“You are hurting me Maa” snapped Anjali jerking her head sideways away from her mother and furiously clasping her half-done braid. A chubby 13-year-old tween, with curly long hair she was an adorable but fidgety child. “That’s because you just cannot sit still. Your doll can wait for her braid till I am done with yours! “retorted her mother, Asmita. “I have other work to do. Your friends are also waiting outside for you. Now be my good girl and let me be done with your hair”.
“Maa, I am not going out to play today. That stupid Rishab is forever bullying me.” Anjali complained and this wasn’t the first time. On some occasions in the past, Rishab and another friend had tried to bully her and in the process hurt her. Asmita asked her with concern” What did he do now?” “He hurt me, again!” And when he touches me here, it really hurts a lot “ Anjali pointed out to her chest, looking upto her mother, with that adorable pout and eyes filling up with tears. Asmita asked again trying to probe. “ How did he hurt you there baby ?” “ He came from behind me suddenly and hugged me and then…it hurt so bad Maa! “
All sorts of thoughts ran through Asmitas mind. Rishab was a son of a close friend, Puja. She had known him since he was a 5 year old. It was hard to imagine him as a grown boy trying to indulge in such indecent acts.“These kids have too much exposure to all sorts of nasty stuff. I will have to take this up with Pooja but gently.”She thought to herself. As she finished braiding Anjali’s hair, she drew her closer turning her around to hug her. Wiping her tears, she gently held her hand and said, Maa won’t let anyone hurt you like this ever, don’t worry, I will talk to Pooja Aunty and she will scold him nicely.”Having said that, Asmita got busy with her usual chores as Anjali went out to join her bunch of friends with her doll snugly under her elbow. Asmita made a mental note to casually mention this anecdote to Puja over their usual morning walk the next day. She has to be careful though not to push it as Puja may start to question Anjali’s careless and playful interaction with other boys her age. She may also start to remark on her short dresses her dad got her recently from his US tour. She certainly did not want any fingers pointed to her parenting. Anjali too has to mend her ways and will need to get back home before dark. She was growing up too fast…
The day was auspicious and festive. It was Holi. A celebration of the victory of good over evil. While the whole world around her was busy with the colourful festival, 42year old Anjali was on her way to work. It was an urgent document that needed to be submitted that day. She promised to herself as she drove that she will wrap up the day before noon, in time to pick up her son from his tennis session. Passing the lush green corridor of the tech park where her swanky 2-acre office complex was located, she quickly reminded herself of the task at hand. She had to just take a printout of a document and get it signed by the duty manager.
The duty manager’s office was at the top floor of the 14 storey building. She swerved in the parking lot and easily found a vacant slot close to the main entrance. As it was a designated holiday for most of the employees that day, usually buzzing the main Atrium in front of the entry foyer looked deserted.
As she walked out of her car towards the grand entry porch, she spotted a lone man leaning against a far left corner pillar of the porch. From the state of his attire, he looked like an office executive who had just finished playing a rather colourful Holi and had come out to enjoy a smoke. She gave him a second look as he looked like a misfit in the surroundings. A faint sign of recognition crossed her mind. Is this the man who had stood at the very same spot the other day and made a dirty pass at her ? Or maybe not. It was difficult to tell. She decided to ignore him in spite of him staring at her, yet again. She passed him by and went in thru the main entrance towards the lift lobby and pressed for the lift . As she waited , the man came and stood uncomfortably close to her. He reeked of alcohol and smoke. Anjali backed off a bit to maintain her distance. The lift came and as she went in, had a sigh of relief on spotting the lift man on duty. She quickly requested him for the 14th floor and settled, leaning against the far corner. The drunk stranger followed her in. He requested for 14 th floor too. She tried to remain collected but her anxiety seemed to get better of her. The man settled down on the other diagonal of the small lift now still refusing to shift his gaze from her. The liftman stared first at her and then him and shook his head as if disapprovingly. Her mind started to race and she struggled to convince herself that all will be well. As if on an instinct, she decided to cut the journey short, and leaped forward to press the button for the 8th floor by herself. The very next minute, the lift door opened and she quickly stepped out praying she wont be followed. Thankfully that drunkard decided to stay put. She watched the lift go up and stop at the12 th floor. “So, he must have changed his mind and stepped out, realising the futility of going till the top floor.” she thought to herself. The lift reached the 14th floor and Anjali called it back again. It was empty this time to her surprise but she heaved a sigh of relief as she stepped in it. She quickly composed herself for meeting the duty manager and finish the task at hand. The 14th floor corridor was devoid of the usual hustle and bustle. The left wing was under construction so was out of use. The duty manager sat in the far-flung cabin of the right wing and she was well aware of the layout of this part. As she needed a photocopy, she brought out her set of docs from her bag to first get that done. The photocopier was housed in a separate cabin just near the entry door of the wing. This room also served as a break out room for the employees with Tea and coffee vending machines lined up on one side and photocopiers and printer hub against the opposite wall. . Anjali noticed that the room was empty today. Usually, one operator or an attendant is present next to the photocopier. She wondered but then decided to focus on completing her task.
