The thing that bothered me the most, even more than the rough hands on my breasts and the stinging pain of the slap across my buttocks, was the scorn in their eyes, as they looked back at me, triumphantly. Even today, I wonder at it, my mind heavy with the plum juice and white rum that has become our staple Friday-evening drink.
Kamala is already five drinks down and has begun to curse men in general and Sabiha’s boss in particular, as she is wont to, these days. Sabiha is gently trying to steer the conversation away from her boss, and his repeated casual lingering hands that linger just too long to be casual.
Lapdiang and Arun are arguing about whether the event we had helped organize on our university campus, in solidarity with the ‘Kiss of Love’ protest against moral policing in Kerala, was an elitist event or not.
With all this talk about sexual harassment and moral policing, my mind sloshes its way back down familiar paths to the memory and I wonder, again, at how they – those three barely pubescent boys, zooming away on their motor bike, which had probably been loaned to them by an indulgent uncle – had not showed the least shame or remorse. They had looked so satisfied. So self- righteous… for teaching me a lesson. And even today, with all the university-bred theories of gender equality, patriarchy and feminism buzzing vaguely in my head and in the conversation around me, the scene remains etched into my memory, burning with shame, guilt and regret.
It had been summer. In Chennai. The scorching heat had dried out all the vegetation on the campus. Madras Christian College was swathed in shades of brown and the brittleness of dried out twigs and dead leaves. The afternoon air was heavy with sweat and lazy with flies. In the post-lunch somnolence, when all the other day-stream students had retired to the relative coolness of their hostel rooms, one could almost smell the hormones rushing through our blood and making our heads spin, hearts accelerate and stomachs churn.The guards could certainly sense it. They kept a watchful eye on us, making sure we didn’t sneak into the ‘forest’ – as the thick vegetation on our campus was often referred to.
Karan and I had been ‘dating’ for four weeks now. Karan had already declared that he ‘loved’ me and I had demurred that I might also, eventually, feel that way. In truth, I was scared to use that word, because to me it held the weight of life-long commitment and was not to be thrown around blithely. I felt guilt at the starved-puppy look in his eyes when I replied so uncertainly about ‘love’ and compromised by lacing my fingers tightly between his, though his fingers were large and cut off the blood circulation to my finger-tips, making them tingle with pins-and-needles.
I could feel the beads of sweat forming and dripping down my back as well as the soft cotton of my top soaking in the sweat around my armpits. Our palms were glued together with the stickiness of sweat, but we continued to hold hands as we exited our college campus (much to all the guards’ relief) and crossed the road towards Tambaram station.
Right opposite the main gate of our college, a short path led to the platforms of the local train station. A few steps down the path, another little path branched off in-between two parallel rows of houses, quite a few of which were abandoned. In our hormone-drunk state, we walked quickly past the first few houses, fingers still laced tightly together, and into the nearest abandoned house – it was just a few steps away from the ‘shit – pot’, an old abandoned Indian-style toilet which was no longer enclosed by walls and therefore useless as a toilet, except to exceptionally drunk men and male students of MCC . The ‘shit-pot’ was, however, surrounded by thick enough vegetation to afford eager couples a modicum of privacy, and was by this token, famous among the young couples of MCC as a ‘make-out-spot’.
The building we had ducked into was in total disrepair. It was only the barest skeleton that was still left standing. Chunks of concrete and plaster that had fallen out from the walls and support pillars revealing iron rods, making it look like the skeleton of the building was showing through. The floor was strewn with broken bricks and crumbled cement. Here and there were pools of human excreta, where passers-by had made use of the relative privacy of the crumbling walls to take a quick shit. It seemed like most of them suffered from chronic diahorrea. We held our breath and picked our way through the dried shit and the flies buzzing around the more recent piles. There was a room beyond the large one we had entered into from the path, which was almost free of shit, except for one old dried pile in the corner. We headed quietly, our hearts thudding to the wall opposite this. Karan checked to make sure he could see all the entrances to the room – the one through which we had entered as well as another which lead into what had been the backyard for the abandoned house – so that we would know if anyone stumbled upon on our little hidey-hole.
And then, finally, we kissed. We had kissed before, and it had been nervous and sweet and wreathed in all kinds of niceties about love and commitment. The niceties were still there, but this time we were more urgent, our hearts thudding, our faces wetly pressed together at the mouths and hands ever-so nervousley straying below each-other’s necks. It was hot and sweaty, and new to both of us.
He paused to ask me whether I minded if he touched me under my shirt. I dutifully said I did, though even in white-rum-heavy hindsight, I know that it was obvious that I did not mean it, and also that I wanted more than anything, at that moment, for his hands to touch me under my shirt. After a few more over-the-shirt breast squeezes while we kissed, he obliged by slowly slipping one hand under my shirt. We continued to kiss and he began to push my shirt up.
When he finally pulled it off over my head, despite my excitement and inability to breathe, a small detached part of my brain wished I had worn a prettier bra. He didn’t seem to notice the bra though, and fumbled with the hook as he looked deeply into my eyes, trying to reassure me with romance, before pulling me close and bending to take my exposed nipple into his mouth. In hindsight, I was as excited, and did not really need that reassurance. At the time, though, it did help suppress my Christian-guilt.
I felt short-changed. Was that all there was to it? It felt as straightforward as it was. Someone’s lips were around my nipple. It didn’t do anything to my heartbeat, didn’t transport me to the bliss I had been lead to expect. Was there something wrong with me? When he looked up from my breast to check on my reaction, I did a fair imitation of the heavy-lidded, blissful faces of women in Hollywood movies. Satisfied, he turned his eyes back to my chest, and left me to wonder why this particular forbidden action failed to stoke the rising excitement in me. Perhaps it was because we weren’t married? Perhaps I could not enjoy anything besides kissing until our sinful union was consecrated in a church?
