A new school year begins and with it, a new reason for paranoia added to my 10-foot long list of fears. The Bean has begun taking the school bus and it has an entourage of three men (this can only happen in India where there is an excess of labour – why do we need two men sitting with the driver?). I don’t leave my children alone with strangers, I am unbelievably particular about my househelp and I haven’t gone back to a full time job since they were born. Often I am tired, stressed out and cranky and family bears the brunt because I fret about the children. The average parent is a concerned parent. Me? I’m plain paranoid.
You see, for those who read the old blog, you’d know, I was a victim of sexual abuse between the ages of 6 and 8. Every year I’d visit my parents during the summer and winter break (they lived in the tea estates and I lived with my grandparents). My brother and I loved the sprawling lawns spread over half a dozen acres and the huge rambling bungalows. I learned to cycle and play football in the corridors. The kitchen and pantry were almost as big as my last house. The living room was divided into three sections and again, massive. Looking back, it was just the kind of home that made it easy to prey on a child.
The desolate home, surrounded by woods, tea plantations and streams and rivulets was every child’s dream come true in terms of adventure, but there were no children for miles and at times we ran out of ideas. There was no TV and since we didn’t live there permanently, there was no school. Through the day you were likely to see deer and rabbits and at night the more dangerous animals like wild boar, wild elephants and hyenas came out of the forests. Ironically the biggest threat was not these animals but a human. The perpetrator was an odd jobs man who must have been about 19 or 20 and whose main job when we were around, was to entertain us and ensure that we didn’t wander into the woods and get lost.
This guy would often break up the sameness of days by taking us for a picnic to the stream, a little walk, a game of football or hide and seek. Let me begin by saying that we loved him. He was young and fun. A strong guy from the plantations he would swing us in his arms, take us piggy back and show us how to do cartwheels.
I guess what I am trying to establish is that he fit the first rule of all molesters. He was familiar to us and we trusted him. Also, since he wasn’t the cook or the sweeper, but actually our playmate, we were used to him being physical with us, as in jumping on to his back for a ride or hanging on his arm while he turned into a human merry-go-round. But that summer when I returned as a six year old, everything changed.
Perhaps he was just a young man experimenting, but it happened all of a sudden one day when he pulled me into a corner. We were playing hide and seek with my brother and my brother was seeking. It didn’t stop and no one realised that the smile was slowly wearing off my face. I was soon terrified of being left alone with him and sought excuses to stick to my mother. Who perhaps thought I was being clingy because I didn’t see her enough. I don’t know. I can’t really say. The holidays over, I went back to the safety of my grandparents’ busy home and tried to put the trauma out of my mind.
But it didn’t end and each year I’d come back to the terror of having to deal with him trying his best to lure me into corners. At this point I’ll bring up the second rule – he was never violent – just wheedling. A game of hide and seek, a trek down the hill, a slice of halwa from the kitchen and a dark corner. This confuses a child and makes them wonder if the person doing this to them is a friend or a foe. It also made me wonder whether what he was doing was wrong or not. People often ask me why I didn’t tell my parents. Well, for one, that is a huge expectation from a six year old; most six year olds will barely tell you what they did in school. Though he didn’t threaten me with dire consequences, he did keep telling me that it was our little secret. At age 6 it is easy to convince a child something is actually his own idea/fault and a big secret. You know how kids love secrets.
Also, children are taught early that private parts are a matter of shame. Shame shame, put on your pants. Chee chee, don’t let anyone see that, you dirty boy. How are they to draw the lines and understand what is their own shame and what is for someone else to be ashamed about? They are confused about who exactly is doing something wrong. After all, if my parents or ayah weren’t around, this guy would help my little brother with his trousers when he wanted to go to the bathroom. There was an ayah who was supposed to take care of me and she did her duty by me. But the rest of the day we ran around playing with this guy and no one saw anything wrong with that.
