My rapist and I both ran in the same large circle of first-generation Indian kids who tangentially knew each other at UC Berkeley. Like me, Neil* was one foot in, one foot out of the generally insular Indian scene. I had met Neil earlier in the year through an Indian dorm mate, but got used to running into him at parties, where we'd often joke about being the only two Indians in the room.
My friends didn't like him much — he gave off a bit of a creepy vibe, and was all too quick to invite freshman Indian girls over to his apartment. Still, we had stopped by to pregame at his apartment once or twice, thanks to his proximity to our dorm and our limited access to alcohol. At the time, I was getting over a rough breakup with someone else in the Indian community. I was still trying to win my ex-boyfriend back but found myself attracted to Neil's similar discomfort hanging out solely with other Indians. He may have been a little aggressively flirtatious for my taste, but he was proof that it was possible to exist with feet in the monolithic Indian community and outside of it.
But when it came to telling my friends that he raped me, why did my Indian friends find it so hard to believe a fellow Indian could do what Neil did to me?
These things don't happen to us. First-generation Indian kids are constantly walking a tightrope between our Indian heritage and our American identities. We may not have had to sign up for the arranged marriages of our parents, but we also weren't allowed to date growing up. We could have our freedom to have a good time in college like our white American counterparts, but the price tag for it was earning a respectable degree that leads to a good job. We played it safe, because we couldn't afford not to — we are our parents' children, and our parents sacrificed everything for us to be raised in America. Dating? Sex? Alcohol? Those were all perks — privileges to be enjoyed quietly, and never to be abused.
Even now, nearly nine years later, I'm fighting the urge to explain that I know not all first-generation Indians, people like me who were born stateside to immigrant parents, are as conservative as I like to pretend they are. My own parents, for example, were incredibly liberal compared to most Indian immigrants, and perfectly open to the idea of their daughters dating in high school and college. Everyone's parents vary in their degrees of traditionalism. Not all Indians. But when it came to sex, I was always the outlier, the harlot. My three closest Indian girlfriends and I all had our various freshman-year entanglements, but I'd had sex with a high school boyfriend, and for that I always felt a little dirtier, a little more judged — a chip on my shoulder I'm willing to admit I likely placed there all on my own.
Being Indian was my entire identity at the start of college, and I quickly immersed myself in the scene as much as possible. As I started to make friends outside of the Indian community, the lingering disconnect between my Indian friends and I felt even more amplified. Maybe there's no such thing as "a good Indian girl," but that didn't take away from the fact that I was still much further away from it than any of my Indian friends. I knew it, they knew it, and the divide was ever present.
When Neil invited me to a party that April, I was hesitant about going. I still wasn't over my ex-boyfriend Rahul*, a sophomore who had broken up with me after three months because I wasn't as conservative as he wanted his girlfriend to be — especially not as he ran for student government. Determined to transform into the sweet Indian girlfriend of his dreams, I went as far as to give up drinking in a bid to win him back. For the next part of my plan, I invited Rahul to the party too, figuring he would get a chance to shake hands and kiss babies in advance of the election — while hoping my invite from a cute athletic senior would create the requisite dose of jealousy needed to push us back together.
What I didn't expect was being roofied, not remembering the rest of the night, and waking up in Neil's bed covered in bruises.
Actually, that's not entirely true. I remember snippets of the night. I fully remember insisting no alcohol be in my beverage when Neil offered to pour me a mixed drink — a choice integral to my plan of presenting my best self. I remember a very hazy moment: walking down a hill toward Neil's apartment, daring him to let me wear his shirt. I was definitely drugged by then, but eight years later I remember that brief moment of flirtation I surely was complicit in. And I remember coming to during the act itself, no idea where I was. Letting it go on for a few more minutes, confused, but not fighting it off either, as I always imagined I'd do if ever trapped in that situation. I remember being in the bathroom looking at my neck, certain it was going to be bruised by the next morning.
Even in this retelling, I'm hesitant to admit what I remember because there's less culpability in not remembering. Isn't there? To remember is to admit that there were maybe moments where you could have stopped it sooner.
I don't remember how I got home, but it wasn't that late when I got there. I called my ex-boyfriend, who was convinced my multiple pleas for him to come over were misguided attempts at drunken seduction. He reminded me that it was my choice to not drink for a month, yet here I was wasted on the third day of the self-imposed ban. He had to go do work for the campaign, at 2 a.m. on a Saturday. He hung up.
I don't remember if my closest female friends, Indian girls who lived in my dorm and had been to Neil's apartment with me before, came over that night or the next morning. I do know that when two of them took one look at my neck, covered from side to side in a macabre grin of angry purple bruises and bite marks, they knew something had happened that wasn't supposed to. I told them what I remembered from that evening as best I could, and they were incredibly supportive, especially given that none of us had dealt with anything of this nature before in our eight months of friendship. But it also didn't stop them from asking, "Are you sure you guys didn't just accidentally hook up last night?" After all, they had seen mine and Neil's ill-advised flirtations in the weeks prior. It wasn't that they didn't believe the date rape hadn't occurred; it was that there was a stronger tendency to want to chalk this up to drunken shenanigans. These things don't happen to us. Neil may have given us an off-vibe from day one, but at the end of the day, he was a good Indian boy, and I was supposed to be a good Indian girl.
Given my friends' suspicions that there was maybe more to the story than I was letting on, even knowing that my judgment had to have been chemically clouded, I started to question my own recollections. Neil and I had been flirting here and there in the weeks leading up to the party. If I hazily remembered flirting with him on the walk home, who's to say I didn't say no when push came to literal shove? Even though I'd never blacked out, and don't remember drinking at all, did I maybe just get really drunk? I logically knew the answer to all those questions pointed to no, this wasn't my fault, but if I couldn't even believe myself entirely, there was no way I was going to be a believable victim.