As she retrieved her documents from her bag she subtly became aware of some movement outside of the room. Ignoring that, she fed her papers in the machine and feeding the blank A4 sheets, waited for the finished copies to emerge. The machine seemed unduly noisy today as it broke the silence around. She was relieved to get the copies done and quickly stapled them together. As she turned away from the machine towards the door she suddenly stopped as she saw a silhouette of a man slowly emerge from behind the door. She immediately instinctively knew she was in trouble.
It was that man, that drunk stranger, now standing in her way, blocking her out. Her heart raced and before she could react, he was in the room locking the door behind him. She panicked on gauging his intent which he almost made clear by his stance. Sudden nausea gripped her and she instinctively screamed for help. Panic drowned her voice and she sounded feeble. As he came upon her, crudely clasping her from behind, she lost her balance and fell. Her handbag fell too and her phone dropped out. As she tried to catch her phone from one hand, with her other hand she caught the handbag and flung it with a force on her attacker. For a minute, she thought she has successfully disabled him enough for her to escape. She got up quickly to run across towards the door, screaming again for help at the same time. But he was stronger. Catching her again from behind he pulled at her hair violently. By this time, Anjali was distraught. She was giving up hope and feared the worst as her cruel attacker started to abuse her relentlessly. She prayed, trembling in fear and cried in pain all at the same time. She had heard anecdotes of rape and sexual abuse all her life. But she had never imagined the agony the victims go through. It was her this time…it was happening to her. Her attacker was brutal and determined and at some point, she had no option but to surrender. The stench of the alcohol and his body odour was overpowering and sickening. Now, there was no escape. This is it..the end of her beautiful life. It’s over, she thought with utter remorse and disgrace. Her perpetrator, on the other hand, seemed to get stronger by the minute. She lost track of time, space and her very existence.
As if in her miserable trance, she heard a faint but wild thumbing. Yes, it was real! Someone was knocking at the door. She suddenly saw panic on the man’s face. As if on a cue, she screamed, once again with all her might. The man tried to gag her with her own scarf to drown her voice but thankfully, it was too late. The voice she heard next seemed like coming from the edge of her nightmare. The man suddenly released her from his strong grip and looked around, not knowing what to do next. All of a sudden, she next heard a metallic click of the lock of the door. That click will stay in her memory as one of the most melodic sounds of her life. Next few things happened almost in a haze. She saw her saviour, the liftman getting in the room, dragging the stranger out and giving him his share of abuses. The man decided to run as the kind elderly lift man rushed in towards Anjali. He helped her get up, collect herself as she almost fainted with relief in his gentle and comforting hold. How the next 30 minutes went, she had little recollection. She realised she had to get to her son as quick as possible. He would worry if she was late. She used the restroom in a daze as she washed her face, pulled up her hair, straightened her clothes and finally her spirits. She had no time to look at the damages. Scared, panting, relieved she walked out of the restroom. The kind lift man had no clue who the stranger was and advised her to just go home and think thru this once in a safe place. He carefully warned her not to come back to the office for few days and took her phone number down just in case he noticed that man again or he resurfaced trying to trace her through him. She thanked the old man profusely as he escorted and somewhat dragged her to her car. Thankfully there was no sign of the stranger. She had no recollection of how she drove and in what direction. But she managed to get quite far and only then did she park on a quiet sideline and allowed herself to disintegrate. Whether they were tears of distress or repose, it was difficult to deem. In her grief, time seemed to have stopped. She looked at her watch and realised that she has been in the office building just for about 40 mins. And although the assault has lasted for no more than 12-15 minutes, it felt like infinitely.
