Ananya folded away the newspaper with an anger that was rare for her. It was the anger of someone who had left a door closed for way too long and now the door was threatening to creep up on her and burst open every single secret it hid. It was an anger that hid the fear and frustration of a lifetime.
These days, everywhere she looked, the #metoo campaign stared back at her. Her social networking feeds were full of women of all ages and from all walks of life tagging themselves with a #metoo, some elaborating, some leaving it at just a tag.
At first she had absolutely no idea what this was about. Having participated in social network prompts that asked you to post things like the colour of your underwear or the last thing you ate for dinner, at first she thought this was another one of those funny initiatives.
Until she opened the newspaper and was relieved at not having blindly participated with a #metoo of her own. No… some doors were better kept shut. For life.
As she read about the incident that prompted millions of women to speak up as one firm, undeniable, unambiguous voice, she couldn’t help but open that closed door a little bit and wander into her own past.
She was all of fifty now. But there was a time she was sixteen. Her body was transforming and she was fascinated and scared of the changes all at once. It was such a unique experience and she was so busy looking inward, that she hadn’t given any thought to the fact that these changes were visible to those around her too. Until the elderly gentleman who she spent time with every morning before she left for school hugged her from the back and squeezed her barely formed…
“He is so lonely beta, now that he is retired. It would be nice for him to have a young companion who he could show off his gardening skills to. And you could learn a lot from him about how to grow your own balcony garden. See how beautiful those roses look!” her parents had gushed in an attempt to convince her to spend time with the retired neighbour. She had also enthusiastically agreed at the time.
But roses have thorns. A fact her parents seemed to have forgotten. The old man was no fool either. He maintained a respectable front on the outside, not letting his inside emotions come to the fore. Confusing Ananya even more. Was she imagining it? He was talking to her like he always did, interacting with her and explaining away his rose bushes and giving lectures on fertilisers and watering techniques to achieve the best roses. But his hands narrated a very different story. They wandered randomly, in mid-sentence as if they had a life of their own. As if two men lived inside that one old man. One who wanted to teach Ananya how to grow roses, and the other who wanted to feel her up.
Although he had a wife and two grown-up sons, Ananya now realised that the old man always chose several snatches of a few seconds at a time when there was no one in their vicinity. She imagined him reliving his own youth every time he saw Ananya. He had probably thought, a pinch here, a squeeze there, without skipping a beat or a word of the rose education, the girl wouldn’t even know what was going on.
But I knew, screamed Ananya on the inside. I knew… and I kept quiet because I couldn’t possibly tell my parents their pet project of a rose garden in their balcony was pricking her with thorns every single day. It was not a time in the world where parents were approachable or listened to their childrens’ concerns. Her parents were strict, conservative and no-nonsense. Moreover, her parents adored the old man and held him in high respect. She had kept quiet because the one thing she didn’t want to see in their faces… was disbelief. That would most surely kill her. No, it was easier to bear this than have her parents lose their trust in her.
How twisted the thought process had become around this, Ananya thought as she remembered months and months of these incidents. It had been one of the worst times of her life. And no one even knew. A hysterical laugh escaped her. Now, at fifty, it was almost ridiculous – the way she had handled the whole thing.
She remembered the day her soul-numbing visits came to an end. Her mother had signed her up for extra tuitions that started early in the morning. That gave her no time for these visits as she went straight to school after her extra classes.
She never did talk about this to her mother, or her father. The visits came to an end and the matter was buried deep in her soul, never to be recalled or remembered. Until now.
The whirlpool of emotions that she felt now was both strange and overwhelming. Strange, because she never expected herself to feel so much after so long. Overwhelming because she had shifted from experiencing the emotions associated with her first experience of sexual abuse to blaming her mother. Why hadn’t her mother notice anything different? Why hadn’t she fought for her daughter’s dignity? Was she so wrapped up in everything else that she couldn’t see her child disintegrate in front of her eyes?
