I do not know a single woman - not one - who has not been sexually abused or assaulted and this despite being friends with hundreds of women. This is a line I have repeated endlessly because that is the horrific truth. Being a woman is being in a battlefield every single day of your life.Hence, when #MeToo burst out last year and then again this year in earnest in India, I – like many – realised, this is the revolution that we had been promised. Yet, in all these stories and in all the conversations, the victim is almost always a woman or if it is a man, he is someone who has himself been abused. What is forgotten, perhaps because that is obviously not a priority right now, is the man who has been a victim without being assaulted himself.
Anamika and I had been dating for a year but what was important to us, much more than each other, were our careers. We were both outgoing, talented and smart and the world seemed ours for the taking - So what if we were small town people! Right before our internships began, we have had many conversations about our future. I wanted to be a crime reporter in Delhi exposing the corruption of the powerful and she with her innate visual sense, wanted to be a photographer. We had made a pact to go our ways post the course and had decided to remain friends encouraging each other to greater heights like we had in the last two years we had known each other. During the first week of her internship, her father stayed put in Bangalore to help her settle in, ensuring her comfort and security. But Anamika’s nightmare started the evening he boarded the train to come back up north. That evening, this photographer took Anamika for a long drive and all through the way, held her hand. Initially she felt awkward but didn't think much of it because she thought people in cities were extra friendly and touchy-feely. Things changed when he stopped the car at a secluded place and began talking about their future. He told her that he had fallen in love with her, that she was an amazing photographer and the two have a great future together as colleagues and lovers and that he couldn’t live without her. Any woman living in India wouldn’t really be too surprised by such an outpour. They face multiple such confession of love in one life. Hence Anamika did the only thing that seemed logical to her – tell him that she had a boyfriend who she planned to marry and that she respected him and looked up to him as a mentor. It was then that he pulled her close, kissed her, inserting his tongue deep into her mouth. She was too stunned to react. He saw her discomfiture and dropped her back to her paying guest apartment. The next day, she did not go to his studio. She went to a cyber cafe and emailed me, asking me to call her urgently at the house she was living in (Back then, mobiles were the playthings of the very rich and only one girl in our class had it). We talked on the phone for hours and she cried for most of the time. I remember feeling helpless and telling her to leave everything and go back. The problem was, she couldn’t. Her father was a nice guy, but he didn’t trust the world. And Anamika was right when she said that if he ever came to know of this, her dreams of having an independent career would be over. He’d keep her home and get her married in due course. And Anamika, she wanted to see the world. However, at the end of our talk, she was optimistic. She was a strong-willed woman and she thought she could manage it. Now when I look back, I see clearly how stupid both of us were. For the next three weeks, she stayed in Bangalore to finish the mandated internship month. The sexual harassment not only continued, it grew progressively worse. Despite her best attempts he would succeed in being alone with her and continue with his spiel, hold her hands, hug her with his erection pinching her emotions like a poisonous needle. He’d forcibly kiss her, slithering his tongue deep inside her. Every single time it happened, she would freeze. She did not know what to do but wait for it to pass. He hacked into her email id and he began commenting on all her choices in life: Her small-town upbringing, her boyfriend who wanted to be a journalist but had atrocious spelling (deliberately misspelling or SMS lingo hadn’t been invented yet). Seeing her weakness for causes, he would take her to an NGO for blind people and show her the tremendous good he was doing and entice her: Wouldn’t she want to be part of this? He talked about how bad his marriage had been and what a bitch his wife was. He talked about marrying Anamika because she was the only thing beautiful in his dark world. He had an assistant who also liked Anamika and had expressed his feelings for her but had backed off when she had asked him to. This gentleman was a great help to her. He, too, came from a poor family and hence couldn’t take on his boss but he could see what was going on. He shielded her as much as he could. He would take her out of the studio for street photography, try to keep her focused on her love for images. He would teach her how to develop photos. Almost every day she would come to her paying guest accommodation and brush her mouth repeatedly and have a bath, trying to wash off any remnants of him. We would talk every day and the time that should have been spent soaking up new learnings in the new office I was in, was spent worrying about Anamika. These are the kind of stories that you have been reading about in the last few weeks and a few weeks last year. It’s the same story in different garb that seems to keep repeating and which triggered me to write this. What, however, I have realised though I hadn’t given such a deep thought to it, is how the three-week long molestation of Anamika changed not just her and my life, but the lives of people around us. The vivacious, bubbly, outgoing, perennially