The last few years of my life haven’t been whimsical. In all honesty, they have a different story to tell. I’m 24 now, a lot more mature, open & saner than the last I thought I was & courageous enough to acknowledge life in its sheer & naked form to the world. In all my years of growing up, being who I am atomically, along with the crests of happiness, I’ve had troughs of extreme heartbreaks. Life caught up & I grew up into a rebellious, fiercely independent & ridiculously emotional woman. Today, a question I’ve always pondered upon rings louder than ever.
“Are you a #Survivor or a #Fighter ?!”
Sometimes I go sit in a corner by them yellow fairy lights, shut my eyes & reminisce the most painful memory I’ve unnecessarily treasured at the back of my head, relive it & wipe the tears that fall. I don’t enjoy self inflicted pain but what I do salute is the Phoenix who rose from the ashes that burnt her soul. Remembering the burn thus taught me to bare my scars & wear them like medals & nonchalantly gears me up for the next lava bomb life plans to fling at my face. Survivor ?! No! Not really. Because I really haven’t survived any of it at all. I’ve lost many times, hopelessly and helplessly, and screamed out aloud. But what mattered then, now and will evermore is the fact that I give it my best fight, each time, every time. I patiently remember the wound, I bleed profusely & I stitch it up on my own. It’s a forgiving cycle. So am I a fighter?! Yes, #IAmAFighter !! Because whether I lose or win, the fight is inevitable & that’s where you will see me dance effusively. But know what the best part is? It’s not just me who’s in this beautiful mess. It’s YOU as well! I’ve had the privilege of knowing, interacting, befriending & reliving some indestructible souls, most of them women, thanks to our Indian society where the ultimate brunt is always borne by the pounded vagina. These great women have fought rape, blackmail, abortion & some of the everyday unthinkable & emerged a whole, unscathed & chaste in body, mind & soul, continuously fighting out their demons till date. Their stories are yours & mine. Hence, this one’s for these bravehearts, for YOU & for myself !!
#IAmAFighter series was shot at my home in Kerala, against the monsoon-kissed dusk light, in Amma’s timeless black Uppada Silk saree, carelessly draped over myself, a round red bindi on my forehead, kohl smudged eyes and wild curly hair to enhance the fierce minimalism I intend to portray . To write #her story is to relive the abysmal fear and pain on my own, knowingly and patiently and articulate it with great compassion. It takes endurance, tolerance and courage and it certainly seems to be taking a toll on me. But nevertheless, what’s worth it, is worth it all ; for I know that YOU are a fighter, and I do not want you to give up . Not now, not later; Never !! .
* 5 women * 5 stories *
“It’s a crucial interview. I need my lucky charm. Send me your picture, beautiful !!”, he fussed adorably. I giggled at the text, indulging in his remarks until a chill went up my spine.
“Please. NO!”,I cried to myself but before I knew it my knees grew weak, my body temperature shot up & I fell down to the ground, my head splitting open amidst my blood curdling eyes, reliving the terror yet again.
“Send me a picture, pretty face! ”
The voice of a teenage boy, a friend, echoed sharp in my head. That’s where it all began!!
“Here you go! “. A 14-year old me sent the picture of my smiling face through my webcam after putting on some lip balm.
“How pretty are you, Aleena?! WOW”
I blushed. Yahoo messenger notified me that he’s still typing. I really liked him. He was smart, witty, good looking & the stud of the school. We’ve been dating for a year now. He always got the butterflies in my stomach hyper-excited.
“I like your tee-shirt”
“Thank you. I love it too. Dad got it for me when….”
“But I like you more. Take it off, babe ?!”
“Hey c’mon Aleena. It’s me. Like I don’t know how pretty you are beneath those clothes. Remember how we made out behind the auditorium?!”
“Haha.Yeah!”,I was confused.
“Take it off. C’mon now. I’ll send you my picture. You’re next!”
“But I don’t want to.”
A picture of him shirtless with the trace of chest hair on a well-built frame came into my inbox. I swooned but I did not want to send him a picture.
“Love,I don’t want to take a picture. I can’t….”
“Hey. You have my picture now. Don’t be a bitch !”,I could tell he was losing his temper. I hated the fights that followed. He’s my boyfriend and what’s wrong in a picture?! “Hold on, you impatient thing!”,I flirted, taking off my tee-shirt & trying to take a picture looking comfortable in a sports bra. I put my tee back on almost immediately and looked at the picture.”I look great”, I thought to myself though I wished I had a bigger bossom like the other girls in my class.
“Send it babe,I can’t wait!”
I waited a good one minute over the send button next to the image. What could possible go wrong?! My boyfriend’s going to love it. It’s JUST a picture!
I clicked on the send button unable to hear myself think amidst his intimidating demeanor.
The pain was at its peak now. If only I could have NOT clicked. If only life excused me of that very fraction of a second I did.
“WOW!! You’re so hot, baby.” Before my blush surfaced I was taken aback by what followed. “Take your bra off right now and send me more!”
“Are you crazy?!I’m not doing that!”
“Do you want your dad to see you in a bra?! Shall I mail him this picture you just sent me? !”
The fear was real. I’ve never known it before. And the shock was petrifying.
“Send me your naked photo or else I’m mailing your dad this picture or I’ll put it up on orkut!”
I wished I could wake up from this terrible nightmare. I didn’t want this. I didn’t mean this. How can I undo it? What do I do? Can I call my dad? I feel scared. I want to talk to my mother.
My terror was interrupted by my landline screeching. It was him!! I didn’t pick up. He kept calling. 2 missed calls. 3. 4.
“I’m mailing your father! “, the dreaded message pinged.
I immediately called him back, shuddering and trembling in disbelief . There was no crying, there were no tears. “Please don’t do this. I’m your girlfriend. Please? !”, I begged and pleaded.
At the back of my head my mom and dad’s voices kept ringing.
