Trigger warnings: This essay contains mention of sexual assault, sexual abuse, voyeurism, sexual harassment and self-harm which could be triggering to survivors.
I am 22. I was 21 then. In the past year, the sun has not once left the sky until I poisoned its light with my mourning. I have tossed people out of life like laundry, built my mouth into a cage for my voice, broke things to mirror myself, fled from what I had known as home, denied love and stitches, been a soldier and a refugee. Yet, here I am, writing this: it is just another clothesline on which I am to hang my blood-wet hope, in the bright light of people’s gazes, praying that it dries out soon enough for me to wear it.
Routines are liberal spillers about people. Under observation, they become specimens of one’s thoughts, influences and choices – an unguarded property, a dangerous inlet. Knowledge is a weapon, and its uninterrupted access armed my violator with years’ worth of it. When no one else saw us, he saw me. He stole and stored my body and its integrity – in whole, in parts – on devices, at the immediate disposal of his fingertips.
Because violence, I learnt, can tiptoe too.
That ashen afternoon, masked and surrounded, I held nothing in my eyes. Nothingness weighs heavy, and perhaps the people there knew so. Or the patriarchy supplied them with copious experiential learning materials. Inside, the still air pricked; it felt like ants biting into my skin, and I wondered what was suddenly so dead inside me.
An inspector, my father’s friend, sat across with a measured yet tender restraint. He attempted to feed me faith while stripping the stigma around sexual violence. I wasn’t ashamed – I wouldn’t have been there otherwise; I struggled with what I could do about it. In exchange for his compassion, I transacted my insecure questions. Can this, would that, what if – I hid behind information, or my need for it. For I knew one thing: if I took one step back, or even stood where I stood, the people around me would take several. Victims do not possess the luxury to process. They have to go on.
The inspector flipped open a black leather-skinned register that had been lying on the table bridging us. He reiterated: This is a confidential document; we do not share this with anyone under any circumstances. But hostility bombarded from somewhere else; it had only been a few hours since the police station had opened, and the register already found me as the sixth name. The neatly-lined columns overflowed with his drawled script: name, daughter of, age, concern. What a ludicrous attempt at confining trauma into pretty boxes! I was furious.
On my way back, the people around manufactured mouthfuls of prescriptions for me, but I registered nothing. My eyes wandered out to the streets of the city – searching, longing for something, anything – agony-curing pills, shirts to drench with tears, or arms to steal me from reality. Five other women had been in there, just like me – those walking splotches of numbness.
Everything inside me was shattering, system by system, yet the unbothered world just kept passing by. The brighter it gleamed, the more profound my hatred turned. It was the world’s perfect cruelty and its greatest relief: to keep moving on. I prayed to survive my pain from watching it.
Of course, it wasn’t the first time I had been sexually violated. It was before I turned six when I learnt what not to tell my mother. I owned sealed lips without knowing what had sealed them. But assaults begin only at their awareness. Awareness snatches the few morsels of hope from the destitute with the savagery of a robbed robber, a bullied bully. The instances of sexual assault and harassment I have faced are too many to count. But in all of them, I actively knew what was being done to me even if I did not fully comprehend them.
Only this time, someone snuck in and looted my body. Only this time, I asked for help. Only this time, I stopped wanting to go back home. I now know why people choose oblivion over awareness. It is like finding blankets on pavements and ignoring why they are empty. Amnesia can be a wartime bunker.
So, what is fear? Ask me. It is not what men say they harbour because of outspoken women; that is insecurity, ubiquitous in all oppressors. It is what I go through every day. I stand naked in front of the mirror and fear what I see. I dig nails into my skin – bloodied facades of teeth bites – until I’m distracted. I have preferred public restrooms that drown out my impromptu breakdown noises. I fall and scream on metalled roads because my legs lose strength. I try to rub and peel every handprint, sight, breath, and remark off my skin to feel clean, which also leaves me raw. My body is now a broken siren of a police vehicle and an ambulance – a crime scene and a medical emergency, yellow-taped and mourned.
It should be criminal what it feels like. But men and institutions run by men always view women as instruments: demonstrations of power and consequences. They hinge us to our fears and deny justice to evade their own culpability. I tried to go on, but a peculiar thing happens when you fight alone – the fumes of this world’s viciousness disorient you faster. And when you lose a fight for yourself, you fight every day to get by.
Writing this may be a final release of a long-held breath. But this is also a fossil: proof that this pain exists even, and especially, when the world looks away. It is to show how being so many still leave us all so lonely. It is for the victims who still feel like victims.
But most of all, it is for those five women with whom I share something we shouldn’t; for whom, despite being an atheist, I still often pray.
I will hold you. Always.
Isha Sharma is an aspiring author trying to make a better sense of the world using her activism and writing. She is an Executive Assistant to the CEO at Yuvaa.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty