Of sex and the supernatural

First off, I had the pleasure of reviewing Tarshi’s Yellow Book on their blog. If you are a parent or a teacher, it has all the resources you need to help deal with children and the S word.

In case you haven’t heard of Tarshi before, I quote from their blog -

TARSHI (Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues) believes that all people have the right to sexual well being and to a self-affirming and enjoyable sexuality.

TARSHI addresses all people, especially women and young people through various programmes and is one of the few NGOs in India that works on sexuality, without restricting it to a disease-prevention, violence against women or sexual minorities’ framework, but rather from an affirmative and rights – based approach.

General information:

Call the TARSHI phone info-line for free, accurate & concise Information on Sexuality and Reproductive Health Issues @ +91-11-26472229
9:30 am – 5:30 pm (IST), Monday – Friday

For more, see: http://www.tarshi.net/about/about_tarshi.asp

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And now on to the supernatural part of the title. Some months ago I was talking to another parent about how I came to be a work from home mother. I just didn’t find help I was satisfied with. I mean they were good enough to dust, wash, sweep, swab and make hospital corners on the beds, but they just didn’t seem right enough to leave the kids with for extended periods of time. Mostly, because of the way their beliefs influenced the kids.

There were dozens of maids who would react to the kids’ nudity with a Shame, shame, jao kapde pehno (shame, shame, put on your clothes). This, if the kids shot out of the loo, naked after a bath, because the game of Ludo they’d left on the floor just couldn’t wait. There was the maid who in a bid to ensure they didn’t go to the balcony and fall to their death, kept threatening them that Pigeon kaatega (the pigeons will bite you) and so on.

If you want your child to have some sense of what is a good touch, what constitutes privacy and which adults are trusted, it’s really hard to do it with a new maid every 11 months. It’s also hard to rewire the way a maid thinks and teach her not to say shame shame to a naked child. It’s almost impossible to teach the maids that there is no such thing as a ghost, and to prevent them from telling the kids not to go into dark rooms for fear of them, when the maids themselves are terrified of ghosts.

These pigeons and ghosts are small issues in the larger scheme of things and you can’t go around sacking people unless they’ve stolen the family silver, but I gave the scaring maids their notice and kept up the hunt until I found maids who did their housework and didn’t influence the kids in anyway. We all have our own lines to draw and mine is a dislike of fear. I don’t like my children being scared into bed, into eating, into being good. They are not taught that there is a heaven or a hell. They are taught to eat because their body needs it and to be good because there is no other option.

A few nights ago the siblings were whispering in a corner and the tension was palpable. I don’t interfere unless necessary and love that they have their little secrets and special shared things. So I plumped pillows, shook open quilts and began to herd them to their beds, tucking them in. As I reached to switch off the lights they screamed Noooooo. Don’t switch off the lights.

Why?

Because we want the lights on.

It’s always one thing or the other to squeeze the most out of any day and I knew they were weary, their eyelids drooping. They’d be dead to the world within minutes even with the lights on. So, unwilling to get into a prolonged argument I left the lights on and shut the door. Sure enough, when I checked a few minutes later, they were fast asleep and I switched off the light.

This happened the next night too. The third evening, anticipating it, I asked them why they wanted the lights on when they were not even used to a night light. The Bean answered – You won’t like the answer.

Try me.

Well, S told us, that if you light a candle in the night and say err.. a bad word.

Me: What bad word?

Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary.

Oh. Go on.

Brat: If you light a candle in the night and say Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, she will come.

She? Who?

Bloody Mary.

Me, tired of this circular argument: Arre, who on earth is Bloody Mary now?

Chorus: Don’t you know? She’s a ghost.

I see.

I called the OA and told him we were going to try an experiment that night. We were going to light candles and invoke Bloody Mary. I had not kept the kids away from ignorant, superstitious maids and blood thirsty pigeons, only to have them terrified by a frickin’ name off a cocktail menu.

The fear of the supernatural, of a vengeful God, these are issues even adults grapple with. Every city has its bhoot bangla and most of us have jumped the school wall to spend time in a cemetery and test a variety of supernatural theories. Clearly this wasn’t something we could erase in a single night, but we had an opportunity to make a start and I didn’t want to bugger it up by teaching them to depend on yet another vague supernatural figure like God or by keeping a knife or a rosary under their beds and so on, shifting their fear from one, to the other. They needed to learn to test theories, to be fearless. To know that courage lies within. Not in the heavens and not in rosaries and knives.

Bedtime came and we settled on their floor with a candle. The Brat shrieked and got under his blanket and stayed huddled there.

The Bean squealed and leapt into the OA’s laps and stayed there.

