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We Don’t Need Your Little History

The year is 1996. The sun on a friend’s sixteenth birthday, a Sunday, is so bright for late afternoon that shadows from buildings, trees, salt tolerant wheat fields deepen exponentially. My friend and I are saying good-bye to the birthday girl, rushing out of her house, laughing, getting into birthday girl’s father’s car ready to go home, paying no attention to the expression on his face.

If what I am about to write next unfolded on TV or in the movies, the camera would pan quickly over the small town I live in. Stopping to zoom in twice. Once on a rickshaw driver idling near Mughal Canal Market. And for a second time, on what to me is the edge of town, Kunjpura Road, where hidden along the shadows are four boys—men?—sitting in a car, drinking alcohol. Waiting.

There is no music to cue you on what to anticipate or how to feel.

• •

On December 28, 2018, the New York Times published an op-ed: “India’s Newest War for Independence.” Jyoti Thottam’s short, intelligently written piece looked back on the year’s horrifically violent news about women and girls in India. She pointed at an added veneer to the brutalization: rapes mired and motivated by men asserting their caste power or the extremes of Hindu nationalist ideology. For Indians, whether they acknowledge it or not, this is not new. Only now, it has been brought sharply into focus because of the protest and struggle by India’s lower castes and tribal communities against the extremely partisan behavior of the current government.

But Thottam’s op-ed was cautiously optimistic. Change was afoot. On October 17, 2018,  MJ Akbar, minister of state for External Affairs, resigned ten days after a number of journalists accused him of sexually assaulting them when he was an editor. A group of Indian nuns banded together, standing behind one of their own, when she accused a bishop of rape. Phantom Films, the Bollywood production company that made “Sacred Games” for Netflix, dissolved after it became known that two of the four partners botched an employee’s 2015 sexual assault complaint against a third partner, Vikas Bahl. Cofounders and senior partners of the comedy troupe All India Bakchod resigned after allegations of lewd behavior surfaced. Two senior editors, from different national publications, were suspended and under investigation following sexual assault complaints. The hashtag #believesurvivors began trending in India.

This was new. This was unprecedented.

• •

One day in early 2005, when I worked for the National Human Rights Commission in New Delhi, my boss asked me to bring up a group of women expected for a meeting. Three of them were shaking, crying, refusing to move despite being urged by their companions. It took a while, but I learned that these women had been raped by policemen and that the very sight of a khaki uniform set them in a panic.

That evening I wrote a letter to the chairperson of the commission, asking him to change the composition of people manning the gates. At the very least, I suggested, assign some policewomen. I wrote a letter a week until I left in September 2005.

• •

“Can you both get home from here?” Birthday girl’s father stops the car abruptly near Mughal Canal Market. Startled, we smile back at him. “I have some work.”

As we cough into the dirt, my friend and I confirm that neither of us has money. We start walking home, giving up minutes later. We could go to where my mother is drinking tea, except I recall her emphatic instruction: no matter what, don’t disturb me. She arranged the ride home with birthday girl’s father. The past year has been hard for her. I don’t know this yet. She needs alone time, adult time, away from the teenager she is single-parenting. And I don’t make it easy. I am both needy and aloof. I either overshare, embarrassing her at social gatherings, or sit sulking in a corner. But since I’m full of sun, sweet treats, and not in the mood for a fight, I veto our going to my mother. Even though it would take us five minutes on foot.

This decision will haunt me.

My friend finds us a rickshaw. We’ve realized we can pay once we’re home. A few minutes into the ride the puller half-turns and asks, “Where’re you going?” I’m taken aback. It’s odd he accepted the fare without confirming where we were headed. I yell the address, pivoting to question my friend about her interaction with him. Instead I stop. She’s sitting next to me like a blooming flower. Literally. I can smell perfume. Her face is all smiles. Glowing. Her hair blows in the wind. Her back erect. Her breasts twin peaks. She is beautiful with her green eyes. All I can think is, shit, she’s the kind of gorgeous that always has eyes on her but what the seeing will lead to is what troubles me.

