I have known Nitya (not her real name) for a year now. I’ve never seen her cry. She has been the happiest person around and no one would have a hint of what she went through as a child, except her boyfriend, Mayank. I do not know why she opened up to me, she said she felt comfortable talking to me. She said she wanted to speak to somebody about it. So I went to meet her and talk to her. She put two mugs of coffee on the side-table and asked, “Let’s eat something. Should I order noodles?”
In a small room in a rather big house, accommodating around 10 women on the ground floor – two women per room, we sat and she told me the story as she had narrated it to Mayank two years ago while sitting in a park in New Delhi’s G.T.B. Nagar, close to their colleges in the North Campus of Delhi University.
As she related her experiences of sexual abuse, I could see in her eyes the helplessness she had felt as a child. She would roll her big black eyes and close them for a while, while speaking. In her rented room in Delhi’s Karol Bagh, where she attends coaching for a public service entrance exam, she seems well-settled. She is 21, with a strong built, straight hair resting on her shoulders, and a diamond face with a small crisp nose. She doesn’t sit at one place for long, and keeps throwing her hair back with a jerk of her fingers as she talks. She spoke to me about the helplessness and self-blame she underwent, feeling alone for most of her childhood and adolescence.
The afternoon sun had swum around to the backyard to greet a team with a delicate wash of monsoon sweat. The grass was a damp cradle lulling some five-year olds to exhaustion. Nitya’s mother was at her sewing machine, stitching away the seams of a fading blue frock that held in every tangle of the fabric a wish to never wear short dresses again. A pair of eyeballs hovered over, and glided across the backyard as Nitya reached the finish line, second only to Mani, another five-year old, who ran with his palms stretched open and his lips apart in an oval with clenched teeth inside.
Nitya lost because she was too careful. She did not want Ganesh bhaiya (as someone like an older brother is referred to in India) to be able to see her underwear again. A day earlier, when she had mindlessly entered his room looking for Cherry, he made her sit on his lap. Cherry, whose 16-year-old brother Ganesh was, was not there. Their house stood next to Nitya’s, a common boundary wall separating the two.
Ganesh, who lived in the house next to hers, had made her sit on his lap. He said it was a game everyone played but it wasn’t to be discussed.
Ganesh put his hard and hairy hands in her underwear and was rubbing her everywhere there.
“What are you doing, bhaiya?” she had asked.
“This is also playing, sweetheart. This is a nice game and you’ll enjoy it.”
Ganesh bhaiya then removed her tiny frock soiled at the bottom from sitting on wet grass that’d been watered at noon, and also her underwear. Then he touched her everywhere. She did not want to think about it. She had not stopped him. This was how everybody played.
“This is a secret game. You must not tell this to anyone. Not your sister, not at all.”
This was why she had lost the race. Ganesh’s eyes were following the hem of her frock from the terrace where he stood leaning out into Nitya’s backyard, watching the five-year olds play.
Nitya is among half of all children in India who have been sexually abused in one form or another. In a study conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, titled, “Study on Child Abuse: India 2007,” it was found that more than 53 percent of children faced sexual abuse – over 47 percent of these victims were girls and nearly 53 percent were boys.
The sexual abuse faced by Nitya can be categorised as severe, which included making her fondle and exhibit private parts.
All this was done under the garb of playing a game.
Nitya was not particularly interested in the game; she was, in fact, very uncomfortable with it. She did not want to play this game ever again. She did not like Ganesh bhaiya at all; even his fingers had thick hair, like big men. She did not like games that she could not win. She did not like games that made her breathe heavily and scared. Most of all, she did not like games where rough hands with unkempt nails rubbed against her susu (a euphemism for vagina as taught to children).
She could not help but play Ganesh bhaiya’s game for five more years. She could not help but play so many other games that so many other elder males around her had designed to make her lose backyard sprints, hate frocks and get a thumping anxious heart every time she came out of her house.
“My first kiss was sexual harassment,” Nitya burst out, unable to keep the secret any longer. She loves her boyfriend, Mayank, but she hates him every time he attempts any physical proximity.