Even though I had told my friends the majority of what happened, I edited out a few of the parts that I was convinced might give Neil plausible deniability, even to my best friends. That was the first time I sanitized the story. It's not that it didn't happen in the parts I was able to recollect, but it was much easier to be a believable victim when I was irrevocably wronged. I dropped the mention of remembering that he gave me a drink at all (even though I do remember Neil being a little too insistent that it was "just Tampico Punch" — a non-alcoholic mixer — "don't worry"), just to play it safe. I also started to leave out the brief recollections of us walking back from the party. Even after I had sufficiently retold the story multiple times, I still got the sense that there was some disbelief — I had hooked up with someone else during a trip earlier in the school year despite wanting to win my ex back, and there was still that lost high school innocence I'd never be able to undo. But the bruises spoke for themselves, as well as Neil's texts the afternoon after, trying both to flirt and minimize the night before in the same breath.
Going to campus police was never an option. It's not that our Indian community wasn't having sex, but we sure as hell weren't talking about it. I wasn't explicitly talked out of wanting to press charges, but it never even came up in the discussion process of how to move forward. I was worried about others in the Indian scene finding out, and the rumor mill dropping the non-consensual aspect of me having had sex (a step Rahul and I hadn't even taken when we dated). My friends and I all were aware of how it would play out in the Indian community if we blew it up. Not dragging Neil's name through the mud wasn't to protect him, it was to protect myself, to not give my circle even more ammunition to render me damaged goods, and question whether my account held up. Neil wasn't the most popular student in the Indian community, but after my breakup, neither was I, and to duke out who was more believable if the story came out was a battle I wasn't willing to lose.
Our South Asian campus club was putting on a culture show that night — an ironic event, given that I was convinced I fit into what my culture expected of me even less now than I ever did before — so my friends slathered as much concealer as they could find on my neck to cover the evidence of the previous night, and we all were secretly glad I hadn't invited my parents to come up to watch the show. Gratefully, none of them brought up the anecdote that they used to make fun of me for the most: that I had picked Berkeley as the college to go to after visiting and watching that same culture show a year prior. Seeing that show as a high school senior was the first time I felt like I had belonged to a community. One year, two and a half hours, and 14 colorful dances later, I never felt more ostracized from it.
Meanwhile, Neil, who was also participating in the show, was continuing to text me. The flirty texts from the morning that had gone unanswered had morphed into worried texts where he tried to downplay the night before, joking around that maybe we both got carried away. When those texts also went ignored, he quickly turned angry, instructing me to keep my mouth shut "for both of our sake." Dealing with Neil's angry texts, alongside the stress of being in charge of the opening routine of that night's show, pushed me to a near breaking point, and I couldn't stop crying. I was worried about running into him backstage or at that night's afterparty, just to have another confrontation like the one I was trying to avoid over text.
My friends broke rank and told one Indian upperclassman, a sympathetic junior who was a sexual health education peer at the university health center. She was the first person to believe my story verbatim, no sanitization necessary, even with all the caveats that made me a bad victim. After offering to take me to campus police, and then assuring me that it was OK that I was dead set against going, she deftly handled Neil (a mutual friend of hers at the time, as well) over text message, assuring him that I would absolutely be pressing charges if he didn't stop threatening me. She later arranged for me to be seen by a doctor, and pointed me toward therapy options to talk through the trauma. I am still forever trying to emulate her grace and compassion when put in similar situations.
Still, I continued to sanitize, even in the years later when I became more comfortable talking about my assault. But I do think that my unwillingness to deal with it in the immediate aftermath only encouraged the suspicions that I was embellishing. One of my own friends went so far as to suggest that I made up the entire thing as a cover for a consensual hookup, because I was unable to hide the bruises from my ex-boyfriend. The Duke lacrosse scandal had played out across the country, and someone unwittingly mentioned to me, "Wow, your Neil story is just like an episode of Law & Order: SVU! Roofied by an athlete; that just screams ripped from the headlines."
I keep coming back to the phrase "Not all Indians." I know I'm not alone in my quixotic quest to balance the conservative parts of my Indian upbringing with the realities of living in a modern American culture. But I still feel that I don't fit the mold of "good Indian girl" with my friends, with my family, with the first-generation Indian community at large. I still sometimes date Indian men and hang out with Indian friends, who truly are wonderful, but more than one has asked me why I have to write about private aspects of my life for career "sport." Not one has asked if it's cathartic or something I enjoy, because in our culture, we don't prop up the sensitive aspects of private lives for any reason — especially ones that come up because we failed to adhere to the good Indian code of ethics in the first place.
When you don't talk to your kids about sex, how do you talk to them about sexual assault? In our traditional, conservative culture, these things generally don't come up. Rape rates in India are soaring, but it still reads as an "India problem" — something born out of the old country's inability to modernize; as distant and antiquated a notion as having a servant, or shaving your hair off on a yearly temple pilgrimage. And sexual assault in America is still seen by immigrants as something that "doesn't happen to us." It's a wholly American epidemic.
I still have a hard time always telling my story in full. The need to sanitize is ever present, just to ensure that people believe me. I know I did nothing wrong, but in being the type of person to depart from my cultural values, I still often feel I did everything wrong. Rape culture and the difficulties victims face in coming forward are incredibly real. The pressure I felt from my own culture in trying to tell my story? Even stronger.
* Name has been changed.
This story has been edited to remove some details.
Beejoli Shah writes on the internet about entertainment, sports, and things that are uncomfortable. Other places include Gawker, New York's The Cut, The Guardian, Pacific Standard Magazine, and The Hairpin.
Contact Beejoli Shah at email@example.com.
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