And we evil, bloody thirsty parents chanted, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary while the kids moaned and groaned and cried and cowered and waited for Bloody Mary to present herself.

Of course she didn’t and in a while we were thirsty and sick of chanting and tired of harassing the kids. :p

The experiment to prove she didn’t exist backfired and far from being at peace, the kids were terrified into wakefulness. #ParentingFail

The Bean was a soggy mess and the Brat was all wide eyed terror.

So yet again we left the light on and went out, sorry that our plan to face fears head on had failed. Of course there’s a lot to be said for the fun we had sitting there in the dark, around a candle, chanting the name of a cocktail we’d rather be drinking than sitting there!

In a few minutes a combination of the excitement and the exhaustion knocked them out. I slipped in quietly and switched off the light.

Come morning I waited for a reference to the night but they didn’t. Of course the true test lay ahead. Would they let us switch the lights off that night or not? (Cue music and spooky sounds)

Night fell and the twosome went to bed without any Bloody Mary talk and no objection to the light being switched off. The OA and I heaved a sigh of relief. They may not have brought it up with us, but they’d probably had their own little conference and come to the conclusion that Bloody Mary did not exist. At least not within their parents’ powers of summoning.

A couple of days later I found them playing with a couple of Lego toys, one named Bloody Mary and the other something else. Clearly Bloody Mary was no longer a name to be feared, but one to be tossed around in play.

We spoke about the inappropriateness of a child using the word Bloody and came to a compromise. It would be referred to as BM, not Bloody Mary. At which point it struck me that BM could also be bowel movement. A thought I shared with them and had them in splits. Thereafter they forgot about Bloody Mary. BM was bowel movement and potty jokes appeal to them far more than anything else at this age.

For the moment at least, we have this ghost under control.

May I join you?

The doorbell rings a bare 20 minutes after I’ve got rid of them. I push my chair back reluctantly, to answer it. Now what, I groan as I see the small figure through the peephole.

Only when I open the door do I realise that the Bean has tears streaming down her tiny face. She’s six now, but she’s built small and looks like a four year old. And there’s nothing like tears coursing a path down dusty cheeks to break a mother’s heart.

I kneel down and ask her what’s wrong. She is so upset that she can’t form the words and she hiccups it out. I am given to understand that the bigger girls in the park won’t let her play because she’s friends with another girl they don’t like. They made fun of her for even asking to join them. Cliques have existed forever. The Bean, however, doesn’t do cliques. She is very social, can play with kids of any age and sees no reason to restrict herself to one set.

But I’m not seeing reason right now. I’m seeing only a red haze. Anger and hurt. My baby is crying because a bunch of mean big girls aren’t letting her play with them. I know it took her a lot of courage to walk up to them and ask if she could join them. And I know she’s aching because they turned her down and then proceeded to make fun of her. I grab her by the hand and march out self righteously. The door swings shut behind me, I am not carrying my cell phone and I’m in my rubber chappals.

We reach the park and I ask her to point out the group of girls she wants to play with. They’re playing some new fangled game of tag that I can’t make sense of. I am out of breath, my knee is aching and the Bean is being yanked along by the arm, willy nilly. I am going to kill anyone, everyone who makes my baby cry. With my bare hands. And bury them. Under a couple of rocks. And then jump on their graves. Just to be sure.

As I close in on them the red haze fades. My feet slow down. My heart stops stomping in place and settles down to a regular thump. I feel my BP normalize.They are just a bunch of young girls playing the same games they’ve seen played before. Politicking, forming cliques, taking pleasure in another’s discomfort at being left out, knowing no better because no one has seen fit to talk to them about it. It’s a cycle. Other girls have left them out of cliques, and they are finally in a position to do the same. Vengeance will definitely be theirs.

I’ve never seen this happen with the Brat or other boys. Any number of them join a football game, anyone can bowl for the team. Any number can have a cycle race and they’re always willing to have an extra chor or police. It seems to extend into adulthood with men easily joining a gang going out for drinks or a smoke outside office. Women on the other hand will have a hundred hangups about joining an existing group or letting someone new in. Why do we do this? At what age does it start and why don’t we do something to put an end to it?

They all look up as we approach – some enquiringly, some nervous, some looking at the Bean and joining the dots. They don’t want my daughter and they certainly don’t appreciate her mother coming onto the playground to plead her cause, hair flying wildly around her face, in tattered tracks and a faded tee. 

Hi, I venture tentatively, feeling like a 5 year old in a new playground. Would they mind including the Bean in their game, please?

They look uncertain.

She’s small and might get hurt, one of them offers. 