” We trust you to not do anything stupid, Aleena”.
“Never stoop low to anyone, Aleena”.
“There’s no problem in the world mom and dad can’t fix, Aleena”.
“Please don’t hide anything from us. We’re always there for you, Aleena”.
“Send me your naked picture right now. I am mailing your father otherwise! I hope you know he’s a chronic heart patient! You don’t want to kill your own father now, do you?!
That was it. Dad’s 5 cardiac grafts took its toll on me. I knew I was sold to him that very moment. Sold!!
I sent him a picture. The pixels could tell there was no soul in the body it embodied. “Come home tomorrow, babe! “, he said. I did.
4 years. FOUR !! All the abuse, physical mental and psychological nested in me. It grew in me like a disease. I was handicapped without a soul to call for help. I couldn’t trust my own shadow. I succumbed to depression. I became suicidal. To temporarily black out because cutting my vein was attempted and was too painful, I used to choke myself with aluminum wires my sister used for her craft work. To escape was the idea.
From the topper in class to a sudden plunge to the 30s, I had everybody talking about me. My health took a devastating turn with sleeping disorders along with my depressed bouts. The fellow 17-year old boy who kept having flings with every other girl around still showed no mercy. He claimed to only love me however. And that was scarily true. It was a psychotic addiction I grew to be fond of, or so because I didn’t have any other option. It was terror in its numbing avatar.
My heartbroken parents enrolled me into the best of colleges post school with their money, institutions I was sure to conquer on my own merit. He kept in touch, like a ghost.
“NO. I WILL NOT!!”
Four and a half years later, I decided to fight. Don’t ask me how, I just did, like an impulse.
“What nonsense?! You want me to..”
“I dare you!!”, I cut the call.
I stood there in the abyss. He called. I cut. He called again. I cut again. I blocked him from all media. I patiently waited for his move as I contemplated telling my parents everything.
I couldn’t survive the dilemma. I never told my parents. I just kept waiting for him to make his nasty move all through these years while I kept fighting the biting fear, day in and day out.
7 years later, I get a mail from a corporate account.
I’ve deleted all that I have of you. I was an immature wreck then. It’s too late for an apology or to ask for forgiveness. I wish you the best in life. You’re a beautiful woman. Stay so.
I didn’t reply. I wish he knew I’d forgiven him a long time ago. Age and the maturity it brings along helps you understand things better as time heals wounds . The fight continues, however. All day, everyday !!
“It’s a crucial interview. I need my lucky charm. Send me your picture, beautiful !!”
I got up and washed my face. A confident 26-year old lady looked back through the mirror into my eyes that wore years of struggle. I smiled at my phone buzzing with the restless pings of a nervous man who pledged to treat me right all our life. “Your past doesn’t make you. Let it not break you”, he had said the time I opened up about myself, my “real” self, years ago. It was time to stop running after all.
I dabbed some lip-balm and smiled for the camera.
“I hope this does the magic”
I texted him along with the picture.
“Yes it will, Al ! I Love you. Gotta go. See you soon”
I smiled and put my phone aside and went on to tend to the daily chores .
That’s the beauty of life. It goes on ….
“Neha, you may answer the call. It looks urgent !!”, the boss abruptly exclaimed amidst the meeting, looking concerned at the relentless buzzing of my phone . ‘Neha Jr’ with a picture of a 13 year old girl in a pretty pink dress kept flashing. That’s what Nia stored her name as.
” Silly little one of mine”, I thought to myself, trying to distract myself from the reality I was trying to shun. I knew why she was calling and as much as I love her, I just didn’t want to hear what she was going to say. Not again. Not anymore.
“Yes Sir. Thank you. Excuse me, everyone “, I walked out of the meeting with my sweaty hands clinging the phone .
“Didi, please vaapas aajao. Please, Didi. Mum and dad are fighting way too much. They’re screaming Didi. Ma flung crockery and broke everything . Dad almost beat her. I really don’t know what to do. I don’t even under…”,
The same things, again. I noticed she was whispering . She keeps locking herself in her bathroom because that’s the only peaceful place. I could tell she’s been crying for hours. “Nia. Calm down now. Please ?!” , I uttered for the thousandth time, so lifeless that it sounded hollow to me.
” Why do they fight so much, Didi ? I dont understand anything !!”
” I don’t know either, Nia”, I lied.
” Thanks for hearing me out. I love you. Goodnight !”
The message to an unknown number in Ma’s phone read. Confused and conscious of the suspicion kicking in, I involuntarily scrolled up the chat thread.
It was like reading through Mom’s diary. She sounded happy. There was excitement in her language. She frolicked like a little girl about the daily things in her life . All that seemingly remained absent in who she is now, it was in an electronic text format , all sent to this unknown number, an unknown man.
Fury raged through my veins. I made a conscious effort to not throw the phone away. I sat down so that I wouldn’t barge into the hall where I would find mom. I bit the pillow so that my wails wouldn’t reach dad in the next room.
MA IS HAVING AN AFFAIR !!
The truth hit me like a bullet, stuck inside my brain.
After 10 minutes of contemplating the ruins of my family, I opened her chat thread again, shamelessly. Their conversations dated back to more than a year. Amidst the tears blinding my vision, I tried to search for a name. And as much as I dreaded it, I found one. “PHILLY UNCLE ?! ”
I almost died. Philip , addressed as Phil , fondly known to Nia & I as Philly uncle used to be Ma’s neighbour all through her childhood. He was a family friend and a warm gentleman but nothing mattered anymore.” How could he do this to us ?! “, I kept crying. I kept trying to recollect every single thing Ma ever mentioned about him. There was this one time when I was talking to Ma about my school boyfriend and I asked her whether she has ever had one, she had mentioned how Philly Uncle loved her for years and wanted to marry her but the families didn’t agree because of the difference in religion . I remember asking her whether she liked him but I somehow couldn’t recollect her reply because of the panic attack I was under. I got up with clenched teeth and a fuming face, walked straight up to dad with the phone in my hand. Hatred engulfed me.
