My schooling memories are spread over seven schools in two different states. Thanks to my dad’s transferrable job. We were in a drought-prone south-Indian village when I started my formal education. Though the medium of instruction was English, my first lessons were A for Apple, B for Pandu (ball in Tamil), C for Poonai (cat) and so on.
Two years later, we moved to a village in the lush green Western Ghats where I studied in the Christian missionary school. The children either spoke English or the local language that I didn’t know. Having spoken only Tamil at home and having learnt English in Tamil at school, it took me weeks before I could stop feeling left out.
Once adapted, I was like any other six-year-old. I had a games-enemy who brought his elder brother to settle the petty quarrels we had while hanging upside down from parallel bars, a food-enemy who stole our snacks, an assembly-enemy who caught and punished us for muddy shoes in the assembly.
I had friends who sat next to me in the class, another group of friends with whom I would go exploring the school premises during breaks, fighting imaginary armies and conquering worlds. I also had a drawing friend, one who was as useless as me in art, and a rickshaw friend with whom I took the auto-rickshaw ride to school.
This rickshaw friend, Lucy, was also my best friend. She stayed nearby and this meant, in those good old days in that tiny village, our grandparents and parents became friends as well. I would visit her regularly and tell her mother how delicious her food preparations were just to get an extra sweetmeat; Lucy, no doubt, returned the gesture. We had no siblings and had an agreement that we would be twin sisters forever. We would run around in the open spaces near our houses playing games. During those days, a college student in the neighbourhood whom we called Anna (elder brother) would pick one of us and run around while the other ran behind waving a stick frantically in a rescue adventure. As he gradually got rough with us, the initial irritation at our game being disturbed turned into a strong fear and we usually preferred to have the horizon in between him and us.
Once our families were dining together. There was enough natural light to lure us to play outdoors. While we were roaming around, Anna suddenly appeared, lifted me and started running. Lucy didn’t come running behind like she usually would. When I didn't hear her war cry, I felt betrayed and started calling my mother, father and grandfather. By the time our parents came outside, he had bitten my cheek so hard that I was screaming.
Lucy’s and my mother quickly grabbed me away from the bad boy. I would have cried a bit more but forgot it all while cheering parents while they lambasted the guy. After my mum washed my face a hundred times, we rattled the house playing hide and seek, ate, slept and moved on. Our parents did not even consider talking to us about it. Has he done such things before? How often? No questions were asked.
Months later, Lucy’s father and my father got transferred to different places. It was in the 90s; we would only write letters to each other. Addresses were lost during the course of subsequent relocation and we were out of touch. I am sure, Lucy has grown up to be a lovely person.
I went to a new school, made new friends. Here my friend's jobless neighbour used to trouble us and her little sister while we were at play. This gave me a vague sense of deja vu. The only lesson I had learnt watching my dad during the earlier episode was that such people deserve scolding. I conveyed this to my friend and we took turns in scolding this man whenever he put his hands on us. As our voices grew louder, he only became more troublesome. A neighbour aunty, hearing us hit back at a respectable neighbourhood uncle, took us to task. If it ever was her business, she didn’t think one bit about what may have warranted such behaviour from kids, nor did she make it a point to take the matter to our parents. We were beaten and humiliated into silence. The lesson learnt at six, of at least being loud about the abuser, was overwritten at eight by this new lesson of getting humiliated for raising our voice.
The man didn’t mend his ways. All we did now was to run, but what match could we be to an adult who was bent upon catching us? He stopped only when the little sister asked her mother, in his presence, to join us for a game where this man held one of us tightly while the remaining fought hard to save the captive. Later that day, aunty only checked with us, in private, if this game was real. Perhaps my conservative parents were informed. They asked no questions and again, meted out no caution whatsoever. Another new lesson registered: these things are not important enough for parents to take notice.
Later, somewhere down the line, three male teachers abused me for years in school. With absolutely no useful lessons to help me in the situation, I was an easy prey. It took a long time to make sense of what was happening and when it did, I was shattered and shut myself off from everyone. Again, this shutting off was not seen as a matter of concern but as a bad behaviour of an undisciplined teenager who will grow up to hurt the family reputation, which, I silently resolved, I will hurt. For, were they not hurting me, so very much, that too?
My nights were full of bad dreams then, so are they now. Then, among the least terrible dreams, I would be in a cage with wild animals bearing the faces of those men about to pounce on me while mum and dad walked away. Now, among the most benign ones, I see my parents and yell at them: Why the hell did you not tell me what that Anna could have done? How on earth could you not ask what that noxious neighbour did? What great intelligence did you lack to see that such hawks feed on parental failures? Could you not just tell me, your own kid, that if those beasts ever touched me, all I had to do was shout for help and definitely inform you? Do you even know what your despicable conservatism did to your little daughter?
Still, I was considerably fortunate: I was provided with sufficient food, clothing, shelter and formal education. Today, I have gathered enough degree certificates to be financially independent, am stubborn enough to choose my way of life and am in a position to avail psychological help if and when I need it; doesn’t matter if the family-reputation enthusiasts have a problem. Sometimes, though, when I am forced to look back, my gut wrenches seeing a really sad, helpless little girl staring at me.
This has become of someone, in whose life material resources were not found wanting. What about thousands of others who don’t even have this, and go through worse, and continue to burn in hell – physically and mentally – with no way out?
Is it a nice way for a child to spend the formative years: painstakingly and singlehandedly sticking up the shattered pieces that together make the person? How long will such a patchwork last anyway? Where is the chance to observe, assimilate and grow if keeping oneself from collapsing is an all-consuming occupation? By the way, what about those who, along with being muted, are left so brutally broken that even patching up is impossible? How many of us have done anything beyond wondering, if at all we ever even wondered?
(The author is a volunteer working on educating underprivileged children and a researcher.)
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