As mortal beings, we humans put in a lot of efforts into saving memories. We click pictures, collect souvenirs and sometimes people like me even write it all down. But when the pictures are gone and the souvenirs are lying someplace we can’t remember, then, there is only one thing that comes back to us when the sun goes down and the door in the back of our head cracks open and that is: how we felt. Precisely, how we felt in that moment. Was it ecstasy or fear? Was it exciting or dull? Was it forced or faked or undesired? Did it feel victorious or quite the opposite?
A memory reminds us how we felt at a point in time and sometimes, for good reasons, memories shouldn’t be created.
In the summer break of 2005, my mother decided that it would be a good use of me and my best friend’s time to learn swimming and so, she enrolled us for classes at a local school that sublet its pool to freelance swimming instructors. I still remember the first time we went to see the pool along with my mother. We were introduced to two young instructors who promised my mother that they would extend all the necessary support and ‘watch out’ for us. The pool was crowded with all the kins, especially the mothers sitting by the pool guarding dry towels and clothes, cheering and motivating their kids, making friends with fellow mothers. It seemed like a picture perfect moment full of fun and frolic with at least 20 pairs of eyes constantly watching the pool making sure that a part of them doesn’t drown out there. Vedika and I giggled as we exchanged enthusiastic looks with each other just as any thirteen year olds would do. We had already decided the color of our swimming costume, the goggles and the cap. We were finally going to learn the butterfly stroke! Or so we hoped.
The first few days were easy. We were taught to hold our breath, float and scissor kick our legs. Being a hydrophobic, I always stood by the shallow end of the pool while Vedika explored the water until it reached her shoulder level. She would swim almost 10 feet away from me and then signal me to come but I always shook my head in a firm no. If there is one thing I learned then it was that nothing sucked more than chlorinated water up your nose.
A week later, one of my instructors approached me and said something along the lines that I need to try harder in order to overcome my fear of water if I really were to learn swimming. He suggested I should try to go towards slightly deeper side of the pool and in order to help me, he promised to be there by my side at all times. ‘I won’t let you drown’, he said and I agreed, mostly because my friends in the park, including my crush said the same, i.e. one needs to go into deeper waters in order to actually learn swimming. So we both are somewhere in the middle of 8 feet and I am doing just fine trying to paddle away the water until it struck me that there is no ground under my feet and I panicked. I could feel my heart hammering against my ribs as I gasped for air as the water sucked me in. I fanatically reached out for my instructor who was at an arms distance. He helped me resurface and tried to calm me down, ‘It’s okay’, he repeated again and again and the next thing I realized amidst all the confusion is that one of his hands is touching my inner thighs while he looked me straight in the eye waiting for a reaction. I wonder if I looked more confused or terrified or both knowing that I couldn’t even push him away from myself or else I may drown. ‘I want to go back to the shallow side’, I finally said not knowing how else to react. ‘Sure’, he smiled like touching a person’s bare thigh is the most natural thing in the world.
That was definitely the end of swimming lessons for me and never did I say a word about this to anyone simply because I wasn’t even sure about what happened back then. Vedika never complained about anything so I thought maybe something was wrong with me or maybe I misread the whole situation. But this definitely wasn’t the end of sexual harassment I faced as a naïve teen ager. Once my ass was pinched at a crowded Diwali fair, even though my parents were just a few feet away from me and at another instance when I was hospitalized for a few days, the doctor thought the right way to listen to my heartbeat is by pressing the stethoscope right at the center of the breasts, which I observed wasn’t the case when my parents were in the room. And mind you, all of this is apart from the day to day eve teasing and name calling of body parts which involved no physical contact thankfully. At all instances I wondered if my behavior was provocative in any way? Was I wearing inappropriate clothes? What did I do to invite such depravity? After every single instance, I came back home with a little bit of innocence being replaced by a little bit of cynicism but importantly, I came back with the fear of being out alone.
I wondered what it must be like for women and little girls who are taken against their will. Every day the newspaper had a new story to tell which suddenly had all my attention and I realized that all this is for real. I couldn’t help but wonder if something worse happened to me.
The recent Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo spark is yet another reminder that even today, women at top of their fields face such sexual innuendoes by men at top of theirs, even in first world supposedly advanced nations and maybe in all those years, it wasn’t my fault for inviting such behavior and honestly, that’s bit of a relieve. It is a reminder that successful and even learned men treat women like objects and suddenly I can clearly see that face with the creepy smile in the middle of the swimming pool that said ‘Sure’. Scandals such as these take me down the memory lane and even after more than a decade of first such incidence in my life, the first thing I remember is how I felt at that very moment and I precisely felt terrified.
But why am I writing about this after all these year when the discomfort of talking through this can be easily swept under the carpet? Well, I am sharing some of the darkest moments of my life because I know there are other young and naïve girls out there who don’t know how to react. To them I want to say, speak up. They are targeting you because they think you are young and vulnerable which is why they can probably get away with this behavior. We have to make sure that this screwed up mindset changes and for that we need to speak up.
Today, I wonder how many girls must that instructor have tried to molest before and after me? I wonder how things would have been different if I had shared this incident with my parents and then they would have probably taken appropriate actions to escalate the issue. Maybe, I should have slapped each one of those guys, I do imagine doing that sometimes and it feels good because then people like him would at least think twice before pulling such stunts. I wonder how many innocent girls I could have saved from being scarred because back then when I said nothing, they won. I gave each one of them the power by staying silent and till date, it bothers me.
To all the parents, I want to say, talk to you children both girls and boys because in the recent light of events, little boys are exploited too in ways we don’t want to imagine and all of this happens in plain sight of a pool or in social gatherings by people who look completely normal. It happens when you don’t even see it coming and it is of utmost importance that you educate your kids about the ‘bad’ touch. You tell them, that you as a parent are open to such conversations because the world isn’t a fairyland after all. Such conversations are very difficult yet very important.
To some extent, I want to blame the society and the social media for my silence back then because of the victim blaming games they play. They somehow twist the whole situation to show that it was the girls fault. They mask the woman’s identity when instead as a society we should say, ‘Look, here’s a hero who survived disgrace’ but in reality, the questions that are raised are: Why was she out so late? Why was she dressed like that? Why was she breathing?
The conservative remarks such as ‘’Boys will be boys, they commit mistakes” that come from ministers holding political offices in India show how doomed we are as a society and how our leadership is screwed beyond repairs. Such weak men cannot handle strong women and more importantly they cannot handle being let down, being said ‘NO’ to by a woman and so they make up a world in their heads in which women are supposed to behave in a certain way while men can grab and grope anyone they please. It’s no surprise that 70 percent of work place sexual harassment in India goes unreported.
It goes without saying that there are good men too, the ones I see in my father, brothers and friends who treat women as humans not above or below them but equally, and they are far more in number than the bad men which is why this world isn’t such a bad place to live in after all. To such men, I want to say thank you, for your thoughtfulness and compassion is moving.
I know there is a long way to go but I also know that we have come a long way from a world where once there was practiced Sati to a world where women can be themselves more freely. It is bit of a paradox that we are born free but still we have to fight majority of our life fighting for some kind of freedom or a basic right. This is probably because we ourselves are our biggest enemy and the hunger for power overcomes us in various ways. History stands tall as an evidence that men in the past have oppressed and waged wars on other men for no rational reason at all but just to feel powerful and it shouldn’t be a surprise if such men and women with vile motives keep surfacing from time to time. Together as a society we can fight them all but as a starting point, we need to speak up.
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