Saturday, April 30, 2011

CSAAM April 2011 -- Review

Today is the last day of the Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Month -- April 2011 initiative.

For four weeks, the girls and I have sifted through CSA survivor accounts, discussed legalities we never knew before, cried over accounts that touched hidden pains and taken heart from ones that showed the way forward. For four weeks we have stayed up nights and woken up early to mediate comments, schedule posts, track down blogpost by other bloggers, conduct TwitChats and exchange information with NGOs and other organisations. Four weeks of putting our lives on hold (most of the time), putting our families second, explaining to husbands what we are doing -- and more importantly, what motivates us. We have received unexpected media support as well as support from many more people than we ever hoped for.

I wanted to thank you, every one of you, for talking about this, for showing the courage to share your stories and fearlessly stating opinions on this very controversial subject. As a lasting reminder of why this month has been an important one for us all, I post one last guest piece by a CSA survivor:

I was molested by a younger stepbrother when I was 16 (he was 14) -- it sounds weird but my family dynamics were so shitty at that point that I couldn't have talked to anyone about it even if I had been able to. I couldn't even face him about it. This is perhaps even more surprising because I'm generally a confident, gregarious, outgoing young person. The utter shock, nausea, horror and sense of disbelief is as strong as ever whenever I do recall the event, and the extended game of hide, seek and avoidance that followed. I have since talked to many people about it and used to think that I've come to terms with it.

However, I realised very recently that I started gaining obscene amounts of weight right after that event and that although I've believed for quite a few years that I'm over it, I don't think I fully am. It's a question of pattern recognition, really. I finally figured out a few months back that the pattern since then has been that no matter how healthy I try to be or how much I try to lose weight etc (and I am medically obese and need to, for health reasons), to this day, *whenever* I am attracted to a man or have someone of the opposite gender professing their interest in or attraction to me, I *immediately* start gaining obscene amounts of weight again. Every single time. Over the last ten years, bygod. This needs to stop. Maybe now that I've recognised this, I'll be able to break the cycle. I hope so anyway.

Two of my best friends were raped as kids, one of them by an elder cousin, the other by the household help. My brother was molested by a *very* close family member as a child. I know other instances too, and it seems like the horror stories don't end. Going through the CSA awareness month website brought all these flooding back full force and I'm distraught again.

I learnt last year (from my father) that my mother had been raped for years by both her uncle and her cousin when she was a teenager and used to stay with them. The scars those left, I'm sure, have never healed. This finally explained why she had never, when I was a kid, allowed me to stay over at people's places (friends, relatives, etc.) unless she was there with me. Also explains why I know *nothing* of her childhood--she's never talked about ANY of it.

I don't know what to do. I think she might need to talk. And I know that I need, on my own part, to know stories of who my mom is, where she came from, where she grew up so I can tell my kids (don't have any yet) some day about the amazing person that their grandma is.

But at the same time, I don't want to force the issue. I don't want to force her to remember and/or talk about something she's repressed for decades. I am *very* close to her but she's never told me about this, or even hinted at it. But I want to talk to her about this and figure out some way so she is able to share her stories.

What do I do? Someone, please help.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Woman of the '40s, '50s

Indian women of the 1940s and '50s had a certain something to them. They wore their sarees so effortlessly, it didn't matter if the material slipped a bit. Their blouses were every bit as innovative and intriguing as any design we wear today. They wore their sex appeal with pride too.

I've always had a weakness for the women of that decade after seeing a photograph of my grandmother and a great aunt from that era. I decided, as a young girl, that when I grew up, I wanted to look like them. Looks like I've a long way to go though. Maybe I ought to start wearing more makeup and occasionally moisturise. That would be a step in the right direction. ;)

Thanks, Vinayak, for the great links.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


I've been discussing marriage and relationships with the girls and it made me relive some beautifully nostalgic moments in my own life.

You know the best part about being married? How Vicky and I keep making more such memories. Isn't that what a long-term relationship is all about?

I also think part of the sweetness in my relationships has come from the hesitation. The unwillingness to reveal every aspect of my being right from the start. Am I secretive? Not at all. I am if anything insistent on complete honesty, it's a lesson well learnt from my first boyfriend. But I like the process of discovery, of being discovered, so to speak. Even today when Vicky and I usually know each other well enough to predict reactions, I like talking to him because his attitude to events adds something to my own experience of them. That's what I mean about discovery. There's something new all the time. I like predictability but I like newness too.

