Editor's note: This post includes a description of sexual assault.
When I was 12, all I wanted was a BSA Ladybird bicycle. All of my friends had them. I was enamoured by the basket, the colours, the sound of the bell. Most of all, I was enamoured by the prospect of freedom.
After months of absorbing my pleas, my dad took me shopping. We couldn’t afford a Ladybird but he got me a cheaper cycle, a BSA SLR. The colours were different. No basket either. But the promise of easy adventuring was exactly the same.
Chennai is an idyllic place to be a child on summer vacation – quiet, bright, perfect for escapades – and I spent most of that one exploring. Although my parents had been strict about the geographical limits of my expeditions, I knew from many storybook tales that good adventures required some amount of rule-breaking. I made a habit of leaving our middle class neighborhood to discover what lay beyond it.
A month later, I would ride that bike faster than any 12-year-old should know how. Almost like my life depended on it.
On that day, like so many others, I put on a skirt and a worn-in t-shirt. With grace, or probably just muscle memory that felt like it, I hopped onto my beloved BSA. I rode through the now familiar lanes leaving home, snaked through my neighborhood until I had left it, and went a few meters ahead towards an open space surrounded by bushes.
A voice came from behind me.
“My daughter is angry at me. Please come and tell her that her father is sorry.”
I turned around, startled. A man wearing a lungi was riding his motorbike, catching up, riding alongside me.
I thought of my younger days in Calcutta where we would visit the Kalighat Temple. I remembered my mother warning me against talking to strangers. I knew there were reasons it wasn’t allowed.
I pedaled harder.
“My daughter bunked school so I slapped her. Now she’s angry at me. She’s not talking to me.”
I pumped my feet with resolve.
“My daughter is not talking with me. She’s crying in those bushes. I am sorry. Please come and tell her I’m sorry.”
With burning calves, I began to realise that my cycle was no match for his bike.
I’ll just pop into the bushes and tell his daughter to forgive him, I reasoned, and then I’ll rush home. I didn’t even consider the possibility that he was lying.
For years since, and still, I’ve played an alternate reality in my head where I somehow cycle faster than his bike and I get away. In that version of events, I ride back home and I consider the afternoon a failure, annoyed that my adventures were cut short by this stranger. In that parallel universe, I don’t even realise how lucky I am.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, I followed him into the bushes and there, I considered for the first time that he might have lied. That there was no family feud for me to patch up, no crying daughter for me to help win over, there was nothing. As one revelation sunk in, I was harshly pulled into another: I realised that the man had me in a stronghold.
“Down the road, there are some businessmen from the Middle East. They want to kidnap you.”
He spoke clearly and in a matter of fact way.
“You’re not allowed to shout. And stop crying right now. Just do what I say.”
The businessmen wanted to take me away from my parents, he told me. He pulled out a knife.
I was a 12-year-old who looked 9. My world was devoid of any inklings of sex, as a concept. As such, I couldn’t imagine what he could want of me, so I promised I would do whatever it was.
“Remove your panties. Give them to me.”
My only thought was: gross. Innocent to his intent, I removed my underwear and handed it to him.
He slapped me. Hard. I instantly tasted blood. Tears began to fly down my face and I started begging him to let me go. He beat me some more.
“Stop crying,” he pushed his hand over my mouth.
He asked me to pee in front of him.
Confused, terrified, I squatted in front of him. Unable to fathom or explain what was happening to me, I somehow still knew that it was very, very wrong. I prayed in all the ways I could remember being taught to. I prayed for him to let me go to my mother. I peed. I wanted amma so badly. He let out a guttural sound.
I stood up and begged him to take me to his daughter. “I promise I will talk to her and tell her to forgive you,” I pleaded. He laughed and thrust his hand into my vagina. He continued to beat me. I didn’t know then that a vagina was more than just a place you peed from. I was more upset by the punches and slaps; I knew, at least, why those were wrong.
“I want my amma, please,” I begged through a suffocating mix of tears, snot, blood. “I just came to help you with your daughter. Please let me go.”
He told me to squat again. He beat me some more.
My mother calls it God, my best friend calls it survival instincts, but I still have no name for what I felt in the following moments. I’ve auditioned several: desperation, bravery, panic, strength, reason, will, resolve, fear. I don’t know. All I know is that it saved my life.
