Wednesday 28 March 2007

The House I Grew Up In

This is a book of powerful personal testimonies of five middle class English speaking Indian women who have been sexually abused as children by their close family members. In this book, they share their experiences of childhood incest and its impact on their lives.

These stories provide a disquieting glimpse into the nature of incest, and how, when not dealt with at its roots, it emerges in adult life in the form of symptoms which seem to have no ostensible link with its occurrence. They are also about healing and transformation, and about the courage of women and children in the face of adversity. Every single story ends on a note of hope and the promise of a new life.

These stories are meant for women everywhere, for those who are survivors and those who are not, for those survivors who are in recovery and for those who think perhaps there is no way out.

The book was brought out by my organisation RAHI Foundation in 2000. It has been edited by my partner and colleague Ashwini Ailawadi. RAHI (Recovering and Healing from Incest) is a support centre for adult women survivors of incest and child sexual abuse in New Delhi, India.

Excerpts from the five stories follow.

A must read.

Like A Second Skin

"Seedy hotels. Semen stained bed-sheets. Sex kits. Furtive one-night stands. Deception, lies and humiliation. When I think about my abuse and how much it has affected my life, this is what I think of.

I’m not sure if this is a good way to begin my story. I already feel dangerously on the edge of a whirlpool. I’m sure to get sucked in, not be able to extricate myself, drown. But how can I not say this? This was me, this was what a great part of my life was like, a part that not many know about. And it’s a story that’s been waiting, perhaps all these years, to be told like this. So listen. Walk with me through a maze of horror and sleaze with all its twisted alleys of shame, pain, sorrow and compassion.

I believe a woman's sexuality is severely affected by sexual abuse in childhood. She can either avoid sex or be addicted to it. I sought out sex. In the self-destructive way only women survivors of incest can, in their desperate, terrible attempts to be loved, to seek a sense of self, to regain their lost power. "

"My uncle began to abuse me when I was about six. He taught me by his terrible acts that sex was furtive, it took place behind closed bathroom and dressing room doors in a quick, shifty manner with eyes that didn’t look beyond one’s own pleasure–the man’s pleasure. I remember going past his room with my heart thumping, knowing I would be called any moment and that I would have to obey because I had been taught to obey elders. I recall my fear, the knot in my stomach, the holding of my breath in hopeless attempts to somehow not be heard as I passed by, then the inevitable sound of that voice that called my name and sealed my fate for the next few, endless minutes.

Even today when my uncle takes my name—though not with the intent to abuse me any more—I can feel the palm of my hand tingle at the memory of semen being ejaculated in it and I instinctively rub it against myself as if to get off the stains. Then, I was only six and already steeped in shame, humiliation and self-doubt, silenced effectively, my destiny shaped by what I had to see and do. "

"... Because recovery can never depend on how others respond to a situation, it depends on us and how we learn to conduct ourselves in it. That is its beauty and its flip side. To keep the power of change in your own hands also means to have to decide when to let go. It is not easy.But it is perhaps the joy of discovery that kept me going. It was the light at the end of the tunnel, it was somewhere the kindling of a faith in myself to be able to do it, no matter how impossibly buried this faith appeared to be under years of self-flagellation. Despite all the pain, I have no regrets. How can I? For me the process has been what I could only call a transformation, of becoming what I never thought I could be, of doing things I had never even dreamt of doing, of being able to dream as I had never known how to, of feeling the warmth of sheer wonder as I slowly find myself shaking off the burdens I carried all my life of what I am not and what I can’t do."

Mumbai, Age 39

Tuesday 27 March 2007

Not So Black And White

"So I started protesting. However, my protests didn’t really deter my brother. Like when I’d say no, he wouldn’t listen. He’d say things like, please, just this once, and coerce me into it. I would give in. I’m not the kind of person who can say no easily and that’s one hell of a major problem with me even today. I tried using other means to avoid his advances. I was getting really fed up of them. Actually more than just fed up, I was really very, very scared. There would be this nauseous feeling at the pit of my stomach every time I sensed something was going to happen. We used to sleep on the same bed and I started putting a pillow between us. But if he wanted, he’d just brush it aside and do what he wanted to. I tried blackmailing him. I told him that if this went on, that if he made one more move, then I’d tell our parents. But he’d just turn around and say, go ahead, do it, tell them; you’re equally guilty, you want it too, so go ahead. "

"I’ve been majorly affected by the abuse. For some time now, I’ve been doing a lot of introspecting and I can see how it has affected my life. Like for instance, physical contact and sex. I just don’t like it if anyone touches me. Ugh! I hate it. My boyfriend is a damn nice person and not very physical or demonstrative. Earlier, when we had just gotten together and were kind of getting physical, I used to feel very weird about it. I just didn’t know how to tell him I felt weird. I guess I could have if I tried. But it did seem funny to say, no, no, don’t do this, no don’t hold my hand, no don’t put your arm around me, not now. How do you say these things when other people seem to do them so naturally and normally? "

"Believe me, (recovery) is one big struggle sometimes and I can be so scared of what might happen and what might not if I change. Like, I’m scared that my friends may not be able to understand me or why I’m behaving the way I am these days, and I might lose them. I don’t want that to happen. But I know for sure, this is part of my healing process, I need to feel the pain and grieve for what has happened. I believe that before change, before the awakening and the rebirth, one has to experience pain. I know that I have it in me to become a solid and stable person. That’s my hope for me: this new life, this new me."

