Big Stories

Spring Break, Mumbai: How Surviving Sexual Assault Makes It Hard To Go Home Again

After having lived in the United States, going back home to India in 2013 means readjusting to more than modest dress and unwanted stares. It means confronting a past I’d rather forget.

Justine Zwiebel / BuzzFeed


Growing up, we were looked at slowly. Up, then down. Every cling of T-shirt examined, every inch of skin alight from scrutiny, every detail savored. Growing up, we were touched daily. Big brown hands brushed against scarfed breasts on crowded streets; palms accidentally landed on thighs, on public trains and buses. We were whistled at, we were followed, we were teased, and we were threatened. Casually.

Growing up, we were strangers to personal space. Strangers to the idea that staring is rude, and strangers to notions of privacy. Everything that was mine was also everyone else’s to devour, so growing up, we were devoured daily. Swallowed whole by the men of our every day, swallowed whole by shopkeepers, by rickshaw drivers, by watchmen, and by passersby. Swallowed whole by the older boys at school, by our father’s colleagues when they came over for a drink, by our uncles, and by our cousins. We were claimed, each of us, every day.

This is life, we thought, quiet and uncomplaining, and we carried about it meekly, seen and not heard, as little girls ought to be.

By March of 2013, Gray and I had been dating for nearly two years. We were both college students in New York City with near nothing in common save for a powerful wanderlust. So when spring break rolled around, we scraped together every spare penny and bought ourselves round-trip tickets to India. He is a wholesome American from Colby, Kan., population: 5,000. I wanted to show him where I had grown up.

Because of my father’s job, my family and I had left India six years prior, moving to Muscat, Oman, a quaint coastal paradise in Arabia. After finishing high school there, I boarded another plane, this time for a college campus in New York City: the liberal ideal. From the extravagant distance of half a decade and 8,000 miles, I had continued to be Indian in carefully curated ways. I forsook the opportunity to join cultural organizations at college but donned a nose ring for years. I did not own a single sari nor kameez but I murmured about green cards and monsoons in Urdu with taxi drivers as we sped up and down Manhattan’s West Side, while my American friends listened from the backseat through their tipsy giggles about their token foreign friend. I sandpapered my accent down to a sweet spot between interesting and undetectable but called my mother every day, followed Indian news anchors on Twitter, and had a private Bollywood playlist on my Spotify. These were decisions, made deliberately, and based on convenience. This was how I had chosen to straddle the Atlantic. Privately.

When Gray and I landed in Mumbai, we were both hit hard by its realities, harsher and less merciful now than I had remembered through the romanticized lens of leaving. We picked up our bags and almost immediately found my brother waiting for us outside the international terminal.

After graduating from NYU a year ago, my brother had moved back home to Mumbai and now was swatting away flies and mosquitoes with the thoughtless dexterity of a native. Despite — or perhaps because of — how our lives have converged and danced around India, I call him “bhaiya,” a deferential Hindi word meaning “brother.”

Hawkers in the parking lot were magnetized by Gray’s pale skin and Dockers, identifying him as an easy target to overcharge, and bhaiya shook his head at them, indicating that we were spoken for. He haggled us an air-conditioned taxi while Gray and I watched on, envying his easy Hindi.

On our way to bhaiya’s apartment, India’s status as a developing country was challenged and reaffirmed alternatingly from block to block. Skyscraper, slum. Multimillion-dollar mansion, malaria. Waterfront villa, water shortage. India of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s all played hide-and-seek in the streets while the people walking them remained distinctly 21st century, denim-clad and unmoved by chaos, all of them having places to be, all of them running late.

We sat by bhaiya’s 11th-story balcony, watching Mumbai twinkle through the dust and ravenously tearing through soft rotis. As we giddily caught up on each other’s lives, I fell silent as often as possible, thrilled to watch my boyfriend and my brother figure out how to talk to each other for the first time. I smiled quietly about how their accents, one a distinct Midwestern and the other a distinct Indian, both tinged with some New York City, converged over my name.

