I visited the Sunday Book Bazaar at Daryaganj recently, and I felt faint with excitement at the awe-inspiring treasures in front of me, rows and rows of books scattered in the pavement, waiting to be picked up by readers for less than the price of a cup of coffee. I did what any self-respecting book lover would do, ignored the mortified glare of the people who accompanied me, and sat down at the pavement next to a huge pile of books that included New York Times best-sellers, rare editions with yellowed, well-thumbed pages, translated works from all over the world. I looked sadly at the size of the two totes my sister and I carried; and considered dialling a taxi to take a greater haul home. I added twenty new books to my library that day. And one of them was Joyce Carol Oates’s 'We Were the Mulvaneys'.
It’s the saga about a perfect American family; a Dad with a flourishing roofing business, a cheerful Mom who was more of a friend to her children, three talented sons, an angelic daughter, a quaint farmhouse, adorable pets, a bustling social life, devout God-fearing hearts and the happiness of making a perfect little world for themselves, the perfect world of the Mulvaneys. Then ‘it’ happened. The incident. That dirty word. And the world sided with the ‘rapist’. The Mulvaneys fell apart, the family disintegrating gradually, time playing a cruel trick of engraving the hurt deeper each day, the knife turning in their hearts a little more each day. Each individual of the family, Mom, Dad, the three brothers and Marianne Mulvaney herself, the angelic girl to whom ‘it’ happened; were a ‘casualty’ of the incident. They didn’t crumble immediately, but the helplessness and the frustration of justice denied, falling prey to social stigma, disappointment at each other’s reaction to ‘it’; the failure to protect the lovely Marianne, their world, ‘The Mulvaneys’. How it breaks your heart! Knowing the Mulvaneys at such close quarters, having been handed such an intimate view of their lives, their goodness, their love, their perfect life; and the slow destruction of everything they treasured, the love fading behind uneasiness and their misery. Oates’s is at her finest, describing the trauma of this family, turning to obscurity. But time heals the scars, or at least makes them strong enough to endure it. There is reconciliation, triumph of hope and compassion at the end. But, why? At what cost? Why them? Why anyone at all? It’s fiction, yet it can be anyone. It can be about me, about you. I couldn’t help the tears brimming in my eyes, as I leafed through the final pages of this remarkable book, this moving account of human emotions, flaws and redemption.
And in the evening, I watched Barkha Dutt interview a rape victim of the 2002 Gujrat riots and sat listening to the trials of her family. It’s a ten year old trial of her family fighting for justice, fighting for survival, fighting to bring up two daughters unscathed. The husband’s eyes gleaming with tears as he talked about the troubles they had to face, the threats they had to endure and how they kept it all aside for what is right, what is just.
I remembered the various accounts of sexual abuse I’ve heard through the years. A friend’s sister, who had a problem of bed-wetting till the age of 23, was a victim of incest at the age of 3 years. A neighbour was a victim of marital rape every time she had an argument with her husband. A classmate was groped by few men during a Durga Puja crowd.
Many women. Many stories. A dirty word in their lives; Abuse, Incest or Rape.
It had been coming for a while. I couldn’t see it outright, but the signs were there; creeping along the subconscious, an occasional peek now and then; the dirty word glaring at me from the front page of the newspaper as I nervously flip it over to the light-hearted page 3 gossips, a scene from a TV show-the girl running, thinking ‘will she escape?’ and the helplessness of knowing she won’t; the muted paranoia of letting my sisters go out into the world where unknown dangers lurk at every corner and I’m not there to watch over them every moment; the constant efforts to ‘blend in’, worried of being singled out, of sending any wrong signals, not ‘too quiet, too shy’ any more, as I try being social, to blend in. My mind tries to remind me of ‘it’. There had been too many signs recently; a newspaper headline, TV shows, this book. And I unconsciously shut out these triggers, not dwelling on them out of habit. My memory is remarkable, not in retaining, but in ‘forgetting’, in ‘undoing’, in convincing myself ‘It never happened’, congratulating myself on moving on so effortlessly, dreams and hopes in life still intact, nothing ravaged. My memory saved me, burying unpleasant details, hushing out any voices from the past, those words in the newspaper, that helplessness of the girl running, that muted paranoia.
I too had been through it. I was led to believe I had been lucky. I was 'only' molested. Once that tricky portal of thoughts open, the sentences from my past escape and crowd in, vying for my attention. “Only molested”. “Not raped”. “It could have been worse”. “It happens to every woman at some point of her life”. “Girls get molested in crowded buses every day: a pinch, a rub”. “If you don’t dwell on it, it’s like it never happened”. There are rare times when I wonder how I got so close to being another Marianne Mulvaney, but I didn’t. I escaped; from the bad things that a man can do to a woman. But I had a narrow escape. Was I lucky? Hell, yes. I thank God for sparing me the trauma, and my life. But the questions like “Why did it even have to happen?”, “What could have been?”, “How can my parents not protect me?” still haunts me when I lessen my guard over my subconscious. Family support and therapy can go a long way, I have heard. I can’t imagine what rape victims must go through; their feelings towards self, towards family and friends, towards society at large, and towards the unfairness of being singled out, disrupting their life’s course; the life that wasn’t supposed to include ‘it’.
My family had supported me through my jittery nervous existence, through the bouts of depression that followed, but I was disappointed that nothing could be done to punish the guilty. I consulted a psychiatrist and all she said was, “so, the lesson is to be cautious. And never to use a shared auto.” And nervous laughter. As if it was a joke. As if we are discussing a trivial matter, as if it was a moral science class in school with a ‘Lesson’ at the end. I knew she couldn’t help me, only I can heal myself and move on. Only I can trick my memory, bring my life back on track, and make up for lost time. I have done it, I don’t think about it anymore. I can write about it now, even though I don’t bring it up in conversations. I can watch the scene of a girl being molested on TV without wincing. I can watch my reflection in the mirror and not feel self-disgust. I can talk to people, chat with friends, fall in love, and enjoy life every moment. Sometimes I am aware of it being a little forced, this determination of mine for an untainted memory. Few aspects will take time to get used to; like to trust someone.
It’s still taboo in our society. Sex in movies, live-in relationships, homosexuality etc is being accepted gradually. But the uneasiness of society when dealing with sexual abuse is still prevalent. My heart goes out to those women who have suffered ‘it'. Not just the street hooligans, there can be a beast lurking in that friendly neighbour, that teacher you idolize, that man sitting next to you on a flight. Who knows? Who can say? Where can a woman be safe? In homes where incest is “not seen”, wife swapping among brothers still prevalent in certain communities, and maintaining family relations triumphs over moral justice? In offices where lewd remarks, sexual harassment-outright or suggested, uncomfortable male gazes prevail and again “not seen”? In a society where news of ‘a woman raped at 1am after a party’ gets out and all one hears is the contempt for the careless woman staying out so late at night and questions about her character? On the streets where a young school girl returning from school is stared down from head to toe by road-side loafers who comment on her breasts and thighs?
Who has given men right to abuse a women at whatever time of the day it might be, at however lonely a place it might be, and however skimpy her clothes may be? How can one say ‘she had it coming for her’? How can one violate another person in such a brutal way just because she’s a woman, correction, she has a vagina? Who defines these moral codes? I know I am being too hopeful in wanting a society where a woman’s dignity is never unduly violated just because she’s there, within reach of groping hands.
The best we can hope for now is looking after ourselves and being cautious, fighting for justice, and support victims of such crimes-be it incest, sexual harassment of any sort, molestation or rape.
I pray for a world when this dirty word vanishes from the surface of the earth.