Image Credit: Soumya Netrabile, The Wedding Party, 2018, oil on canvas, 24″x30″
This world is full of men that women have to endure–this is what you believed when you were 16 years old. More than 10 years after, you’re rethinking the loss of your childhood. A few weeks back, you were on the train returning home to your apartment in Manhattan, when your eyes met an older man’s eyes. He was tall, standing opposite to where you sat. He was wearing a dark colored coat, pants; had a briefcase with him. Men are always leaning—to peep inside, to get a closer look, to imagine a love scene play in their head. It’s easy to see them drool from their eyes, when you’ve been stalked enough.
The older man looked at you and you caught him. You looked back. Remember in high school, when you got caught doing something wrong, you’d lower your eyes with shame and apologize. You’d even swear not to do that again. Sometimes you got punished, other times you were given another chance. But this man didn’t stop looking at you. There’s something unsettling about tired men with a diligence for making eye contact. You diverted yourself by looking into your neighbor’s phone screen. He was watching a romcom, some actor made jokes about a woman and he laughed flushing his cheeks pink. The older man continued looking at you. You wonder if men had a drastically different schooling from women. There has to be something to encourage their hunger that they’re preying even at an age of 50. Your gut instinct was to get down at the next stop. But what good would that do? You would have to wait for the next train and go the same way home. It could get worse if the old man was to get down at the next stop with you. So much can happen with a slight change of distance. Who would you ask for help on a subway in an alien city? You decided to stare back at him, aching for your eyes to scream— ENOUGH or STOP. He got down at the next station, his body was physically closer to yours. The train’s door opened on your side and being the opportunist you assumed he would be, he looked at you again, for longer. It was anyway time for him to get away, escape.
When you tell your therapist about this, you know you are complaining. You tell her that he left with his stomach full and you went back home with his eyes glued to your body. You’ll never forget what the therapist told you in return—“How should a man react to a beautiful looking woman staring back at him?” She asks you how fierce could you look and not beautiful to him. Your heart throbs as if she has accused you of inciting him to take more interest in you. Everything changes its meaning depending on sentence structure and tonality. This should’ve been a cue that you might not get along too well with her, later. But you nod in agreement, choosing to mull over it and not jump to a conclusion.
Male gaze is harsh but what’s harsher is when you have women gatekeeping these men. It’s the worst when these women are therapists, reinforcing the power in hands of such men.
Multiple nights pass and you stay awake in bed for hours together trying to rub his eyes off your body. You used to sleep naked in bed. Now you can’t imagine it. When you finally sleep, you wake up sweating. You’ve never experienced this before. You take a bath as soon as you’re up, and you’re washing your bedsheets twice a week. Nothing feels clean until it’s stiff and dry, you think to yourself while looking at your bedsheet smelling of extra fabric softener. You apply the same logic and don’t moisturize your skin. Your skin starts cracking and spitting blood while you wash utensils. You have to get back to moisturizing so you do and then, take an extra shower because you can’t get used to anything sticking on your body for too long. It’s endless, this routine.
Every body has memory that can’t be erased. You can’t forget how you were touched, or cared for, from the time you were born. You must have felt it once and now it’s the memory of your skin. These moments of touch are internalized so deep that they make up walls of your subconscious. Trigger points. You act out of this memory, knowingly and unknowingly depending upon how much you accept your trauma. You wonder if this is the reason why you often dream of a bird in a cage that’s open, as if to say that wings aren’t enough to fly. Or there’s always a remote control to every situation in life and you don’t have yours.
You float back into memory, gathering what you have learned of love, and of hunger, and of your body. You replay a scene from when you had gone to visit him. You and he were both drama students, reading plays and learning things about acting. In class, you were emoting in movement of fire, water, and wind. You were discovering new things about your body—exercises of a theatre artist’s life. You had gone to this friend’s house, who wasn’t really your friend. There was physical attraction and you travelled for two hours in Bombay heat to see him at his place. It was the usual—drawing curtains, undressing each other, hands all over. You asked him not to plunge himself inside you and he agreed. While playing around, as if nibbling on crumbs instead of feasting on the meal, he found you wet and made a move. You pushed him away. He shouted back asking why your body was reacting so enthusiastically to his intimacy. He told you that your body wanted it and he demonstrated an example. A week later you stopped replying to his text messages. It’s been more than two years– you’ve deleted his number and unfollowed him on social media but you haven’t forgotten his name or face.
This wasn’t so bad an incident. Or was it? Last week, while you were researching about a particular writer’s way of telling a story, he said that you should begin the story in the manner you remember it, from the place where it all seemed to start for you. And if that’s a good way to tell a story then you should begin from your high school days.