That’s okay, I say gently. If she gets hurt and wants to leave, that is her choice. But do give her a chance.

A braver one, teenager, two plaits down her back says, ‘She doesn’t play with us, Aunty. She plays with X.’

I take a deep breath, remind myself that they are not my daughters, they don’t need to be preached to and that they are in a position to turn me down anyway. And then I point out, as calmly as I can, that she plays with everyone who plays with her, loves making friends and has not been able to join them earlier, because they’ve not let her. They might just like her once they get to know her.

And then I appeal to their vanity. All little girls look up to the didis – and the Bean thinks they are very cool. Would they mind having her tag along? I know she’ll win them over once they start playing. As soon as they get the fact that she is an ‘other’, not one of them.

Okay, they agree reluctantly. Unable to say no to an Aunty who is polite and reasonable.

I smile gratefully, thank profusely, hand the Bean over to one of them and walk away. Then just out of eyesight I settle down on a bench to watch. They explain the rules and she joins in, elated that she is one of them.

The line between being the interfering aunty who fights her child’s every battle at the park and uses her position to bully kids, and the mother who tries to show her child how to negotiate a new friendship, is a thin one. I’m very nervous about crossing it. I’ve seen many mothers charge in, yell at other kids, then their parents get dragged in and it’s open warfare. We don’t want that – we want to make friends. At six the Bean needs help with these relationships and older girls. At 16 she’ll be on her own and I hope the lessons she learns will hold her in good stead.

In a while peals of laughter fill that corner of the park. I listen carefully, trying to pick out the Bean’s gurgling, joyful laughter. But I can’t. All happy little girls sound alike and the wave of laughter just washes over me. Dusk is falling and I can’t see them any longer. I realise I’ve been wool gathering for a while so I collect myself and walk home.

Only to realise that I’d left the door open and my article incomplete. Sigh. A mother’s work is never done, is it?

But this is not the end. Picture abhi baaki hai mere dost.

Later that evening the two little figures stroll back home, shadows lengthening in the street lights. I’m always amused by the way children function – no sense of urgency, no purposefulness. They meander and chat and wander home, with no real time frame – they’ll get home eventually, won’t they?

I have a little chat about the Bean’s problem earlier that evening and ask her if she can handle it herself the next time. She nods confidently.

And then I do what breaks my heart a little bit more. I ask her not to walk home alone. To always wait for the Brat and come home with him. She accepts it unquestioningly and I feel like a bit of a failure. I tell the Brat to always walk her home and he nods unquestioningly too. She’s younger and can’t negotiate traffic yet, I lie.

But really, what am I teaching my children if I tell them that a girl always needs a boy to see her home safely? What am I teaching my daughter – that she cannot be trusted alone, cannot have a life of her own? What am I telling my son – that he must always bear the burden of bringing his sister home safe, must always be on guard duty? At the moment though, it’s for both their safety. There *is* safety in numbers and I worry with all the guards and drivers and househelp in the complex, none of whom can be traced once they exit the gates. There are predators lurking at every corner and protecting my children while giving them independence, is a delicate dance. I hope I can keep in step.

On that note, I hope you know that we’ve begun our usual month of Child Sexual Abuse Awareness. 

HOW TO PARTICIPATE

A lot of you have been asking us how to take part in this, what are the rules etc. We want to keep it as open as we can. Any thoughts? Please share. However for the convience of everyone we have put together the ways you can contribute as well as some very broad guidelines…

If you would like to add to the discussion or know somebody else who would, please note that we welcome entries

The list of topics is available here. Anonymous contributions are accepted and requests for anonymity will of course be honoured.

Please remember to send in a mail with all necessary links or just your input tocsa.awareness.april@gmail.com so that we can track your contribution and make sure that it is not inadvertently lost.

More details on the CSAA blog. 

Why is my baby scared?

MM?

Her voice on the phone was nervous, jittery. Unlike her usual chirpy, vivacious self.

What’s wrong, love? I ask her.

She needs little encouragement and the whole story comes tumbling out. They’re a nuclear couple like the OA and I. But they’re luckier. They have both sets of grandparents living in the NCR, not too far away. But she’s as particular as I am and won’t leave her daughter with either househelp alone or send her to daycare. It makes for a tricky balance, but then we all know what it’s like to have a dozen balls up in the air and skates strapped on to our feet. So some nights if they head out partying, they drop her with her maternal grandparents. Other times with her paternal grandparents.

Until a few weeks ago she began to act up. Each time she was told she was going to her paternal grandparents home she would act up, misbehave, run and hide in her room. As it happens the mother is an involved, aware one and saw the pattern. Her paternal grandparents usually spoiled her rotten and she loved going there, so my friend was at a complete loss as to why she was behaving this way.