” Hey listen. I came back early from work and cooked your favourite chicken stew and steam rice.”, my mom stood in front of dad , explaining her day .
” YOU’RE A LIAR !! “, I wanted to scream .And I would have but something caught hold of my outrage. My dad kept reading the newspaper in his hands, not even looking at her or even acknowledging what she was saying.
” Are you listening ?! I even made gulab jamun for you “, she continued while setting up the table along with Nia.
Indifference shone on dad’s face . Or maybe that was his face because I’ve never known it otherwise. Like a lightning bolt hit me, it all suddenly started making sense.
My father is the greatest man on earth. Perhaps not the greatest husband however. All through my years of growing up, I’ve wondered how Ma put up with dad through thick and thin of his whims and fancies. 28 years they’d survived the marriage with explosive outbursts of anger and ego; but they kept surviving. He was difficult and impossible and blatantly takes Ma for granted. And Nia and I cared way too less, because he was a great father, loving , humourous and available.
And here I stood, thinking my mother was selfish to the core.
My head was bursting. I stood there looking at mom. She’s a beautiful woman in her early 40s , curly hair sweeping the sides of her face and dewy skin that is always lit with her bright smile. I kept wondering if dad ever told her how beautiful she is. But Philly Uncle did !! Her eyes were worn out; she hasn’t been sleeping ? I wondered if dad ever looked into those enigmatic eyes long enough to understand her. But Philly Uncle did !! The talkative mother kept on yapping about her day at work, her clients, the weather, her aching feet ,the servant’s mood swings and everything under the sun to my father who was deaf to her . But Philly Uncle did !! And a lot more that Philly Uncle did for my mother as I was clinging on to the very same proof.
It suddenly dawned on me that my mother, this selfless unconditional woman who practically made a home for 3 other living beings spent more than 2 decades of her life loving a husband who didn’t love her back at all. Of course papa cared. But is care what love is ??!! Isn’t love more than just ” Did you have food ?! “, ” Let’s invest in this new apartment ” , ” I’ve renewed your health insurance ?!” and so on ? Ma is the cook, a source of income, a mother, a responsibility and a listener.
But is that it ?! How could I have not seen this all along ?! How did she even hold on for 28 years ?! Doesn’t she as an individual deserve more and better ?! Why didn’t she walk away till date ?! What was she still holding on to ?!
I could feel my brain bleeding.
” I’m going back to college tomorrow !! “, I screamed at the top of my voice. Mum dad and Nia looked up.
” Neha, why are you crying ?!” , Ma came running close. Though I could see a little reason into the impending destruction I was holding on to , I was still not ready to face it.
” I’ve an urgent survey and submission to make. I’m booking my tickets !” .
” Okay . Use my card and let me know when to drop you !”, said dad and continued reading the paper.
” But Didi !!”, Nia started to fuss.
” Neha please stay for a week more ?! I had planned to take you ..”
” Here’s your phone. I’d taken it to call my phone because I couldn’t find it in the bedroom” , I handed the phone to her and walked away.
I could tell she quickly unlocked the phone to find her chat thread with Philly Uncle open because she stopped calling out my name or even trying to ask me to not return to college.
The next day I left home.
I was helpless. I couldn’t let my mother go. I can’t let my family split. I can’t see my mother unhappy. I didn’t want to see the reason for her happiness now. Running away was the best thing. I knew the affair would continue. So did mum and dad’s fights and bouts of silence. One day, it will crack open, and I didn’t want to be there to witness it when it does. And so, I ran away.
Years passed. I only went home few times a year. I couldn’t live without seeing them. Ma meant everything. So did Papa. And little Nia . And all along I remained shut of my mother’s affair with another man. It’s a terrible thing to do to yourself.
Was I cheating my father ?! Was I saving my family ?! Was I helping my mother be happy ?! Was I being a hypocrite ?!
I had answers to none. Off lately, Ma’s been going through a tough time with health and papa’s cruel indifference has been bothering her way too much. Also because I knew Philly Uncle had moved back to Pune .
Nia has been petrified being a mute witness to the hullabaloo at home and she couldn’t take it either. She wanted her Didi, who’s been running away from the truth of it all for 8 years, to go back home and fix things. I wish I could tell her how big a coward her elder sister is.
” Didi. Please ?! “, she kept crying over the phone. I just couldn’t take it any longer.
I cut the call and switched my phone off. I sat in the office washroom.
” Ma. As much as you and I’ve dreaded this day , it has come. I know you know that I know about you and him. You haven’t confronted me inspite of knowing the fact that I’ve seen it all because you probably think I hate you. You even hesitated to call me back home more often because you were scared I would confront you instead. But what you don’t know is the fact that I UNDERSTAND YOU MA. And I DON’T hate you, blame you or hold you responsible for our cacophonic home. But this can’t go on !! Because this isn’t right either. You have to take a call, a tough one, a brave one. It’s your life and at the end of the day , only you matter. Nia and I will grow up and go on with our lives though we’re always going to be there for you. Papa and you ought to fix this together .But if Papa can’t treat you right or isn’t even ready to try , I don’t think you should stay anymore. Go. Be happy. You owe us nothing! You’ve been strong enough to hold on through 28 years. Now I want you to be strong enough to either let go or be held . I want you to be selfish, Ma. Simply because you deserve it. Also because I want to stop running and I want to come back to you more often. I trust you, Ma. I really do. I’ve realized as much as I’ve needed a friend to talk to about all of this desperate but deliberate resort you’ve taken, you need a friend as well. I’m coming home, Ma. Let’s get things right. Together !! “
For the first time in years, I confronted my fear and articulated what I’ve concluded from it all and had a conversation to myself. I immediately booked my ticket to Pune.