As nausea builds in her gut, she imagines her vomit burning the tongue of Deepak who had lured her to his room with chocolate chip cookies. When she was a little less than six, Seema aunty’s place was where she went to enjoy those cookies with Deepak’s younger brother, Siddhant. Their family had moved into their locality, a packed residential colony in the city of Lucknow in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Seema aunty was the mother every child wanted; she made delicious food, baked the best biscuits and offered them generously to everyone who came home to play with her six-year-old son, Siddhant. Deepak was Seema aunty’s eldest son- he was 15. Between Deepak and Siddhant, Seema aunty had another son, Yash, who was three years older than Siddhant and Nitya.
“How it’d kill her to know what Deepak did to me every time she was not there,” Nitya said. “He kept sending Siddhant out on some pretext and kissed me all over. Yash was mostly out with his guy gang from school. Every time Seema aunty and Yash were not there, Deepak found a way to touch me. When I asked him why he was doing it to me, he said that we were to get married when we got older, and this was what married couples did.”
“Why did you not tell your family?” asked Mayank, extending his hand with the hope that she would take it now that she has rid herself of a secret she could not tell him for close to a year. She held his hand so firmly he did not understand if it was love or anger.
“I am sorry. I am sure it is the hardest thing to tell.” Mayank utters in a sombre tone.
“I was so young I could not really comprehend what was happening. I knew something was terribly wrong, and I had only myself to hate for it. Why was I the one; I kept thinking that I was somehow not a kid, that I had something in me that was womanly, that I had to stop wearing short frocks. I kept thinking that I was made for it, and it was my bad luck that I couldn’t do anything about it.” She pulled Mayank closer and laid her head on his shoulder.
The report by the Ministry of Women and Child Development records that over 58 percent of the children facing sexual abuse experienced it in family environment. In about a quarter of the cases, the crime was committed by an uncle or a neighbour, this percentage being the second highest. In most number of cases, the abuse was committed by a friend or classmate, the percentage being 38.5 percent.
Nitya, at 20, sitting beside Mayank, recollected her experiences of abuse. “I wish I knew then that it was not just me. I was not the only child who went through that hell. Had I known, I would probably not have blamed myself for everything.”
Mayank and Nitya started dating in the first year of college. They knew each other from their school in Lucknow, but love between them had time and space to bloom only after they found each other studying in adjacent colleges at Delhi University. For the longest time, she loathed herself – she thought she was to be blamed for what had happened to her as a child. She had friends but she could not confide in anyone, she was ashamed. She was ashamed of herself. She liked Mayank but could not jump over the wall; she lived in the constant fear that she did not deserve him, and that he would hate her for her past.
The secrets she had stashed inside her had made her distrust everybody and hate herself. There were weeping spills, low self-confidence, and, above all, disgust attached with the idea of love.
Falling in love happened when she and Mayank started having endless discussions after college. Nitya was studying the undergraduate course in Political Science; Mayank was studying Physics; both of them were deeply interested in knowing more about society, culture and politics. With every new discussion, every new social issue, Nitya knew she loved the way Mayank thought. She loved him for understanding oppression, abuse and trauma. She loved him for wanting to know and learn more.
He loved her for the same. When she was 18, they had professed their love to each other and started spending most of their time together.
Mayank had to, however, convince her a lot to spill out the secrets that were troubling her. She had told him why she couldn’t disassociate love from abuse, but she could never really open up.
Now she had. At 19, sitting in a park, working on an article on sexual abuse, Nitya had gone back to her past and begun telling Mayank every single incident of abuse.
“You know how when condom ads came on TV, our parents changed the channel. When anything romantic or sexual happened in a movie, it was removed. I started thinking that was the way it worked, these things happened and we were supposed to hide them away,” she said, her head still down on his shoulder.
At the age of six, Nitya did not like the man she thought she was supposed to marry. Deepak and Ganesh lived in her neighbourhood and were close friends with her family. What if Ganesh was also to be her husband? What if they both came to know about each other, what would happen then? What if Ganesh had told Deepak that he could also have her?
Sometimes she passed by both of them on the street, their eyes glued to her; Deepak threatened her with his eyes; Ganesh gave a lustful smile and wriggled his fingers in the air – look, these are the fingers that rub your susu. Nitya knew coming out of the house was never a good idea. All the eyes were on her; they had told all their friends. She decided that the world inside the four walls of their house, where her two elder sisters taught her how to play chess, was the only place where nobody would remove her clothes and touch her down there.
