The Animal House

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One of my fondest memories from childhood are the visits to the “Animal House”. We lived in a medical college campus and I used to often visit my mom’s department in the medical college during school holidays. Spent most of my time there either plucking roses from the rose trellis in front of the building, or gazing at the numerous rodents and rabbits in the Animal House, or watching my mom’s experiments.

She was a “doctor” who did research and teaching rather than treat patients. Heard her tell her friends and colleagues several times that she chose the “teaching” side so that she could spend more time with her family and kids. A few times, also heard her remark to some friends that she regretted not having picked the “clinical” side, because it might have been more fulfilling.

Most of her research involved working with mice or rabbits, and it used to be very exciting to watch her do things to them like giving injections, or making them run around in a maze, and sometimes even operate or cut them open. This was a difficult job that required a lot of skill and patience.

Most mice were generally not co-operative and seemed to hate injections, and she was once badly bitten by a mouse that was desperately trying to avoid the needle. She then walked around with a huge bandage around her index finger for a few days, inviting a lot of sympathy from many people. I was very much affected by that incident and remember telling all my friends about how an angry mouse had bitten her, and bringing them home to show the finger 😦 😦

Despite being familiar with all the shenanigans of the mice, I still loved visiting the Animal House that was in the basement of the college. Could spend hours and hours there and had to be dragged home unwillingly. It was an amazingly long dingy room with a very high ceiling. When you first entered it, you could immediately see rows and rows of cages, with scores and scores of white mice in them. When you looked more closely into the cage, you’d notice that almost each cage had several generations of mice – of all different shapes and sizes. There would be some really old fat and sluggish ones, younger frisky ones and tiny pink babies as well. One would never get bored watching them because there was always some interesting activity or other going on, or a few cute newborn mice to gape at.

The room also had a very distinct stench of soaked Channa (whole Bengal gram), and that was the primary food given to all these animals. The mice loved them and would continuously munch on them, and never seemed to desire any other variety in their menu.

When you walked past these rows and rows of mice, you could finally see the rows and rows of Guinea Pigs. They were also kept in similar cages, ate the same food and had similar families. But they were prettier, larger in size and also much cuter. Once you tired of watching them, you could proceed further and reach the rabbit cages.

The rabbits were my favorites and undoubtedly the best looking. They also came in many colors and combinations – white, black, brown and mixed. They seemed to be the darlings of the keepers as well, because in addition to Channa, they were also given carrots and cabbage. And like the mice and Guinea Pigs, they also spent most of their time eating.

Rarely beyond the rabbit cages, in the farthest corner, you could sometimes find monkeys. However caged monkeys were an unusual sight that I spotted only a couple of times. My mom told me that it was terribly difficult to handle a monkey during experiments since they were big and aggressive animals. I was glad that she didn’t have to handle them after I saw what a tiny mouse could do.

The composition of the Animal House never changed, yet I never tired of it and always looked forward to visiting it. Many times while exiting it, I’d ask my mother if I could keep a Guinea Pig or a rabbit as a pet and the answer would always be a “No” and I would grow quite glum. (I finally got to keep two Guinea Pigs, a kitten and a squirrel as pets and will write about them in another post)

As if to compensate for the disappointment regarding pets, she would next take me to the small tank in the college garden. This tank was veritably a mini water-zoo, full of frogs and tadpoles in various stages of development. We would spend a lot of time bending over it observing the tiny tadpoles, and I’d be amazed to learn that they would soon change their shapes and turn into huge frogs!

We would finally walk away from the tank towards home. The roughly ten minute walk through a grassy path was also very enchanting – ever since I discovered snails. One day as we were trudging along and I was stopping on and off to pluck some tiny flowers along the path, my mom pointed to a greyish brown shell on the path and told me that it was a “snail”. However it looked very ugly and uninteresting and I didn’t show much interest. But she poked the shell with a twig, and miraculously a tiny head peered out from it and went back in!! Then I looked closely again and found numerous such shells along the path, some with their heads out and others within. From then on, I’d walk on that path with a long enough stick to poke them and watch the magic 🙂 🙂

I have delightful memories of spending time with all these “animals” back then. Visited Bangalore again a few years ago and went down those same paths looking for those snails. But, was very disappointed. Thanks to many more buildings and concrete coming up, the snails seem to have totally disappeared from those paths 😦 Couldn’t spot even a single snail on that path 😦 Consider myself lucky to have spent my childhood in Bangalore when it was still a very green, lush and beautiful “Garden City”.