smiling Anamika was gone after the internship. What remained was the shell of a woman she had been before. She pretended everything was all right when she was before her parents, but it devastated her. What would have helped is if she could have told them everything – they were after all adults – without her fearing repercussions. But that was a risk she couldn’t take. Instead of drifting apart, we became closer. But closer not in a good way. It seemed we were the two last survivors of a plane wreck and somehow our fates were intertwined and we couldn’t separate even if we wanted to. We had disagreements earlier, but we never had a fight. But now, we fought with a vengeance. The relationship turned toxic after we moved to another city to work there. I was alternately sick of her and protective of her. And a few years later, when our parents opposed our alliance we fought, won them over and became a married couple. But the emotional violence did not stop. We hurt each other without knowing we were doing that. And every time she faced another molestation, be it in a train or a bus or in a crowded place, her wounds would flare up once again. She would quit jobs and not look for one for months. Besides being a lover, I would constantly have to play her mother, father and brother all rolled into one. We had little money, but she would spend it all on frivolous things and this would piss me off no end. What was equally worse was that after the sexual assault from the photographer, she closed down sexually as well. Years later, I began having a series of affairs. This hurt her badly and she fought back bitterly. And my affairs were devastating to me and my partners. I was a mental, emotional wreck and without wanting to or realising it, passed it on to my partners. Needless to say, none of them lasted. And our marriage did not either. We separated and after almost a decade of marriage, and a decade and a half of being a couple, we divorced. We have patched up over the years and we have met and remembered the old times and cried and laughed. But we have never really talked about where all this began, where we both got lost at sea. About those three weeks in her life that ruined her and my life and caused devastation in our families and friends as well. Those weeks of feeling helpless, of not being able to help her, of feeling humiliated did not really leave me. I don’t know if they have now, though I am much more mature and controlled, enough to see the signs in other relationships and warn my friends of the same. But I still find it hard to trust people, even in a caring relationship. I no longer have the suicidal tendencies I used to have a decade ago, but the depression, that shutting down of my senses to just breathe, of locking my near and dear ones out, continues though not with as great a frequency. It’s been 17 years but I don’t think I have talked about this to anyone. But I feel the need to now after going through all the #MeToo stories, of crying while reading them. I can imagine what they are going through surviving abuse because though I have not personally faced abuse to that extent myself (I have in other levels), I have suffered. When I say I haven’t met a single woman who hasn’t been sexually abused, I speak the truth. We think of abused women as those not in a position of power. But I have known of CEOs of multinationals who have faced it. And the most surprising case, I personally know a woman cop who had killed terrorists but has faced constant sexual harassment and abuse all her life, not to mention misogyny and sexism. She has told me that it’s easier to kill a gun wielding enemy of the nation than to fight such colleagues, her helplessness evident in her eyes and words. As for Anamika, her father saved and brought her an expensive SLR camera. But besides shooting once in a while, she never took to photography like she loved to before. She loved to dance and I tried to get her to dance, to train but that too did not last long. She lost all confidence in herself and her abilities. And it didn’t help that throughout her career in different vocations, she would face sexism and misogyny. She would be sacked despite good performances and this would dent her confidence further. Worst of all were my infidelities that ripped through her sense of security and trust. I became the opposite of what I should have been to her. Being repeatedly told that you’re a man and that boys don’t cry didn’t help me. I bottled up emotions inside, I chose to run away from confrontation, from communication – I still often do – hurting my friendships and my work prospects. I had been lost at sea without any anchor and it is only since the last few years that I seem to have found my bearings and properly focus again on writing after a gap of a decade and a half and made some headway. And despite the struggles and my loneliness, life feels good because finally something seems to be in my control – my own emotions and my ability to focus and work. Anamika married a wonderful man. She is in her own happy space and I guess has finally got those things which should have been hers all those years ago, which I perhaps should also have given her. I have fantasised for years about meeting that photographer and giving him such a hard slap that he bleeds through his ears. I don’t feel that anymore. And though I would like it, it is not for me to come out with his name. I had talked to Anamika and she’s happy about the waves of coming outs and though I didn’t ask explicitly, I know she wouldn’t want to come out herself. Yet I write this – to give strength and succor to other women. More than that it is to bring out that it is not just an abused woman who is the victim, but even a man who has not been touched, who can be an equal victim of another man’s sexual abuses.