The problem with parents like us, again, the involved, aware ones, is that we’ve heard too much, seen too much, and worry too much. On the other hand, I think we’d rather be this way and worry ourselves bald, than not notice when things are wrong or live in denial. So we both knew what she was suspecting. But neither of us wanted to say the words. CSA.  Child Sexual Abuse. Three little words that put terror into the hearts of every parent.

The political issue here was that it was her in-laws. And while she feared that there was something going wrong at their place, she didn’t want to name her fears and neither did she want to upset her husband. Who to be fair, is as aware, involved and good a parent as any, and a great guy. Why is my child scared, MM, she broke down. Why is she scared?

Anyhow I calmed her fears, told her that if indeed someone was hurting her child, she was best placed to find out. And so the parents sat the little girl down, spent an hour talking to her and cajoling her and finally got the truth out. The grandparents had some regular visitors – neighbours. And of the old couple who visited, the gentleman was very fond of their daughter. He often jokingly told her he was going to take her home and keep her with them because she was so cute.She was terrified that one day he’d actually take her away.

This isn’t something we’re unused to. We hardened kids who grew up at a time when canings in school were par for the course and parents told us that the babaji down the road carried away kids who didn’t eat their greens. Were we scared? Hell yes, that’s how we ate our greens. Did we end up traumatised for life? Erm, no.

I don’t know how my friend plans to request the old gentleman not to scare her daughter but she and her husband did speak to the little girl and tell her that God’s plan was for them to be a family and no one could or would take her away. She went to Dada-Dadi’s house calmly the next night.

False alarm this was, but it was a wake up call. And it was a pleasant realisation that  parents in our generation are paying attention. And are willing to confront family even if it means a very unpleasant situation. Something our parents were loathe to do. More power to my friend and parents like her.

Have you guys seen this video, by the way? Can’t figure out a way to embed it. It’s a punch in the gut.

Be aware. Stay alert. Keep talking to your child. Believe your child. Never mind who it is, stand up for your child. Always. Stay strong.

PS: In case you are wondering how to bring it up, this is how we talk about it with the Brat and the Bean.

CSA Awareness – Smitten

Young Zubaan’s most recent release Smitten is a bit of a misnomer, the story being about Child Sexual Abuse or CSA. CSA is a cause close to my heart as you all know and author Ranjit Lal needs no introductions. Our favourite, chez mad momma, is Birds From My Window and the Antics They Get up To. I have to admit it got us far more interested in our little feathered friends than we otherwise might have been.

Which is why I was keen to get started the moment I laid hands on Smitten. Samir, the unlikely little hero is a fourteen year old boy (15 according to the back cover – some editing errors there), interested in the usual boy things – model cars and ‘dirty’ documents. It is, while trying to retrieve those documents that he’d hidden in the empty flat across that he ends up befriending the new neighbours, the Handas, or rather, their fifteen year old daughter Akhila. The family seems nice and just dysfunctional enough to be real. A boisterous, affectionate father, a wraith like mother who is always sickly, a younger brother, Sumit who has special needs, and of course the lovely Akhila. An only child with very busy parents – a pilot mother and a banker father, Samir hangs out with the Handas all the time. Soon he and the two children are a regular item.

The residential complex also has two big bullies, and their father, a top cop. The odds are stacked against them the day the two bullies catch hold of little Sumit and begin to bully him. Akhila and Samir throw themselves into the fray to save him. Samir is stripped and beaten till his arm breaks and that is when the top cop father charges in and catches his sons red-handed. At this point, contrary to the corrupt capital city background, he does the right thing and throws his sons in jail, saving the three younger children. Samir is a hero and even more a part of the Handa family than he was to begin with.

As luck would have it, a few days later Samir’s parents both need to travel on work and he can’t be left to fend for himself with only one functioning arm so the Handas offer to take him along on their vacation. It is around this time that Akhila realises that something is wrong. Her father is now sharing her room and she wakes up with her clothes unbuttoned and in a state of disarray. She turns to her only friend, Samir, and they work out a plan for him to spy on her at night and figure out what is going on. The answer of course, is that her stepfather is abusing her. But now that they’ve confirmed it, how do they save her from her father?

Author Ranjit gets a lot of it bang on target. A non-stereotypical family, with a pilot mother. A budding romance between a couple of teenagers, where the girl is *gasp* a little older. Also, a dysfunctional family with a weak mother who does not interfere in her second husband’s relationship with his step daughter. A mentally challenged child whose needs must be considered and for whose sake the boat must not be rocked. An all powerful male figure whose word is law.