Gray and I had plans to sightsee around Mumbai the next day, and bhaiya, well meaning and seasoned, gave Gray all the advice we had already read in guidebooks, advice that suddenly carried real weight. Don’t drink tap water, don’t pay more for a rickshaw ride than the digital meter says you should, wear comfortable shoes and cotton clothes. Carry sunscreen to reapply, hand sanitizer for every meal, and coins to give to beggars.

His advice to me was much simpler, and came right before Gray and I retired for the night, into our temporary guest-room home.

“Be careful. Dress modestly. Carry a scarf.”

My feminist American East Coast college education bristled. A rant formed in my mind about how it was not my responsibility to dress modestly; India’s dangers were not rooted in my wardrobe. But instead, caught off guard by the genuine concern in bhaiya’s voice, I just said good night.

As Gray and I lay in bed, exhausted from travel but alert from jet lag, I tried to articulate to him how and why the rules of politically correct discourse fall away with my brother, why my verbal dissertation on victim-blaming never came. When my brother was 7 years old and I was 5, he would hold my hand as we walked to the bus stop every morning to go to school; he would lead me through safe side roads, knowing to fear for me long before either of us knew what there was to fear.

Gray’s voice, a steady rhythm of phrases like “I get that” and “that makes sense,” was punctuated by Bombay’s music, still familiar to me after all these years, a symphony of car horns and flower girls.

I thanked him through a lump in my throat, for saying all the right things, as he does, and we kissed good night. The lump would remain lodged there for the entirety of my time in India, a small reminder of the fears that raised us.

Justine Zwiebel / BuzzFeed



The next day, Gray and I set out early, our itinerary chock-full of cultural landmarks and old haunts. Haji Ali, a mosque on an island only accessible by a mid-ocean walkway three feet wide, was where Gray first came to face-to-face with a beggar with leprosy. On that first day, he nearly cried; by the end of our fortnight in India, he would no longer react to them.

Later that day, on our way to a temple, he laughed as we scooted past a sidewalk colonized by cows. “India is like Kansas in many ways,” he said, nodding in their direction. His hand on the small of my back, though so familiar, suddenly felt scandalous. I pushed his hand away, laughing also.

“We’re in India, Gray. White boys can’t touch brown girls around here.”

We flitted from air-conditioned malls that smelled like Prada and parks that smelled like jasmine trees to hotels with English-speaking waitstaff and U.S. dollar prices on their menus and bazaars where 6-year-olds vended wares while their parents napped under trees. We ate lunch at Leopold Cafe, a colonial leftover now essential to Mumbai’s tapestry, and in my own. My father frequented it when he was a college student here, way back when it was Bombay.

We sat on a wall by the Gateway of India, dangling our feet over the Indian west coast, slurping coconut water straight out of coconuts that we had watched a man cut open for us at his makeshift sidewalk eatery. We blinked to dodge salty flyaway drops hurled at us by the Arabian Sea.

As we watched boats come in to dock, I told Gray about a memory that had been playing on my mind. I was 15 years old. It was lunch hour at school. My four best friends and I were sitting on the periphery of our school’s soccer field, shaded by palm trees. It was a hot summer day in Chennai, but a salty sea breeze offered some respite. We tugged at our cotton checked shirts and rolled up the legs of our uniform pants to keep cool as we talked.

Somehow, the unusually heavy topic of abuse had come up and we began exchanging incidents, all of us taken aback by the sudden knowledge that none of us were alone in having horror stories. I had only vague recollections, now, of the specifics. One of my friends was grabbed at a movie theater in a brief moment of separation from her family, and hands were rubbed on her in ways she was too young to understand, a mouth on her mouth, an unsolicited first kiss. Someone else had a tormentor at her early-morning tennis lessons who would follow her around the YMCA, shouting lewd threats. She told her parents, but they didn’t believe her. Another was pinned down by an older boy, whom she knew and loved, and was stripped of her right to consent.