Slowly she collected herself and began to evaluate her situation. The whole episode had left her in a state of shock and she felt drained. But she had to think fast. She wanted her cruel attacker to be reported and punished. She wanted to throttle him if she can permit herself to do that. She started to examine herself and sobbed at her condition. She revolted at the sight of the scratches, bruises and wounds feeling filthy & desperately forsaken. She felt a dull throbbing headache probably as a result of hitting it against the wall as she had tried to escape from his grip. At first, she felt it was her ears ringing but then realised it was her cell phone. She quickly tried to revive her calm as she fetched it and stared at her husband’s number flashing on the screen. No, she can’t tell him, not yet. She has to think it through. How will he handle it? He was so caring and extremely overprotective. He may overreact. This horrible guy could be a criminal or a goon.” She thought about her 14-year-old daughter and at once feared for her safety.
“Does he know me well, will he come after me again if I let him be? Or should I report him and put him behind the bars? What if he walks free in spite of that. He may stalk or even harm us. Who knows, he may even be a paedophile. I don’t even know him. How will I trace him? What will I tell the police if I were to report him and then not able to identify him? He was tall, broad, strong and brutal with savage shades of blue and purple splashed all over him. Who will decode that? And what about my family, friends and parents? What will they say and think? My own mother may judge me as she did years before when Puja Aunty had remarked about my freewheeling nature. She had asked me to tone down my laughter, my interactions and conversations, especially with boys. That had come as a shock to my little self. I was put under a curfew, to be back home before nightfall every day. It was as if it was my fault if any boy showed any interest in me. That small episode in my teens had led to an upheaval with Puja Aunty and spiralled into a bigger issue that went on to haunt me till my marriage to Sandeep. So much so, that when our neighbour Maya aunty’s daughter, Poonam was molested in her school by a gang of 3 spoiled brats, it all turned into a lesson to be learnt and followed by me. No one spoke about sufferings of poor Poonam di. The hushed whispers were all about character assassination of Poonam and how she could have prevented the assault. Yes, that’s what my parents will think even today. No, they can do without this information. Sandeep will protect me, I am sure of that. He may understand my stance of not reporting too but this will mess him up. He may get angry and revengeful and end up getting into a further mess.I can’t do this to him…not now…I need time to be strong myself. Oh god, how will I do this, how does one pick oneself up after such a trauma! But I have to…, it’s for the best. I will deal with it by myself and God will help…”
She glanced at her watch again. She had only a few minutes to collect the pieces of her shattered modesty and move on. She pulled out her powder compact and comb from her handbag and stared at her tear streaked face in the small mirror. Fighting another gush of breakdown, she slowly began to work at putting herself back together to face her life, her family, friends and routine.
It had been 10 days of keeping up appearances. And Anjali was not doing so bad. She managed to cover up her scars and hid them successfully even from Sandeep. She had moments of misery, despair and fear but she had always been a fighter. She was doing well and was proud of it. The life around her seemed to be bitterly normal and everyone around her simply went about with their routines. And that helped too.
But the next upheaval lurked around the corner. One evening, as Anjali was finishing her regular evening walk, she got a call from her saviour, the lift man. His voice was gentle and full of concern. Thankfully, she was by herself and spoke to him freely. He only wanted to know about her welfare and ensure that she had not been contacted by her perpetrator. He added that he was going back to his hometown as he had just retired from his job. Anjali thanked him once again fighting her emotions of losing her only witness and guardian angel. Whether it was that loss, the pent-up misery of the last few days or just the reminder of that ugly episode, the floodgates of emotions welled up once again post that call. This time, it was almost unbearable for her. She felt utterly lonely and realised she desperately needed help, a confidante and a shoulder to lean on. She was tempted to share it at once with Sandeep. But, stopped short. Her daughter’s board exams were going on. Sandeep would certainly not take it easy and there would be turmoil at home. But she needed someone for sure. So, she decided to confide in a friend. She chose her carefully. She almost immediately knew whom to call. Anita had been her soulmate for years and genuinely cared for her. Anjali knew she will keep her secret and won’t judge her. She then dialled her number and confided it all to her dear friend.
It was 20 days since she had spilled it all out to Anita. As she expected, Anita had helped her maintain her stance, consoled her and then pressed her to see a counsellor. She needed that badly. But her first visit to the counsellor was very disappointing. The counsellor although gentle at first had gradually nudged Anjali to divulge the details and revisit her trauma. According to the counsellor, it could help her to lighten her bottled up stress and anxiety. But maybe that was not needed then. Not when it was all very raw. Not when she was still feeling ashamed and unjustifiably guilty about the episode. She had questioned herself umpteen times on whether she could have provoked him. Whether her clothes were inappropriate or her body language was all wrong. She ended up in a wreck every time she went through the chain of these thoughts. She needed to address these with the counsellor. Her self-esteem had taken a bad beating and she so needed to feel good about herself. But the opposite happened. She had nightmares post the session for many days. She decided to fight them on her own. But, she struggled and It was becoming harder every day to keep it under wraps especially from her unsuspecting and trusting husband. She called and cried through innumerable phone calls to Anita. She sobbed in the middle of the night as she lay awake waiting to get a few peaceful minutes of sleep. But sleep eluded her as she grew weaker day by day.
