“Do the Right-est Thing” Content Warning: Child Sexual Abuse & Violence.
If there is one thing that I would say has defined how I have navigated this world as an adult, my general wariness of men is perhaps it. For any women or gender-queer folks reading this, I know that this isn’t new for you. I am perhaps one of those men that you would place in the ‘amoeba of bros’ - to quote Ella Dawson - and perhaps rightfully so, considering I have the physical attributes that are typical of traditional masculinity.
For those of you reading this who either do not know what I look like or would like it described in my own words, I am a twenty-seven-year-old Indian man with short black hair (a few more greys there now), a face full of less grey and mostly black beard. I prefer to dress in greys and blacks, jeans, with 6-inch boots, leather or faux leather jacket, glasses (I believe they bring out my eyes) and with a few bits of jewellery at any given time. Physically I would say I am athletic, standing 5ft 11.5 inches. Not 6 feet, much to my mother's disappointment, but exactly 5ft, 11.5 inches and I tend to have a ‘lost in deep thought’ face were you ever to come across me waiting in queues (which I tend to avoid) or waiting for public transport (which would be nice to avoid).
I quite like my style, both in grooming and in the way that I dress. It is functional, comfortable, and perhaps most importantly, easy to pair and switch up. Now here’s the thing that I haven’t spoken about as publicly before; a lot of these choices (which I have now grown to quite prefer) started as a mechanism to signal other men to stay the fuck away from me. While I do greatly like having facial hair, my choice to grow it was informed by the fact that on more occasions than I would care to admit, I was the target of racial slurs or harassment because I looked like (and reckon that I still do) a pre-pubescent boy without it. And it all stopped when I grew a beardstache out (picture thick moustache and short stubble). As it turns out, strong facial hair tends to deter the ‘lads’ from calling you a Paki or Brownie. I gained a couple of pounds so I could look bigger, and should the need arise, be able to defend myself (there is another layer to this in the next chapter). Some of it is due to years of living in mostly white worlds that have made me hyper-cognizant of the fact that I am considered the ‘other’ - further emphasized in BOLD by my six years spent in Ireland. Quick story-time on this one:
I used to volunteer for NiteLine (a student crisis helpline) during my time at Trinity, and since I lived fairly central for most of my time there, I used to prefer to walk home after a 21:00 - 02:30 shift. On average, it would take me about fifteen/twenty minutes to walk home and in that time I could clear my head, walk the shift off, and arrive home ready to fall asleep. On one of these evenings, I’m inclined to say in my third year, I was walking home when I passed Doyle’s, a favourite amongst students, and a big American lad called me out and shouted something to the effect of “Go back to Pakistan.” Racist, I know.
Not one to let an opportunity slide, I felt it right to educate him so I shouted back - “Mate, get your Geography right, I’m Indian.”
“Well. you’re all the same to me, smelly and brown.” - He replied. His mates laughed. We’d started conversing. This was going places.
“Typical redneck.” - I replied. His mates laughed. He did not.
Perhaps he didn’t think I would talk back, instead expecting me to keep my head down and walk on, he took this insult rather personally. I had simply stated the obvious. Regardless, our redneck friend crossed the street and started swearing at me, threatening to fuck me up. Not one to wait to see whether he could deliver on this promise, I swiftly ran home, my grey messenger bag in tow. I was six months out of an exercise routine and well before I’d developed any semblance of cardio-vascular health, yet breathless as I was, I arrived safely within the confines of my lobby.
When I got to my apartment after a short elevator ride, I told my two co-volunteers what had happened. Shocked, they offered support and would check in with me days afterwards as well. Somewhat shaken, I made myself sleepy tea and slept like a baby once the adrenaline had worn off.
The few times that I did share that story, I would tell avid listeners that I pushed the man away, even though I hadn’t in the hope of regaining some agency in what was a moment of terror. I lied because running away made me feel weak, and I felt too embarrassed; too inadequate to even defend myself. There is a whole chapter on inadequacy later on, but that encounter, the first with a very real threat of physical violence, instilled in me the truth that I could very easily be beaten by a xenophobic prick and his mates would just sit in the sidelines and laugh it off - all because I wasn’t one of them. Because it was easy to pick on the ‘other’. As a result, I co-opted mechanisms that would reduce the likelihood of that happening. I developed a thick skin, metaphorically and literally.
My attire, my beard, the ‘resting pondering face’, all of it is an armour that I wear because I am deeply uncomfortable around groups of men and have been for most of my life. And while race and appearance play a part, the most significant reason I feel unsafe and hypervigilant around men is that I was groomed, drugged, and raped by another man, a teacher, when I was just 14 years old. While I was part of an academic institution that is considered one of the safest and best in India. If you’re interested in reading some more about what I’m talking about, there is a personal essay published by me - Fourteen - which you can read on the Write-Up Project website. Publishing that essay was the first time I had ever shared what had come to pass beyond a very intimate circle. And yes, writing that essay was tough, but what remains missing from that piece is the very real experience of what it has been like since the abuse happened.