We had known one another for over a decade and still, we’d kept these stories secret for reasons none of us know for certain. Still subject to the childlike tendency to laugh at things that are truly terrifying, we broke into uncomfortable and inexplicable giggles several times that hour, at a loss for how else to shape our emotions. As with sitting around a fire telling ghost stories, the horror became a shared activity, delivered on purpose and, no matter how twisted, reassuring still to share.

I know now that the stories we told one another that afternoon were only our first ones. Most of us have been made victims again, a second time; some of us, a third.

I was 8 years old when I was woken in the middle of the night by the sound of my own screaming. I had run out of breath because the weight of a grown man was collapsed on top of my 4-foot frame. I remember noticing that my pajama bottoms were gathered about my feet, round like a good Indian woman’s dance anklets. My shirt was lifted up over my chest, draped over my shoulders like a sari, catching on my neck like a death sentence. There was writhing and there was panting and, for as long as I could manage it, there was screaming. This is what I had been taught. If a man touches you and you don’t like it, my mother told me often, you scream and you keep screaming until I come get you.

True to her word, my mother was with me soon, pajama-clad and pale, papa at her side. Papa was shouting things at the man and the man was getting up and he was zipping up and he was running out of the room carrying his shoes in his hands. Mama held me and told me it’s OK, told me it isn’t my fault, told me I’m safe now. Mama told me the pain would go away.

But there was no pain. There was nothing.

The details have been repressed into shapes and sounds and silhouettes in a dark room but, as far as I can remember, I was not raped. Sometimes I wonder if I’m remembering it all wrong. Was it nighttime, or was it afternoon? Did my mother run to me, or did I run to her? The memory, left dormant most days, shifts shapes every time it wakes up. All that’s for certain, the only detail I cling to, is that I was not raped.

When I finished telling the story to Gray, the sun had nearly set over the Arabian Sea, and Gray, as he does, said all the right things. His eyes were softer than I had ever seen, and I realized, for the first time, that he had never heard these stories before. Suddenly, my attention shifted from my own emotions to his. What must it be like to hear that someone you love, someone you yearn and promise and want desperately to protect, had already fallen prey to forces too far back in the past for you to reach now? Too far back for you to avenge?

Later that day, he mentioned in passing that he had read somewhere that some activists and writers were looking to expand the definition of the word “rape” to include more than it conventionally did.

“If it felt like rape, you’re allowed to think of it as rape,” he said slowly, gingerly. “You’re allowed to process it however you need to. Use whatever words you want.”

While I could admire, academically and objectively, the fruitfulness in reevaluating the semantics of assault, I avoided the conversation we could have, should have, had. I was wholly unprepared to think of myself as a victim — or survivor — of the r-word.

On more than one occasion, I have eavesdropped from my room while my parents talked outside, made loud by whiskey or wine, about how I was “almost raped.” Papa’s voice would speed up with rage as he talked about “that bastard,” and mama would tut sadly. I would hear them refer to me as brave for having been unaffected by the incident, and I would feel awkward and undeserving of the compliment, armored as I was by my selective amnesia.

I would find out later that the man was a cleaner we had hired who was, at the time, staying at our house. He was sent away immediately. I have never asked my parents if they pressed charges. I have never talked with them about it at all.

I have never talked about it because I was never taught how.

As we continued our travels beyond Mumbai, Gray and I were acutely aware that the country we are traversing so casually was one that has been galvanized by headlines every morning for the last few months, each more grotesque than the last.

Last December, with the world watching, a 23-year-old medical student in New Delhi was lured onto a bus under the pretense that it would take her home. She was then beaten with an iron rod, raped by six different men for 90 minutes, raped with the same rod so brutally that all but 5% of her intestines were ripped out of her body, and then left near naked on the side of a Delhi highway to die. Her fiancé, who had boarded the bus with her, was beaten unconscious, rendered unable to help, and then discarded alongside her. Earlier that night, they had seen Life of Pi together.

The doctors removed what was left of her intestines, they tried to fight off her sepsis, they did what they could to mitigate the brain damage she had suffered from being hit on the head with an iron rod. They operated on her for 13 days. When she died, her fiancé announced on national television that they had planned to marry in February.