PS: Attached photo is that of the “Monument to the Laboratory Mouse” (sourced from the Internet), which is a sculpture in the city of Novosibirsk in Russia.

The Hindi Drama

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Recounting my one and only experience with dramatics and acting long ago in school. “Acting and drama” have been my weakest points and it’s rather embarrassing to share this experience, but am being brave enough to do so….

It was quite well known to almost everyone in school that I was no good whatsoever in acting as well as singing, and therefore no one ever bothered to consider me for any role that required either of these two skills. I had been tested and retested several times in the lower classes before this conclusion had been reached – especially in drama. Used to freeze on stage, forget all my lines and give the worst possible performance with the worst possible expressions 😦 But I never really worried much about this shortcoming because my hands were always full with sports and games – which were my forte.

However, when I was in the seventh standard, we got a new Hindi teacher – Mrs Gupta, and she was quite unaware of my “acting skills”. For some reason she took a liking to me and I became her pet. She would always call upon me for everything – to clean the blackboard, to carry her notebooks, to answer questions, for just about anything and everything – including acting 😦

She was a very good writer and had written the Hindi play for the School Annual Day herself, and to everyone’s surprise, she chose me as the heroine! I reluctantly accepted the honor because she didn’t give me any opportunity to decline it. However after a few rehearsals, she seemed to have realized her mistake, because she kept steadily cutting down my portion and lines. It would have been so much better if she’d dropped me altogether, but she was determined to retain me. Finally, I was left with just a “two word dialogue” that I still remember even today – “Suniye toh” (Please listen to me).

The dialogue was easy enough, but the acting was still a major problem. I was supposed to be the wife of a Mr. Sharma, and had to pat my husband on the shoulder and deliver the dialogue. The problem was that the boy who was acting as my husband was a senior, and not a classmate. I had never encountered or spoken to him before and he was quite a stranger. And to make it worse, the entire drama group had started to tease us as “Mr. and Mrs. Sharma” and crack jokes on us.

This teasing really angered and irritated me and I refused to pat him or even stand close to him. This stance angered Mrs. Gupta as well and led her to give us all a lecture on how we should be considering each other as “brothers and sisters” and not be so narrow-minded. After her lecture and cajoling, I finally agreed to a “two finger tap-tapping” on the shoulder.

Also shockingly, the regular teasing seemed to have had an opposite effect on the senior – Akash, because instead of getting irritated, he seemed to like it and ended up having a crush on me that lasted for a few months. This outcome was quite a nightmare, especially because he didn’t seem to believe in romance or courtship or any that sort of thing, and jumped straight to marriage!! 😦 😦

I would receive regular messages from his female friends or classmates regarding his intentions to marry me and this totally scared me out of my wits (after all, I was only thirteen years old). A few girls from business families used to regularly drop out of our school after finishing 8th Std, because “8th Std. pass” was considered qualification enough for their marriage. I was only one year away from 8th and therefore really worried. In addition, Akash was unlike any of my male friends or classmates, he was quite rowdy and violent.

One day I was shocked to hear that he had beaten up Ganesh – one of my classmates, because he had seen me chatting with him and thought that the chat was “too long”!! This incident really angered me and I strengthened my resolve to have nothing to do with him.