By the time I was eight my parents who were unhappy that they were missing out on our growing years, quit that job and moved to the old home town to set up a business. The odd jobs guy actually moved with them and I recall him trying his best to get his hands on me in the busy old house. But it was near impossible because we were a family of almost ten members and a full set of staff. I lived on edge until he decided to go back south because of the language problem. My parents and brother were sad to see him go, but in all my little eight year old life I had never been so glad to see the back of someone. The spectre of him haunted me for years to come and I was jumpy around any male help or even strange males. About five years ago I went back to our old home with the OA and the Brat who was just a babe in arms. I went around meeting all the old staff and someone mentioned that he had gone mad and eventually disappeared. Until then my only regret was that I didn’t get to see him once I grew into an adult and slap his face – but after that I can’t help but believe that it was divine vengeance for preying on the weak and defenseless. I can only hope that all child molesters come to a bad end.
At at some level the thought that getting molested was part of life set itself in my head and I didn’t have it in me to put up a fight. Some years later there was an airforce mela and my parents sat down for a cup of tea after some sightseeing and told my brother and me that we could walk over the to the caravan that was part of the exhibition and look in. The caravan was within their sight and I was 12, the brother 11, so I guess it seemed like a safe enough thing to do. The brother and I excitedly took off and the airforce personnel who was on duty there, explaining features, took advantage of the fact that two children had climbed in alone. Pushing my brother to look into the dry toilet and see the features, he tried to slip a hand up my teeshirt. Amazingly, his voice stayed steady as his hand struggled with me, ready to move away incase my brother turned around. I stood there in shock, staring at his face.
I think that was the breaking point. I got out of the dark caravan, into the sunshine blinking back tears of grief and shame, old enough now to know that this was not my fault. I swore that no one else would touch me and get away with it. Again, I realise this is only because I am a fighter. I know plenty of women and girls who have broken down, the trauma affecting them in many ways and my heart bleeds for them.
But in the long run it made me a very cautious person. Thanks to having a brother only a year younger, I hung out with only his friends through my growing years. I thank God for never again giving me a reason to mistrust men because those boys guarded me with their lives. From picking me up from school to dropping me at a friend’s home, I never again stepped out or travelled alone. Never again was I left alone or to fend for myself until I was old enough to know how to.
The years went by and as I lay in bed one night, my belly swelling with the Brat, I felt a panic attack seize me. The memories of those two years came back unbidden and I suddenly wondered why I was doing this. Why I was bringing a child into this world when I couldn’t guarantee his or her well being. And so at some point, without it being a conscious decision, I decided never to go back to fulltime work.
I have always struggled to find flexible companies and good bosses, even if the money is nothing to write home about. The kids have their mother in the next room, tapping away at a keyboard and I only keep female househelp. They are not allowed into the kitchen with the male cook, never left alone with the driver for a minute and I never ever let them go down to play in our apartment play area without an adult watching over them. I could have begun to reinforce good touch bad touch but I am not sure they really get it (each one of us is the best judge of what our children are capable of understanding) and neither do I want them overthinking it each time an adult touches them. It is my job to protect them and I can’t shift that burden on to their shoulders. It leaves lots of room for misunderstanding and focuses too much on the whole private parts matter which I treat in a far more matter of fact way – again, this is our family policy and might not work for everyone.
The OA thinks I overdo it. Now the OA, God bless him, has never had any reason to complain. As I often tease him, male, elder son, very fair, Brahmin, MBA, investment banker – he’s the cream of Indian society and blessed with good luck. Me, I’ve faced more trouble and discrimination that I want to list here, for exactly the opposite reason. And I’d rather be paranoid and deny my child that extra hour of play after dark, than know that either of them has been touched inappropriately by one of the many gardeners or security guards floating around the compound.
I also struggle with sending the kids back to Nanna-G’pa’s home because they run their business out of the same compound and there are rickshaw pullers, labour, staff, engineers, service repairmen, all sorts floating around the place. They make a big fuss of the boss’ grandchildren and my kids are always being offered rickshaw rides, bike rides and so on. I come across as crazy when I deny the children those rides. Because I’ll never forget the friend who told me about the driver who often offered to babysit her while her mother worked. He’d keep her in his lap and let her pretend she was driving. All the while, his hand under her dress. From a distance, her mother would look out of the kitchen window and see her daughter safe in the driver’s lap and the driver would wave cheerfully and nod reassuringly. Or the friend who was brought home from school on a bike by a neighbour who was picking his niece up everyday too. It solved her parents’ problem of getting her a rickshaw home and they stayed blissfully unaware of him rubbing himself against her back.
