I remember my eighth birthday was just a few weeks away. In my early schooling years, I grew up in a Christian school – St. Theresa’s Boys High in Bandra, run by a religious society called Society of the Divine Word, and it catered to children from all backgrounds. I was in first grade, and they used to finish off the last period early, so that we could go out in the school grounds and play, before heading home. The gates were always kept open in the last fifteen minutes for the parents to come pick their children up, and there was this one eerie woman in shabby clothes who always arrived early and stared at all the children coming out. She rode about eight little children to-and-fro from school in an auto, apparently from some slums nearby. (The kids seldom seemed like they were from well-to-do families) I was too young to understand this back then, but she always used to wait by the gate, and whenever those kids came – she used to walk them to the auto parked on the other side of the road (mostly deserted), and before seating them in, used to constantly touch them inappropriately while making conversation – I remember how she would constantly grab their crotch area in a tight manner, or sometimes slide her hand into their pants, right before taking off in the auto – those eight kids seemed all too used to this routine and perhaps didn’t even realise that something wrong was going on. Her expression, in itself, was the stuff of nightmares.
One fine afternoon, I was playing with two of those kids – and just as the gates opened, one of them said “Jaldi bhaag ke chal, nahi toh Ursula Bai maaregi”. No one had come to pick me up till then, so whilst talking to them, I walked out of the gates, where naturally, that same lady was staring at all the children coming out. My biggest mistake, was crossing that road with them, and then this woman seated those two boys in the auto, and directed all her attention towards me. She sat down on her knees right in front of me on the road, and stared into my eyes – “Kya bey, teri aai nahi aayi kya aaj?” and she said that with a disgusting smile, just as she got a hold of my crotch area, and I remember experiencing an excruciating amount of pain as she tightened her grip. I tried hard to push her away, and she still kept smiling – and even as I did manage to free myself and run towards the other side of the road near the school gates, I could hear her laughing – “Kahan bhaag raha hai bey? Kal bhi aana.”
I never figured out whether her name was ‘Ursula’ Bai, or ‘Arsala’ Bai – nor did I ever figure out where she used to bring those eight children to-and-fro from, in that auto. I remember feeling so scarred, that I couldn’t get myself to ever walk out of the school premises if we were left early, before someone came to pick me up. The amount of hesitation I felt in trying to talk about it, or how it felt, is something I can’t express in words. Three years later, when I transferred and switched to another school, a part of me was relieved beyond anything. But in the years growing up, another part of me always worried how many more had been victims of such sexual predators, and up to what extent she used to go scarring them for life. Although I learnt to change to a calmer mindset over time, the unmatched level of disgust I felt for such beings growing up would sometimes make me want to run a knife through them or drive them down every time I remembered what went down back then. In the years that followed, I started to learn that if we let our past traumatic experiences govern what we wish to make of ourselves in the future, then we can barely ever grow as individuals. In our morning school prayers, our first-grade teacher always taught us to speak to God about everything – for he would listen, and always give us the power to fight our demons – something any person from a typical Christian school would try to tell you. I just think I began to shut myself off from everything and everyone for the years that followed, because I didn’t see the number of savages walking around reduce – it almost felt like no amount of speaking to anyone, including God would help. I wish that I had the power to try though, back in the day.
I still remember that woman’s maroon velvet-material T-shirt, from when I was trying to push her away while she had gotten hold of me. To this date, I can not touch velvet or corduroy material – the moment I do, my senses go numb automatically. Everyone who knows me well enough knows how I quiver simply on touching that material, or sometimes even seeing it. Recently, I’ve realised that a person’s demons always outweigh his or her deeds, no matter how much one tries to alter his or her life for the better. I experienced a little girl walking towards a shady person on the road the other day, who was eying her in that exact same way – it brought back something that I spent half my life trying to forget. It is never-ending, and you can’t alter these loathsome mindsets – but you can start talking to the young ones around you about what is right and what isn’t. It took me years before I was able to have any kind of conversation about how affected I was as a seven year old, how scarred I felt in the years that followed and how I felt like there was something wrong with me and the way I perceived things all the way up until my teen years. I know people with more tragic experiences sometimes choose to stay mum their entire lives – and whether or not it’s healthy is arguable, but there is a reason why that conversation needs to begin. In a generation that never backs away from talking about topics no matter how uncomfortable they are – I just hope that we are able to have these conversations with our children someday, just as much as I hope that they never refrain from having these conversations with us – so that they know that they always know the difference between the right kind of people and the wrong ones, and no amount of traumatic experiences influence their lives in a negative manner.
I’d like to think that I grew beyond all of that. And still, I know I’ll never forget that disgusting smile – perhaps till the day I’m alive. I just wish I could, just as much as I wished that she didn’t ruin any more lives in the years that followed.
– P. Prabhakar.