For months afterward, similarly gruesome news stories have made themselves at home in our living rooms. A 4-year-old is first reported missing and then found dead in a basement, her vagina ravaged by days of violation, a candle and a bottle found inside of her. A 5-year-old, a 6-year-old, a 7-year-old. New Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai.

The phrase “22 Year Old Journalist Gang Raped In Mumbai” flies down my Twitter feed and here, thousands of miles away, I leave my desk in the middle of the workday to cry in the bathroom.

The 50-year-old editor in chief of a reputable Indian news organization rapes his twentysomething colleague in a hotel room. Here, thousands of miles away, the word “fear” bleeds into the word “home.”

As reports have rolled in, India has raged. Women have demanded security. Men have demanded justice. The things that we were never taught to talk about, the stories we told our best friends in hushed whispers under palm trees, the details we pressed our ears to walls to hear our parents talk about, are now being talked about. The words that were withheld from us are now being flung around primetime.

“In India,” the newscasters say, their eyes flickering, heads all but bowed with shame, “a woman is raped every 22 minutes.”

Hopping on and off trains and buses with a white man, I reacclimatized to eyes and hands that don’t care for consent.

Justine Zwiebel / BuzzFeed

But I was also thrilled to be home. I was thrilled to be sharing it with Gray. We boarded Delhi’s state-of-the-art metro trains, and when he laughed about how much nicer they are than New York’s, I felt pride tugging at the corners of my mouth. When we walked through the gates of the Taj Mahal for the first time and his eyes grew wet watching the sun shine off white marble, I might have burst from patriotism. When we danced drunkenly around Goan beaches, stumbling in and out of bars that he said “could be anywhere in the world,” I giggled unabashedly, like an infant, glowing at the chance to show off her toys. Most days, I love India so much that it makes me dizzy.

One evening, nearing the end of our trip, emboldened by the fact that everything had gone off without a hitch so far, we decided to veer off our itinerary. We were in Jaipur, a large city in western India with meticulously cordoned-off tourist locations. But those forts and palaces, overrun by rich people wielding Nikons and Lonely Planets, had lost their sheen for us. Instead, we gave into our curiosity and hailed a rickshaw to the marketplace in the center of town, a real Jaipur bazaar, where locals came to buy their onions and shampoo.

We arrived with the onset of dusk and found ourselves surrounded immediately by grime, the streets overrun by men of all ages, white-haired and bent from age, sprightly and teenaged, men of all shapes and sizes and occupations, bound only by the aggression with which they peddled their curiosity.

Hawkers flocked to us, drawn like flies to Gray’s pale skin, glowing still through layers of dust. My Western clothing, jeans and a T-shirt, the least provocative outfit I own, was hyper-sexualized and fetishized, an invitation I had never meant to send.

Kahan se aye ho, Indian madam?” they asked.

“Where have you come from, Indian madam?” I translated to Gray, to fill the holes in his rudimentary Hindi.

Aur saath mein yeh kisko le aye ho?”

“And who is this you’ve brought with you?” I translated to feel less alone.

Aapka husband hai kya?”

“Is he your husband?”

“Husband nahi hai tho kaun hai, madam?”

“If he isn’t your husband, then who is he, madam?”

Around us, I saw the leftovers of the bustling marketplace this must be during the day, stalls selling traditional Rajasthani clothes and shoes and musical instruments. In preparation for Holi, water guns and big bags full of brightly colored powders sat on display on the sidewalk. These men, now sliding their eyes up and down us, now tugging at their mustaches and stroking their beards, now hurling their morals at us with the force of a hundred years, must be kind in the daytime. They must wake up to wives, mothers, sisters, daughters.

“Madam, ek baar tho idhar dekho. Hum hindustaniyon mein kuch burai hai kya?”

“Madam, look this way at least once. Is there something wrong with us Indian men?”

