I was a pre-teen in 1990s Delhi. And apparently, I was lucky. There are all the sweet memories, and then there is all the messed up shit. Do I blame it on the city of Delhi? Was I asking for it? Will closure come only at the price of losing my sexuality? Well, bra-fucking-vo.
By Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan
Originally published on 21 July 2015.
I’ve been a person with a vagina in India for a long time. When I was 21 days old, an innocent, unaware infant, my parents made the choice that I was to live in Delhi. It was the 1980s though, and Delhi still didn’t have the nom de plume it has now: The Rape Capital. That’s fantastic, isn’t it– other cities have the Eiffel Tower or Sex And The City, and we have … rape. It’s enough to make you want to strangle yourself with your umbilical cord as soon as you can. Don’t exit! Stay in there! They haven’t found a way to rape fetuses yet, but I can bet that’s not for lack of trying.
In fact, the 1980s and the early to mid 1990s were still a sort of golden time for Delhi. I used to walk to the market by myself at four – seriously, my mother let me go out and buy groceries – and while now you’d be all, “What were you thinking, woman?” back then it was totally okay to let your toddler wander around the streets without being overly concerned for her safety. I could have been hit by a passing car, yes, but there was also a very slim chance that someone would want to put their penis in me. Incidentally, this happened in the same neighbourhood I live in now, alone as an adult, and recently, I was followed home at 8pm by a car full of men, just because I was at the local market buying bread by myself. In shorts.
In the early 90s I grew breasts and acquired a boyfriend. (I very nearly put ‘boobs’ there, and that term is another thing that pisses me off. Boobs is a terrible word, and none of us should be using it anymore. Boobs is not sexy. There’s a bird called the booby and another bird called the tit and both are somewhat absurd looking, but they got their name before our breasts did, so it’s not fair to give them a hard time for it, though I have no doubt that somewhere, right now, a pair of naturalists are sniggering about entering those names into their notebooks. Get over it, boys.)
The interesting thing about this boyfriend was that he was 19 and I was 12, not because I was some Lolita style sexpot nymphette; I had breasts, yes, but I was still quite backward, socially. I still had parties for my teddy bears, and I read The Catcher In The Rye somewhat uncomprehendingly.
But I had just got in with a group of very cool kids in the neighbourhood I lived in, and these kids had regular boy-girl parties with dancing, and invariably, the parties would end with some of the boys circling some of the girls and pairing off, and the next day, a whole bunch of new couples would be born. The boys we hung out with were all a bit older – about five years older? – than the rest of us. We were still only 11 or 12, and now, in retrospect, I realize they must not have been the coolest boys in the world. However, some of the girls knew how to handle them. They could even put mascara on with their mouths wide open, and they knew how to roll up the waistbands of their skirts and flirt like the older girls they were emulating. Needless to say, our parents had no idea what was going on. (Sorry guys! Peer pressure!)
We lived in Bharti Nagar, a sort of gated cul de sac, government housing for people who worked in the Indian Administrative Service. The neighbourhoods were all classified by letter: we were in a set of “Ds”, which meant everyone knew more or less how senior your parent was, and what level of the government he or she fit into. Ds were respectable, Ds sent their kids to nice schools, and prided themselves on being a little bit liberal. (If you’re curious, eventually you aspired to A/Bs, where you got a whole duplex house to yourself instead of just a flat, but getting an A/B was a political move, not just a promotion, and most people managed to hold on to theirs for ages.)
I’m not even very sure where these young men were found in the first place. I think they lived in the next lot of government housing – we were on one street, they were on another. (Yes, my fellow countrypeople, outrage now! This is where your tax money is going, to the benefit of children with raging hormones.) Were we an exception to everyone else’s adolescent years in India? I’m not sure. I remember life being quieter in another residential colony far away in East Delhi, but maybe that was just me being quiet, and not a representation of the area. Either way, here we were, and here were these dance parties and here were these older boys, all looking to be with us – recent graduates from childhood, brand new breasts, newly functioning uteri and so on and so forth. It was quite flattering.
And as my friends one by one found themselves pairing up with a member of this gang, I, too, had one drifting my way. He was hideous – all teeth, bad skin, floppy hair, and I didn’t in the least want him to be my boyfriend, but it seemed expected of us. In all this drama, there was even another boy, even older than this one – for whom my twelve-year-old heart beat faster, but he seemed so attractive and cool, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to “get” him. This other boy looked like Elvis, and I bought a poster of the real Elvis to hang over my bed just so I could dream of Indian Elvis in a way that no one would ever guess, not even my parents, who were somewhat puzzled by my new taste in music. The boy who wanted to take up with me was ugly and uncool, with not even the smallest resemblance to any pop star, living or dead, and so, just the kind of guy I thought I deserved.