Delhi, Age 19

The Room With One Door

"Sixty years later, I still want to clean myself. I wash my hands at least fifty times a day. There is a need in me to rid myself of any smell or contamination, and remain at every moment of the day, clean and pure. I do not allow anyone to sit on my bed, except those I trust and there are very few who have that privilege. Nobody but I, is permitted to touch or wash my clothes. A dog guards my cupboard. He is trained not to bite but only to ward off those approaching it. I have an enormous collection of boxes, two hundred to be exact. They must always be neatly and tightly shut and stored away in a safe place. Whenever I have had sex, I have watched myself from a corner, distant and removed, a woman mechanically going through all the necessary rituals associated with it. I have never enjoyed it or had an orgasm. I do not allow myself to be in a room with one door. Once a long time ago, I made that mistake and paid for it dearly. I do not want to make the same mistake again.

My story unfolds in a traditional, well-to-do Bengali household of the 1930s. It is a story of the proverbial ugly duckling who grew up to be one of the most celebrated and beautiful woman of her times and who was abused when barely six, for four long years by a man, bound by the code of his profession, to be a keeper of law, to protect the weak and the vulnerable."

"The abuse fitted in so perfectly into the routine of our everyday life that it had an almost surreal quality about it. As was the custom of those times, the abuser would place his shoes outside the door and scrub his feet on the mat before entering the room. The twisted irony of that gesture haunts me even today. I remember the deep brown, leather-bound sets of encyclopaedia that lined my father’s study, their golden lettering somehow standing out in the subdued atmosphere of the room. My mind would often be blank, the blankness punctuated by stabs of blinding pain. I do not recall any other sensation in my body. Then the familiar sounds of my father and the servants returning from a shikar and settling on the verandah for tea and sandwiches would drift into the study. It served as a signal for the abuser to leave, and he would do so, going through the ritual of scrubbing his feet. It was disconcerting the way he could greet my parents, his clean-cut open features betraying no sign of the revolting act that he had perpetrated just a moment ago."

Calcutta, Age 67

Our Little Secret

"It’s been twenty years since he died; the abuser, my uncle. And I’m not the little ten-year-old girl any more who wondered what was happening to her. I’m in my forties now, heading for a divorce and the mother of a wonderful, young daughter who I have a terrific bonding with and love very much. But though it’s been a long time since the abuse, and I’m not as torn and fragmented as I used to be, it is still very painful to divulge my past in this interview. The grim scenes come back when I talk. It’s almost as if I’m reliving the entire experience.

It first happened when I spent a weekend, over at my mausi and mausa’s place... That particular night we chatted on till quite late and drifted off to sleep. I don’t know for how long I dozed off but suddenly I found myself awake. As my eyes got accustomed to the darkness, I could make out the form of my uncle. I knew it was him because he was a hugely built man and recognisable by his bulk. He detached the mosquito net from the bed and put a finger to his lips. I heard him whisper, `shh…' I was scared. I didn’t know what was happening. Something told me that whatever it was, it was not normal. Maybe it was the finger on his lips, maybe the look in his eyes. It wasn’t the usual kind of look that he had, which glinted of fun and good times. Instinctively I knew I had to keep quiet. There was no space on the bed, so he lay on top of me, his heavy bulk crushing my little body. I couldn’t move. There was a catch in my chest. I found it difficult to breathe... All I could do was think, oh God, please, don’t let his daughters wake up and see this, God, please. It was over in a few seconds. My uncle had his release and left."

Calcutta, Age 42

The Centre Of The Spiral

"It is almost eight years after the last act of sexual abuse but its effect remains. It varies in its intensity, but is always there.

My abuse was multi-faceted. The clearest and most tangible part was the sexual abuse by my brother. My college-going brother used to touch me sexually, in the night, always when I least expected it. My body used to respond... The abuse occurred in the grey area of being awake and being asleep. My brother was never hurtful and most of the time, very gentle. Underlying the act was secrecy, dirt and dishonesty like a grey oil film in a dirty puddle. I was always divided–rooted in the reactions of my body yet floating in a sense of unreality, helplessness and guilt. The feeling of helplessness, of being trapped stayed with me through the rest of the days of abuse and still haunts me occasionally."

"I still cannot find the words to explain the state I would be in. Shock, arousal, intense hate…wishing it would stop, wishing it would continue, wishing it would finish…hopes, dreams shattering, helplessness…so many things. All through it would be the protest of my soul. I have searched but I cannot find anything else that expresses my hatred of what happened."

"My soul had its own chart however. It wanted to rebuild everything, from start. To clear out the debris of the war that my body had housed and replace it with good touch, feel and use. Healing meant not only to recognise the right to protect myself and speak for myself but to begin to own every part of my body and mind that had been used. To place along with the memory of abuse, memories of love and care. It also meant taking on adult responsibility, moving on from being a survivor to becoming an actor. "

"I feel proud now, not for surviving alone, though there is much in that to be proud of, but for reclaiming my body and mind and making it my own."

Mumbai, Age 27