Yes, I was tempted to shout back. Yes, for each of my best friends and me, there was something wrong with Indian men. Yes, once every 22 minutes, there is something wrong with Indian men. Yes, I gritted my teeth to keep the words in as Gray tightened his grip around my clenched fist and with his other hand pulled my scarf tighter around me, it is wrong that being scared, being assaulted, being violated, being dehumanized, feels exactly the same as being home. But I remained silent, shaking with rage and humiliation, as Gray hailed a rickshaw and, in broken Hindi that he hadn’t needed to utilize until just now, told the driver to take us to our hotel.

That night, we packed away chargers and toothbrushes unthinkingly. We were leaving for Mumbai early the next morning and, after a quick stopover there, we would be airborne again, set for New York. When Gray handed me our first-aid kit to put away into our shared duffel, I told him I love him. He asked why I’d said that.

“I was just really scared earlier,” I said. “And I was glad to have you with me. Like, really glad.”

“I was scared too,” he said. He kept folding T-shirts. “But that kinda thing was bound to happen, no?”

“I suppose, yeah, you’re right. I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“Try not to think too much of it. I’m here. You’re OK.”

We fell quiet again and, as I counted our remaining rupees, I took a mental inventory of the things I was bringing back to New York with me. I was leaving with the skin I came in, refurbished by a tan picked up from sun reflected off the marble of mosques and the gold off Sikh gurdwaras. I was leaving with presents for friends back home, scarves and trinkets, a tiny marble Taj Mahal replica, little elephant-shaped earrings, a Kama Sutra with Sanskrit text. For myself, spices and sandalwood and ticket stubs by which to remember these days.

I carried my girlhood with me too, ripe now with memories that had lain silent for a decade, browner now than before, like ancestral soil freshly tilled. I carried recipes, scrawled quickly in scripts that I have to strain to read, written on yellowing paper by my grandmothers, passed from generation to generation like an heirloom of spices. I carried loyalties. I carried the memory of my living room, alive with curse words and the smell of Indian whiskey, every time India’s blue-clad cricket team played against Pakistan’s green. Habits, too, and values. An uncritical deference to elders, a whole and uncompromising allegiance to my family, a deep-seated emotional dependence on Bollywood. The inborn ability to distinguish good henna from bad, an honest salesperson from a scammer, a ripe mango from raw. I gripped these things involuntarily and so tightly that my brown knuckles pale to white, holding on to the home that I love and was made in.

I realized that night, padding around that hotel room looking for passport pouches and padlocks, that I carried other things involuntarily. Certain mistrusts and certain fears. I understood why I am reluctant, still, to let myself be alone in rooms with men I do not love. Reluctant, still, to walk alone without a rape whistle. Or when I go downstairs to take out the trash or when I buzz in the delivery man, I now knew why I do so with my fists clenched in my pockets. Walking down the hallway from the elevators to my 16th-story Manhattan apartment, I hold my keys like a weapon, a clenched fist with a dagger protruding between index and middle. I realized why, when I am home alone, I clear my throat often. I am checking to ensure that I will be ready to scream.

Most devastatingly, I realized that night why I am reluctant even with the man I do love. Why when he looks at me slowly, up, then down, I strain to read his eyes for intent. Why I color them with suspicion. Why I make him prove his worth and his goodness. I understood why when I say “I love you,” I keep him at a stiff arm’s length.

I was once a little girl in India and, wherever I go, I carry her with me. She is heavy, like jewels, like wedding saris. She is beautiful, like the memory of mosque minarets silhouetted against saffron skies. She is dark, like the bottle of pepper spray I keep in one pocket, the tightly clenched fist in the other.

After we’d hugged my family good-bye the next day, and stepped into the air-conditioned, air-freshened international airport, time zones and accents disappeared as they do. Evidence of India became immediately scarce: Hindi translations on airport signs, “namaste” in place of “hello,” chicken tikka masala on the airport Pizza Hut menu.

Two hours later, we were on a plane, watching Mumbai grow small. When the seat belt sign went off, I swiped haphazardly at my wet cheeks, crying only in a small way about the things I was leaving behind.







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