This post contains instances of sexual abuse which may be triggering for some readers. Please use your discretion.
Most 10-12-year-olds are hyperactive by nature. I wasn’t any different. I was running incessantly – around people, into people, over people (I think there were a couple of doors/walls involved, as well). I loved hanging around with friends, and at one point, I hung around friends’ houses much more than I ever stayed at mine.
My mother, dad, and I stayed in a three-room house where the only doors that existed were the front gate, and those on a shelf that doubled up as the pooja room. We lived in that house for nine years, paying only the bare minimum of rent to our landlord, who used to be a small-time actor – a couple of Tamil serials here and there, one or two films in between. He was tall and fat, with a paunch that weighed several kilos. He lived right next door. His first son, whom we shall call B, had the same body mass. Tall, not as bulky as his father yet, and with a trail of cigarette smoke that would immediately announce his presence in any room that he stepped in.
For a long time, I have been able to identify the type of cigarette he smoked, immediately. Never mind where or with who I was.
By the time I had reached that hyperactive, chirpy stage, we had been living in that house for four years already, and B was balding, with a well-rounded paunch showing through his tight shirts, and lips permanently purple from all the smoking.
The entrance to our houses was a narrow lane, about 40 meters long, and wide enough only for one person – or a bike. B would stand for long hours at the tiny gate, watching the vehicles fly past him on the road, smoking his customary cigarette. For a long time, I have been able to identify the type of cigarette he smoked, immediately. Never mind where or with who I was. But I just didn’t know why it was so familiar.
Every time I had to rush past that gate, I had to squeeze by him. He would not move. His legs would be planted against one corner of the gate and his body would lean against the opposite wall with casual arrogance – I would either have to squeeze through his legs or jump over them, bruising myself on the rough wall in the process. It was not a very fun thing to do. B would just stand there, laughing a lazy grin that made his already droopy eyelids look sleepier.
My habit of hanging around at other people’s houses began to get me into trouble with my mother. I was “becoming a woman”, as my mother not-so-subtly put it, and my place was inside the house, inside the four walls, like a good girl. Not out and about, with only my white petticoat on and my braids askew like some common street urchin.
I wanted the whole world to see how simple and pretty my petticoats were.
I didn’t understand what was wrong with my white petticoat. I had two, you see, and by the time I was old enough to be made to sit at home, they had turned a cream-ish off-white from overuse. But they had a tiny, multi-coloured rosette each, right at the neckline, and I loved them. I wanted the whole world to see how simple and pretty they were.
My petticoat was the only thing I had on when B caught me unawares at his house on a dark monsoon evening. It was late – the clouds had already overrun the sky and he was watching TV without lights on – the room was pitch dark. I contented myself with a newspaper and a pencil – at least, that is what I seem to remember – and the low hum of the TV. B asked me to come sit on his lap.
I immediately went and perched myself on his lap, even though I felt unease forming somewhere deep in the pit of my stomach. His hands rested on my shoulders and slowly moved down my arms, and on my thighs. I started to squirm. In one fluid motion, he turned my tiny self around and mashed his lips against me – slobbery and wet, like slimy rubber.
I did the only thing that my brain pushed me to do – I dropped like a rock. He wasn’t prepared for my drop and he let me go. I ran back home.
I slept alone that night.
The next time I saw him, he was standing in his same lazy position at the front gate. I squeezed past him as usual, as he wouldn’t move. He just stood there smirking at me, that cigarette dangling from his lips lazily. I still didn’t know what was wrong with the way he treated me; just that it wasn’t something I was comfortable with.
The next time he found me alone, I was 15 and mentally tougher. Physically, not so much.
I was in the bath when he came home, announcing his 40th birthday. Milestone. He told my mother that he had sweets waiting for me at his place, and would I please come and take them? I refused. But he was the landlord’s son and it was a milestone birthday! Would I not make too much of a fuss and just go get the damn sweets? My mother was busy with the lunch I’d take to school that day. I was in class 11.
I’d worn my uniform and my hair was already neatly plaited into two braids. I went to his house intending to grab the sweets quickly and run out as quick as possible. But B wanted a kiss. And it was his birthday, would I please kiss this old man’s scratchy cheek as a birthday present? I relented. Maybe he’d changed? I hadn’t seen him in years.
He hadn’t. His hands were on my shoulders and the peck on the cheek soon turned into a slobbery wet kiss reminiscent of the earlier one. I used the same tactic again, but four/five years later, he was ready for it. He caught me tighter, his left hand around my waist and the right clutching at my breast. I struggled and came up for air; he wouldn’t let me go. I dropped down to the ground, clawed my way out of his hold, and ran for my life.
I heard his footsteps run after me, but my house was too close by for him to follow for more.
I came out into the narrow lane that was warming up with the 8 am sunlight, and rested my head against the algae-browned wall. My crisp pinafore was ruined and my hair was a mess. The chocolate dribbled down a fist I didn’t remember making; I had crushed it to pulp trying to extricate myself.
I washed my hands and face, and fixed my hair before going into my house. We had a huge paved front yard, with a well and banana trees. A bigger yard to the side with other fruit trees. The melted chocolate disappeared into the pile of dirt, leaves, and rotting fruit that lay in the yard.
I don’t remember anything else.
I had effectively blocked all memories of B for a very long time. I remembered not even a hint of it until the evening my boyfriend of two years locked me in a hug that was similar in strength and position. The memories were triggered and I couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night. They had been there, just hidden away in the depths of my brain.
It had taken another hold I couldn’t break out of for those memories to come flooding back.
Some people say I haven’t dealt with it effectively enough. Others ask me to put it behind me and move on. I just shrug, because, until a month ago, I didn’t even realise these memories existed.
Sometimes, I wonder if B is the reason a sweet 16-year-oId turned into a rebel at 18 and into the family disgrace for her radical views on equality and feminism at 21. Then I shake my head. I don’t want to give him credit for who I am now. I don’t even want to think about him. But when I catch a waft of Wills cigarette together with the sticky sweetness of Dairy Milk, I am transported back to my teens. It is a flesh memory I will never forget.