Sewing Blanks Back

— Trigger Warning —

This week I was talking to my friend about how gendered our concepts of violence and assault are, the idea that men face violence too is always added as an afterthought (followed by guilt because our images of violence are still crowded by men as the perpetrators), when suddenly the conversation turned to ‘reclaiming’, as is the new trend in any anti-oppression discourse. She knows about the assault she too has faced similar violence, if not that invasive. She read Alice Walker a month ago and since then is obsessed with ‘talking back from the body’ and re-affirming her space. She is convinced writing about her own past, or speaking about it is going to help her; so she encourages me to do the same. While I understand the kind sentiment which brings such talk forward and I envy her confidence in this ‘talking back’ to spaces and people who have done wrong by her, most times when I try to do this ‘talking back’ all I get are blanks. I’m often left uncomfortable, raw and angry when this offensive, ever elusive ‘space’ keeps on fleeting away. At times like these, Emily Dickinson comes out of her place on my bookshelves to help me. She writes, “From Blank to Blank/—A Threadless Way/I pushed Mechanic feet—/To stop—or perish—or advance—/Alike indifferent” and for a while I forget the sense of disappointment. Then shadows come out, bringing with them the empty pages of my journal that cannot contain murky memories.

So much is invested in keeping thoughts of the assault, of other cultural discrepancies at bay that this unraveling is too tempting a concept, I’ll confess. Seems like a magic trick, that once I will my mind to unwind, suddenly that image is washed away, and that song doesn’t remind me of past horrors. I wish it were this easy, then I’d be able to enjoy Marge Piercy’s ‘Rape Poem‘ again, I wouldn’t shudder this time as I read it. The truth is, ‘reclaiming’ anything takes a certain amount of privilege and power; speaking the right words or sounding the correct soothing syllables doesn’t always help. One day with my friend’s encouragement I wrote a poem about the whole episode; while words and meanings twisted and uncoiled in fury, one thing that I couldn’t shake off was how the whole poem seemed like someone else wrote it about me though I was using the first person persona. The body in question wasn’t mine, the things that happened weren’t my story and the sense of relief that washed over me as I penned –what I still consider the most difficult thing I ever wrote — the assault wasn’t a feeling associated with closure. The sense of re-connecting with my body that was supposed to wash over me didn’t tide over, in fact I looked at the cold clinical language and wondered if anyone even thought in this manner. Another time I read a few memoirs by survivors of abuse and assault and I couldn’t stop feeling jealous; these writers weren’t at par with themselves, they were comfortable in their skin despite how brutal their histories were. Out of sheer curiosity if nothing else, I wonder what happens when the body ‘talks back to you’? While today I am comfortable and even confident in my body, I don’t see the scars left over as a reason to mourn the loss of ‘what used to be’, I do wonder how can this sentiment be stretched further to the point where I can loom somewhere above my own self and proclaim that I ‘take back’ my body or the memory. And even after this happens, what guarantee that I even want that ‘reclaimed’ bit of me, for now that little bit has mutated and changed so far beyond recognition that the pieces that come back may not even seem like something that was mine.

Then another problem pokes its head up: why are we so obsessed with ‘closure’, with wiping spaces off of their inscribed meanings, we even go and re-inscribe the tabula rasa and somehow this act is supposed to finish the chapter in neat tidy lines? There are a lot of people like my friend who need this ending to be able to move forward and I completely support her in this expression. But staying between neat tidy lines leaves me claustrophobic as always, it never gets me anywhere, let alone ‘forward’. I’ve tried imagining a space where things don’t trigger me anymore, because I don’t want them to or tried to imagine that people don’t really probe into my body as they walk past. Some days I buy the lie, most days I don’t and the empty page mocks my absence. A few times I read memoirs of assault survivors and I felt jealous how they had somehow attained that last plane, where the episode they spoke of could be now spoken of as a performance. You would see their point of view, play it in your head and watch it unfurl against your eyes and then after a few designated pages, it comes to a close. The performance halts, the authors slip back into their respective shoes at the end of the book in the ‘biography’ section and once again ‘reclaiming assault’ sounds like a title of an extremely twisted fable. I try this performance in my head, on cue the words tumble out but the voice isn’t mine; when I take a break to see what I’ve just written as always I become conscious of the distance and the door slams shut again. It took me a while to see I was trying to re-possess a memory and an incident that wasn’t mine to begin with. The nature of my assault was such, the whole episode makes sense — the remotest sense — when seen from the perpetrator’s point of view only: what he did and how he did it, while my body and memory are lodged somewhere in the middle.

Re-possession doesn’t interest me, closure seems like a myth and a tool to have victims firmly stuck to their perpetrator’s actions and re-claiming isn’t my privilege to debate over. After a long time these blanks don’t seem offensive or oppressive places. They’re unlined spaces where I am allowed to be.


Filed under assault, Feminism, lajja, personal stories, reclaiming spaces, unfurling

Covering Up Marks

Trigger warnings for assault and violence.