Already back then, what was pretty and what was not was snuck into our systems. Curly hair, bad, straight hair, good. Flat chests, attractive; large breasts, unwieldy and awkward. Once, a girlfriend even said to me, “Look how nice and thin your upper lip is, it’s too bad your lower lip is so full.” I went for years thinking thin lips were a sexy thing. Everything I remember from that time was divided into ugly and not ugly. A t-shirt with polka dots on it? Ugly. A t-shirt with stripy zig zags and a tie-up front? Very not ugly. And people, even though they may have been perfectly normal looking. We were so comfortable with tossing around the word ‘ugly’, even though it makes me cringe now to use it. Anything could be ugly, but not as ugly as you thought you were in the mirror. Maybe Aman* (totally not his real name) was perfectly normal looking for a 19 year old guy, but when I remember him now, I just remember jeans, a t-shirt and a face with Ugly written across it.
In my recollection, it was a particularly awkward time for me as well, still baby-faced with buck teeth that orthodontia had not yet corrected, and the wrong haircut for my frizzy, out-of-control hair. (In a bid to be “not ugly”, I got the wedge cut everyone else was getting, but instead of falling straight and sleek by my ears, it stuck up like a mushroom. Like a hut, as one teacher called it, exasperated by my face. In another irony, it’s the same haircut I wear now, with people coming up to me at bars going, “I love your hair!”) Glasses, when I remembered to wear them. And the crown on my plate of mortification: brand new, totally outsized breasts, that I tried to hide by hunching forward and pulling up my shoulders.
Aman was older, studying for his medical exams, and he and his friends who were dating my friends liked to take us for walks around Khan Market in the evenings. Round and round all of us would go – one boy regularly stole a rose from a florist for his girl (she had to throw it away before she got home, because otherwise her parents would find out, but it was a nice thought) – and then we’d take three separate booths at a little bakery called Pat-A-Cake, with the still single girls left over, sharing their own booth and gazing at us enviously, while the boys would buy us a Coca Cola, a brand newly arrived in newly liberalized India. Once, on one of these dates, I got up to find the back of my white and yellow polka dotted dress was covered with blood from an unexpected period. Aman didn’t say anything, and I decided he hadn’t noticed.
He was an okay boyfriend, we had absolutely nothing to talk about, but he did make a t-shirt out of puffy paint with my favourite song on it and wore it around me. (“Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” by UB40. As I said, I was a strange twelve.) And he kept asking me to go to the movies with him and I kept saying no. Somewhere deep inside me, in a place that couldn’t be articulated then, I knew that if we were alone together, properly alone, then the real boyfriend-girlfriend stuff would go down. He might want to kiss me or hold my hand and I couldn’t see myself doing any of that. So I contrived to never be alone with him, and ten days later – a lifetime in 12-year-old relationship years – I ended it with him and he was very caustic and bitter, and had a bit of a downward spiral where he called my friends and moaned for a bit, but it could have been worse.
This is a conversation I was having with a friend the other day.
Friend: “Do you realize how lucky we are?”
Me: “How do you mean?”
Friend: “I mean that every time we’ve told a guy to stop, they’ve actually stopped.”
Me: “This makes us lucky?”
Me: “Um, no. This makes the guys normal. It makes the other girls who are raped unlucky, it doesn’t make us lucky that we say stop and the guy stops. That’s meant to be normal.”
But I could see what she was saying. I got her point. You know that awful saying, “There but for the grace of God go I”? It’s awful because you’re all like, “Nanana boo boo, I’m luckier than you-hoo.” But honestly, I wasn’t very careful in my choice of partners – sexual or not. I didn’t vet them, I went off alone with them, I took risks to be with them sometimes, and I escaped unscathed. Mostly.
Another story from my twelfth year. I used to walk to school every morning, and it was a quiet residential road. Almost every morning, a man on a bicycle would silently ride up behind me, pinch my breasts and move on. Almost every morning, I tried to anticipate him, and never could; he made his move and was gone before I could do anything. I felt horribly shamed and guilty – this was my fault for wanting a bra, this was my fault for getting breasts in the first place. One winter’s evening, around Diwali, I was walking home with a young male friend, and I heard the swish of bicycle wheels and made him walk on the outside. “Ow!” he said suddenly, “Someone pinched me!” He found a stick and walked the rest of the way home brandishing it, with me, grateful and guilty, by his side. When we got home, obviously everyone heard the story and laughed. A young boy getting mistaken for a girl and pinched was comical. I had never told my parents about my own morning story, because I knew it wouldn’t be funny. But his stick brandishing gave me some courage of my own, and the next time the cyclist whizzed by, I turned my head just in the nick of time and silently began to run after him, reaching for the back carrier of his bike. I don’t know what I would have done if I caught him, but I kept holding this stone above my head, waving it, all this in complete silence, and he was so surprised, he rode off, turning around every now and then to see if I was still there.
