How many things shall I grieve?
I was watching THAPPAD. I thought about the people who have hit me. In plural. I had experienced enough of it before I touched adulthood. Yet, at 23, when a man I loved hit me, I knew something was wrong.
Was it the force of his blow, right across my face so my ears rung for six minutes straight, giving me a full stop in time to register the wrongness of it? Or was it the public nature of it – a movie theatre, yes in the darkness but surrounded by hundreds of people? Trying to reconcile all these thoughts with the ringing in my head, the stinging on the side of my cheek and jaw. Or was it the desperate humiliation of it because a second before I had been kissing him? It was all of it.
Yet, almost a decade later, older, carrying the confidence of having lived through that experience, I didn’t register the wrongness of being hit when it happened again with a different man. Not even when he threw me across the room. Not even when I hit the wall, my head a mere two inches from the corner of the glass shelf I’d cleaned that morning. Not even when I slid to the floor, registering dimly that this doesn’t happen in slow motion like in the movies but in an ungraceful bounce, even with my low-fat boniness. Not even as I sat, breath knocked out of me, thinking the bones in my butt were broken and remembering it’s only one bone – the pelvis.
I didn’t. Because I was too preoccupied with him punching the wall, having to worry about how I’d carry him down three flights of stairs to a hospital if he broke something? Finding a way to get up and pull him back, push him onto the sofa, sniffing in irritation, hating that my nose runs when I’m upset, only realising I was bleeding when I saw the drops on the floor.
I still didn’t see it. There was never time. I went from caring for him to cleaning up the mess, readymade ran-into-door excuse in place, Google search for ‘self emergency procedure’, dig out emergency money stash in case it was needed for medical expenses. And then there was reassuring him, reassuring my family, explaining why we were having difficulties, begging him to let me come home because I’d been standing in the sun for 6 hours on my period and I was afraid I’d faint, crying as he began screaming about the garbage smelling the minute I walked in to the house. I don’t evem remember coming to where I live now. Only the screaming voices, demanding to know what happened, judging me for not making it work, calling me names for a failed engagement, saying I would destroy other people’s marriages, calling me jealous when I said don’t joke about bad relationships. There was no time to hear the voice in me saying, it hurts, this is wrong.
I didn’t register the wrongness. I can register how wrong it feels to be shamed for it, to be blamed for it, to be villified for it. But I am still in shock about not registering the wrong of it when it happened. Was he just that good, better than the ones before him, better even than a small child who could hold the idea of dignity despite numerous attempts to punch it out of her? Am I just getting weaker as the world convinces me that I am wrong? This is what fear looks like.
This is a very different kind of pain from sexual violence, another grief I know too well from 11 and from 22 and from 38, secondhand as I held dozens of MeToo stories.
This is also different from the wounds of speech, from mouths that have carried poison that lingers. It blurs into the body of the man that threw me across the room. It sounds like the man who violated me, then called me dark, ugly and that the only reason a guy would want me was because I looked desperate. It swells into the words of all the people screaming at me since then, telling me to be dignified, to shut up, to not be a man-hater, not be a feminist. It’s a world of screaming pain and I’m disgusted by it all. This disgust is the only thing that lets me distinguish that this is a different grief. I am not disgusted by the people who hit me. I am frightened of them.
I don’t know if rage, fear and disgust are all forms of grief but they feel like it. I can only carry one at a time. And tonight I play chariot to the one that punches, kicks, shakes and throws. All I am is blood.
Last week India’s #MeToo / #TimesUp movement rose (again), sparked off by Mahima Kukreja’s outing of standup comic Ustav Chakrobarty sending unsolicited dickpics and badgering underage girls for nudes. It set off a chain reaction examining the complicit parties, the enablers and patterns of predators. Thread:
Since then it has spread to other performance spaces, to advertising, to media, to journalism, to publishing and more. All these alongside Bollywood’s own filth outing with Tanushree Datta’s allegations against Nana Patekar. And across the ocean, the US is grappling with the same issue over a man named Brett Kavanaugh. Sharing this video here as the only positive note of this story:
On one hand, I am so glad that these stories are finally finding their voices. I cannot even begin to comprehend the trauma of carrying these toxic secrets for so long and there are so many, so many of them. Every morning I’m waking up in fear over which man I’ve known, read, watched, applauded, appreciated, spoken to, smiled at will be outed as the next sexual predator. We are in so much pain.
It’s forcing a mirror to all of society and not just its toxic males. A few men I know have been outed at predators. Did I know? Did I suspect? Was that action that I shrugged off, actually an indication of something more sinister? Should I have laughed at that joke? Should I have warned this person? I introduced these people; what if one person took that as a trust guarantee and do I carry some responsibility if anything happened? What am I missing in the world and about the people around me, today?
So many of the stories I’m hearing have not even made it out yet because the victims fear that they are too young/unimportant/powerless and that their predators are too famous/rich/powerful. I am grappling with recognising that the victim of an assault or harassment can build an unreal sense of the perpetrator’s power while trying not to invalidate their feelings. How can you say “I believe you” and “No, that’s not true” at the same time?
Then there was the outing of someone I knew slightly and hadn’t really liked (though not because I had an encounter of this kind with him). He was outed by someone who in the past, has enabled my own abuser despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The question that hung over me was ‘Should I support someone who did not support me?’. It was a time of personal reckoning, figuring out who I wanted to be. I’d thought these aspects of my character would be set and figured out by this time in my life. Clearly, character is a lifelong process of testing. I passed. I don’t know that I feel good about it. Is feeling like I was denied justice, a better feeling to live with than guilt and vindication?
