I was just muddling through the daily stumbling blocks put in a teenager’s life in the best way I could. Did I carry XX Factor and Sexonomics in me long before these ideas were even conceptualised? Did the people around me see some ideal in me that I couldn’t see? And wonder of wonders, does how I turned out seem ‘normal’ to them? Does my life actually make sense to some others even when it doesn’t to me? This is a profound realisation. Also one that leaves me a satisfied sort of tired. We are not the sole witnesses to our lives.
My friend told me that he reads my daily poetry and that it helps him go on, some days. I can only feel immense gratitude for the technology that allowed my friend to feel my support, even when I was absent in every way. I’ve heard a few people say this before and perhaps my reaction has not been gracious. But to be read is to be welcomed into a person’s mind and heart. It is a privilege, an honour given to me. I should only be grateful. And now I am.
So for all the friends I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet in person and those of you who welcome me into your lives without my ever having seen you – thank you. You bear witness to my life and I am very grateful. If my words mean anything to you, please consider it my way of bearing witness to yours. You are not alone.
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