My First Time: Stories of sexual violence that are far too common in India
by Rochelle Pinto
Nirbhaya. Shakti Mills. Bengaluru's Night of Horror. The headlines just won't stop, like an endless rain of sexual violence against women. Already, a #NotAllMen hashtag has gone viral on the internet, diluting the problem and steering attention away from the issue — that women in India are violated on a daily basis while society continues to shout us down or shut us up.
Well, we're done with the mansplaining and the tokenism. We're done with politicians pretending like the victims were "asking for it" with their short skirts and their drinking in public. We're done with pretending like every one of us doesn't have a horror story to tell.
And if you share our rage, join the conversation. Tell your story using #MyFirstTime. Let's refuse to put up with this bullshit for one second longer.
Shaili Chopra, 36, founder of SheThePeople.TV
I can't remember exactly when it happened the first time, simply because as women who are getting on with our lives, sometimes you just assume this is the way things are. I was born in 1980, at a time when the conversation about women achieving anything or being anybody was pretty much non-existent. The ‘nagin' dance was the biggest thing that hit the screen. I sometimes say I was born in the awkward 80s. The first time that I can recall was the time I felt empowered to retaliate.
I was in Chennai, studying in journalism school in 2000. On a small student budget, travelling by bus was a given, and anybody who’s travelled in a Chennai bus knows what it’s like to be packed like a sardine. Once, while getting off the bus amidst a huge rush, somebody tried to pinch my bottom. I remember holding onto that person’s wrist for dear life, it was literally like waiting for the water to recede so I could see who the devil was below. Once I realised who it was, I took my water bottle and smashed the hell out of his face.
At that time in Chennai, eve-teasing fatalities were routine. Men would harass women travelling in autos and somebody or the other would fall, horrific deaths were being reported. It was a reality that we had to live with every day because we had no choice."
Rosalyn D'Mello, 31, author of A Handbook For My Lover
I must have been about 15 the first time. I had walked out of my colony in Kurla, Mumbai on on my way to Marathi tuition. As I was on the main road, I passed a truck to my left. Out of nowhere, this guy turned up and pinched my nipples and then clutched at my breasts with this unbearable violence.
I didn't confront him. He just molested me and then disappeared as randomly as he had appeared. I think if the same incident happened today, I've programmed myself to aim for the balls. I tell myself that I'll kick the guy's balls and run away. But all these neatly laid out plans tend to come to naught when one is surprised by the violence of a situation. Usually the body chooses the flight mechanism, but gets stuck in paralysis.
Aishwarya Subramanyam, 35, Editor of ELLE India
I was 12, I think. I had gone with my parents to watch a ‘dancing fountain’ show in Hyderabad, and we were standing in a crowd. I was wearing a salwar kameez. At some point I felt something poking me from behind, didn’t realise what it was. Turns out it was a man jerking off into my dupatta. Once he was done with me, he went on to another dupatta on another girl. I was ashamed and disgusted, and now had this wet dupatta to deal with. I threw it into the first dustbin I could find. Last time I ever watched dancing fountains.
Since then of course being groped while walking on the street by men on cycles or bikes whizzing by became quite normal.
Priyanka Bose, 34, actor
I’m not the kind of girl who grew up in a protected environment, I always say I grew up with the wolves. When I was in school in Delhi, taking the bus was so difficult because this one man would come to my bus stop literally every day, and flash his penis at me. He had memorised my schedule, and it had become a routine. It wasn’t funny at all, it was violating and emotionally traumatic.
I couldn’t even speak to my parents about it because we grew up in a time when communication wasn’t easy. Then finally at 14, I just decided I had had enough and took matters into my own hands. So I decided to drive, which I shouldn’t have had to do because it’s illegal for a 14 year old to drive. I should never have been forced into this emergency situation.
Monica Dogra, 34, performer
I was repeatedly molested by my dad’s best friend’s son, every time I was over at their house in Delhi, which was often. I was 10 years old visiting from America. I was obviously very silent about it, because I didn't know what was happening. I didn’t want to interrupt the friendship between my father and his best friend.
Later, that same guy came to the States, and did it again while I was sleeping in my house. By then I was old enough to understand what was happening, so I confronted him about it. So did my father and sister. What happened next is exactly why I was afraid to tell anyone about the abuse. It shattered a 40-year-long friendship between our fathers. The funny thing is that the guy laughed it off and just acted like I was crazy. That was the first of many times.
Surabhi Patwa, 36, physiotherapist
I’ve experienced aggression in my own family when I was much younger. I was in the 7th grade and quite sheltered — kids in the same grade today are much smarter. I was touched inappropriately by my first cousin who was at least 15 years older than me. I can’t say he attacked me, but he certainly took advantage of my naivety and the fact that I trusted him.
I wasn’t equipped to handle it — you know your parents will take you seriously but you’re thinking about how many people will get involved and that it will destroy your relationships. Later, when I spoke to my sister, she told me that he tried something similar with her when she was much older. He clearly hadn’t changed at all, so I don’t think you can put it down to a one-off thing. If I ever see him touch a cousin or a niece, I’m not going to spare his life.
Mamta Mody, 29, Beauty Editor, Elle India
It wasn’t the first time a man touched me inappropriately without consent, but at 15 it was the first time I knew something was wrong and I should stop it. It was the first time a man put his hand on my thigh and caressed it. The first time I saw a fully erect penis and the first time I saw a man masturbating in a bus full of people. The first time I felt scared and unable to run away from a situation.
But a few weeks later when it was happening to me again, on another bus, it was the first time I meekly complained to the conductor to make it stop. The conductor did nothing, but the man moved away to someone else.