Afterward, I will wonder who taught me—I, who had never taken public transportation—to make myself small, to hide my body, to think that good posture and a sweet temperament were ingredients for courting disaster.

Ashamed at my thoughts, I say nothing to my friend, huddle, and keep an eye on the route.

• •

In 1985, in The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, Svetlana Alexievich explores the experiences of Soviet women who served in all branches of the armed forces between 1939-1945. Alexievich questions the silence of women who fought in the Second World War: Why, having stood up for and held their own place in a once absolutely male world, have women not stood up for their history? Their words and feelings?

Unexpected violence that breaks their bodies, corrodes their minds? I add.

These questions remain pertinent thirty-four years later, as the Me Too movement—standing up against sexual violence—spreads successfully, in varying degrees, across the globe while the world’s power structures continue to be predominantly male. Alexievich’s necessary volume of documentary literature, like the previously conventional response to sexual harassment and sexual assault, was subject to pervasive resistance. She was told, “We don’t need your small history, we need the big history! The history of Victory.”

Still, like those proclaiming Me Too, the heroic women, who served in all branches of the Soviet military and make up the polyphonic bulk in the book, cannot stop smashing the established litany of war with their counter-narrative. And with each revelation everything written previously becomes incomplete. Complicated. Enriched.

• •

Despite my vigilance I don’t see the car, the boys—men?—until they are nearly upon us. We are on the empty stretch of Kunjpura Road, past Jewel Hotel. They call out something vulgar. We ignore them. Their car is parallel to the rickshaw. Bottles of beer are visible in the backseat through a rolled-down window. They call out to us again; the car veers close enough for a hand to land on the rickshaw. My friend and I start screaming.

My mind disassociates.

This is happening to someone else. As in a Bollywood movie. Is it the sister or friend or sister-in-law of the main protagonist who will be gang raped and killed or the heroine who will eventually be saved?

Every time my friend and I stop screaming the rickshaw puller slows down. Once I see him glance at the car and back at us. The speculation in his eyes terrifies me. Frantically I look up and down the empty road. No one is coming to save us. The only thing fueling the puller to help us stay safe is the strength of our voices. And I feel certain that if we are taken, he will either join in or slowly peddle away. We scream—scream for him to keep going.

All of a sudden, the car takes off, away from us, weaving from side to side. I have never before been grateful for the incompetence of drunks. Sober, they could have taken us five times over. We sag in our seats. Relieved. Until I notice that the car has stopped a little ahead of us. Past the turn into Model Town where there are corner shops and residential homes. The car, motor still running, is badly hidden between two large shrubs. They are waiting to overtake us. I start crying. Despite what has happened so far, it is this calculation, in wanting to brutalize us, that scares me senseless. I am certain we won’t get away.

• •

In 2010 I began graduate study in these United States of America. During my first week in a small Ohio town I walked to university. The semester had not begun, so it felt like I was alone on campus. I enjoyed the quiet. As I wandered around, I ran into a group of five boys. I wasn’t paying attention, so I missed what they said. At the look on my face one boy leered, “What, he’s not your type?” They couldn’t have been more than eighteen. In India sexually suggestive remarks, catcalling, groping were what women and girls endured every time they stepped out in public. And it was not that the five weeks I had lived away from such ceaseless sexually aggressive behavior that made me drop my guard, but the fact that when you come from a small, big country like India—small because in world politics Indian influence remains minor, and big because no one can forget that India possesses nuclear weapons—you are conditioned to believe that the West is a more evolved place. That Westerners never exhibit such uncivilized behavior. The shock at how much I wanted to believe this colonial myth shook me.

By 2016, I was pursuing my PhD at a university in the Florida Panhandle. My office, in a castle-style building, was one of many on the third floor that housed teaching assistants from the literature and creative writing program. Through a rotation of outgoing-incoming graduate students, I learned that in every single office, save one, one or more persons had been sexually assaulted.