But the play was still on, and I was forced to “tap tap” on his shoulder and say “Suniye toh” on stage, while I maintained a cold silence and distance otherwise. Luckily the Annual Day was getting closer and this ordeal would soon come to an end. A few days before the final, Mrs. Gupta started talking about costumes and make-up as well. She paid more attention to the costumes of the more important characters in the play, and quite ignored me. Those days, make-up was a rare commodity since very few teachers or mothers used it. Therefore, special arrangements were made for the two more important girls in the play, while the others were to remain without it. But I got all excited and asked Mrs. Gupta if I could be “made-up” as well? I wanted to make sure that I’d be noticed for the five seconds when I’d deliver my two word dialogue 🙂 🙂

One of the senior girls who was involved in the play, acknowledged my enthusiasm and told me that she would bring her mother’s cosmetics on that day, and help me out. She told me that she was a “pro” at it since she’d been observing her mom for many years. This made me quite excited and elated, and I actually became quite enthusiastic about the play, despite the other hardships.

The Annual Day arrived and there was a lot of excitement regarding the various performances that were lined up, my family and many other parents would be among the audience. By then, I’d become quite adept with my two words – “Suniye toh” and had lost all my stage fright. I was even okay with the “shoulder tapping” because it would be the last time that I’d be required to do it, and was eagerly looking forward to “The End”.

The senior girl who promised to do my make-up arrived as promised, with a big box full of very interesting and intriguing bottles and got working on me. I was really excited and happy, and couldn’t wait to see myself after she’d finished. I was also wearing a silk sari and had braided my hair into a single plait instead of the usual two, to look older. When she was finally done, I rushed into the washroom to check the results.

When I looked at myself in the mirror, I immediately knew that something was amiss. I’d almost failed to recognize myself and did look much older, very striking, and somewhat strange. However, I wasn’t well versed enough in the art of make-up to be able to pinpoint the exact errors. It was also too late to redo it. So, I glumly thanked the senior girl and put on a brave face for the rest of the evening.

It really did take a lot of courage to survive that entire evening, because I had to constantly hear many comments. People were noticing me a lot, though not for the reasons I wanted them to. They kept saying “Hey, you generally look so much better without make-up”, or “Appu, make-up doesn’t really suit you”, and “What the hell have you done to your eyes (or lips)?!” The more diplomatic and sympathetic ones just remarked “You look different today”.

These comments and remarks kind of destroyed my new found confidence in dialogue delivery, and I’m not really sure what happened for those final five seconds on stage. Not sure if I spoke loud enough and delivered both words or just one word, and whether I “tap tapped on the shoulder”, or forgot that move. The only thing I remember is that the month long ordeal was finally over and that I could relax, without any more “drama” from the next day.

I’ll always remember my performance and experience in the Hindi play as one of my biggest embarrassments in school. However, I was wise enough to learn from it and never ventured into “theater” or “acting” ever again 🙂 🙂

 

 

On Windows and Views

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Wrote this poem a few days back when I was in Hyderabad. Managed to stay for a few days in my old apartment there. The last few years that I’d spent in it was quite ill and invalid, so it felt really great to be back in much better condition.

Used to spend a lot of time gazing out of windows when I was unwell, and haven’t been indulging in that activity for quite some time. It’s actually a very delightful pastime – very calming and relaxing, provided your window has a nice view 🙂 🙂 My window had a very green and beautiful view of trees, birds, butterflies and garden activity, therefore I never ever got bored. It used to be fun watching different birds turn up at different times of the day, and indulge in various antics. Whiled away some time again before I wrote this poem.

Also remembered that my grandfather used to spend a lot of time gazing out of our living-room window in Bangalore, when he stayed with us. He really enjoyed this activity and would give a running commentary of the scenes outside, to anyone willing to listen. Our house was in front of a lively but not noisy street, so the scenes outside used to be quite colorful and interesting.

He became familiar with and used to recognize all the regular passers-by, and would notice whenever one of them was missing on any particular day. There would be office-goers passing by in the mornings and evenings, children going to school, vendors coming and going at different times, and laborers returning home late evening.

He used to enjoy Sundays the most because there was a popular church close-by. Many families would pass by on Sundays in their most colorful and best clothes and he knew all of them, though he never spoke to any of them! If any family or family member was missing on any Sunday, he would comment on that. Am hardly spending any time by windows nowadays, and think I should get back to it once in a while 🙂 🙂
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By the Window

I decided to make today
an ode to yesterday
and whiled away the moments
in idle sentiments

Settled by the same old window
and remembered many scenes
of birds humming in the breeze
gardeners chattering under trees

All that reality is now only memory
today’s certainty is also but a dream
the yesterdays, their trials and tribulations
how strange, sad and beautiful they seem….