The story explores many aspects of CSA, from the power games, to the secrecy, to fooling a child into believing that what you are doing is for his or her own good and that they’ve got it all wrong. You see the confusion in Akhila’s mind, the horror when she realises what is going on and the revulsion too.

Being fiction, the story naturally comes to a conclusion, but I feel a lot of the real life nuance of CSA was lost for that very reason. The ends tie up too neatly and there is no hint of the despair and trauma and scarring that CSA leaves behind. Most children in a similar situation would not find such a convenient solution so it is a little misleading in the pat way it ends.

It’s not exactly recommended reading for the early teens, as some of the language is a little objectionable even though the topic is relevant. But it fills a gap in the market and is definitely an interesting read for the mid teens and above. My wish would be to see a book that helps keep the little ones safe because that is the age group most vulnerable to CSA.

CSA awareness month might be over

…but the topic is always relevant.

We were at a kiddy birthday party some months ago and either the Brat or the Bean ( I forget which one) came running out screaming,  ‘We’re playing doctor and look what X is doing to Y’. All of us parents froze in that one second and you could feel the tension in the room. Playing doctor? Thankfully we were all sensible enough not to rush into the room together and make a big deal. Another parent and I casually strolled into the nursery and the rest waited nervously for news.

There was nothing amiss, really. A bunch of them were playing with the doctor set (all below the age of 6), and one was just being particularly rough with another. That’s it. No funny business. We put an end to the rough play, told them not to hurt each other and came out to inform the other parents. A collective sigh of relief went around the room.

We all know what it means when kids are playing doctor. Almost every kid has at some point in life experienced some form of exploration, either of themselves or of another child. And almost every single one of them has realised they are doing something taboo. As you all are aware, last month, April, was Child Sexual Awareness Month. And although the month is over, I had to post on this very important topic. The Bride brings up a few questions in her CSA post, including, how should parents react if they find their kids engaged in voluntary sexual acts? And is it still rape if it is between two minors, where one is the aggressor. The jury is out on the second one because there are so many grey areas here. Many sexually aggressive children have been abused themselves, and think this is perfectly normal behaviour. For the first, I turned to a couple of friends and gurus and Sandhya (I always count on her for a sensible, thought through response instead of my knee jerk ones) had this to say. I urge you to read both posts as well as comments for a very interesting and open minded discussion.

Moving on to the second part of my post. For this last month that I’ve worked on the CSA blog and spoken to friends and forwarded posts and shared them on FB, I’ve had so many people nod vehemently and then take me aside and deeply concerned, ask me, ‘Are you sure this is the right thing to do? To talk to your child about this kind of stuff? Aren’t you taking away their innocence? Filling their heads with all sorts of ideas.’

I’ve been pretty gobsmacked at this response. 1 in every 4 women has been abused. 90% of perpetrators are known to their victim. What does that tell you? That your child is at high risk and it could well be someone you know. Now, do you choose ‘protecting their innocence’ or protecting your child?

Which brings me to the next point. What the hell is this innocence you’re protecting? What is it that parents imagine awareness entails? Do you imagine we’re hanging up graphic charts and using power point presentations to illustrate all the ways a child can be abused in?

All you’re doing is telling your child that it is not okay for anyone to touch them, just as you’d tell them not to run on to the road, play with knives or matches or whack their sibling on the head with a bat.

Ask the parent of an abused child what they’d do differently if they could turn back time. They’d teach their child their rights, they’d teach their child what it is wrong for another to do to them. And they’d teach them to come back and tell them about it.

The kids are rushing out to play in the garden and I make a long arm and grab both for their weekly pop quiz – What are your private parts? Who can touch them? Are you allowed to touch anyone there? Do you need to tell mama if someone scares you and says not to tell her? Will you get into a car with a stranger? Will you take food from someone you don’t know? Which side of the road are you supposed to walk on? Which is the smallest continent? Which is the biggest planet?

And there you go, it’s done. They rush off to gather bugs and leaves.

They’ve not been pulled into a dark corner and educated in a sepulchral tone. They don’t look particularly scarred or traumatised for being educated. It’s yet another of mama’s strictures and the taboo quality is something only we adults add to it. Can I be sure they’ll be safe after the rigorous awareness routine I take them through? Unlikely. But have I done the best I can, to protect them? I think so.

I want them to be brave and free and confident and for that I need to let them go. Equip them with the knowledge and then pray for the best. Tell them to trust their instincts and hope they will bring their worries to me as we cuddle after lights out for goodnight chat.

So, what are you talking to your child about, tonight?