M4 said the other day that we should marry friends. That's what I did. I married a boy I'd known for some years and known only as a friend for most of that time. He had seen me at my worst and thus could appreciate my best. These things matter. I laughed and teased him at our wedding because I knew this man, under his groom's guise, his smile was the smile of a friend. This is why it was so important to me that my wedding look stayed simple, that I looked like the woman he had fallen in love with. I needed to reassure myself that the wedding ceremony was not conducted between two strangers. If I had met him through a family arrangement -- difficult as it is to imagine that! -- I would have wanted to be his friend before all else. I don't think friendship is marriage, but I think it should be one of the strongest factors when you are entering into a marriage.

Sometimes when I see women I care about getting hurt, I wish I could explain to at least one of them that taking it slow helps. Take it slow, give yourself time to get used to this new person, give him time to get used to you. Attraction, societal sanction, those are just the first steps. But let him open up to you. Should this work out, there is all the time in the world for you to open up to him.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Chanakya's Chant

I've done a book review after ages: Chanakya's Chant by Ashwin Sanghi. I've posted it on my writing blog, do take a look.

Note: I was sent a review copy but was not otherwise paid or in any other way influenced in my review by anybody at all.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

CSAAM April 2011 -- Chilka Lake

This is a guest post I am hosting that will also be cross-posted on the CSA blog. It has been written by my friend Shuktara, who works in drama therapy.

When I was 13 or 14, I was molested on a boat by a guide cum fisherman during a family holiday at Chilika Lake (Orissa). It took me years to put this episode in its place and learn how to deal with it when it would suddenly push its way into the foreground of my brain, not least because, for a very long time, I didn’t know if it was something I needed to deal with. After all, maybe I had overreacted. Maybe there was nothing wrong in his constantly caressing my cheek and the side of my neck – maybe that was the way he was affectionate with kids. My brother, then about 4 or 5, had been next to us the whole time and my parents not far away at all. So maybe there was something wrong with me for feeling repulsed by his touch. (Why would he do something that didn’t seem quite right in front of my family?) Later, when he got me down from the boat, cleverly lifting me right under my armpits so that his hands were on my chest, maybe I was being stupid in wishing he had held my waist or, at the very least, waited to see if I asked him for help.

These were some of the maybes I attached to this incident as I grew up, an incident I would come to (and continue to) think of as “Chilka Lake”. It was only when I was in my early twenties that I realized I wasn’t to blame for what had happened, that I hadn’t somehow or the other asked for it and that there was a reason it haunted me and made me recoil. These realizations happened only because some of my friends had shared their experiences of assault and molestation and their feelings in the immediate aftermath, which were not very different from mine.

I said it took me years to deal with Chilka Lake. I should correct that: in strange ways I’m still dealing with it. I suspect it has played a major role in my possibly obsessive paranoia about being objectified by men. Moreover, even now, I can remember the exact sensation of his rough, course hand on my cheek and how he smelled of fish. I’m 29. Since Chilka Lake, I’ve had some wonderful experiences of positive touch, all of which are far more recent in time frame (and I’m not just speaking about sexual physical contact; physical contact that is indicative of platonic affection or empathy counts as a form of positive touch). However, ask me to recall those moments; ask me to recall the sounds and smells associated with those moments: it will take me quite some time. Then ask me to remember an instance of bad touch; Chilka Lake will creep back into my senses – far more mutedly than before and I can disassociate from it more easily, but creep back it does. This doesn’t upset me anymore because as someone working in the area of theatre for therapy and empowerment, where you have to be in tune with your body and your head, I know what a huge store of memory (and, as a result, traumatic memory) the body is. Nonetheless, I do want to reach a point in my life where I can remember physical contact I liked with the same clarity and perhaps even reach a point where those experiences have the power to take over my head the way Chilka Lake once did, while the latter becomes something that takes time to remember.

That I have been able to deal with Chilka Lake and other such episodes to the extent I have is largely because of theatre, workshops, drama therapy sessions and a lady called Sohini Chakraborty who started the NGO, Kolkata Sanved, for whom I work as a consultant, at present. With Sanved, and independently, I have conducted workshops on safe and unsafe forms of touch, boundaries and safety, embodied memory and sexuality. There are some things I firmly believe in which form the backbone of the workshops I conduct. I list them here.