Rukmini Ammamma

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Those nights when I’ve lain awake struck by insomnia and dreading the darkness, I’ve worried mostly about the “irrationality” and “evil” in human nature. The two qualities or aspects that seem to cause most of the misery and perplexity in human lives. While wallowing in this nocturnal anxiety and fear, I’ve also wondered why some people are so vile, whether it’s their intrinsic nature, or due to their circumstances, or their life experiences or some combination of all three? Despite losing sleep for many nights, I haven’t yet found a satisfactory answer to these questions, and am still on my quest 🙂 🙂

If we could find the antecedents and antidotes to selfishness, cruelty, and greed, I guess we could solve most world problems. But I’m probably not the first person to be thinking on these lines and neither will I be the last, and if the answers were so easy, they’d have been discovered or invented by now 🙂 🙂

Right now, I can only reminisce and share my memories and perception. In an earlier post titled “Train to Calcutta”, I’d mentioned “Rukmini ammamma (grandmother), who was my maternal grandma’s elder sister and quite a terror. Not only did she have a very remarkable and tyrannical personality, but she also has a very unusual story. Her story is a perfect example as to why it’s absolutely essential for Indian women (actually all women) to be educated and self-sufficient, and also to have equal rights in their father’s and husband’s properties. A lot of progress has now been made in these matters, but the circumstances were very precarious and challenging for women in the past.

Ammamma’s family was one of the richest in their district and possessed many landed properties, as well as gold. Her mother (my great-grandmother) “Savitramma” is still one of the most venerated women in our family and several girls in subsequent generations were given her name to commemorate her. She was supposed to be a very idealistic and generous woman.

In the 1930’s Gandhiji visited their neighborhood as part of his travels throughout India, and delivered a moving address on the need to fight for independence from British rule. She was so affected by his speech that she donated her entire gold jewelry (which was quite a bit) to him and the freedom cause, without hesitating even for a moment. Both her sons (ammamma’s brothers) were also very idealistic and selfless, and much involved in the Freedom Movement and even imprisoned for some months in the Rajahmundry Central Jail. They were also followers of “Kandukuri Veereselingam Pantulu” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kandukuri_Veeresalingam) – a social reformer from Andhra Pradesh, who was involved in causes like womens’ education, abolition of dowry and widow remarriage.

One day in Calcutta, when I was browsing through some old photo albums in my uncle’s house, I came across a very old B&W photograph of a beautiful and well-dressed lady. So I asked my aunt who she was. I was shocked to hear that it was ammamma’s photo! There was absolutely no resemblance between the tyrannical, arthritic, bent old woman and the beautiful lady in the photograph! When I looked quizzically at my aunt, she assured me that it was indeed ammamma’s photograph!

I got to know her tragic story many years later… Ammamma had been married when she was very young – just 8 or 9 years old (child marriage was very common in those days), and had become a widow by the time she was just 16 years old. She had delivered a female baby just before she lost her husband.

Her unscrupulous in-laws had cruelly decided to keep her child and all her gold jewelry, but not her. They sent her back to her mother’s house with the excuse that she was “unlucky and inauspicious” for their family. So she started living a depressing and secluded life, grieving for her husband and separated from her baby. In those days, widows had to wear only white saris, eat very simple food and keep away from any festivals or functions. Even at the tender age of sixteen, all these customs had to be followed.

After a year or so, Mr. Ramprasad – a wealthy and successful lawyer, who was her brother’s friend happened to catch a glimpse of her when he visited their house. He was instantly smitten by her, and enquired about her. Even after being told her story and the fact that she was a widow (widow remarriage was taboo in those days), he expressed his desire to marry her.

Social reformers like Veeresalingam had started a “Remarriage Association” in those days and were encouraging young men to come forward and marry widows. He supported his ideas by quoting scriptures, and proving that all religious texts did not advocate the regressive practices that were against women. However, there was still a lot of opposition and there were very few young men who agreed with him. But ammamma’s brothers were very progressive, and they decided to get her remarried despite the opposition.