It was time for the world to acknowledge a woman’s soul filled with gaping holes. It was time for a wife to be loved. It was time to stitch up my mother’s wounds. It was time for those to heal. It was time, after all !!
“Shmiiiiii …”, the toddler kept giggling and calling out to me in his baby tongue. His mother who I just befriended, a warm lady in her early 30s tells me that he fancies the black mole on my chin and seemingly wanted to touch and play with it as I kept making puffed cheek faces at him. We had all boarded the flight to Singapore from Bangalore after our Christmas break. I couldn’t wait to get back to the piled up work pending for the summer fashion week that was coming up real soon. But it was a 2 hour flight anyway. So why not play with the little cutie who has my heart already .
“Children are always so fond of you Lakshmi . It’s such a treat to the eyes.”, my friends used to keep telling me. Amidst making faces and him pointing at my mole and giggling, baby Juan suddenly threw his arms open and reached out to me.
As his adorable shenanigans took those aboard and around on a delightful note, a terrifying chill shot up my spine and I froze like I turned into stone, stiff, pale and cold. I went back in time, yet again.
” Lakshmi ?! …. Lakshmi ?! ” , I slowly opened my bloodshot eyes to the sobbing cries of my mother. I felt the prick on my left-hand and found myself attached to a saline drip.
” I’m in a hospital !”
On looking around I found my anxious father, sister and brother all looking at me painfully through the glass wall of the isolated room I was admitted in. My vision was dazed, my body, exhausted and my head splitting with excruciating pain.
I close my eyes again and try to remember what went so terribly wrong.
” This will hurt only a little Lakshmi. Don’t worry , okay ?! “, I recollected Dr. Shehza reassuring me before the nurse put the bite block in my mouth and strapped my arms and feet to the chair . Fear crept in and before I slipped into an outburst, the 2 poles on either side of my head electrocuted the remains of a woman filled with remorse.
” You underwent shock treatment , Lakshmi !! ” , my mother cried while sweeping my hair off my face. “They said it will make you better !! It was the last and only option we had” .
My eyes still shut and bleeding tears by the sides, I tried recalling how impossible I’ve been. We tried counselors, rehabilitation, supervision and everything possible. But the only solution to control my bouts of anxiety and trauma was massive voltage. Amidst hallucinating the crying of babies and killing them with my own hands and consequentially behaving wildly , at the back of my head I always had a sub-conscious self calling out to me and trying to pull me out of the grave I dug for myself.
Muhammad and I were in love. The crazy, stupid kind of love I fell in right from the time I picked up an anonymous phone call in Std 9 and agreed to befriend the then 19-year boy who made the call. My friends were against it and called it dangerous. But I found a listener in him and I started to date him. It was all through the phone and say a couple of meets in 2 years. However, religious, cultural and economic differences set us apart and we split when he left for the middle-east to make money as his lack of education coupled with the financial strain at home didn’t leave him an option in India. He kept trying to call and get back but I couldn’t deal with the pressure of an impending heartbreak if I continued my relationship with him. As maturity struck, I kept asking myself, ” Why did you ever entertain a stranger over such a phone call in the first place ?!”. I was stupid !!
I got into my dream college, NID, Ahmedabad and took off to pursue my design dreams. I dated a senior for a while until I realized he was cheating on me. So I let that go too. I wasn’t very heartbroken or anything. I’ve always been independent and focused on myself and my career post the first heartbreak. Infatuations and dating only meant a little in life. Until one day, as fate had it, I bump into Muhammad !!
The crazy, stupid love I once had for him bounced back with a much rebellious intensity. He seemed to reciprocate just the same as well . Perhaps more !! I loved loving and being loved. He still managed to crack me open and get me guffawing at his quirks and rhetoric. A year filled with zealous young love and then things took a different drastic course. I was in my 3rd year, 20 years old and him, a driver for a travel agency; he was 28 years old. Marriage discussions at his house took a meteoric pace. Despite all the myriad differences , we decided to give it a shot.
He came home to meet my dad who was apprehensive about the daring plunge I was willing to take . He was sure to talk me out of it, but he agreed to meet him to give me a fair chance at it. While talking, Muhammad set his demands which were not materialistic but weighed down my freedom to work and remain a Hindu. I was appalled , so was my family. Voices grew louder and talks became nasty. He walked out on my family and I shut myself for 2 days. I returned to college and tried getting over him and past our relationship. It was terrible already. But Murphy’s Law wouldn’t spare me just yet .
” YOU ARE PREGNANT !!”
My roommate uttered with shock , holding on to the pregnancy test stick which had my urine sample, 2 pink lines flashing in front of my face. I fainted immediately. Amidst the change of events, I had forgotten to notice that I had missed a month’s period already. I decided to take the test just to be sure before consulting a doctor. But this was too much for me to bear. As I regained consciousness , I had my roommate trying to console me frantically and fretting over what has to be done next.
” I am pregnant with Muhammad’s child !! ”
The shock took time to set in. Once it did, regret, a phenomenon I’ve loathed and ruled out of my ideal life cast its ominous shadow over my happiness.
My sister and brother flew down to Ahmedabad and took me home and took control of my terrified self and our parents. I secretly informed Muhammad and expected him to sort it all out but he stood firmly by his demands upon marriage. I didn’t have any heart left for due rage. All I had was a baby inside me. An abortion was my only choice and chance at life. From judging and mocking those silly stupid women who don’t indulge in protected sex , I became one of them , and I aborted our 3 month old baby. I secretly cried every night for what I put myself and my family through. In 2 weeks I got back to college, hollow and life-less.
The same night, I got back to the college hostel, facing stares and glares, drowned in speculations and rumours. That night, I woke up sweating and screaming. Jane, my roommate, still by side, calming me down. I had a nightmare, something I didn’t remember. I went back to bed but barely slept. The next day the same thing happened and the next and the next and the next. As more and more days passed by, the cries of babies and me trying to strangle them haunted me in my nightmares. I developed insomnia, eating disorders, subsequential weight loss and depression. I didn’t tell home because I didn’t want to stress them out all the more. But I knowingly became a numb victim to the dawn of my sane self and witnessed the beginning of my close.