1. It is never too early to explain the concept of safe and unsafe touch to a child.
Children are always a lot sharper than we give them credit for. As parents, explain to your children who are allowed to take off their clothes, bathe them; when they are taken to the bathrooms in their schools, explain how they should be cleaned. I’m not suggesting you take your one-year old and drill all this into his head in one seating. Take it slowly, step by step, using associations they understand. Above everything else, let them know that if they ever are touched in a way that they don’t like or feel is not quite right, they should tell you immediately. This was the big mistake my parents made with me. They never spoke to me about sex till I was in Class 11, when my mother made a feeble attempt at bringing up sex ed. because I was doing a school play on the subject. By then it was much too late. Now, thanks to years of hearing me go on and on about abuse, child safety, the need to be alert (an aside for Potter aficionados: exactly like Mad Eye Moody’s mantra of “Constant Vigilance”) and how horrible Calcutta is as far as
street sexual harassment goes, I know they will be far better grandparents in this department than they were as parents. And I am incredibly proud of them for that.

Coming back to forms of touch. I recently conducted a workshop with teacher trainees where I asked them to mark the parts of their bodies in a drawing of the human anatomy that they would not want anyone to touch without their consent. The male trainees marked three body parts. The female trainees excluded three body parts and added that certain types of touch would not be acceptable on those three parts either, without their consent. While these teacher trainees will hopefully take an active role in teaching their students about acceptable and
unacceptable forms of physical contact, we can’t be too optimistic about a lot of other schools. So the onus is again on parents and guardians. Talk about the human body with your child. Explain different kinds of touch to them. Unsafe forms of touch do not restrict themselves to the genitalia and chest. Repeated stroking of the hand can be equally discomfiting. You can use other material to explain negative forms of touch – rubbing fingers on sandpaper can be connected with scratching, running stems of grass on one’s arms can be correlated with tickling (or “shurshuri”), applying a lot of sand on your hands may be similar to being grazed by stubble. Any kind of touch can have positive or negative implications depending on how it is done. Let your kids connect their sensations when they touched those different materials with types of touch they recognize. Let them tell you who they think can touch them as well as how and where people can touch them. Again, this should be a process that is repeated, not something that is done one day and forgotten after that.

2. If you are uncomfortable talking about any of this with your children, give them
books. I saw a post on the CSA blog which listed titles. To those I would add It’s My Body: With Tinkoo and Tina, brought out by ‘Aangan’ Rozan, Islamabad. You can also look up play therapy groups (literally, the therapeutic and educational potential of playing), where you can put your child in. Samikshani runs one in Calcutta.

3. The brain is not the only, or even the primary, receptacle of memory. Your body remembers equally, sometimes more. So while the brain may block out some memories and compartmentalize experiences, it’s the body that will register a form of touch it had experienced years ago. For survivors of sexual abuse, this is all the more important: apart from giving time to your head, you have to give time to your body. To understand this better, I would recommend reading Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, Bessel A. van der Kolk’s essays, “The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma” and “The Body
Keeps the Score” in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry. They may be somewhat academically heavy in parts but they are worth reading. An easier to read essay is “What Your Child Remembers: New discoveries about early memory and how it affects us” by Robin Grille.

4. This is especially for parents of girls: sensitize the men in your life to the insidious ways in which girls can be abused and how early it can start. Draw their attention to something as fundamental as how women are looked at on the streets of your city when compared to how men are looked at. The male relationship with streets in India is so absurdly different from the female relationship with Indian streets. The more men there are who notice and react to how women are (mis)treated in public spaces, the safer it will become for women. Consequently, all those adolescent girls who have to navigate the country’s streets, not always
accompanied by alert adults, will not have to wrestle with such a nightmarish time of exploring their right to live as teenagers. I say this all the more because there are only two men I have been able to let my guard down with when walking in Calcutta: the first is my brother, the second, the husband of a close friend. The majority of the men I know are, sadly, for whatever reason, not in tune with the female experience of streets in India.

5. Know that even after doing all this (and much more) you will still never be able to exercise absolute control over what happens to your child. That act of violation may somehow slither its way in. But know that you would have given your child the tools to identify what was happening and alert you to it. This is so many steps ahead of children who don’t know what to make of the Chilka Lakes in their lives and are engulfed by them instead.

Chilka Lake. Some day I will go back there, perhaps with a very close friend, or with someone I can see myself spending the rest of my life with, and create some amazing memories. Because I cannot allow that one repulsive act to determine my entire perception of that place. I need some other memories so that some day, I can refer to a happy, immensely satisfying period of time as “Chilka Lake”.