She was married again to Ramprasad, and it seemed like a happy and new beginning to her life. She was again gifted a lot of gold jewelry (around 200 tolas) and given a huge dowry and her husband was also a very rich man, so she was very well placed and everything seemed fine for a couple of years. However on the day when she got to know that she was expecting a child, she also heard some very shocking news from a relative.

Her husband had conveniently neglected to reveal the fact that he had another wife (his first wife) and a few kids in a nearby town. This information was a total shocker and she felt much betrayed, and took it very badly. The couple started having frequent altercations and fights after this revelation. During one such bitter fight, Ramprasad lost his temper and dragged her out of the house and shut the door on her. He did not relent even after a few days, and heartlessly and cruelly did not agree to even let her take back her belongings, or gold. It was talked about for many days about how she was left on the streets in a pregnant condition, with nothing but the sari she wore to her name.

All this couldn’t have happened at a worse time because both her brothers were then in prison, serving sentences for having taken part in the Freedom Movement, and for supporting Gandhiji. A few relatives tried to help her get back her gold and demand alimony, but failed because her husband was an unscrupulous lawyer. Grievously struck by remorse at the fate of her daughter, her mother soon passed away. Her brothers were released from prison after a few months but they had donated most of their property and wealth to the freedom cause, and had nothing left to give their sister.

So, ammamma led her life by spending few weeks at a time in different relatives’ houses. A few of them were kind and considerate, but most weren’t. They would make her do a lot of housework, run errands, but still ill-treat her and not even give her enough to eat. Meanwhile, her wretched husband revealed his intentions to snatch away her child once it is born – if it were to be a boy. So this was an additional and major worry.

Soon she delivered a baby boy, and somehow managed to prevent her husband from snatching him away with a lot of help from few well-wishers. She and her son continued living in different relatives’ houses on a rotational basis, under very trying and difficult circumstances. One can only imagine what they went through. The only silver lining in this whole ordeal was that ammamma’s son – Raghuvir uncle turned out to be a very exceptional and brilliant student. He performed very well in school, won many important scholarships, and even managed to get a PhD from a prestigious university in the USA.

It was probably the unfortunate circumstances that he went through as a child that made him very generous and compassionate. He was the only relative who volunteered to help my mother when we were going through a tough phase, and agreed to take care of me for two years while my mother was studying. However, the same trials and tribulations seemed to have made ammamma (his mother) very insensitive and cruel. She was very much against his decision and unhappy that her son had agreed to something like that. She was not only abusive to me, but also to her daughter-in-law throughout her life.

These thoughts bring us back to where we started – what makes some people so vile? Is it their intrinsic nature, or their circumstances, or their life experiences, or some combination of all three?

 

 

 

The Principal’s Office

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I’m rewinding back to those days when I used to still visit Sarah’s rose garden (Std 4 & 5). While she was my lunch-break best friend, my in-class best friends were Anand and Ganesh. The three of us used to sit on the last bench and get along like a house on fire. Since we were pretty good students, we had been pampered and spoiled by the teachers in previous years and had become very arrogant and incorrigible.

We always chatted in class ignoring the lessons that were going on, or we played a lot of “book games” like knots and crosses, book cricket, a war game etc., sometimes we carried storybooks (Famous Five, Secret Seven, William) to class and read them under the desk and frequently didn’t do our homework or take down notes. Our notebooks used to be full of doodles and games, no lessons

Thanks to this kind of behavior, we were given the title of “last bench mischief-makers” by our class teacher. And instead of being ashamed of it, we were quite proud of it!! No attempt by her to discipline us succeeded and she was growing exasperated. Some other subject teachers would separate us during their class and make us sit far from each other, but we would get back to our usual places as soon as possible.

Many afternoons, thanks to the visit to Sarah’s rose garden and time spent in the hot sun, I would be tired and doze off for some time during class. During this time both my friends would be very sweet and understanding and patiently wait for me to wake up and join them in their mischief again. They also gave me the nickname “Sleeping Beauty” because of this. Another name they gave me was “Tragedy Queen” and it was designed to irritate me. I’m sure neither of them knew the meaning of the term, but one of them had heard it somewhere and thought it was an apt title to confer on me.

