A few times a week, I am on the verge of blowing up. The things the people in my family do want me to break things, raise my hand, yell or cry. Thankfully, most of the time wisdom prevails. I hold back, breathe hard and, walk away. The few times I do things I regret, I am consumed by guilt. I write about it. I beat myself up. I apologize compulsively. I also reflect. I dissect my behavior, probing to pinpoint what went wrong. It almost always takes me back to my childhood.
I have been spanked at home when little if I talked back. All through middle and high school, I have been subject to being hit on my knuckles, hit on my calf with a hard rubber stick. The raps would sting, the reverberation of the rod adding to the effect. The skin would welt and swell. I would cover up and continue as if nothing happened. These would happen because I was not paying attention in class or if I did not turn in the homework or sometimes for giving the wrong answer. I would not talk about it at home because I felt I deserved it.
I have some good memories associated with my middle and high school. It has mostly to do with the people I studied with. I have not gone back to visit my school since I left it. I have had ample time this week to reflect on how I feel this way. The idea of respect as something demanded rather than earned is an idea I was not comfortable with as a child. It is something that does not resonate now either. In my early years as an immigrant, I went with friends to Bal Vihar sessions. These places gave me the same feeling. I told myself I would not subject my children to ideas I had outgrown.
The need for abject surrender leads to power imbalance. These kinds of power imbalances where there is a vast age difference set the stage for abuse of all kinds. Over the past week, my social media has been rife with screenshots of abuse by teachers and people in power. Each of these posts is triggering. I am reminded of my Hindi teacher who would always pinch the girls in our class near the armpit. I remember the discomfort and shame as his arms brushed against my chest. We students knew enough then never to go meet him alone. In our small groups, I hear other stories. Stories that are not mine to share.
The anecdotes being shared also bring back other kinds of memories. Memories I have tried hard to forget over the years. Memories of being groped on the train, in the street in broad daylight. What I remember most is the helplessness, the impotence, the fury, and the lingering anger at men. I also remember the few movies I watched as a schoolgirl. Movies that made me uneasy, dialogues that made me squirm, laughter from my fellow friends that made me wonder if I was the odd person out. I still am the odd person out. Sexual references, misogyny, patriarchal jokes, still make their rounds on WhatsApp. I have stopped calling them out. I remove myself from groups. I stay away for my mental health.
As a pre-teen, I did not know the names of private parts. I did know that rape meant that you did something wrong. I knew as a pre-teen that women were always responsible for bad things that happened to them. Rape was the specter that haunted me as I traveled solo between cities. I covered up at nights in a sweltering train because a shapeless bundle was likely to draw less attention. I carried hard folders, wore my backpack in the front, and always let someone know where I was. The fear threaded itself into my being. For years after moving away from home, I could not sleep for fear of some big unknown. In my mid-forties now, I still religiously check every bolt, every lock before I go to sleep.
The news about teachers abusing children. The pushback from parents of the said school(s). The politics of it all. Nothing surprises me. Why would it? Nothing has changed since I was a child in the late 80s and early 90s. Movies still regurgitate the same nonsense. Song lyrics are still lewd. We still care more about reputation than the truth. Marriage and “settling” down are still the most prized thing for a woman. Change if it is happening, does not seem apparent to me. Yes, Twitter Spaces and Clubhouse are agog with bold, feminist voices. I also realize those are echo chambers that reflect a small percentage of the actual population.
We still have abusers in every family. We still prioritize saving our own before listening to the other. We stalk women after they say no. We save pictures of strangers. We troll women who speak up. We look at what the woman is wearing before we register what she is saying. Women are objects before they are people. Abuse while not limited to women, is overwhelmingly against them.
Watching story after story break on my timeline is exhausting, wearying, and heartbreaking. What is heartbreaking is that nothing will change. We will still demand our children respect adults who have not earned it. We will continue to force physical affection on children who reject it. We will enforce it in the name of culture, respect and, love.
Nothing will change until we start with us at our home.
It will change when we teach our children (boys and girls) to know their bodies. It will change when we teach them how to say no and respect their no within the home. It will change when we show them what consent is. It will change when we model the behavior we want them to emulate. It will change when the media our children consume has these basics baked into it.
Violence and power abuse do not have to be shown for people to be virile. Mental and emotional abuse is just as damaging as physical abuse. When our children see these things play out in soap operas at home, in movie theaters, on their iPad screens, they are teaching themselves that these things happen, this is normal. None of it is.
Words mean nothing. Actions do.
I am writing this today because I am tired of watching this play out again and again. I am tired of power politics. I am tired of people pitting groups against each other. Abuse is abuse no matter where it happens. Abuse is abuse no matter who perpetrates it. Abuse is horrible, unnatural, and traumatic.
We can all strive to be better, do better.