Earlier this year, somehow I ended up watching the Bollywood film ‘3 Idiots‘ with my friends, this is very unlike me, for I never watch mainstream films. Maybe they requested and I gave in, I don’t remember. All I do remember clearly is at the climax of the film one of the actor’s water breaks and she has to give birth in a makeshift space. The woman is yelping and the first thing that comes out of the protagonist’s (who is a man, predictably) mouth is, “Cover her up!”, from the prying eyes of other men present in the room. I don’t remember anything else from this film, just this one line whispered in a scene of frenzy sticks up. And every time I think of the film, the same sense of panic washes over me as it did in the movie hall back then. I suddenly burst into tears and I couldn’t stop for quite a while, my friends were worried and they thought I’d finally lost it. Maybe, I’d crossed the line that divides ‘normal’ to ‘crazy’ in their heads; little did they know that the panic-attack I had, was a parting gift from an assault a few years ago.  After this assault, I’ve given into many crying spells and panic-attacks, a sour reminder that PTSD still looms under my skin and can raise its head any time, in front of anyone.

Till date I cannot write out the nature of my assault, or what transpired that night — for being anonymous online still isn’t good enough to ease my paranoia of being found out — or even tell anyone about it. I remember stumbling home, numb and frozen inside; I rush to my room and stand in front of the mirror and the first thing I do is wonder how would I cover all the marks and scars up. I didn’t register just how invasive my assault was till about a few months ago when I found out yet some more scars in a few unexpected places. The week following my assault, I stayed in my room, feigning an illness and stayed in bed, hoping that no one would notice what was really up with me. In three weeks the worst and the most obvious marks healed, and that’s when I let myself gauge what had happened to me and what was my role in this thing, as I’d started calling my ‘episode’. For months even I thought I was responsible in enabling the assault, after all I’d gone along with him, I didn’t stop him till it was too late and I’d pretend everything was alright when my friends asked about my health. Reporting the assault was something I never considered sober, for I knew only too well what happened to girls who reported such crimes. No one would believe me and the thought of my parents finding out still petrifies me. So I keep my body covered and out of sight, grateful that there are no marks or bruises on my face or any other overtly obvious places. For the longest time, clear unmarked bodies fascinated me; many times I’d hope that one day I’d wake up to find all the momentos of that thing, off of my skin, or hope that just somehow they’ve been absorbed in some invisible part of my body and I’d never have to see them again. But soon enough, the reflection in the mirror would show it all and I’d wake up from the dream.

It has taken me a long time to see the body I lost and the body I’m left with are not necessarily different entities; though they occupy different spaces now. My unmarked body — I don’t lament over this loss anymore, just a hazy memory of what used to be — is a blur, I can’t imagine what I looked like before the assault, what I remember is the way spaces would part, I could enter a room and not worry about anything more grave than a wrinkled shirt, that I’d blend in. My unmarked body gave me access to more spaces than I do now, I could wear swimsuits, short-sleeved clothes and skirts; clothing didn’t enter an arena of deliberation till much later. My marked body however, never let’s me forget my assault, and this goes beyond clothing choices or restrictions. The marks on my body are always a subject of fascination for my lovers each want to know where they came from and every time I add to the lie. I have one story I give to anyone who asks, each time though I add new details to this scene, strengthening it, binding the ropes around its loopholes and covering my body consequently from each angle. Sometimes while narrating this scene to the Listener, I sell myself the story, temporarily will myself to believe the words I’ve decidedly weaved in and around each other. For the first few months after the ‘episode’, I was convinced every one could see and cut into my body as they wished, that control and agency are words we make up to reassure ourselves. Perhaps today, my paranoia has reduced considerably, however the idea that agency as a concept that can exist out of my theory books is a hard one for me to reconcile. There are days where I see my marked body and I feel lucky enough to be alive, there are some when I wonder if these marks are visible only to me — as most marks have become rather faint — and on most days I see the scars and try to not divorce them from my skin, see them as a part of me; there is no telling which image of me in the mirror takes over which day, the only constant image is the scars above and inside my skin.

There are days where I fantasise that I’ll be able to speak out about the assault without guilt; this guilt isn’t because of my assault but because I covered it up, I kept my body away. Sometimes when I’m telling that story to the Listener, I see a part of me get up and leave unable to bear the lie, while another makes the lie even more intricate. These marks don’t make or break me, I’m sure of that. But these marks break into my space, walk with me, curl inside me and in my mind’s eye, show up just beneath my skin the moment I forget to remember the episode. This breaking and entering in my skin-cells doesn’t happen routinely, but when I see other conspicuously covered bodies, the guilt re-surfaces and before I know it, I’m losing my ‘sanity’ sitting in front of my computer reading someone else’s triggering experience or  in a movie hall when someone covers yet another body up, letting the shame and lajja percolate within skins and let it reside there permanently. Today, all I can hope for is that this wave of panic is short-lived as my marked body and I cover yet another scar out of sight.