You were in grade 8, a school-going teen girl who loved walking. Teenage years are a slippery slope. There were jumpy hormones, questions and no sex education. Body hair, body shape, figure, number of friends, the bench you sat on, your class partner, length of hair, skirt, and socks all mattered. Were you the girl who put kohl in her eyes or the thinnest eyeliner? Which friends from other class sections spoke to you during lunch break? Did you bunk classes or play pranks? The list was endless. You liked a boy who didn’t like you back in grade 8. And in grade 9, you started dating someone else, assuming you had a crush on him or that this crush would make you like him or make you fall in love with him. He was in the football team, good at all sports, one of the nuaghtiest boys in the foyer, whose name every teacher knew. You were proud of your choice. You liked who he was in everyone’s eyes more than you liked him.
It was a rainy day at school, you had worn your gym clothes—white t-shirt with white shorts. Bombay rain made everything romantic. You were careful not to wear a tube or a tank top underneath for extra layering, in case it rained and you got wet, you didn’t want to lose chances of being romantic with your boyfriend. That’s exactly what happened. After school you two kissed under the shade of a broken concrete construction—moist with rain and each other. Then followed tuition classes, where you were still damp with memory of kissing in the rain and then the walk back home. By the time your tuition class ended, you were dry, your clothes back to being a simple white uniform. At that age, you wanted to experience physical intimacy. The attraction was more physical, less emotional. You walked everywhere and all the time, from classes to school and school to home and around home, in the evenings and weekend mornings. You were walking home from class when you stopped in front of a car to tie your hair in a ponytail. You noticed an older man diagonally opposite, looking at you tie your hair like that. You smiled at him like how you smiled at strangers in passing, for no reason at all but maybe as acknowledgement of a fellow human being. Or just to be kind. You were horrifyingly stupid during school life.
There was another person across the road walking his dog and you told everyone—who you told this story to—that you smiled looking at the dog and not the older man. You lied. You lied as if it could save you. And it didn’t. You thought smiling at the dog and being mistaken would make you less guilty. You were guilty for smiling at a stranger. You were guilty and you still are. You were a stupid school girl. This exchange of a friendly smile would cost you your sanity, and back then you had no idea. This man was dark skinned and stout, approximately 40 years old with yellow teeth. You knew this because he looked at you so much and when you looked at him to figure whether he’s still looking at you, you only saw his teeth. He smiled ear to ear. He followed you most of your way back home on the first day of exchanging smiles. He knew the school you went to, your uniform gave it away. He got acquainted with tuition timings and the different lanes that would lead to the same way home. He started seeing you in your usual clothes, after figuring out the schedule to your weekend classes. He kept a track of your walking hours. You had to change multiple routes, walk faster, take a rickshaw back home, and have your boyfriend on speed dial, who did nothing about this situation. Your stalker knew where you lived. You stopped getting out of the house. Once, he raced up to you, close enough to whisper in your ears— Tu mere sapno mein aati hai, bahut acchi lagti hai (you come in my dreams, you look very sexy) and later took a picture of you. When you realized this, you hid your face with your hair. You don’t know what his phone camera captured but it’s been 10 years and you haven’t cut your hair shorter.
You made it out of high school, junior college, and degree college, changed two boyfriends and still, this stalker stuck with you, walking alongside for so many years that it has become your immediate past, unescapable. It’s as if this happened yesterday. This one time, you were walking with your second boyfriend and your stalker saw you both together. He didn’t pace his speed to match yours. Your boyfriend, who passed out of a boarding school and could put up a fight, asked you if he should go beat him. Your heart was in your mouth and you had gulp it down before speaking. You were terribly anxious and you asked your boyfriend not to. You asked him what the beaten-up stalker would do when he wasn’t around. You both walked in silence that entire lane. You were relying on your boyfriend’s toxic masculinity and feared the same masculinity from your stalker. What choices do you have as a woman if you can’t put up a fight? Why is the female body an object to conquer?
You can’t help but wonder what your therapist would say about this incident. The way you see it, she’s definitely going to ask you why you smiled at him. So you don’t tell her any of this and question yourself instead—why did you smile at him. A part of you wants an answer and the other part of you wants to forgive yourself. It wasn’t your fault. You were 16 and who knows the right things to do at that age. You realize you no longer want her as your therapist.