Anita watched it all and then at a point, could take it no more. It was burdening her conscious to keep it all within her. So she decided to break her silence for Anjali’s sake. She broke it to Sandeep as gently as was possible over a phone call. Sandeep went quiet as he took his time to absorb the shock. He thanked Anita and disconnected the call. He was shattered. He felt deceived and shocked. As expected, there was rage, agony, love, sympathy and care. All of these and many more feelings towards his wife took turns to surface in the days and weeks to follow.
It was amazing how fifteen minutes of trauma can mess up so much in so many lives. Anjali’s sorrows had company now . In a way that helped to lighten her burden of pretence. But sadly and quite expectedly it also impacted their relationship adversely. Both had their own battles to fight but they did so in a quiet companionship. Anjali had moments of introspection while she battled her inner monsters. She strangely found herself conversing with them, confronting each and gathering strength. She had to somehow start to lead a normal life. She joined back her work a month and a half after the fateful day. It was scary to say the least. But she and Sandeep had been preparing themselves for it and she had her points of actions ready for any eventuality. Each day of normalcy gave her power and strengthened her confidence for any encounter with her attacker. She seemed to be settling back again in a familiar routine. But something still troubled her . She always felt like she has to correct something. Something that constantly tugged at her conscious. As she dwelled further, she figured that the mindset in her growing years had a great impact on her healing. She still battled the deep sense of shame and guilt. She then thought of her kids who were going through their vulnerable and impressionable teenage years. Probably they will grow up with better mindsets. Maybe she should make a deliberate effort to infuse the right values to them so they grow up to respect themselves and those around them. These contemplations and many others led her to gently share her forlorn experience with her kids. One Sunday, over their usual afternoon siesta she brought up the hapless episode carefully filtering the gory and evil while choosing the bare needful. As they both intently listened to their mother, with a few sighs of shock with disbelief and obvious gestures of compassion with a gentle stroke on her hands, she gradually became aware of perception of the incidence as a mere act of violence. There was no shame reflected in the exchange of their views as they conversed and consoled their mother as she would after they have been badly hurt in a fight they bravely fought. Anjali was pleasantly surprised by their simple interpretation of the episode without undermining her miserable journey till then. Infarct the next few days, brought about an uncanny role reversal. Her son took over as her counsellor and delivered a daily dose of consolation that he obviously would have googled for the previous night. Her daughter volunteered to pitch in all sorts of tasks she had resisted earlier. It was heart-warming how Anjali’s whole family stood up to shield her from the inescapable grief. Inescapable it was and it threatened appearance every now and then. She had battled that monster only for 15 minutes in that room. But now her real battle was with herself. Her real demons were her shame, disgrace and fear and all of them were within her. All of them had made themselves comfortable in her head during her growing years. Any talk of Rape, sexual abuse was always in abandon, in whispers blaming it usually on the victim. She soon discovered that it was her mindset as well, something that lay deep within. It was a fathomless conditioning of many years that needed to be wiped out before she can restore. Although the kids were gallant and took things in their stride, Sandeep seemed to have soaked up Anjali’s grief a lot more than required. He was a quiet and sincere man, often inexpressive and intensely caring. It had hit him hard and Anjali saw him struggle to keep a cheerful disposition. As expected, they both suffered in their isolated quietude. But it was only a matter of time before the desolation overflowed. And this time it was equally traumatic for both.
Whatever that monster intended that day and executed it in his inebriated state, little did he realise the impact of his misdoings. Eight long months and some days later, the deep scars of the event still live. Anjali continues to struggle, win and struggle again. There are good days in a row and some bad in line. She has found a better counsellor so there is renewed hope. She will revive and so will Sandeep. It’s only a play of time. But she will forever carry the regret of not exposing the crime and bringing the culprit to justice. Can she ever promise her daughter the safety she thus compromised? Will there ever be a day when a woman will cease to be just an object for men to vent out their lust, frustrations or anger? A woman can never be equal to a man, she shouldn’t aspire for the same or more. She is different and is intended to be that way by nature. It is not a battle of superiority. It’s a mere question of dignity and respect. She is apart and has her own significant attributes that need recognition and a safe and conducive environment to hone them and be empowered, not needing to ask for equality which is indeed a mirage.