I was also the official storyteller of the class. Whenever there was a free period when a teacher was absent, I would be called upon to tell a story in front of the class by the class monitor. Around 80% of the kids loved my stories, the other 20% used to yawn at them, but thanks to having majority support I would continue enthusiastically. So life was progressing pretty smoothly and I was playing the alternative roles of mischief-maker, Sleeping Beauty, Tragedy Queen and storyteller, till I got called by the school principal one day.

That day, just after I’d finished my lunch, our class monitor came up to me and told me that the principal wanted to talk to me in his office. I wasn’t very happy about this because our principal Mr. John Joseph, was a very huge, scary and strict man. We always tried to avoid bumping into him and if we did, we quickly stammered “Good Morning Sir” or “Good Afternoon Sir” and scattered away. However, one couldn’t ignore a command from him, so I went ahead to meet him.

I’d never been to his office before and it was quite an eerie experience to climb the winding staircase that led to his office. I was startled when I reached the last step, because he was standing in the verandah just outside his office and I didn’t expect to see him there. He wished me with a severe and disapproving look and went on to give a caustic monologue of which I remember only a few words. I was too stumped to follow each and every word, but heard a few in-between: “….have been hearing things about you……..complaint by teacher……arrogant……good family background……doctor’s daughter……better expectations from you…….etc. etc.” At the end of his speech, it felt like day had turned to night and that everything around me had turned dark. I’d never felt so embarrassed or worse in my life. He then let me off with a warning.

As I walked back to class feeling as though I’d been struck by a blow, I also remember being very angry at my class teacher for sneaking on me. When I entered the classroom, she gave me a knowing look. Then she told me and my friends that we could no longer sit on the last bench together and assigned different places to us. I never tried to go back to my old place after that and didn’t spend much time with either Anand or Ganesh and soon found new “best friends”.

PS: Photo of an exhibit in the Vancouver Museum of Contemporary Art.

#MeToo – 3

I jumped a bit late onto the “MeToo” bandwagon, but now that I have, I’m still on it 🙂 🙂

It’s great that finally everyone is raising their voice and speaking up on the issue of sexual harassment and we’re becoming more and more aware of it. However, I feel that we must progress beyond merely stating facts, and share more explicit details (to educate people), or also suggest solutions. Going to try and do that in this third write up.

When I was around 19-20, there was a “MeToo” incident that entirely changed the course of my life, my career plans and my location. It was a very traumatic one that tormented me for many years, but I’ve finally recovered from it, and have decided to talk about it now because it might educate others.

One of the biggest myths about molestation is that it’s generally perpetrated by vile strangers, and most of the victims are generally “skimpily dressed (or wearing jeans)”, “in the wrong place at the wrong time” or of “questionable character – therefore inviting trouble”. However, statistics world over, including India show that most perpetrators are known to the victim – often they’re family members, friends, colleagues, bosses or neighbors. Especially in the case of children below 18 – in more than 90% of the cases, the perpetrators are known to the children. (You can google for exact statistics in each country).

Luckily nowadays, there’s more awareness in India, and many parents are aware and warn their kids. But even this is happening only in the more emancipated and educated circles, and I wonder how many less educated and poorer families are looking out for their children. Children are even more vulnerable than women, and these kind of traumatic experiences can damage them for life.

I wasn’t a child when I went through it – around 19 – but my mental age was much lower because in those days, we didn’t have Internet, parents didn’t speak about these issues to kids, we did learn the theory in our text books, but were totally ignorant otherwise. I survived it once, but if I had to go through it all over again, I probably wouldn’t.

From my experience, what I’ve heard from counselors and gathered from reading, is that not getting proper support after these incidents is what permanently damages a person, rather than the incident itself. We had a distant relative who was an alcoholic and a regular visitor to our house. I knew this person from childhood and totally thought of him as a benevolent father-figure. So there was no question of suspecting anything, or being careful or being aware etc.