My reaction has always been silent. Something happens to me when I’m sexually violated – as girls in Delhi constantly are, verbally and physically – my vocal cords shut down. While my mother would yell bloody murder each time someone touched her in a crowded marketplace, I took the stoic approach. A man on the train once touched me – I was sixteen, standing in the corridor, while people put their luggage under the seats – I began to hit him, flailing about, a real Karate Kid, while he looked at me bewildered. Just then my mother turned around, utterly amazed, watching me attempt to beat up this six-foot tall dude and said, “What happened?” I think I managed to convey the gist of the thing, because the whole compartment began to surround him and he shook himself free and ran off out of the train and on to the platform. I hope he missed the train.
Oh, I could fill this account with just the stories of all the times I’ve been felt up without my permission: a classmate from boarding school on the train home (he thought I was sleeping). A man I met at a bar and invited home because I knew his friends and thought he was cute, but who eventually wound up pinning me to my mattress, not letting me move. Buses and trains. Markets and buildings. House parties, saying “no” weakly and someone saying, “why not” and me going, “because I have to puke” and doing so. In my car, being told, “But you want it really.” Oh, the number of but-you-want-it-reallys. I’m amazed at the number of mind readers that must exist all over the city, bravo for you for knowing what I want more than I do! Bra-fucking-vo.
Do I blame this on Delhi? How can I blame this on Delhi, you’ll ask. It’s as if through my childhood I was asking for it, begging for it even, from the way I wore my clothes to the way I stuck out my chest, to the way I simpered in front of the older boys, eyelashes cast downwards, and yes, I know we’re part of this huge narrative together, where women pull for each other, but it’s not that way in Delhi. In the city I live in, women still stop talking to a person who accuses their friend of rape, because it’s not possible and their friend “is a really nice guy.” Women have looked at me in public transport, some have glared at my bare knees if it’s a day I’m wearing a skirt, some leaning forward to murmur to me urgently, “Excuse me, your bra strap is showing” and wait till I’ve shoved it back behind a tank top sleeve or whatever, because that’s what we do as Indian women, we make sure we are modest and we make sure we’re never “asking for it” in whatever way, and if we look like we’re asking for it, we don’t deserve to be part of this common narrative.
This is the country I belong to: where you have to prove you didn’t deserve it before accusing someone of rape. Where you prove that even though you’re in jeans and a t-shirt, you’re still a nice girl with family values, where you prove (this is a hard one) that being sexually active doesn’t mean you have sex with every man who might whistle in your direction. Cops will try to put you off filing sexual harassment charges based on fine arguments like, “Madam, why you want to spoil his life?” Your life, after all, is already spoiled, he is an Indian man, and so he is already a darling, a much wanted, much needed boy of the family, and everyone is rooting for him.
Being a woman in Delhi pisses me off, but I wonder if it’s just being a woman. I wonder if when I finally feel a sense of closure – like my mother claims she now does at 60 – that that closure will only come at the price of losing myself as a sexual being. I wonder if girls, women, ladies, will ever be able to separate the you-ness of you from the sexuality you hide in your womb, curled like a snake, ready to tempt the next unaware man. Will there be a point where you play sports with your team and your breasts bounce as you run and you’re not overwhelmingly conscious of them? Will there be a point where you’re curled up on a friend’s sofa, half-drunk with wine and laughter, and then you look at your watch and realize you have to go home, and will you, at this point, be able to forget that you’re a Woman and you have this thing between your legs that calls like a siren to every strange man who chooses to listen, and your role now will be to cross your legs and sober up? The you that was arguing about politics or the brilliance of Taylor Swift, or just plain old gossiping, will be wrapped up in the modesty scarf that you throw over your shoulders while you get into your Uber cab, making sure to send your location to your anxious friend who waits till you get safely home before she goes to sleep.
You know that poem, the one that goes, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”? It’s like that. Except I am the master of my fate – as long as I don’t tempt it – and the captain of my soul – as long as my soul is cool doing what other people want it to do.
That’s what pisses me off.
All images courtesy Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan.