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True Life

Confronting My Assaulter

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One day in her teens, a man who she treated like her father tried to rape her. She escaped, but the next day, she looked him in the eye and made him apologise. This suddenly changed the power equation

It happened 15 years ago, when I was somewhere between college and school. I still braided my hair in two plaits before going to sleep, and covered my chest with a chunni, since I felt awkward like most teenagers. One morning, a house guest, a man who I treated like a father, tried to violate me. I managed to escape and locked myself in the toilet. I stayed there for hours, till I sensed others had returned home, and then I ran out of the house. I didn’t come back home that night. The next day, I returned with a friend. As the guest was still living with us, I went to his room. And I confronted him alone.

So far, I haven’t shared this story with others, so why have I agreed to speak about it now, even if anonymously? Because I’m tired of reading stories that condemn sexual assault victims to a life of depression, psychological disorders and unfulfilling sex.

Details don’t matter. I don’t want to say to what extent the man touched me. That isn’t the point. The point is that my trust was broken. That is the one thing all survivors of sexual assault are left with, a fearful distrust.

For months, I couldn’t hug my parents like I used to. I felt dirty. I would get nightmares—in which the man would stand over my bed, looking down on me. I was scared. I would randomly cry at a traffic signal or in my college or sitting on a bus. I was torn apart. I wanted to tell my family about it, tell even his family, but I couldn’t. Perhaps because someone would accuse me of bringing it on, although all I did was enter the room to invite him for breakfast. At the time, the worst thing for me would have been if someone didn’t believe what I said, or somehow implicated me in this pathetic thing. So I kept quiet. I still do, because I don’t want to be judged.

I feel lucky that the only person I confided in, a friend, believed every word. In fact, when I told her that maybe it was all imagined, she reminded me that it wasn’t. I wasn’t that kind of person. Why would someone claim to be sexually assaulted, risking relationships involved and even worse, giving others cause for ill-intended gossip? 

After the incident, I started seeking out similar stories from people I knew, and I realised how lucky I was. Many survivors are turned into ‘victims’ by the people around them. When some of them took the bold step of speaking out, it was met with disbelief. Not because they considered the victim to be delusional, but because they themselves were in denial.

That morning, I averted rape due to my presence of mind. The moment I sensed where it was going, I literally slid out. I hid all shock and fear. I acted like I was okay with his overbearing physicality. Then I ran into the toilet and locked myself up. Somehow, all I can remember of those hours is shaking with fear and crying in disbelief over what happened, wishing against all logic that it hadn’t. But, sitting alone in a toilet to protect myself, I knew I had to accept it and work through it.

I left the house. I went over to my friend’s place. I couldn’t think straight. My friend took control of the situation and guided me. She came home with me the next day, and waited outside when I entered his room to confront him. She had told me that filing a case or making it public would just add to my trauma. She told me to look out for myself, above everything else.

Less than 24 hours after it happened, I entered his room. He acted normal, busy with newspapers and getting ready. He tried to seem concerned, like I was a child with childlike problems who he needed to pander to. He denied it in a voice louder than mine. He said I misinterpreted his affection towards me. It was very difficult for me to hear that. He told me that it was all in my head. That made me angry. I didn’t raise my voice, but I looked at him and my voice didn’t waver. I’m surprised I didn’t cry. I told him I didn’t want to blackmail him. What he did was wrong. He was taken aback when I went through the inappropriate details, asking him if he would touch his own kids like that. At some point, the tone of the conversation changed. He got scared, and I saw him for the wimp he was. He accepted what he did and apologised. Since then, I often seek him out in social gatherings and talk to him eye to eye. I don’t really know why I do it. Perhaps to prove to myself that I’m not scared of him anymore.

I don’t know how I found the strength to sit in front of him that day. But I did. I made the man who would give me nightmares for months to come, apologise for it. A man twice my age, my weight, perhaps even my intelligence. Looking back, I find my behaviour surprising. Had I completed my education and been the woman I am now, I would have chosen the route of legal justice, or at least public justice. Instead, I chose to confront him alone at an age I had no worldly experience.

After so many years, I can understand what I was trying to do. We often miss a very important component of justice. It has to help people move on, not be stuck forever in the injustice. For me to move on, I needed to hear him apologise. I needed to see him as the weaker one, not me. I needed to stop feeling fear or anger when I saw him. We all have our dark moments, but no one, not me nor him, wants to be bound by only the darkness.

But while I could put this incident behind me, I couldn’t put my fears aside. That moment of physical aggression changed my perspective forever. I had felt helpless under the weight of someone much heavier than me. I can’t describe the enormity of that terror to someone who hasn’t felt it. It makes everything you do in life feel so worthless, if weight is all it comes to.

The realisation that you are an object for the world is a disturbing one. You start to look at yourself as a physical body, and little else. When I began to work and commute alone, this fear returned to haunt me. I couldn’t sleep properly in any place other than my bedroom. I still don’t allow my husband to leave the balcony doors or windows open at night, as I’m scared someone will jump in and harm us. But this doesn’t stop me from taking work trips to different American cities alone. I refuse to let it prevent me from leading a normal life, even if it means sleeping with the lights and TV on.

I can never ever be grateful that the incident took place, but I am grateful for the lessons it taught me. It has shown me that every situation has its own unique escape route and lessons to teach, but you must be open to them. Most importantly, it taught me something about myself, perhaps even humans in general. It is at our weakest, seemingly most helpless moments that we fight back the hardest, discovering an inner strength in the bargain.

 

As told to Shubhangi Swarup