Some day. But not just yet.

Shuktara Lal
12 April 2011

Monday, April 18, 2011

Lightning Crashes - Live

Somewhere not too deep down, Sue lives.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Sometimes we stand or walk holding on to each other like our younger selves once did. An arm around a waist, a palm in a palm or perhaps our bodies merely brushing as we walk alongside.

And sometimes we poker up and put great, big swathes of physical distance between us and yell and glower across the gaps at one another.

And then there are times when one of us is distracted, caught up in the swirls and eddies of living, while the other wistfully stands by, unhappy with the distance and hoping that it ends soon.

When we are old and white-haired and stiff-limbed, shall we still have all this?

Monday, April 11, 2011

CSAAM April 2011 -- The Dilemma of Dealing with CSA

This is my first contribution to the Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Month April 2011.

Working on this project has been more than a little unsettling. Upsetting, even. All these stories pouring in, of children didn’t know what was being done to them, of childrwho didn’t know how to cope with the guilt, the horror, the fear, the shame. I have never had to deal with it myself (and I hope to heaven I never do) but I know two young girls who did.

The first girl faced it as a child of 8 or 9. A male servant in her large joint family setup touched her inappropriately several times. It felt wrong and degrading and she told her mother. This was a different generation, another century, and her mother told the girl that it must have been her fault, because she was sending out the wrong signals. The little girl shut up and learnt to seek safety in numbers.

(All my accounts of this one are always stilted because my frustration and fury at this little girl’s plight are more than I can often handle.)

The other incident happened more recently at a wedding venue. A girl in her mid-teens (dressed up to the nines) absently wandered into a dark room that was not being used for the wedding and found a strange man there who groped her and ran away. I remember this kid stumbling from the room, shocked and lost, and immediately calling out for my mother, crying helplessly, not knowing how to deal with what just happened. We never did find the man responsible but nor did we keep the girl hanging around waiting there to make an identification. And all of us young girls learnt an important lesson about the dangers of dark and empty rooms.

In the larger scale of things, getting groped is a relatively minor matter: the second girl could have been robbed or even kidnapped. But it happened and it changed how all of us viewed weddings. At every wedding or similar large social occasion I know we started staying in groups, our mothers more protective than before. I would obsessively keep counting my cousins at small intervals, something I still do when I’m out with children of any age.

I write about these two instances because it was the reaction of the family/adults that I found important.

The first little girl learnt that she had to take care of herself. She grew up to be an extremely protective mother and aunt. Letting her daughter out into the world was a daily battle for her and one that she won but it was a battle nevertheless.

The second young girl was immediately cocooned by the family, her words believed and she was consoled that the mistake was not hers.

There was another young girl I knew. She complained about inappropriate suggestions and touching by an older male relative and because she was in general a truthful person and because the issue was so serious the adults immediately closed ranks against that male relative and he was told that he was no longer welcome in that family. Over time though this girl was diagnosed with depression. Her version of other events failed to collaborate with what the rest of the family remembered. And there came a day when her family wondered if that complaint of abuse had not been too hastily accepted. Maybe it had happened. But what if it hadn’t and the male relative had been ostracised for no reason at all?

This is my dilemma about handling CSA. This is what allows so many perpetrators to escape and other innocent people to be blamed. The very nature of CSA ensures that its young victims are confused about the nature of the incident. Because of incidents #1 and #2 my first instinct is to believe the child and protect him or her above all else from the very possibility of any more such trauma. But incident #3 reminds me that it is never clear cut, that there is perhaps more to the situation than meets my eye.

I ended up creating an algorithm of sorts to serve me if ever I have to deal with this stuff again:
1. Believe the child and get them away from the person they name as the abuser.
2. Depending on the nature of the incident, get the child checked by a doctor.
3. Try very hard to balance what I know of the alleged abuser’s history and my own instincts where he/she is concerned, with the accusation.
4. Try to remember that a person is innocent till proved guilty.
5. Never, ever leave a child alone in that person’s company or power.

Have you known any situations like the three I’ve written about? How did the people involved deal with them?

Sunday, April 03, 2011

CSA-AM - Protecting Boys from CSA

I read in some alarm how many people on Twitter feel that the contents of the CSA-AM blog are child pornography, because if such shocking tales of abuse turn them on, then I am extremely nervous about the children around them. I find more understandable people who say we should not discuss these matters in public: it is this attitude that I grew up with and it is this attitude that I find allows perverts to get away with abuse.