Ananya remembered how her personality had shifted overnight. The once bubbly and vivacious girl had turned into a scared and lost teenager who would jump if anyone so much as came and stood behind her. She constantly felt the old man’s hands groping her, even when she wasn’t anywhere near him. She took more baths than she needed to in the day in an attempt to cleanse herself of the dirty feeling he left behind. How had her mother not seen all of that?
Her mother, now over eighty lived with Ananya. She was still healthy and of sound mind, but Ananya wouldn’t hear of her living alone after her father passed away. Being an only child, the responsibility of taking care of her mother fell on her. One that she whole heartedly took on, with the support of her husband and children.
She went to her mother’s room and saw her mother crouched over the Ramayana, reading the passage she read every day that brought health, prosperity and positivity to the house. Her mother looked up, took one look at her daughter’s face and asked, “Are you ok Ananya?”
Even that question was too much for Ananya who was not used to any emotional engagement from her mother. Her mother had always been a person of few words, something that didn’t change with age or time. Ananya knew her mother loved her. But she also knew that public displays of affection weren’t her mother’s thing.
Ananya took a deep breath and said, “No ma, nothing is ok. I don’t know what to say… I don’t know why I’m even talking to you today, when I should have said something all those years back. I’m so upset I wish I had never picked up the paper today! Now I have all these old, bad memories to deal with, and I wish you had protected me ma… I wish you had killed our neighbour the first time he touched me in the wrong place! Why didn’t you? Why didn’t you protect me, rescue me?”
The tears were flowing free now, and Ananya realised she was being unreasonable. But the words wouldn’t stop, and the tears wouldn’t stop either.
Her mother fell silent. Said nothing. For a full ten minutes, Ananya ranted, raved, cried, wept her heart and soul out. Finally when she had spent herself, sat down next to her mother and said in a small voice, “I’m sorry ma… I don’t know what came over me. I sound like a sixteen year-old, not a grown woman of fifty. I shouldn’t have said all those things. I’m so sorry ma…. are you ok?”
Ananya’s mother closed her eyes and searched within herself for that inner peace which had been deluding her to this day. She wanted to cry along with her daughter, share her pain through her own tears.
Instead she found a strength that she never knew existed and told her daughter, “I’m fine Ananya. And thank you for sharing this with me. To be honest, if you had shared this with me all those years back, I honestly don’t know what I would have done, how I would have reacted. As it is, it took all of my restraint not to go punch him in the face when his wife came to me and told me what her husband was up to. I just wish she didn’t wait so many months before she plucked up the courage to come see me. I wish I saw something was wrong way before that. I wish you had at least tried to talk to me so I would finally be able to answer the question that has haunted me for decades. So many wishes… but reality is a whole other story.”
A hand gently stroked Ananya’s head and she realised with a shock that it was her mother, who never displayed such affection outwardly, ever. Ananya felt calm wash over her and slowly reached up and took her mother’s hand in her own. Her mother didn’t resist and clasped her hand firmly and continued, “I failed you Ananya. I thought time will heal things. When that disgusting old man’s wife came and told me what he did… I wanted to come talk to you so many times. But I was young too, and uncertain how to handle the situation. You know me Ananya, I am a woman of action, not talk. So I did the best thing I could. I took action.”
It was Ananya’s turn to be dumbstruck. All those years… her mother knew?! And never spoke about it? Never asked her about it? What “action” was she talking about? She was about to launch into a new rant when her mother’s words simply silenced her.
“I searched high and low for a tuition class that started so early in the morning that there would be no chance to accommodate the old man and his prickly rose garden. As soon as I found one, I enrolled you in it. And that my dear, was the end of it for me at the time. I realise now one thing was still left to do which in my ignorance I thought there was no need for.”
Saying this, her mother enveloped Ananya into a warm hug, a hug that was thirty years overdue and stroked her head, willing her to let it all out. It was thirty years too late, but it was finally time for mother and daughter to talk.
Time to finally find that inner peace that had eluded them both until now.
Illustrated By: Dr Anisha Kumar (Visit http://ignitingmypassion.wordpress.com)