Filed under assault, Feminism, lajja, personal stories, unfurling

The Need To Unfurl

I read the word ‘Unfurl’ in an old journal of mine, next to another word I’d written, ‘Uncoil’. And now next to those words, after all these years , I add another word, ‘Shameless’. You see, it takes a Lady without any concept of shame to unfurl and uncoil in public, or as publicly the bytes of the internet will allow this Lady. Maybe things will fall into perspective if I said I am from India, perhaps one of the oldest and most overt patriarchies of the world, where ‘woman’ is a second utterance, sometimes reduced to being a shadow, sometimes even forgotten as an afterthought or otherwise just rendered invisible.  Maybe this description feels too romanticised to you, maybe you think I’m just another ‘hysterical’ Lady who fought with some man in her life and is using this invisible space to get even. While it does seem like a likely motive, the truth is more complicated than such simple unraveling.

For one, being ‘hysterical’ isn’t a choice, it’s a condition that is born out of living in such a restrictive environment where each word needs to be censored and measured. Just yesterday, while I was talking to my aunt about her impending hysterectomy, her 25-year-old son entered the room and suddenly the air goes still as she pretended to talk about something else entirely. I was puzzled about why she did that yesterday seeing how her son knows about her ‘condition’ and is mature enough to deal with supposed taboo subjects of the feminine reproductive system; after my cousin leaves I asked her why did she do that. She looks at me and says the words I know too well, these words are inscribed on my body, I’ve heard and felt them so many times. She says, “You know we don’t talk of such things. Have you forgotten the shame that accompanies us when we talk of such things?” and on cue those words start glowing on my body, in my mind’s eye. And she is right, we don’t talk of such things. There are theories that assert that feminine modes of communication are different than that of men. I can’t claim the sanctity of such theories, because the difference in our modes of communication is often used to show how the latter is superior in some way and justified in all the insipid things they do. What I do know is how most of my words, my sister’s, my mother’s or anyone who identifies as feminine in my household speaks a language of silence and spaces. So much goes on with unspoken gestures — the hushed tones when speaking of some cultural transgression, the clipped overtones when I try to speak up, the sharp flashes of anger when I speak up in places and gaps I’m not allowed to — sometimes I think the Other Half, the men of my house don’t even know half of what really goes on in the house.

Our identities are fragmented, the private and the self is kept locked away from the public, it’s Shame that raises its head every time the private tries to blend in the public persona we carry around with us. The Shame (or Lajja as Taslima Nasrin aptly coined it) is a local as well as a cultural disease. Stuck between my body and the person inside, Lajja makes me do a few too many things I otherwise wouldn’t do. Today, because of this Lajja, I have to speak anonymously, keeping the ‘true’ self in my body locked away somewhere, hoping no one will notice I’ve opened my mouth out of place. It would be wrong to say this Lajja is culturally imposed and we’re nothing but mindless pawns who have no choice in this transaction.  We let this Lajja under our skin, in so deep that no amount of scrubbing, of westernisation, of having ideals of feminism, of being radical can change it. Till date, I’m uncomfortable in my skin; because in some part of my head I’m convinced that this confidence I’ve cultivated or this persona I’ve made is wrong or undeserving in some way. While there is a bigger and a stronger voice that negates this belief, this small whisper is more than enough to keep me silent for days. Like the counted seeds one gives to birds, I too must count my words and weigh my meanings. One word out of place and I’m deeply unsettled for days, fearful that someone will see beneath the mask and see all that I’ve worked hard to cover.

A lot of people know me as a Lady who is often loud and impulsive, as a person who is quite impetuous and unsubtle, but that’s only a striptease for the public. At home, you won’t recognise me even if you’ve known me for years. At home, my tongue goes heavy on its own, glues itself to the roof of my mouth and not a muffle filters through. Before you can assume any sort of abuse or assault, let me assure you there is none. It’s this Lajja that keeps me and countless others in our place. This shame that is bone-deep is the reason characters like Sita or Radha form such important parts of our folklore. Such women are our ideals, where we emulate voicelessness; where allowing someone else to voice you is being a worthy woman. I can think of those light partitions used in Mughal India called ‘Jarokhas’ where women would be allowed to see through the screen. There are times I feel the screen in front of me, blurring my vision, unallowing me to feel anything beyond previously approved series of emotions. Last month one of my friend’s had to undergo an abortion, and somehow her parents found out. “The ensuing silence pierced deeper than the doctor’s scalpels”, she told me later.  This silence is an old friend; my maid calls this silence “her pet bitch” as she is always there, lurking behind corners. And when silence withdraws, Lajja is always there to take the throne. Either way, I get trapped in these norms and unspoken words.

Today I write ‘shameless’ then I erase it only to write it again, with a stronger hand. Like the trend to ‘reclaim’ spaces and words, I will not be able reclaim the silences or Lajja. They were never mine to begin with, I cannot give them back to anyone. They sit aside, and for a while I can unfurl and unclench before I slip into my other shoes. The steps are just as heavy as the silences are, but today this is all I can do. Unclench while I can.



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Filed under Feminism, personal stories, unfurling