You’ve been holding your jaw too tight, grinding your teeth in your sleep. You’ve started holding your jaw this way even through the day. You wake up with your mouth paining. It all hurts. You see another therapist, who seems more straightforward. Her word choices tell you that she isn’t judging you, that she’s no one to judge you. You like this part and while venting, you tear up. The session charts out incidents at surface level: one, you’ve been binge watching 13 Reasons Why and two, you have made endless efforts to call an abuser out through a national newspaper, back home. You know why you were hooked to season 2 of 13 Reasons Why—you wanted to see justice being served. You wanted to witness it, to reclaim your body like one of the victims in the T.V. series.
While binge watching, you are reminded of the second theatre workshop you took in Bombay. It was more theoretical than practical. It was about reading plays and watching plays, discussing them, dissecting them, and understanding a director’s job. When one of the directors visited the class, there was an open discussion about a play that dealt with rape in the family— rape of the mother by her brother, rape of the daughter by her uncle (her mother’s brother, the same person). It was messy, the lines were blurry. The mother and daughter were in constant quarrel, one accusing the other of enjoying it. When you spoke to the director, he told you that a human body is conditioned in a manner to emote sexually whether the mind and heart wish against it or not. The mother didn’t enjoy being raped by her brother. But her daughter only got a glimpse of how her mother’s body reacted to the her uncle’s actions. It took you years to realize that your theatre friend, who wasn’t really your friend, already knew about this. He had been practicing theatre for years. You were new to acting. Him accusing you of reacting enthusiastically to his intimacy was such a well fed lie.
It’s 4:25 in the morning and there’s one bird who’s probably right outside your room’s window, chirping since 3:39 am. You wonder where the love goes, in the name of hunger. This is your story but it has so many male characters that it puts the protagonist in question. It’s a woman’s story in the universe of men.
You’re revisiting the efforts you put in to call an abuser out, as if in the manner of the #MeToo movement. It happened in February, last year. He is a young professor teaching at a college in Bombay. He is younger than you. He already has an alcoholic and abusive history, he was called out during the #MeToo movement and still hired by the college to teach a batch of degree students. He turned up drunk to class, misbehaved with a few girls and cussed at the boys. A friend of yours studying in this college told you about this incident. He asked you not to post about it on social media because the college had warned the students of keeping their mouths shut. The college was afraid of gaining a bad reputation. They scared the students. The students were aware of failing their exams in case they spoke about the incident, publicly.
You decided to get this story to the newspapers. What followed was a back and forth of talking to numerous students in this esteemed college, and of different departments, and connecting to each and every college student you had had an interaction with while you were performing spoken word poetry in Bombay. You got a few leads and earned a bad name in the college. The HOD (Head of Department) said many bad things about you. She told everyone that you were doing this to become famous. I fail to understand women who do things to protect men’s (misused) power in the societal hierarchy.
The issue became a huge part of college politics as the principal and the HOD disliked each other. Finally, a few girls who were present during the incident mustered courage and spoke up. You connected them to your editor friend. There were endless nights, sleepless because you were following up with the girls and leads and the editor, all of whom were in Bombay, while you were in New York. You slept and woke up to graphic details, and voice notes; and of a few students questioning your morality. They believed the HOD, that you wanted to be popular. Eventually the girls got interviewed, they described the incident. The HOD and principal were interviewed too. The statement was out in the papers after about three weeks of you chasing this case. Your name appeared nowhere, exactly as you wanted. In two days, all the newspapers in India picked the news up. The girls thanked you, showered heart emojis on texts and told you that they felt stronger. You didn’t sleep any better.
You have a new therapist now. She has suggested tools to release blocked energy from your body. She has asked you to buy a book of healing as you like to read. A good therapy session doesn’t mean you’ll stop grinding your teeth. If you’re shot multiple times, which bullet do you take out first? Does it matter? Does a body feel better after all the bullets are out? What will you do with the holes? Worse, there’s no guarantee of not being shot again.
Aekta Khubchandani is a writer and poet from Bombay. She is the founder of Poetry Plant Project, where she conducts month-long poetry workshops. She is currently matriculating her dual MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry & Nonfiction) from The New School in New York. She teaches Creative Writing to students of High School of Economics & Finance (HSEF) at WriteOn NYC. Her recent fiction “Love in Bengali Dialect”, winner of Pigeon Pages Fiction contest is nominated for Best American Short Fiction anthology. Her poems were awarded the winner of honorable mention by the Paul Violi Prize. Her work is published in Passages North, Epiphany, Jaggery Lit, VAYAVYA, and elsewhere. She has performed spoken word poetry in India, Bhutan, and New York. She’s working on her first book of hybrid poems.