Soon, hallucinations became a reality and I was surrounded by the ghosts of the little one, MY little one !!
The guilt engulfed me and grew within me like a parasite. It choked me day in and day out and I kept shaking my head and suppressing the haunting things I could see with my eyes, both open and close. There was no escape, there was no running away. And then one day, I reached a tipping point and the reactions to the fear that took shape and roared around me were beyond my control. My outburst came out while I was eating at my hostel mess surrounded by my friends and others and it had consequences. I was taken back home immediately and kept under observation . My conditions did not improve. It worsened over a span of 3 months. Family, friends, psychologists and counselors tried and failed. I don’t even remember it all clearly. Just enough dirty blotches to join and make a legitimate flow. My family was heartbroken seeing me in this state. The last I remembered before the voltage jammed my neurons was a kind lady , Dr.Shehza at NIMHANS, Bangalore.
Weeks passed. Hallucinations stopped, thanks to those sedations. The nightmares did too. But so did the dreams. My sister got my credits transferred to a fashion firm in Bangalore where she was working so that she could take care of me and we could stay together whilst I finished off my pending project and complete my degree. Life slowly moved on, like a snail at first but gradually kept picking up speed. I had supportive friends around me, new ones who didn’t know how bubbly I used to be. So they accepted me for the quiet introvert I became. The guilt never left however, it tugged on like a nerve controlling my heartbeat with every pump of blood reminding me of the past . I graduated and got a job in Bangalore itself and started working there, peacefully. Muhammad who got to know about my health condition and transfer via a mutual got in touch with me. He sympathized and was ready for the marriage , promising me that we can work upon the differences. I had no love left for him however. I had no love left in me at all. The guilt in me saw this as the only way I could repay back a debt I owed myself ,of our lost baby’s . Bewildered and not willing to break myself one more time , I dialed up an old school friend who I hoped to God might have a solution for my butchered self.
” Lakshmi, you brave woman !! You owe Muhammad nothing; you owe your baby nothing; you owe your family nothing; you owe the world nothing. The only living being you owe anything at all is YOURSELF !! Look at you, Lakshmi. You are the girl from school who my crush had a crush on. You are my bench-mate who had the best handwriting of all. You are the friend who stood by me through my wrecked heartbreak. You are the daughter my parents wish they had. You are the dancer who lit the stage bright at every gala. You are the achiever who chased your designing dreams down. You are the senior who all the children adore and admire. You are EVERYTHING that is brave, compassionate, kind, loving and strong. In aborting your child you’ve made a decision so brave , I salute you for the same. Motherhood is a choice. It is not something that comes on a unicorn’s saddle, sliding down a rainbow. It is a carefully planned and prepared choice. And the carelessness of your age and fate led to a consequence which you bravely faced. But you didn’t succumb to it and make yours and your child’s future bleak. You were strong enough to right the wrong . And you owe yourself a treat, Lakshmi. You really do !! If you love Muhammad , go ahead. I stopped you back in school. But I won’t stop you today because you’re a mature woman of 25. But if there’s no love, don’t !! Because life and you are too beautiful to settle down for anything less than the best. Love will come again, someone who would want to know what makes and breaks you only do that he can make sure that you’re never broken again. Never.
So stop burdening yourself with your self-proclaimed punishments. You need to get up, get a haircut and run this world. Once you believe you can, the world will believe you can; once again . You’re a Hero !! Because inspite of going through all this, you’re still standing strong and upright at the other end of the line and I’ve never been prouder of eating out of your tiffin or plucking those loose hair strands and infuriating you. I can’t believe you took so long to call me up in the first place.
GO NOW !! GET A HAIRCUT !! ”
” Shmiiii…. Shmiiiii….”, the toddler kept fussing and throwing his cute tantrums.
” Hey Lakshmi !! Are you alright ?! You seem to have zoned out. And you’re sweating. Are you okay ?”, baby Juan’s mother offered me some water.
I jolted back up with a silent prayer, drank 2 sips and lifted the little monster joyously and ensured he was laughing out aloud , filling the mundane aircraft with baby giggles until we reached Singapore.
Oh and I forgot to mention.
I got that haircut my friend Chris kept ranting about !! I moved to Singapore permanently. I work as the Head of Production at the prestigious ‘Michelle’, a luxury haute couture brand based in Singapore . I also fell in love again as hope promised me. The man Chris promised I would find, well, he found me. Shreyas and I , we embrace our dreams and demons together thereafter. We’re getting married this year end. I want you to pray for me. And also forgive yourself for me. And just one more thing; I also want you to know that if I can survive, so can you !!
Rehan yelled with fury bleeding through his eyes, his teeth clenched and his nerves strained.
“ROY UNCLE MOLESTED YOU?!”
It was easier to believe when he saw it in the movies or read about it from the papers ; not as much when your little sister tells you the haunting truth that has been tormenting her for the last 8 years.
“Fiza, speak to me !! I need to know how to help you .”, he hugged me and I burst out crying.
“Re. Come back home immediately. Things are terrible here”, my younger sister’s message made no sense to Rehan. But he took the next flight out of Dubai and landed home this morning to a distraught household; his mother, father, aunt and 2 sisters writhing in anger and agony.
“Speak to me, Fiza. Please just tell me what’s going on !!”
Rehan, Zeba and I made the perfect three children to 2 working parents, mischievous enough to drive them and the neighbourhood crazy. Rehan was 2 years older to me and Zeba was 5 years younger. We moved in to our home in Delhi from Dubai as dad had a project to complete. I was 9 years old then. We weren’t all that unhappy about shifting because Ma’s sister and her husband who just got married the then previous year moved into our same neighbourhood. Roy uncle and Shaana aunty were fun-filled to the core and adored the three of us. Mum and dad resumed work and enrolled us into school. I however did not get a seat in the morning shift like Rehan and Zeba and had to opt for the evening shift. There would be noone at home to take care of a difficult brat and that was of utmost concern to my parents.
