White-rum, Plum-juice, Christian-guilt and a generous dose of righteous-harassment

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

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The Adulteress’ Tale

John 8:1 – 11 (King James Version)

1 Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. 2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.

3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?

6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. 7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. 8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?

11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

The Adulteress’ Tale

I remember that morning. The heat and the dust. And how they pushed me and jostled with each other as they dragged me to the temple. Some of their hands found their way to parts of my body that did not need to be grasped to lead me to my death. Sometimes, I wonder at the perversity of men.

I curled my toes into the sand as I stumbled along, and felt the edges of the stones as I walked. I tried to imagine how it would feel to have these stones thrown at me, hitting me, cutting me, until I died. It didn’t work. I couldn’t feel scared. It all seemed so strange.

They knew me. Every one of them. And they knew what I did for a living. Some of them had even visited me secretly. And suddenly, that morning, they had dragged me out of my house, yelling that I was a sinner and should die for my sins.

When they brought me before him and challenged him to pass judgement on me, it began to make sense. They were using me. Using me as an example for their pointless debates. It made me angry.

He sat there. So calmly. Writing in the dust. Ignoring their demanding voices.

They told him that I had been caught in adultery – a lie. I am much too careful for that sort of thing.

And they challenged him to defy the old scriptures, saying that Moses had said women like me should be stoned to death. It sounds like something I have heard them say of Moses.

Moses, who was saved from death at his birth by the midwives who risked their lives to disobey Pharoah. Moses, raised by Pharoah’s daughter who adopted him as her own on the urging of Miriam, his sister. Moses, saved from God’s wrath by Zipporah, his wife. So many men have no gratitude.

Then he looked up at me. For a moment our eyes met. And I knew I could be adulterous again, if I survived this. With him.

There was such energy in his eyes, I wondered how it would feel to be with a man like that.

He told them that the scriptures did indeed say that sinners like me should be stoned. He paused, and let them savour their moment of triumph. My heart beat faster. Was that it? From our glance he had not seemed to me a man to give up so easily. Was I to be disappointed again, by a man, just before I was killed – for loving all these men who disappointed me?

Then, he raised his voice slightly and challenged them back. “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” There was a silence. A long silence. I could feel their excitement and victory dissipate leaving behind confusion. Their grips on my arms and shoulders slackened.

And then, they left, one by one. Like dogs with their tails between their legs.

He had outwitted them. And for a moment I was grateful to him.

He had saved my life from those vultures, who would use me as fodder for their arguments. Perhaps some of them even felt guilt for their wandering hands!

He looked up at me. His eyes had that same intensity.

And then, I realised that he too had used me. He had used me to show off his wisdom and compassion. To win a battle of wits with the other Teachers. To impress them. To prove to the onlookers that he understood God better than they.

I remembered that terrifying and disappointing pause. He had timed his words well for the best dramatic effect.

I was angry, but grateful. And I wanted him, with his burning eyes and his long fingers casually writing in the sand. I wanted to smell him. Taste him. Drive him mad with pleasure, like I did with all the others.

I looked down, demurely. They usually liked that.

“Go now, and sin no more,” he said to me, kindly. Patronisingly.

“What is sin?” I asked him softly. My tone was of a little lost girl. But my eyes were both angry and hungry for him.

He had no answer, and he stared at me. It seemed to me that he was suddenly seeing me as a person and not a point to be made. I walked away.

Later, alone in my room, I wondered if he was the one everyone spoke of. They said he could be the messiah. He had the energy and the intensity to be one. He could lead us.

They say he’s descended from Abraham and David.

Abraham, who abandoned Hagar and their son in the desert. And David who abandoned Michal after she saved his life by deceiving her father. David who then reclaimed her, against her will, when she had married another and did not wish to part with him. David who spied on Bathsheba as she bathed. David who had Bathsheba’s husband murdered so that he could lie with her again.

Both greedy men, who acquired land and power and spread their seed without much thought for their women.

I can never understand why they speak of David and Abraham as his forefathers with such pride. But I’ve heard tell that he speaks only of a kingdom in heaven. Perhaps he does not want to be king. Perhaps he will not seek power on earth. There may be hope, yet.

They only speak of the men in his line, after all. The truth of it can only be known by the women.