This same person, along with a lot of other people also put out a call asking to be told if they were friends with an abuser. It made me really angry at first. And then I realised, people don’t know what they’re asking for, when they ask for that door to be opened. When the sheer magnitude of this truth hits them, many recoil and their reaction is to assume they get to judge whether they should take action or not. No, I say. The minute you ask for the truth, you are asking for the victim’s trust. And the minute you bring judgement in, you are violating that trust. Complete trust in return for total lack of judgement is the deal. Here’s my thread on this matter:
Having said this, I’m realising that maybe I invite confessions and sharing from people just by talking about these issues. Over a decade ago, when I wrote this post about child abuse, it provoked a volley of reactions that I did not expect and did not know how to handle. I considered quitting blogging. A friend told me that I had stood for something and that mattered to the people who were sharing with me and that I had a responsibility towards them. I interpreted that to mean I’d have to be a space of listening (since I’m not qualified in any other way to advise, heal, police or protect). If you read the above post, please also read this as the conclusion of that. I am rethinking this now.
I asked a close friend (a survivor and an activist) for advice. This person asked me how many people who were spilling their truths onto me and expecting me to rescue them, showed up for me back in 2012? I could argue that some of them were too young, some too married (like this is an illness that renders one incapable of logical and just thought towards unmarried people), some not strong enough (as if strength is a talent some are born with and which becomes public property to exploit). My answer was…NOBODY. I have tried hard not to become cynical about people since then and I’ll admit I often slip up. I cannot forget that I live in a world that enables and applauds my abusers for the same things that they attack and condemn me for experiencing. It is so hard to feel empathy for enablers, even harder than feeling it for the perpetrators.
And finally, I am realising how easy it is going to be vomit, to dump, to offload resentment and rage. Neither of these are logical or fair-minded. They just are — powerful and unstoppable. I’m trying hard not to talk about my own experiences partly because I do not want to co-opt the narratives of the people speaking up for the first time and partly because it might become a case of Chinese whispers with people blaming my perps for things they did not do as part of the pervasive ‘Men are trash’ feeling. As justified as that feels, I know I cannot live with those feelings. I just can’t.
Mercifully a friend who’s been away from all this rescued me in a single conversation last evening by asking me to remember to retain my capacity for joy. That’s all. We each have to live with the consequences of our actions, our emotions and our words. What’s most important in the long, long run of life? I choose joy.
I understand now. Honestly.
I found myself thinking things that I’ve heard a lot of men voicing, when I watched this video.
“So there are jerks in the world; why do you take it out on me? I’m the one person around who is being nice to you.”
“Why should you tar everyone with the same brush of mistrust?”
“I’ve had a rough day too. How do you think it is for me to come home and put up with your screaming?”
“Don’t dress that way. Don’t be so assertive. Why do you look for trouble and then expect me to come and bail you out every time?”
I get it, I get it now. This video was probably made to make men more aware of a woman’s perspective. But it made this woman aware of a man’s perspective. I’ve written about whether a man can truly be a feminist. Yes, perhaps you can. Just like, if the world were as it were shown in the video, I might have been one of those women who stood for your rights and sounded wounded when you didn’t consider me an equal soldier in the fight for equality. But this video only reinforces something I thought even when I wrote that post. Living a life of oppression, from minute to minute is very different from having conscious ideals and acting on them, whenever possible.
This video made me think of what my life would look like if I were a woman but not the oppressed sex. I’d wake up in the morning as grumpy as always. I’d blame my low blood sugar, my rising acidity on anyone who got in the way before breakfast. Then I’d cheer up and walk out into a bright, new day. If I saw a man being harassed on my way, I’d step up and fight with his oppressors. And if he didn’t smile back at me in gratitude and semi heroine-worship, I’d call him ungrateful in my head.
Then I’d go on to work. I’d probably ogle my male boss and my co-worker. After all, they’d be men of power. If they didn’t like it, they’d tell me. They wouldn’t be the oppressed kind. If one of them had a bruise that showed he was a victim of domestic violence, I’d wonder (perhaps even aloud) why he was being stupid and weak enough to put up with it. I’d be annoyed at his tears but I’d reign myself in saying that he was in a bad place. And I’d feel like a great guy for being so magnanimous and not a douche like the one who hit him.
If my brother mentioned a neighbour who talked down to him, I’d say, “Fuck her, why does her opinion matter to you?” Because I would be able to afford to do that in my own life – everyone would take me seriously of course, so I could always afford to lose a few. And it wouldn’t occur to me that my brother didn’t have the same luxury. I’d get off the phone and shrug to my boss. Sorry, it was the brother, he’s having troubles, I’d say. And I’d imagine the boss man would appreciate what a sensitive woman I always was. He’d give me a tight-lipped smile and I’d tell myself that’s just the way he was – not used to showing emotion. He’d give me my promotion and I’d punch my fist in the air.
Right then my husband would call me from the police station. And I’d run out. Of course. Police station, damn damn damn, what did he do now? To my utter relief, he’d be sitting there in a corner. No handcuffs. Somebody attacked me, he’d tell me. But he’d look okay to me. He just got worked up, I’d tell myself. Those assholes….but thank God nothing happened to him. He’s too intelligent to needle people like that. Yet, he does. Still, being stress-free is about staying calm. That is all it’s about. That’s all it is. I knew life would be this way, if I married an independent man. I’d take a deep breath. I wouldn’t be able to calm him down if I was worked up myself. So, to cheer him up, I’d tell him about my promotion. And he’d smile. We’d walk out.
But outside, he’d stop and burst into tears again. Enough, already. ENOUGH, I’d say and I’d walk away. I married a man, not a child. How much is a woman to take?
I get it. I get it, guys.
– This Woman