“She can stay with us, Di. Roy can drop her off to school on his way to work as well. He has an afternoon shift too”, Shaana aunty consoled a worried mom. I remember being extremely happy about it. Roy uncle always said the funniest jokes and played interesting games.
“INTERESTING GAMES!!“, I pricked myself.
“Stop crying and speak to me, Fiza !!”, Rehan was furious. I was holding it in for way too long. I needed a trustworthy vent. I wiped my face and took a hold of my 20-year old self.I decided to break it down to my big brother.
I was eagerly looking forward to Std 4. The thought of new friends and new teachers excited me. On top of all, I’d be spending my mornings with Roy Uncle and he would drop me to school. ” I will ask him to buy me golas everyday !!”, I told myself when I overheard Shaana Aunty tell Ma that Roy uncle will look after me in the mornings.
Regular life took course and my mornings with Roy Uncle were the most eventful. He would give me chocolates, help me with homework, tell me funny jokes and also play with me .
One such day,
“Hey Fiza. Want to play a game ?!”, he called out from the bedroom. ” Yaaaaaaay “, I remember flying into the room and I jumped on him. “Do you like horses?!”, he asked putting me on the floor. ” Yes Yes”, I kept galloping around him.
“Haha. Okay then. Let’s go on a horse ride !!”.
I stood in front of him ,turning my back against him, as instructed and he placed me on his feet , holding my hands. He jolted me up and down and made the trotting sound with occasional neighs that enthralled me all the more. I was leaping up in joy with my childish giggles filling the room when all of a sudden, he made me sit on his lap and continued the diabolic horse ride.
” Lesson No 1. Never sit on anybody’s lap. Be it family or a stranger. “, I remembered Ma instructing both her daughters.
Before I could recollect it entirely, his fun filled onomatopoeia started fading out and I started feeling uncomfortable as I was kept being pressed against something hard on his lap.
“Roy Uncle. Can you please stop?!”, I quivered. I tried looking back but he held me tight , his arms wrapped around my school uniform. There was no galloping horse anymore. Just the sound of his heavy breathing and my discomfort.
“Shhhh Fiza. You wanted to play it. Just enjoy the horsey’s ride now”, he whispered into my ear, his grip alarming.
“Please Roy Uncle. I don’t want to play this anymore.”. I could hear the sound of unzipping . I could feel my boy-shorts pulled down and before I could say anymore, I had his palm gagging me with my own deafening screams echoing in my head.
// I was fingered. I was played with. I was pounded. I was stripped naked . I was exploited. I was spanked. I was groped. I WAS 9 YEARS OLD !! //
” Fiza baby. How are you feeling now ? Better ?”, Ma handed over a glass of juice. I had blacked out amidst the dry humping.
“Roy brought you home. Said you must have fainted because you did not have a proper breakfast. I’m going to be very strict henceforth. 2 bananas are a must and you will also drink the mil….”
I was deaf to my mother’s rant. I did not even know whether what he did to me was wrong or right or allowed or legal. All I knew was that I felt dirty from the inside and outside, the kind of abominable dirt that can’t just be washed away. There was one more entity that took shape in me and took my soul’s place. It was guilt, sheer humiliating guilt !! The guilt of letting it happen though I did what I could . Or didn’t I ? What would Ma think of me ? What about Shaana Aunty ? Would dad beat him ? What about little Zeba ? What do I tell my school friends ? Won’t Rehan kill me ? A million questions kept badgering my brain. I slept off that day.
The next day morning, Ma woke me up for school . My insides were sore and I had blood stains on my underwear. ” Is this the period Ma has been talking about ?”, I was doubtful. “What if it’s not ? What if it’s just him ?!”, I cried bitterly in the bathroom. ” Come Fiza you’re getting late. I have to drop you off at Roy’s”, Ma shouted my most dreaded fear.
I came out running and hugged Ma and started crying. ” Ma please. I don’t want to go !!”
” Why do you not want to go to school Fiza? Don’t throw pranks now. Either way I’ve to drop you off at Roy’s. Come.”
“Ma please. Please I don’t want to go” I kept crying relentlessly. I couldn’t just put it into words. I expected Ma to understand. I prayed that she would !!
” What happened Fiza?! Anything you want to tell me ?! What’s happening at school ?!
“Its not the school Ma”
” Then what happened child ?!”
Ma was so upset already. How would I tell her what happened ? Unfathomable guilt turned me mute. I just kept sobbing !!
Ma dropped me off at Roy Uncle’s place. I remember the smile on his face . And the games he played; in the shower, on the bed, while I slept, while I was awake. It became a daily routine for 3 years. My teachers were constantly worried about me being drowsy and exhausted for school and also my disinterest to play games during PT. They kept discussing with my parents who kept asking me day in and day out what was bothering me . By the time I was in 8th grade, the idea of life was skewed, the idea of love was skewed, the idea of men were skewed, the idea of my dignity was skewed. But I couldn’t go on with it.
I took up playing tennis and tuitions in the mornings before school . The sport and my other engagements kept my fight controlled and restricted the anger to myself. Also, this way I avoided my times with Roy alone. I only had to bear with him coming home or us going to theirs. Years passed and so did the guilt. I got into a college in Bangalore and Rehan started working in Dubai and I grew up to be a rebellious fighter for the meek though I couldn’t dare say a word about my torturous childhood.
I just kept the matter shut thinking about kind Shaana aunty and the 2 families that would often spend a seemingly merry time with each other.
Few years later at one such rendezvous , “Shaana . Zeba will be in 8th grade this year and we’ve changed her school to a better one. But again, it’s an afternoon shift. So she will …”
“NO !!!”, I screamed .