She would later realise that snakes crawl into spaces, sleep under couches and beds, wait for footsteps to fade, and then knot themselves around the thighs of calmly sleeping children.
Two male tenants rented a room in Nitya’s house when she was nine; she played with them every day; Gopi bhaiya let her rummage the drawer, use his crayons and oil pastels, and taught her how to draw chairs and tables and other furniture; Monu bhaiya loved her voice and introduced her to many English singers – she coloured little houses beside the river, listening to the Beatles and Whitney Houston, squatting on her nimble shins until her knees wearied off.
Gopi and Monu were students at a nearby college; they must have been in their 20’s when they lived in Nitya’s home. They were wonderful company and she would always be running in and out of their rooms like a lively squirrel. When the tenants had visitors, she would have more people to play with, more people to dote on her.
Sometimes, just more people to be careful around.
A cousin of Monu, who had come to visit, had once caught hold of her by the waist when she came looking for Monu into the room, and done a painful lot of touching. Nitya, who did not understand what was going on, why it was all happening to her (wondering if she was different and made for this), just stood and let Monu’s cousin do whatever he did without showing any protest. Not even a hint of resistance she could gather.
“Do your sisters also do this?” Monu’s cousin asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe.” she murmured.
Snakes had entered the house. She had to do something now. She kept thinking about her sisters. Noni, Nitya’s younger sister, was three; will they touch her too? Will she be touched and kissed by Ganesh or Deepak or somebody else? Nitya could not stop dirty images entering her head; she could not let this happen to Noni. She would take care of her and make sure that nothing happened to her, she’d make sure Noni was not touched by anybody.
Months went by after Monu’s cousin had visited. Ganesh and Deepak were still abusing her, touching her. Five years had gone by since it started and she had not had any calm. She kept thinking of how they’d get hold of her sister as well.
And then, she became her sister when she imagined Ganesh and Deepak touching her sister. She felt they could touch that three-year-old through her, she was a rite of passage, they had touched womanhood through her, they had touched and abused every woman through her.
At home, she held Noni tightly in her lap, and kept planting kisses on her face. The child grew restless and pulled Nitya’s hair till she let out an angry shriek. “This child of three knows what she doesn’t like, what’s wrong with me?” Nitya thought.
For you, Noni!
The June of her 10th year, Amaltas trees were drooling chandeliers of glowing yellow flowers, bombax trees littered the street like heavy hearts thumping down on mortar, waiting to be cupped in the palms of gentle old women; the summer afternoon was hot and sweaty, but it could not keep Nitya inside for long. As soon as the clock struck 2, she trundled away to find her playmates.
Deepak, his ugly face with invitation planted carefully on his skin, hollered at her from his balcony, his unbuttoned shirt revealing a trail of hair that went right into his pants. Sweat broke out all over Nitya’s body as she looked up to meet his gaze.
“Come upstairs, darling. Mamma has cookies for you.” Seema Aunty just came out into the balcony, “Dear, come on up, chocolate chip!”
“I just ate. I’ll have some later.”
“You no longer come here. Does Sheela scold you for coming to our house?”
“No, Aunty. I play with Siddhant outside.”
“I’ll also ask Siddhant not to go to your place to play. You don’t like your Seema Aunty anymore, do you? If you really loved me, you’d come running to me.”
Nitya had no answer to this. She pushed open the gate and slowly went to meet Seema Aunty. She couldn’t taste the cookies, it felt like all her thought was fixed on leaving the place without facing Deepak alone. Alas! Seema Aunty went to the kitchen to cook something. Deepak came inside, into the room, from the balcony. He lifted Nitya up and placed her on his lap, rested his hand on her crotch. The agitation in Nitya’s mind transferred to her hands and feet; she did not know what she was doing.
In a sudden fit, she threw Deepak’s hand away and leaped out of his lap. She looked him in his eye and burst out crying, “You cannot do this to me. I will tell my mother.” Deepak’s eyes searched for the door as he got up from the bed and tried to hold her face to calm her down. As soon as he parted his lips to say something, Nitya turned and ran. She ran away for the first time in her life. She ran away to a better place. She ran away to the realisation that she could put an end to things that she had to hide. She had clawed her way out, with years behind her, she had clawed her way out of the hard, white shell of servitude. She had become a three- year-old Noni who would resist, who would not stay quiet, who would not take what she didn’t like.