We were all children and as innocent as they come. And yet we all realised that something wrong was going on. Something we couldn’t explain, but instinctively knew was wrong. Can we protect our children at all times? No. But we can ensure that we avoid situations that are ripe for molestation. At this point I must point out that I am equally worried about the Brat and I don’t believe it is only little girls at risk.
For years my parents have struggled with the knowledge that their precious child was molested on their watch, in their home. By someone they trusted and employed. I told them years later and I think they were in denial for a long while. My father has a way of making jokes about my paranoia and my mother just clams up. I realise that is their way of dealing with it. But the information has been passed on and processed and they do the best they can to work with me. It goes against their basic nature because they are simple, trusting folks who believe that the world is good to good people. Try telling that to a 6 year old who was molested.
Other than the business staff, Nanna-G’Pa always have young guys working in the house, basically a few odd jobs, grab a cycle and pick up the bread and milk, watch over the gate, pour a drink if there are guests. It works for them because they are just an older couple with no one at risk. But each time we’d go home I’d have palpitations. Mostly because the kids are very friendly and throw themselves at anyone who offers to play rough and tumble with them. I’d run myself ragged keeping an eye on one child who is playing with the dogs and another who is crawling under the Grand Piano with one of the guys, pretending it is a lion’s den. And the more I try and tell the kids not to throw themselves on bhaiya’s back or roll on the carpet with him, the more they tend to do it. So I now lay off and simply sit there with a book, watching over them.
This year Nanna took over. I left them there for the session break and Nanna didn’t sleep a single afternoon, watching over her precious Bean who took to one of the Bhaiyas and insisted on hanging on to his back and playing with him all afternoon. So Nanna sat there with a book, one eye on the child, letting her have her fun, doing her duty.
I’m sorry I lost my innocence and I am sorry my parents lost their trust in the inherent goodness of people. But on the bright side, we’re working together to protect my children and ensure that never again is a child from our home touched inappropriately. I know they need to learn good touch and bad touch and I do try to teach them, but with maids coming and going and school maids and what not, its very difficult to teach a child something while retaining that kernel of trust and innocence. They might be over protected till age 14, but at least by then they will be clear on the concepts of strangers and good and bad touch – no scope for misunderstanding.
The thing with molestation is that the consequences spread like a ripples widening when a pebble is tossed into a pond. It has reached a stage where I will not leave my children with a stranger and where I talk to every parent I can (even if it makes for a few awkward moments), about my own experience, urging them to trust few. A few quick precautions I take (there will be other, better researched posts on the matter coming up in the month ahead) with the kids.
– Don’t push your child to hug or kiss visitors, be they friends or family. A simple hello should suffice. Insisting that they allow strangers to touch them makes it difficult for the child to draw the line when they are uncomfortable or trust their gut and easy for a stranger to cop a feel.
– Never encourage games of hide and seek or dark room etc with children who are older and will be able to force themselves on younger ones.
– Drop in unannounced if the children are with otherwise trusted people in another part of the house/garden. It’s always best to keep an eye no matter how trusted people are.
– Safety in numbers. If I have to leave the children with a driver – I ensure that a maid or someone else goes along. This could backfire badly but it is safer than them being alone with one bad apple. If there is no maid available I take the day off from work and shuttle them around.
– Teach your child to say No, if they don’t like something being done to them, no matter how innocent. And please honour that No so that the child builds up their confidence to say it.
– Also, remember, there is no shame. When we were picking our topics for this blogathon, I figured that the best thing I could do for the cause was come right out and say, Yes, I’ve been a victim and I am fine, thank you (something I had shut away on the old blog). We’re not the ones who should be ashamed. The perpetrators are. Those who have survived and can smile, are heroes in my eyes.
EDITED TO ADD: This very good point from Itisha (who shut down her wonderful blog) – Ensure that you tell your children that “Mama and Dada and are very strong. Nobody can do anything to them. Nobody can hurt them, no matter what you are told.” Because many children who have been molested have been told that if they tell, their parents will be harmed, killed or something will be done to their parents. And many don’t tell because they believe it.
I also hope this initiative that my post is kicking off today will widen like ripples in a pond. For the rest of this month we’re doing a series of posts on Child Sexual Abuse Awareness across our blogs. I urge you to spread the word and reach out to as many people as possible and help protect our children. Thank you.
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