I knew what would follow. Zeba will have to stay at Roy’s . And I could not even endure the very thought of it. I was red with sweat streaming down. I had even sprung up from my chair in the impulsive moment. I had all eyes on me and a confused Zeba looking at me.
“Fiza ?!”, dad got up to calm me down.
“Zeba will not stay at their house!!”
I uttered it through my clenched teeth looking Roy straight into his cold eyes. “Fiza, what are you saying child ?! What happened ?! You’ve stayed there for years yourself. It’s just the mornings. Why are you over reacting ?!”, Ma tried to control the awkward situation.
” Fiza . Is everything okay ?”, Shaana aunty enquired.
“Didi… tell me !!”, the little one started crying .
“Leave my house right now!!”, I told Roy who knew what was coming at him.
” Don’t speak to your uncle like that !!”, my mom screamed at me.
“Behave yourself Fiza!”, Shaana aunty screeched on the other side of me.
“Fiza is there anything you need to tell us ?!”, dad enquired, knowing that this time was no joke.
“Yes Papa. But ask this man to leave our house right now !!”
Roy got up and left in a hurry, flustered and embarrassed , leaving behind a bewildered Shaana Aunty.
I hugged crying Zeba.
“ I will not let what happened to me happen to you! “, I promised her .
I told the family everything. It was more than what they could take; like I threw a bolt of lightening at them.But it was the dusk of misery. It was over. Well, almost !!
Roy fled for a few months to his hometown. Shaana aunty remained with mom until she felt better. We didn’t file a case because Shaana aunty pleaded as she was trying to fix her marriage with him despite the paedophile he turned out to be. We didn’t have anymore heart left to care for her or anything but our family. Dad and Mom shifted back to Dubai to ease my fights with the terrible memories I’ve had. Never did he know that the place seldom held any, it was all within me, scarred in my veins through all those young years of bloom. .
” So children. Now you know what good touch and bad touch is and how to react to both in the best ways . Yes ?!”
” Yes Ma’am “, Std 3C nodded profusely .
” All you got to do when you’re scared or confused is talk to your mother, father or teacher. Okay ?!”
“Yes Ma’am! “, they smiled at me reassuringly.
“Fiza Ma’am, Namratha of class 3C is here for you.”, the attendant told me whilst I was correcting books in the staff room.
I went out of the staff room to meet a 9-year old Fiza, a little girl with swollen eyes and a nervous stance. “Ma’am.. ” before she could say anything , she hugged me and started crying.
I immediately knew what this was about and I was adamant I would make sure that it won’t happen to her one more time .
“One more little fighter !!“, I thought to myself while listening to how her cousin brother has been molesting her all along . “But this one shall be empowered”, I promised myself and hugged her tight with one hand, trying to convince her that it’s not her fault; with my other hand, dialing her parents up !!
“I wonder how these rape victims survive their own horrifying reality every single moment of their lives !”
I kept my mouth shut. The ongoing lecture on criminal psychology had most of us aggressive and highly opinionated about the heinous existing crimes.
“Imagine getting raped by somebody you know, Lia ?! That must be the worst, yeah ?!”
Prachi, my bench mate went on, unable to control her bouts of frustration on listening to the case studies.
“Yes !!”, I replied. “It is the worst !!”
” Okay Papa. Yeah I’ll turn it off, don’t worry. ” , I tried holding back my giggles with this charming man next to me adamantly trying to kiss me.
“Stop it, Joe!!”
He was fooling around while I was tending to the nervous call of my parents. They had gone out to attend a conference for the weekend and I had invited Joe home. We just started dating 2 weeks back and apart from being a fun friend, he was a celebrated guy in college . I didn’t want to date exactly though . But the idea of a rebound was way too tempting to resist. The last breakup was complicated and exhausting. It was my final year in college anyway.
We had planned a movie marathon with our favourite pepperoni pizza to binge on and some beer. “Joe, man !!”, I gave up to his mischief and cut the call as soon as I could and kissed him for a good ten minutes. “C’mon, let’s watch The Finest Hours ?!”, I sprung excitedly.
“Anything you want, Lia! “, he climbed beside me on the bed and kissed my cheek.
We were an hour into the movie, a large cheese burst pizza and 2 drinks down when I noticed Joe’s cuddles giving out a different vibe; a forceful one !!
“Hey Joe. Watch the movie and let me watch it too , dumdum. Stop feeling me up. Later, that !!”
“I want it now !! Quit watching this stupid movie Lia ”
I was irritated. “What do you mean by you “want” it now ?! We’re taking things slow. Besides, not tonight !!”
We were so new into the relationship that this was probably our first riff. And Joe grew impossible.
“Cut it, babe. I’ve heard how good you are in bed.”, he lifted me and pinned me to the bed. Not knowing which one to react to, I tried loosening from his firm grip. “I don’t want to ask you anything regarding what you just told me. Get off me and leave!”, I was furious. I somehow didn’t see this coming.
” C’mon Lia. Why do you think I’m here, dating you in the final lapse of college if not for sex . Also I know you’ve rushed into it all with Vikram. Why not me ?!”
His words were appalling and his grip, alarming.
He pressed himself on to me and tried to kiss me.
“Get off me Joe. Right now. Else I’m. .”
“What can you possibly do, you bitch ?! I dare you to scream and wake your neighbours up. The world knows you called me home and besides I don’t think your parents would be very approving of your habits now, would they ?!”, he pulled my hair and slapped me while spitting these words. I don’t remember what hurt me more. I didn’t even know he could hurt me more than this.
” Maybe he would just take out his anger and leave. Or maybe he would just let it go. He would break up . He would talk foul about me. Spread stories, perhaps ? He would just make out , maybe . Or he would just say he’s joking and pulling off a prank. “, I comforted myself.
He took his bottle of beer and chugged it down.