Perhaps he has more potential than they credit him with. Perhaps he is descended from Anna and and Judith and Deborah and Yael.

Perhaps he could make a good messiah.

And if he is the one, I hope they remember him as a man. Of flesh and blood. Made to smell and taste and feel. I hope they don’t reduce him to a voice from the scriptures telling people what to do and what not to do. However revolutionary his ideas.

But that is too much to hope for.

And clashing with the Pharisees and Saducees, will only get him killed. Maybe even crucified, if the Romans notice him.

I wonder if I should seek him out, again. If he is to be the messiah, my presence could be dangerous for him. I hope he remembers me.

I can leave if he does not want me with him. But from what they say of him, he keeps worse company than prostitutes like me. They say he eats with tax-collectors and lepers. Perhaps he could be a great teacher. Both wise and compassionate.

And his eyes…

How should I go to him? Should I take my perfume and wash his feet and cry and promise never to go back to my sinful ways. It’s hard to tell from a single look whether he will appreciate repentance or not. Some men do. They like to think that they have cured a woman of her wandering ways and made her faithful. It makes them feel good about their skills in the night, and righteous about having brought her back to the lord. And he is to be the messiah, after all.

They never wonder what kind of Lord creates pleasure so intense and then insists that we, who feel it, tame ourselves and restrict our pleasure.

I wonder if his love is worth repentance?

Perhaps he will be different.

But then, how should I go to him?

I wonder if he will see me as a person. As a woman of skin and hair and smell and touch and thought. Or as a symbol, for him to reform. He is to be a messiah, after all. Such men are dangerous.

I know I will seek him out, for he fascinates me. The only question is, how?

Notes:

1. This piece began as a monologue about Mary Magdalene, and many of the ideas here come from discussions with friends. This is another version which came out of the discussion. Take a look at her blog as well. It’s beautiful. https://nathawahlang.wordpress.com/2015/03/07/the-forgiving-and-forgiven-whores-1-mary-magadalene/?preview_id=84

2. The bible I consulted, mentions that this story is not found in the ‘earliest and most reliable’ versions of the Gospel.

3. This is one of my favourite stories from the Bible – the idea that we are all flawed and have no right to judge other people is one I hold very dear. Nevertheless, I think the story bears retelling from this perspective. I also think we can learn a lot from this kind of a perspective, about how we can be insensitive to people who experience different subjectivities from ourselves.

4. This story, though often assumed to refer to Mary Magdalene, is probably not about her. For more information on her please read this excellent article: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/who-was-mary-magdalene-119565482/?fb_locale=fr_FR&page=1

5. The conflation of the offence of ‘adultery’ with ‘prostitution’ is definitely part of the rewriting of (in this case, Biblical) history through male eyes, and the conflation of Mary Magdalene – possibly one of Jesus’ most trusted disciples – with the reformed prostitute we see her as today. Please do read the article linked above, for more on this. Despite this, and perhaps because of it, I think this kind of retelling of the tale can be very powerful for bringing another voice into this much beloved tale.

6. The line ‘What is Sin?’ emerged from a discussion with friends. One of them mentioned that a recent Malayalam poem ends this story with Mary looking up into Jesus’ eyes and asking him ‘What is Sin?’ I found the imagery very powerful – especially with the story ending there. I attempted to find a translation of the poem or the author’s name, so as to acknowledge the source, but have so far been unable to track either down. I will edit this as soon as I can acknowledge that source properly.

7. I am also probably, strongly influenced by the musical, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ (Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber; Lyrics: Tim Rice) and the song, ‘I don’t know how to love him’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lS2nX4fuzqc

Fara

Fara ran the last few metres and dived into the ladies’ compartment, just as the train began to pull out. She was immediately jostled and pushed into the sweaty depths of the compartment, as her co-passengers converged back around the entrance. She sighed, there was so much space inside the compartment… why must they all crowd around the entrance and block all the air circulation to the interior?

She checked her bag to make sure her phone, purse and keys were safe. Yes, her possessions were intact. She reached up to hold the hand-hold as the train made its sluggish way towards Lingampalli terminal, from where she’d take a share-auto to get to Sujit’s place.