There were many small incidents that should have been immediately considered as warning signals – but I totally glossed over them – because I was not at all educated in these matters. This person visited regularly on office work, and sometimes stayed in a hotel, at other times in our place. And very often, he would invite me to come to his hotel room, to have lunch/dinner there with him (he knew I’m a foodie, totally oblivious of anything else when it comes to food). But luckily, I never took up the invitations somehow. In hindsight, I wonder why my family members who heard him giving these invitations, did not warn me?! This is something so obviously fishy.

One day, I actually took up the invitation and ended up in his hotel room at lunch time, with my best friend. He probably didn’t expect me to go with someone, but nevertheless treated us both to lunch (room service). While we were eating, he kept on drinking and drinking, and lost control and misbehaved. I don’t want to delve into details, but I have no words to describe what it felt like. First of all my naïve trust was shattered, suddenly a father figure turned into something else, plus I was embarrassed in front of my best friend and didn’t know how to face her – it was horribly and extremely traumatic. I was shocked beyond belief, and even though nothing much happened physically because there were two to one, it was a psychological shock.

So, I couldn’t speak about it to anyone for about a week. I couldn’t sleep properly or concentrate on anything during this time. Also, my friend was very mad at me, and not talking to me, so that was an added trauma. Finally I mustered enough courage and spoke to a family member about it. But the response to my confession – was the biggest trauma of all.

Instead of being shown some “understanding”, I was scolded! “Why didn’t I speak up when it happened? Why did I wait for so long? Obviously, there might have been some small misdemeanor, but to expect the family to sever relations was asking for too much. Even asking that the person should not be allowed in our house was too much. Finally, even asking that the person should not be allowed to consume alcohol in our house was also too much”!!

That was the day when I realized that I really didn’t “belong” anywhere. My own house was no longer a place where I felt safe, because this person continued to visit and have the freedom to drink in our place. I was treated like the criminal because I complained, whereas he was the “good guy”. For a few days, I was so shattered that I bunked college totally and spent entire days sitting in a temple, thinking of how to survive this, because the mere sight of him would make me angry and agitated.

The purpose behind writing this is not to find fault with family members, but to educate people that they need to take their children’s complaints on sexual harassment seriously. Because not doing so can be really damaging. My family members probably behaved that way because they didn’t learn any better from their own parents, and were not treated any better.

But luckily, I had other friends who supported me through this. And I lived in a medical college campus, so I had access to psychologists and doctors. So, one friend who was a doctor and knew our family very well and often visited, gave me some really sound advice. (I realized only much later how sound it was). She told me not to expect to change attitudes at home, because sometimes it’s impossible, not everyone has “understanding” families. She told me instead to move to a hostel asap, so that I could escape from this stressful situation at home.

However, I was not able to concentrate properly on my studies due to all this and didn’t have much hopes of clearing entrance exams, so I drastically changed the subject I was going to study. Was planning to study Theoretical Physics – do a PhD, but instead switched to French and foreign languages, because the entrance would be much easier to crack. I managed to get into a program in a far off city, and enroll in a hostel.

What my friend told me turned out to be 100% right. I felt so much happier, lighter, safer, less stressed out and accepted in the hostel, rather than in my own home. However, whenever I would think of what happened and the reaction to my complaint, it would get me very depressed and agitated. Being blamed for something that someone else has perpetrated on you, is shattering. As a result of this, despite being a good student and all that, I had very low self-esteem and didn’t plan my career properly for a very long time.

This is the reason that I feel so strongly about this “MeToo” issue, and feel its imperative to provide solutions, and not just share sob-stories. While we spread awareness on this issue, we must encourage victims to meet counselors to help them recover. I could recover only after spending a few sessions with a counselor and going over things with her. (Even seeking this counselling was looked upon derogatively by my family).

We must educate families and parents on the damaging consequences of not being “understanding” to their children’s complaints. Why would any child cook up a story on such issues, when they could use that time happily in other pleasurable activities. At least I was quite old – 19 – so I could handle it. What if these things happen to much younger children? I once came across a victim, who had been abused by her own father for many years, while her mom watched silently. Listening to and observing this lady was such a trauma in itself. Male children are also very often victims and traumatized for life. These are issues that we need to urgently pay attention to.