As a mother both attitudes bother me, albeit the first more than the other. To make matters a little more complex, I have a little boy. I knew all about protecting girls from my own childhood -- stay in groups; avoid strangers, especially strange men; be careful about the clothes you wear; be careful of the vibes you send out; be alert and aware of your surroundings, especially of where the grown ups are at all times etc etc.

Much of this does not apply to little boys though because, well, take clothes. All Rahul wears are shorts/trousers and tees or shirts. There is nothing for him to mind. Also, he has been born a boy in a world where he is expected to let go of my protection much sooner than a sister of his would, where he is expected to deal with his problems and not come running to me with them, where telling me of what goes in school will be discouraged.

I first heard stories of what I would consider borderline abuse from my friends from boys schools. I call it borderline abuse because it was mostly between boys of almost the same age and I accept that some degree of 'experimentation' is to be expected -- curiosity about each others' private parts, some touching. But it verged on abuse when the age gap widened, when the curiosity was one-sided and force was exerted if only by peer pressure.

I can remember instances of what I would today call abuse from my own junior schooldays, when a little boy had stones ('letters') 'posted' through his fly every single day. We thought it was funny then, but the little boy was my age while his tormentors were 4-6 years older, certainly old enough to protect and not torment him. He used to go home in tears everyday, although I remember he tried to smile bravely initially and why is this memory is so strong when all the others of that time have faded?

Yes, children will be children, but how do I protect my son from such 'friends'? Luckily for my peace of mind, Rahul was born with a strong sense of privacy. He has never liked having his clothes or diapers changed by all and sundry and he does not much like being naked even in this humid summer heat. On the other hand, he stays in other households a lot, and is used to maids taking him to the bathroom. Therefore, it has been impossible to delineate a circle of trust for him, teach him who may touch him and who may not. I have tried to explain good/safe touch and bad/unsafe touch to him but at 4.5 he looks blankly at me and thinks the latter means smacking -- which he gets the most from me, his mother!

At his age his safeguards therefore are:
1. A strong feeling that he must keep his clothes on. I engendered this by telling him if his clothes were not on him and were getting dirty on the floor or by falling off him, I would be extremely annoyed at the extra laundry. He thinks it's about the laundry but he keeps them on.

2. Being encouraged to tell his parents and his grandparents about all his activities: what he did in school and who he did it with, what he did on his visit to households other than his own, who was mean to him, who was nice and how. We do not encourage his complaints or whining but we do listen when he talks and we try to keep track of his relationships with the people who make up his world.

3. Never being left on his own. I have never left him alone with a maid in all these years and I hope I never have to. Ma and M'pishi are on the same page as I on this one and they are quite as protective if not more. If he is playing alone in a room, we are never more than a quiet call away and even then we keep walking in on him in his play so nobody can ever think they will get him on his own for sure at any given time. If we aren't walking in on him, then we are having loud conversations across rooms. The only time I lost him as a baby for ten minutes at a wedding I died a thousand deaths while we searched in vain, so I'm always careful about his whereabouts.

4. Not being forced to communicate with people except on his own terms. I am frequently disappointed when he doesn't greet or thank our guests but I have always believed that it is his right to be physically affectionate with them -- or not. So I'm not the mother who insists that he must kiss an aunt or shake an uncle's hand. I'd rather he was a little rude at this age and safe with it.

Beyond this, he is naturally a little shy and wary of strangers so he is not given to running far away. If he does walk away in a store he starts looking for us in minutes, yelling for us so that we know he is lost. We encourage all this.

Sometimes circumstances are beyond our control -- I had to leave him alone in the waiting room at New Jalpaiguri railway station for a few minutes while I went to the loo. I asked the group of young men who had been sitting next to us to keep an eye on him and our luggage and went. When I saw the line in the loo, I went back to the door and stood there watching him until my turn came. It was a risk, but that is life.

Vicky and I never forget that until he is old enough to fend for himself, to recognise danger, it is our responsibility to keep him safe, that the onus is on us entirely. As I keep reminding myself, there are no guarantees but I will certainly always do all that is in my power to keep my boy safe.

Friday, April 01, 2011


Sex should be about joy and giving (and for those who want them, babies!)

For some people though, it isn't that clear cut.

We are discussing Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) all April. Come join in.