As the train trundled on, stopping at stations and from time to time between them, passengers slowly trickled out and Fara was finally able to settle by the entrance. There were several empty seats, but she preferred to stand by the entrance and feel the wind streaming against her face. She leaned comfortably against the partition and undid the veil of her burqa.

She was still getting used to wearing a burqa. At home she’d never had to wear one, and in college she hadn’t bothered to bond particularly with the other Muslims in her batch. In fact a lot of people had never figured out that she was Muslim at all… she herself had never identified with the community until she had started dating Sujit.

She wasn’t sure whether it was a defensive reaction to his rare and unintentional misconceptions about the Muslim community, or whether with age her religion had begun to mean more to her… either way, from the day she had started dating him, two years and six months ago, she had become more and more traditionally ‘Muslim’, whatever that was! She wasn’t sure it was a change she liked, but it had happened, somehow… and it certainly wasn’t a change she disliked. All in all, it was rather confusing.

It was not that Sujit was a devout Hindu. Far from it… in fact she wasn’t entirely sure whether he believed in God at all. On some level the fact that this did not bother her made her feel hypocritical about her growing religious affiliation, but she genuinely believed that all ways to God were equally valid… and couldn’t really make up her mind about people who didn’t make an effort to find God in any way. And Sujit was very understanding about her need to identify with Islam… a fact that made her love him more, as well as resent the implied condescension of it, even though she knew he did not mean it that way.

Her phone vibrated and she fished it out of her bag. It was her mother calling. Fara shook her head and put the phone back in to her bag. She’d call back later. She couldn’t think of a good reason for why she was on the train so late in the evening and the ambient noise was unmistakeable even over the phone, so she couldn’t lie about where she was.

Her poor parents. They would be so upset if they knew how she was living her life. They had been so supportive of everything she wanted out of life, supporting her career choices and even her decision not to get married, not knowing that all the while, she was not only dating a ‘Hindu’, but partially living with him as well. It was all so complicated. If her mother knew she was wearing a burqa these days she would be very troubled… but if she understood how the burqa fit into Fara’s world she would probably not be able to even understand it. It helped Fara both identify with her community as well as granted her anonymity when she needed it, like now… on her way to spend the weekend at her boyfriend’s apartment.

Fara shook her head to slow the teeming of the thoughts in her brain. She was exhausted. She longed for a bath.

She gazed out at the passing landscape. It seemed to be moving as fast as her thoughts. Offices, hospitals, houses, apartments, people… they streamed past her in the opposite direction. Her eyes fixed on nothing in particular and she took it all in, as the rushing tide of lives flowed past her momentary window into their worlds.

For a second her eyes met his… and the smooth flow halted. Then it rushed tumultuously on with renewed vigour as the train bore her swiftly away. It had only been a moment, but it shook her.

He had been standing, leaning against his balcony wall, his elbows resting on it and staring into the middle distance. As the train rushed past, his eyes settled on the blur of windows broken by the occasional door or break between carriages. And for a second, he had met her eyes… seen her face clear and still before the train bore her away forever. Or so, Fara imagined. She had no way of knowing whether the moment had unsettled him or not… whether he’d even noticed her. Yet their eyes had met, and like a woman from a corny Hollywood movie, she’d felt her world change.

She did not know who he was, what he did, whether he’d been standing at his own balcony or at a friends’… she could not tell how old he was. He could have been anything between sixteen and thirty… Was he married? What did he believe in? Did he smoke? Did he like movies? Where was he from? Did he have a girlfriend? Did he like chocolate? Was he gay? What language did he think in?

She wasn’t even entirely sure how he looked. She only knew he was clean shaven and that his eyes had seemed to reach into her soul and see her innermost thoughts and that for once she hadn’t felt lacking in who she was, despite her many confusions and contradictions.

Fara shook her head again, to clear it. She was being ridiculous. It was just her whole dilemma over identity playing up and tormenting her overworked brain. She tried to think of Sujit and everything he meant to her. How nervous he’d been in the beginning… how sensitive he was… his curly hair… his warm eyes… his infectious laughter… the way he looked at her… his foolish grin when she smiled because of something he’d said… his ridiculous impractical plans and promises… Sujit. She took a deep breath, and smiled at the thought of the man she loved.

But somewhere in the recesses of her mind an image of a figure on a balcony with momentarily piercing eyes flickered and a lone voice asked What was his name?