Pooja Dhingra, 30, pastry chef and owner of Le 15
I must have been about 9. It happened in Haridwar when I was walking through a market with my mom. Somebody groped me — it happened so fast that I didn’t even realize what happened until I actually stopped to think about it. He was an older gentlemen, probably in his 40s. I didn’t talk to my mother about it. Stunned, I remember thinking about it and being very uncomfortable for a long time. Now when I think about it, I feel angry, because I was just walking with my parent in a public space. No kid should have to go through that.
Ashita Misquitta, 31, Communications manager
I must have been 16. I was walking down the road that I live on, and this guy drove past on a bike and slapped me on my ass. I rarely get angry, but I was so furious that this had happened and I couldn’t do anything about it. I was angry for at least a week, and I remember thinking “it’s such a small thing, god forbid something worse had happened.”
What was even more surprising was that many friends told me I had got off easily, compared to what had happened to them. Now I’m overly vigilant, whenever I see the shadow of a bike, I’ll move out of arm’s reach. When I’m walking on the street, I’m always aware of men walking towards me, where their hands are. I’m always expecting the worst.
Margaret Da Costa, mid-50s, educator
I was 14 years old and playing Holi with my neighbours. I was really badly molested. Under the pretext of putting colour on me, they rubbed their hands all over my breasts and bum. I’ve never played Holi after that. These were people I knew and used to play with every day. Of course, I stopped interacting with them after that, but I was too ashamed to talk about it, so I just kept it to myself. Remember, this was about 30 years ago.
But the result of that incident was that when I raised my daughter, I taught her to stand up for herself. And she has.
Rochelle Pinto, 28, Digital Editor, Elle India
Most of the incidents from my childhood have blurred into one big repressed memory. But the one assault that still gets my fists clenching and teeth grinding is being mauled in a water park near Bengaluru by three older men. My sister and I were in the tidal wave pool, and I noticed that the men had been following us for a while. I was 16, my sister was 11. Just as I positioned her behind me, one of the men lunged forward, one hand grabbing my breasts while the other tried to make its way up my thigh into my shorts.
The thought that he nearly got to my sister enraged me to the point that I wanted him to bleed. Kicking, biting, scratching, punching — I became so violent that the lifeguards had to stop the waves to rescue my attacker. Eventually my father and the guards got in a blow or two, while he cowered and begged for leniency. I've never wanted to hurt someone that badly in my life.
Sona Mohapatra, 40, performer
I was 11 and travelling for my summer holidays with my family from Cochin to Bhubaneshwar. A man in the upper birth of the train had unzipped my jeans while I was sleeping and got his hands in. I felt a burning pain. I grabbed his hand and screamed, but he just yanked it away and pretended that nothing had happened. The next day, he made small talk and shared his food with us. Turns out, he was a college professor.
This kind of attempted molestation continued through out my growing years as I had to travel by train regularly and alone during my engineering college years. I never slept through 24-hour journeys but sat up in my berth guarding myself. We weren't free enough to share such stories with our elders, the underlying fear was that we would be blamed for somehow attracting such attention. In my case, we were three sisters and the one thing I heard often and dreaded was "why do such things happen only to you?" One thing is for sure, I never step out in a crowd assuming any kind of basic safety in India, in particular.
Sneha Ullal Goel, 30, Interim Editor, ELLE DECOR India
Ninth grade, aged 15. Wearing a modest salwar kameez. I was giving an exam at this tuition class. The supervisor, an older student, while distributing test papers just carelessly grazes his arm across my breasts. I didn’t think much of it then — thought he didn’t do it intentionally. The next day, another paper, the same supervisor. He did it again, this time with a little more “enthusiasm”.
Eleventh grade, aged 17. Wearing a modest salwar kameez and carrying the nerdiest bag. I’m standing in a completely packed bus, on my way to Economics class – I was commuting with friends. The friends were way ahead, I was caught at the crowded end of the bus, squished between people. I felt someone really push himself against me, having a "go"every time the bus braked or rocked to a halt. A fairly audible but scared warning didn’t help. The next minute, he’s on my right side, his hand trying to go for my breast.
With the first incident, I remember filing a complaint with my tutor – I didn’t see that supervisor around much after that. The second, I remember being absolutely shaken, confused, disgusted and angry… I couldn’t register what happened, why it happened. I ended up blaming myself – why didn't I do anything? Why didn’t I yell for help? I did open up to someone in confidence, only to be hushed and told to “completely ignore it” and that “it always happens in crowded buses”.
I've been armed with sharper nails, elbows and grit ever since.
Anisha Sharma, co-founder/producer, Owl By The Window
Mr. More was an art teacher, one of many my parents enlisted to keep my idle seven-year-old self occupied. I think it was Diwali vacation – or a significant last class of some kind. My mother was in the living room, giving tuitions, and I was in my room. Dad was at work, and the maid wasn’t home. Mr More and I sat on the floor, drawing. Finally, he got up to say his goodbyes.
The last thing I remember is being pushed up against the cupboard, and then my mind goes blank. Perhaps this is for a good reason, because some part of me wants to believe that the abuse wasn’t so severe, drowning out the voices in my head that ask, “Why block it out if it wasn’t?” The next thing I remember is sitting in a rickshaw, somewhat guiltily telling my mother what had transpired, a few days after the incident. My mother and I finally spoke about this when I was about 18. She says she asked me where I had been touched. The vague conclusion was that he had penetrated me with his fingers.
We cried together, as she told me that she blamed herself for what had happened. Nothing I could ever say will change the fact that she was in the next room, and yet, I know this was not her fault. Perhaps, one day, she will accept that.
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