She had come out a new-born, a baby bird that had flight written inside its heart.
Neither Deepak nor Ganesh could ever touch her again.
“I’m sorry, Nitya. I am sorry for what happened then. I am glad you finally could make it stop.” Mayank placed his hand on her cheek and pressed her down to his shoulder.
“No, I could not.” Nitya drew a long forced breath.
Between five and 10 years of age, Nitya had already dealt with more than four people who defined the emotions she felt in her childhood, the emotions she would harbour subliminally for years, the emotions that would make her hate her boyfriend and not be able to kiss him for a year after getting together.
At 19, she had her second kiss. She raised her head from Mayank’s shoulder and told him that she wanted to kiss him. She told him she could no longer let a Deepak or a Ganesh sabotage her life.
They kissed. She thought it was beautiful, very different from how she had expected kisses to be. Mayank now knew the stories Nitya had locked up inside her, after he convinced her that there is nothing that could make him love her any less than he did.
At 19, Nitya had her first kiss, because now she knew that the first kiss was not a kiss after all, it was violence. From saying “no” to Deepak, now Nitya also said a firm “no” to the memories haunting her; it was not her fault, it was never her fault.
She loved, and she was loved.
The last time she was sexually harassed was when she was 14. She went with her father to a relative’s place – a birth had happened and they went there to congratulate the family. Nitya went inside into the room where the new-born was asleep; he had the face of a little tomato, she thought, an amount of red that keeps you fixed, but not too red to scare you away; you would want to touch the little sleeping thing, but decide that it should grow a bit first. She had plopped herself beside the baby when his grandfather entered the room. She got up to her feet and greeted him; he was not satisfied with a customary bowing of the head; he hugged her and lifted her up, his hands gripping her bottom like a cat’s jaws dug deep into dead flesh; he threw her on the bed and held her breasts as firmly as he could, then he kissed her on her neck. Nitya jumped out of the bed and ran out of the room; her father was sitting in the living room having tea with the baby’s grandmother, mother and father. She came out and returned their smiles. Then she sat next to her father on the sofa; she looked at his face, he humbly folded his hands when the old patriarch came out; his face dripped with hateful servility.
You are not supposed to fold your hands and bow your head to greet him. You need to chop off his hands and shame him into hiding his face.
“It hit me hard. This was the first time I had seen any of my parents right after getting sexually abused. I did not have the time to process it, I was overcome with emotions and burst into tears as soon as we left their house. I told my father that I was crying because my sister just had had a baby.” She could never tell her family what had happened; they were not fit to know. She didn’t know how they would grapple with the fact that someone so close could do this to their child. How would her sister live with this?
Nitya has not told anything to her family. However, this was the last story that she needed to tell Mayank. She held his hand and kissed him again on his mouth. The kissing was interspersed with a lot of crying, both Nitya and Mayank took breaks in-between to wipe their tears, and then they got back at it.
“I have started sitting in the room with Golu when her tutor is there. I just take a book into the room, sit in a corner and read,” Mayank tells Nitya. Nitya had scolded Mayank, as his family would never check on his young seven-year-old sister when she was in the room alone with her tutor.
“Good,” Nitya replied.
Noni: The present and the future
Nitya always made sure her younger sister did not have to hide anything. She tells her everything and always listens to everything she has to say. When she was 12 and her baby sister, Noni, six, she told her what a “bad touch” was. Nitya and Noni talk about everything that can or needs to be talked about. Noni does not know that her sister was abused, but Nitya made sure that she knew what to do if she witnesses or experiences abuse.
“I made sure she had someone to talk to. I call her regularly and ask her how she’s doing. I ask her about her friends. I talked to her about sexual abuse when she was quite young. She told me things she felt suspicious about; she still does. I think she has become strong because she knows there is someone she can talk to about everything that she experiences. That’s what I want to be to her,” says Nitya, stirring the coffee in her half-empty mug.
Back in Lucknow, Noni is 15. She has taken over the streets of her locality, after her sister, and she goes around flashing the bird at the eve-teasers of Lucknow.