All of a sudden, I became aware of the watching eyes. I turned quickly, covering my chest with my discarded shirt. Karan, momentarily disoriented, registered the pair of eyes watching us, greedily, from a hole in ceiling of the room we had not noticed. A pair of eyes peering down from the floor above, absorbing the scene in vicarious titillation. Karan shielded me from view as I quickly pulled on my shirt and fastened my bra under it, with shaking hands. It took me four tries to hook it.
The watcher sauntered down the stairs into the adjoining room and walked from there into ours. Another one, whom I had not noticed, came in through the back entrance. Effectively cutting off our quick exit, they converged on us.
My eyes were blurry with the shame. And the guilt that I had held at bay for dating this completely unsuitable boy came crashing down on me. If only I had said yes to the good Christian boy, who would have asked me out if it hadn’t been for Karan, I would certainly not have been in this situation. Not in a million years. Why, he probably would have only got around to asking me out in a month or two. I could have been studying last Saturday, instead of having my first kiss. I could have done well in today’s test. I could have…
The two cock-sure watchers were talking to Karan. A small modicum of relief that they were younger than us, and were therefore not holders of some authority who would report us to the college authorities, who would in turn probably pass this information on to my parents, registered its presence; but the shame and the guilt of such young boys having witnessed my bliss-face and having seen my breasts quickly obliterated it.
Karan appeared to be reasoning with them. And for the first time, my haze of guilt was pierced by a shard of anger. Who were these titchy boys to sit in judgement over us, as we explored our true love? Why were we on the defensive, when it was they who had been watching us, an activity which, it began to dawn on me, was extremely creepy.
I did not catch the words of the exchange, my shame being too acute to let me look up at these barely-pubescent boys, who had watched the most private moments of my life till date without my consent.
The greedy fascination in the eyes I had seen, was now transformed to a sanctimonious moralizing tone as they lectured Karan about propriety in Tamil, and he responded in wheedling-broken Malayalam and English that we had not hurt anyone, so could they let this pass, this time?
Finally, they agreed and walked away. I stared after the retreating backs, which radiated a certain respectability and the straight-backed smugness of having intervened in immoral activities and having resolved matters in such a way as to bring credit to their (and my) homeland.
Karan and I left the building as soon as those two had vanished from sight. I was still shaking in fear and horror. I felt exposed. I felt as though everyone around me knew I was cheap and easy – at the time, words like ‘whore’ did not enter easily into my mental space, but the sense that the words which did come tried to capture, was much the same. As we walked back down the path slowly, not holding hands and with none of our earlier buoyance which the excitement and promise our walk there had held, Karan tried to calm me down with assurances that none of the people around us knew what had happened.
A bike revved behind us, and we stepped out of its way to let it pass on the narrow path. The bike swerved around us, and the two boys behind the rider – the same two watchers we had encountered- grabbed me. The middle-one grasped my right breast, and pinched painfully, and the one at the back, slapped me across my bum. They looked back at me as they rode away, without a shadow of remorse. The look in those eyes was full of scorn and impunity. They looked triumphant and righteous. The wholesome pride they felt at teaching me a lesson radiated from their eyes.
The guilt and shame I had been holding at bay swamped me, and I held on to Karan’s hand so that he didn’t run after them, as he wanted to, because I knew I could not stand there in that spot, alone.
I could barely walk for the next few days. My butt still stung from the slap, and my breast hurt all of that evening. I plied Karan with guilt for a week after that, presenting him with tortured poems filled with laboured metaphors of shame and guilt. He had his own feelings of impotence, from being unable to retaliate at the time and not having been able to protect me from that experience, to deal with. We split up a few weeks later.
And the ideas of sex and sexual pleasure were underwritten in my mind with a deep and abiding shame and guilt, far beyond any that my Christian upbringing could ever have hoped to have achieved alone.
I shake my heavy head as if to dislodge the memory and take another sip of my drink.
I had of course, been harassed before. And several times, after. This was hardly the most violent, or shocking of the incidents. But it was this memory that made me feel the most violated. And though I do not remember their faces, I do remember the eyes, watching greedily in vicarious titillation.
I close my eyes again and open them slowly, bringing myself back to the present. I emerge from the space behind my eyes and look around at my friends. Kamala’s cursing has decreased to a grumbling mutter delivered from Sabiha’s lap, while Sabi plays with her partner’s hair affectionately. Lapdiang and Arun have taken their discussion off to the balcony, and in some corner of my rum-soaked brain it registers that their heated political debate was probably some strange form of foreplay. Rahul is on the phone with his long-distance-love. And I sit here, alone, contemplating my last failed relationship, in honour of which we are sharing these bottles of white-rum in Kamala and Sabiha’s flat.
I know that it was probably my fault. How was Ranjani to ever understand my debilitating deep-seated guilt about sex, if I couldn’t talk about it? And she certainly couldn’t be expected to wait until I resolved the thing I couldn’t articulate to her, for us to have the sex we both wanted to have.
I sigh as I down the rest of my drink and head to the kitchen to pour myself another. It is so hard to untangle the strands of guilt from the idea of sex in my mind. All the university theories of gender that I’m absorbing as part of my PhD haven’t helped much to dislodge this very personal guilt.
And all it had taken to put that guilt in place was a sweaty summer afternoon, three pre-pubescent boys with self-righteous hands ready to deliver Tamil morality, one borrowed motorcycle, a crumbling abandoned building with mouldering piles of shit… and a pair of eyes watching my tentative bliss-face in vicarious titillation.
** Originally written for Out of Print magazine’s issue on Sexual Violence. Unfortunately my story didn’t make it into the magazine. Here is a link to the issue: http://www.outofprintmagazine.co.in/index.html