In those moments, I somehow decided and managed to push him off me. It gave me a moment’s advantage and I used it to sprint toward my cycle. With less grace now but muscle memory intact, I leapt onto that BSA and I scrambled until I was speeding.
I rode that bike faster than any 12-year-old should know how. Almost like my life depended on it.
The next time I wore a skirt, I was 25 years old. I didn’t hug a man until I was 20. I cut my hair short so my attacker wouldn’t recognise me, I bought only baggy shirts, I left home as little as possible. For over a decade, I was jolted by the slightest noises, the tiniest movements, the friendliest strangers. I lived at the whims of a thousand fears I couldn’t name.
My parents tried everything. Since the moment I got home that afternoon – panting, bleeding, sweating, sobbing – they offered their support. They wanted to go to the police but I didn’t let them. I was convinced that he would track me down if we did.
By the time I was 15, I couldn’t sleep. I was irritable, I had put on weight, I cried all the time. I was angry. I pretended to be a happy-go-lucky kid at school but couldn’t keep up that façade at home. I would stand at the balcony and stare woodenly out at the same lanes that once promised adventure, and now held only nightmares.
My parents took me to a psychiatrist. I started crying while telling him what had happened. He told me not to overreact. He scolded me for not letting things go. Finally, he prescribed heavy duty sleeping pills. I cried more on my way home. The pills helped me fall asleep at night, but they also made me drowsy at school. I started falling asleep in classes, falling behind academically. I lost interest in doing well.
Indian society speaks of rape and assault as a loss of honor for women. A shortcoming in the survivor. I had watched enough movies, read enough articles, overheard enough grownups. I took it as my truth. I internalised the victim-blaming I was surrounded by.
Why did I wear that skirt? Why did I go into the bushes? Why did I believe that man? Why did I think he had a daughter crying? That he wanted me, a complete stranger, to win her over? I am stupid. I am the reason this happened. I don’t deserve to live.
I stopped taking the pills. The antidepressants made me numb and the sleeping pills made me hate myself.
Running out of ways to escape the fear and pain, I decided to take my own life. I know it sounds like a joke, but I planned on living until the last Harry Potter book was out. After that, I figured I had no reason to stick around. For months, “the boy who lived” kept me alive with him.
Realising I needed help that she simply couldn’t provide, my mother found another psychiatrist. I agreed to meet him.
When we walked into his office, the new psychiatrist smiled and asked my mother why she’d brought such a bright, lively girl to his office. He asked me about Harry Potter. We talked about all my other books. I told him I wanted to write some day. I told him about my friends. He listened patiently, asking all the right questions, while I rambled for an hour. I was at ease.
And then I started crying.
At once, I told him everything. I spoke about the attack. The guilt. My fault in it all. He listened. He listened for several more sessions. He took me off the pills. He wanted to know everything about my life, and I felt comfortable telling him.
With his help, I found a name for the fear, the anxiety, the anger that had chased me for years. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and now that we could name it, we could deal with it. He gave me all the tools.
I was 17 when I began to feel happiness, some days, again.
There was no magical morning when I woke up fixed. There were a lot of mornings of slowly, gradually feeling myself change. A lot of baby steps. I stopped recoiling from men. A few years later, I could even hug and kiss one without thinking my life was in danger. I stopped seeing every man in my life as a potential rapist. It took time and it took work.
To this day, I go cold when I read about rape cases in India. I often wonder how many still go unreported. In 2013, the definition of rape was changed under the Indian Penal Code. By the new definition I suppose you could say I was raped that day. I don’t know if that matters to me.
What matters is this: even today, women are berated for being raped. Their consent is taken from them, and they’re blamed for it. Who asked her to get into that tempo traveler at that hour? Why was she drinking? Why was she wearing such small clothes?
I sometimes think about the scrawny kid I used to be, as though she is another person. I am filled with rage that anybody could do such monstrous things to such a small child. I want to reach out and touch her. I want to hold her, let her cry on my shoulders, tell her that it’s not her fault. I want to tell her that her life does get better and that she will defeat her demons. I want to tell her that one day, she might even help other women and girls like her who were assaulted. I want to tell her that she is worthy of love. She is worthy of life.
But I tell myself that now.
Note: If you think you might be suffering from PTSD, please consult your doctor or follow this link for helplines.