Me Too #MeToo

For the last few days women have been openly sharing stories of sexual assault and harassment, and being encouraged to speak up on social media platforms like FaceBook, Twitter etc. Thanks to many brave women, we’re hearing about the horrifyingly common instances of sexual harassment and abuse around us. We’ve also realized that we’re not facing this alone.

Decided to join the #MeToo bandwagon and write my bit on it, albeit a bit late. I’ve been encouraged by seeing all the women speak up………and even more encouraged by hearing a few men courageously speaking up……

Now that it’s clear that no one is being spared – not women, not children, not even men……. it’s time to move on to the next step, and look for solutions. Here are a few of my thoughts:

1. Have always been amazed that I never faced even a single incident of eve-teasing or public harassment in all the six years I spent in the US. Many of my girlfriends would agree that the problem is much smaller there (though harassment in private is rampant even there, in the form of sexual harassment at the work-place and domestic violence). This is so shameful considering the fact that public sexual harassment in the form of eve-teasing, lewd comments and groping, flashing etc. is a day to day mundane affair in India. Sometime ago a female student visiting India from a top US university also talked and wrote about the dismal situation in our country, and how violated, upset and shocked she was in India: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/08/20/world/american-student-india-sexual-harassment-irpt/index.html

Therefore, there seems to be a very strong “cultural” component to this problem. Gender attitudes in South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka etc.), the Arab world and the Middle East seem to be more biased against women. The blame is always laid on the female – her character, dress or behavior, but not on the perpetrators. That’s why most women remain silent and the problem continues….

2. Have gained a lot of insights in the last one year after dabbling with social media quite a bit. When I initially started my Twitter account and FaceBook page – got harassed online a lot – even though my content was decent and intellectual. It was quite intimidating to regularly get lewd comments and messages.

However soon learnt about the “ban” and “block” features and “banned” quite a few people indiscriminately. After a few days of this action, lewd comments automatically stopped and most people seem to have got the “message”. Nowadays, hardly have to block – maybe just one person/month. This proves that if effective and immediate punishment is meted out, the problem can be solved. One reason things are so bad in India is because punishment takes years and years, and hardly happens. It’s also very tortuous for the victims to seek justice. Heard that our neighbor China is a much better place for women, because there’s much swifter punishment there and assaults are not tolerated.

3. Lastly would like to share an experience from many years ago, that I had in Singapore. Was an MBA student there and was renting an apartment in a pretty decent neighborhood. However, though Singaporean men are mostly well-behaved, some immigrants there are just like Indians 😦 😦

A lot of women in the apartments were being harassed – mainly by clothes being stolen and no one had any idea who was doing it. However, there were a group of Bangladeshi students whom I suspected – because their behavior was abominable (South Asians again).

My suspicions were confirmed when I saw one of them lurking around and peeping into our laundry room. So I followed this guy secretly and found out in which apartment he lived, and next day took the Singapore police there. He was such a coward, totally taken aback, and didn’t even deny anything and immediately confessed. Of course, there was ample evidence in the apartment.

Another interesting thing is the “brotherhood” men show in such affairs – one of the policemen told me not to go ahead with the complaint because it would spoil the guy’s future since he would be deported, and wouldn’t be able to complete his degree!! Some men (even policemen!!) don’t even believe that such things are a “crime”! (Imagine the kind of embarrassment and shock that so many women went through, when they found that their lingerie was regularly disappearing). Of course, I refused to take the complaint back and he was deported 🙂 🙂

That’s all I have to say – we desperately need to progress to #WhatDoWeDo from #MeToo. Need to change deeply ingrained cultural biases against women in India, and improve the justice system and make it quick. Swift and just punishment plays a very important role in curbing the problem. Would love to hear your thoughts on this issue……..

PS 1: Couple of years ago in front of the Singapore River.

PS 2: Don’t intend to stereotype or say that all males from South Asia, Arab world or the Middle East display insensitive behavior and biased gender attitudes. But wanted to highlight the faulty cultural mindset and obvious bias against women in these areas.

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