In the second half of 2018—after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford went public with her sexual assault allegations against the nominee to the Supreme Court, the United States Senate Judiciary Committee hearings began and ended, and the new associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States was confirmed, despite compelling accusations of sexual misconduct against him—I felt a shattering. Numb despair. Rage. At any given time, both those emotions. It’s as if a boot had been placed on my neck and the pressure maintained long after I was dust. Because here’s the kicker: I’d still wanted to believe in the mythicized West.

• •

As the rickshaw draws closer to the car, my friend and I realize we must change our route. I tell the puller to take the coming left. He resists, slows down, says, “But, that’s not where you’re going.” We shout at him, and he reluctantly makes the turn into Model Town. We hear the boys—men?—roar after us. The sounds of a car’s tires on asphalt. We rush to the first house my friend vaguely recalls visiting and ask for refuge. A woman opens the door. Explaining quickly, we run into her house, begging her to bolt the door behind us. After we make phone calls, we take a seat by the window in the front room, watch the road through a slit in the curtain as the woman watches over our trembling bodies. Our rickshaw puller is waiting for his money. Our pursuers go past the house several times, once stopping directly outside, before leaving for good. Minutes go by before my mother appears, pays for our ride, whisks us farther to safety.

And because, in the end, we were safe, I ask myself, repeatedly, whether I should or am allowed to write about this incident, in this particular way, adding it to the growing narrative about sexual violence. After all, not a hand was laid on me or my friend. I can’t even remember if the car was peopled by boys or men. All I know is, they were older, and we were terrified.

On the rare occasion I talk about this incident, I always begin by saying: nothing really happened. Except it did. It has taken writing this essay to make me realize that every decision I have made, in the decades since, to keep myself safe from sexual violence stems from what I went through that Sunday in 1996. A belief that is reinforced when I read R.O. Kwon’s essay, “On Being a Woman in America While Trying to Avoid Being Assaulted,” published in the Paris Review on January 7, 2019. With relief, I recognize some patterns of my life. In four different continents, in socio-economically diverse countries, I have walked with keys edging out of my knuckles, taken well-lit streets, chosen not to get on elevators with multiple men in them, never left a drink unattended, insisted that my friends text me when they get home, and watched them walk into their homes if I am dropping them off.

• •

In the New York Times op-ed, Thottam posits that India is now undergoing a third war for independence, the first two being the 1857 rebellion by Indian soldiers against colonial officers and Gandhi’s freedom movement in 1947. This new war begins with Indian women fighting to secure their rights, and, like every war, it has been sparked by histories that have been belittled and ignored. Already, parallel to it, similar wars subsume other countries and are being fought with the help of allies.

You see, my friend and I were not alone with the woman in whose house we sought refuge. There was a prepubescent boy who appeared, sleepy-eyed, curious. His eyes rounded in shock when his mother told him why we were there. I like to believe that he was so affected by the circumstance of our presence that it forever marked his interactions with women. As it turned out, my friend’s family didn’t know his mother, so even though she was aware that the boys—men?—outside could choose to force their way in, she kept us safe. Just like the mounting voices telling their stories, aware that they cannot stop until every single person is safe from sexual violence.

• •

First, when I felt most bereft of hope last year, the speeches made by Min Jin Lee, Hala Alyan, Michelle Kuo, and John Irving, at the 2018 Dayton Literary Peace Prize ceremony filled me with light and showed me that the world can break and break, but words make bridges. Second, every issue of Freeman’s: The Future of New Writing is a gift that creates empathy about the condition of the world, and all this through beautifully crafted narrative voices.

Photo of Misha Rai
Misha Rai is the 2018-2020 Kenyon Review Fellow in Prose. Her novel-in-progress, Blood We Did Not Spill, has been awarded a 2018 MacDowell Colony Fellowship, the Dana Award in the novel category, and the Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Fellowship in Women’s Studies. She has also been a 2016-2017 Edward H. and Mary C. Kingsbury Fellow at Florida State University and the recipient of the 2015 George M. Harper Award. Her prose has appeared in a number of journals. She was born in Sonipat, Haryana, and brought up in India.