Trigger warning: This article contains details about sexual assault and harassment which may be triggering to survivors.
I don’t know how to start this. Even as I write this, it’s difficult to decide what part of my story must be told and what part of it withheld. Vulnerability is intimidating for me. However, in retelling this story over the years, to myself and to whoever else needed to listen to it, I have realised that vulnerability can be liberating.
I love stories. I don’t seek the extraordinary from them, unremarkable details of ordinary lives make a perfectly good one for me. I look for relatability in a story. It’s no surprise then that some of my favourite stories are told by women.
In fact, it’s because of a story told by a woman in all its earnestness that I finally found the courage to tell mine. I am going to appreciate that story and once again, muster up the courage to tell mine. Just in case it helps someone make peace to tell theirs.
Stray conversations ensured that I knew about this Mira Nair spectacle. It wasn’t until my first year of post graduation though that I actually discovered the movie in the way it deserved to be. M got it from the college library. The title had the word wedding in it and we thought that anything about Indian weddings could be interesting to pass the afternoon with. M clicked a few times on her laptop and thus began Monsoon Wedding.
The movie is about many things. It’s a heady cocktail of people and their emotions against the backdrop of an Indian wedding. It depicts a certain class of Indians but its portrayal of women, love, loss, loneliness, isolation, strength and abuse within that class is, to an extent, honest. The movie also has a special corner for marigolds.
At this point, I need to warn you that there are spoilers ahead and I would very much recommend that you watch the movie before you read further.
The reason that I remember this story, half a decade post its release, is because it was for the first time, even though on M’s laptop screen, I saw someone out their abuser. I cried a little when Shefali Shah spoke about Rajat Kapoor in front of her entire family. It was a moment of resounding courage. It was also the moment where, for the first time, I spoke about my own abuse to another human being.
I was repeatedly abused by a close family member until I was 14.
Why is this moment in a movie important to me? After years of contemplating, denying, and rejecting my own feelings, I was able to have a voice. It took me years, many, many years after that afternoon with M and a lot of persuasion from friends and partner to finally confide in my parents. Unfortunately, my similarities with Shah’s story end right here. My family did not take it as hers did, thereby taking credit for my somewhat ruined (and struggling for constant repair) relationship with my parents.
While my disappointments about my abuse and how my world dealt with it are deeply personal, nothing will ever take away from the fact that Shefali’s character brought me a long way in speaking about it. She showed my 19-year-old self that the shame was not mine.
As a social sciences student, I was already aware of the things I claim to learn from the movie. I was academically engaging with the idea of gender and abuse in everyday spaces. I never doubted for one second that the onus of abuse is always on the abuser, never on the survivor.
Theoretically, I knew that the onus of my abuse was not on me. Practically, the self-doubt was endless. I never spoke about it to anyone because what if someone questioned my years of silence. After decades of struggling with that thought, coupled with constantly engaging with my abuser in every family function, I chose denial. I did not even entertain the possibility of speaking out until Shefali did it for herself. In that sense, perhaps, my most important takeaway was not only the fact that one can talk about abuse, even if years later, but that no matter how much time it has been- they will be believed.
For those who do not understand why I am talking about it, let me lay it here. It is necessary and extremely important to mainstream minority voices. For me, someone’s courage, in fiction (or reality), far detached from my own, gave me the strength to face mine. I am so glad that conversations around seemingly uncomfortable topics such as sexual abuse, menstruation, gender, sexuality, caste are slowly being mainstreamed because it means that someone, somewhere will have the courage to accept (and fight) their realities for the simple reason that their reality is no more shameful, unspeakable.
Instances of abuse can further instil various degrees of trauma depending upon how they are dealt with when shared. It is far more complex when the abuser is a family member, relative or acquaintance. Intricate questions suddenly emerge. Wouldn’t outing such a person have a consequence on their own family, children? Do their family members deserve it? Is it really the best course of action? Do I really want this to happen? Will this finally give me peace? Am I being vindictive? Theoretically, we all know the right answers, reality, sometimes can be a lot more tricky.
For me, the movie stands out for how the lead characters dealt with the survivor and her experience of abuse once they learnt about it. I do hope all families and individuals are similarly understanding. I am not equipped to tell you how to parent your children except that if your children reach out to you with uncomfortable truths about their lives – about their experiences with their sexuality, gender, abuse and love – be compassionate. Societal notions do not and should not precede the well being of any human being, most of all children. Empathy is the least we can do for each other.
Thank you, Mira Nair and Sabrina Dhawan for your art. It has touched my life. While your movie encouraged me to pursue the courage of your female protagonist, my reality thereon differs and I must live to make peace with it. Someday, I hope I can talk about it without tears. Until then, I write, I watch and I read in the hope of momentary respite.
A graduate of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Akanksha transitioned from the development sector to start-ups. Presently working for a financial tech company, she calls Bangalore home. You can find her at @tabbyrabbie on Instagram.