” Tonight I will get what I came here for. You can give it to me if you want because I’l be taking what I want anyway!”
” What does he even mean by that ?! Taking what he wants and giving him what he wants?! What in the world are they ?! I don’t have a commodity housed in me. I’m not a product. We’re not negotiating at a market here. What is he saying ?!”, I was bewildered with my own thought tornado shattering my brain. I started crying out of rage and helplessness as he slapped me one more time.
“Rape ?! No way. He can’t rape me. He’s not the kind who rapes. People on the road rape . Or those who come home to fix things or deliver orders. Or those strangers in groups in desolated areas at an odd time. Those are the ones who rape. Boyfriends don’t rape . Friends don’t rape. They DON’T !!” , I tried comforting myself.
What followed were the darkest hours of my life. He didn’t even gag me because I wouldn’t scream. I was terrified. Amidst the horror, I tried running to another bedroom and lock myself up. But he had already locked us inside and put the key away. I tried reaching out to my phone but he snatched it from me and threw it away. He had planned this all along.
“What can I do ?!”, I kept brain storming amidst being stripped. It was all so quick I couldn’t even process any of it. I wasnt even high though Joe was smashed. I could feel every inch of pain. I was beaten up until I was exhausted; he belted me everywhere but my face and forearms which wouldn’t give others a chance to doubt physical abuse. He pulled my hair and tossed me around, swearing and fuming.
“Please , Joe. Please .”, I begged him. That was my last resort. To plead. He didn’t budge. I don’t think he even heard me anymore due to his heightened hormones and meteorically rising evil filling his brain.
// I WAS RUTHLESSLY RAPED BY MY BOYFRIEND !! //
I don’t know when he stopped because I had passed out owing to the pain a woman suffers when a beer bottle is inserted into you, expecting you to take it inside entirely. I woke up in the morning with stung eyes and dried up tears making my vision difficult, stinking of his pleasure, shivering with fever, sprawled on my bedroom floor, blood stains on the marble, his tight grip and leather belt marked on my skin.
I cried !!! I cried out loud enough so that I couldn’t hear myself remember what happened last night. I dragged myself to the side of the bed where I found my mobile. I switched it on immediately. I don’t think I knew what I was doing. I just wanted to call out for help. I didn’t even know who. The phone rang immediately on switching on. And before I could see who it was, I picked up ..
” Hello ? Hello ? ”
” Lia ? What happened , Li? Why do you sound so .. ”
” Who is this? Arnav ?! Arnav is that you ?!”, I was frantic and that clearly echoed in my cries.
“Lia man. How drunk are you ?! Joe was right. That’s why I called to check on you.”
“Arnav. Joe ..”, before I could sink, I sniffed a plot in what Arnav just said.
” What did Joe tell you , Arnav ?!”, I asked firmly, wiping away my fear.
” Well, he said you guys were having a good time and you got really drunk and when Joe kissed you , you kept crying he’s raping you and all and you kept wailing and passed out . Really Lia , you adorable thing?! So stupid you are !!”, Arnav laughed at the other end.
I cut the call immediately and sat down. It was a dead end. I can’t approach my parents or my friends or anybody. I had called Joe home in the first place and we did have alcohol. Even if I showed people the marks, they would think I was too drunk that I don’t even remember the sex we had. Who will believe me ?! It indeed was a dead end.
I zoned out and thought about all those rape incidents in the papers and on TV and the fury I used to feel for the victims and the sympathy that I always nested . However, being one of them didn’t cripple me; it suddenly made me stronger than before .
I got up and cleaned myself and my room. My parents got back and as I promised myself, I remained the joyful girl I was. “My mistake will not and should not hurt anybody else !!” , I thought , taking some time to convince myself that it was all “my” mistake. That controlled my instinct to attempt murdering Joe every time I saw him in college. I spoke to none about it. Joe and I broke up because I was too difficult to deal with, apparently. I paid no heed . He had no guilt or feeling of remorse. He “took” what he wanted and that was a very normal thing for me to “give”, according to him; my dignity, honour and womanhood bartered like commodities.
In 3 months I graduated and went on to do my post graduation in Psychology in a different city.
I embraced the tomorrows as they came. Days grew normal. It’s not like I don’t laugh or I lost my faith in men or that I don’t dream or my spirit eloped or anything extreme of that sort.
But I fight !!
I fight to trust again. I fight to love again. I fight to drink again. I fight to watch a movie again. I fight to enjoy sleepovers again. I fight to binge on pizza again. I fight to make friends again. I fight to drink again. I fight to have great jovial times again. I fight to approve and deny again. I fight to make my own decisions again. I fight !! All day, every day !!
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Personal Note :
I had written this series first on instagram (handle – pooja.pradeep ) during the course of my 25-day solo trip in May, amidst travel. During this series, atleast 2 dozen incarnations of Aleena, Neha, Lakshmi, Fiza and Lia have written to me, coming out in the light about the fear and struggle that has been choking them from within for years. They’ve become storytellers of their own grueling past and I’m honoured to have witnessed that kind of courage. These stories have bits and pieces of a woman’s everyday life, including mine; and in reliving these 5 women’s lives what I wanted to do is to empower. If you’ve been powerful enough to fight your woes , I want you to spread that power to the meek and fragile. That’s the whole point of power anyway isn’t it? To empower !!
In order to radiate strength and spirit and also document the response , I put forth a request on instagram to every fellow fighter to send me a picture of their happiest self. It was also to let the 5 Sheroes who are my really good friends know that they are not alone.
Sharing with you the overwhelming response I got in merely 24 hours that makes the painstaking hours I spent in churning the right words in telling their stories completely worth it 🙂
“As the author Anne Lamott once wrote, ‘Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.’ Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you.
To girls everywhere, I am with you. Thank You !”
~ Quoted verbatim from the open letter by the Stanford University sexual assault victim.
Thank you for reading 🙂
Much Love & Power to You .