I have recently come to realize that while I have talked about the story of what happened, I have yet to express, to anyone really, what that experience felt like. It is one thing to say you carried shame with you and yet another to describe what that shame felt like. It is one thing to say you felt uncomfortable around men and entirely another to allow someone to get a glimpse of what that looks like for you.
That experience robbed me of a certain innocence.
My view of men and the world since has been one accompanied by a deep sense of anxiety. If you are wondering how it then felt, to co-inhabit in a residential institution with a disproportionate amount of men (my abuser being one of them), well… IT WASN’T GREAT!! I can tell you that much. All of this is even more complicated by the fact that I am a queer man who is both attracted to men and yet all the while feels so uncomfortable around them.
It robbed me of exploring my sexuality.
As a teenager, yes; but perhaps more importantly as an adult as well. I too, at different points, had felt the pull to explore my sexuality, yet the very idea of having any form of intimacy with another man filled me with overwhelming anxiety. The very idea of even kissing a man was too much. I remember attending a Halloween party at a queer club in my first year in Dublin, and feeling so anxious, unsafe and overwhelmed that I could not stay for longer than fifteen minutes. Every fibre of my being wanted to leave and yet there was a deeply curious and natural part of me, one that I have learnt to give voice to in recent years, that wanted to stay. And yet my trauma, one that I had buried under layers of armour, won that evening. Just like it would time again till I would sit across a therapist and say the words that would release me from a prison of some respect and start me on a path to healing - “I think I was raped, but I don’t remember the first time it happened.”
It's a feeling that I don’t believe I can capture in words, not to its fullest effect but then again I am a writer, and this is part of the job, so allow me the chance to try.
Imagine waking up, knowing you have been violated, knowing who by, and yet having no memory of it. Imagine, just for a second, the isolation of that experience. I know this man did things to me that night after he slipped the pill in my water because I woke up with the tightest knot in my stomach the next morning. My body knew it had experienced something wrong and yet I had no recollection of it.
Did he penetrate me? Anally? Orally?
Did he undress me?
Did he touch me?
Did he cum on me?
Did he just marvel at his handiwork, his months of grooming, and his ability to get a boy of 14 away from the safety of his peers, into bed with him?
What did he do to me?
It's the question I asked myself as soon as I woke up.
The same question I have asked myself every time the anxiety, the memory of waking up from it came up.
It’s a question I have asked myself numerous times since it happened.
It’s the same that I ask myself now, as I type this.
What did he do to me?
Truly, I do not know.
And that experience is beyond words. It's isolating and unnerving in equal measure.
Not only did that stop me from sharing that experience with anyone else (granted, the homophobic culture of both Scindia and India have a great part to play), but the experience also isolated me from myself. We’ve all heard of trauma being repressed. You, upon reading this, might have your own experience of it or may have come across the slightest mention of repression, but I find, what often gets overlooked in that exchange of stories or discussions, is what the exercise of the unearthing of that trauma feels like. If at this point you have an image of a person slumped on a plush chair across from a therapist then yes, that is very much part of the exercise, but while that is the important and perhaps the most difficult part of the process, the part that often gets overlooked is the moment of realization. That specific series of moments or the singular point where your body remembers what the mind has repressed; when your heart picks up the pace for no apparent reason and your partner, who minutes ago was happily spooning you, is left bewildered at the sight of you and their sheet soaked in sweat.
How do I know this?
Well, because I was the baby spoon in question. Six months into dating, happily cuddling in her single-bed dorm room, she touched me on my lower back and my body responded the way it knew; by freezing. She didn’t know what was going on and while I didn’t know either, I got my first hints of why.
It took me months before I could sit her down and start a conversation; all the while wondering if she would believe me. If she would see me differently. A million doubts raced in my head, concerned about how this would change our relationship. She was the first person I shared it with and I couldn’t have asked for a more kind, understanding, and supportive person at that moment. She heard me, gave me the space to speak and most importantly, believed me. I didn’t need to convince her through facts. I didn’t need to explain why or how or the years of silence.
She just believed me.
We didn’t talk about it after that. Far more pressing concerns eclipsed our relationship in the following months and years but the space she offered me at that moment opened the doors to a greater journey, one that would of course allow me to heal but equally one that allowed me to feel the worst parts of what the abuse had broken in me. But there is an aspect of being the victim of abuse that would make itself known years after. Long after our relationship had ended. One that I have dreaded talking about and one that I am hoping will be a greater part of what I unpack in therapy this season.
It’s the guilt of being a survivor. The guilt of being silent. The one that makes you feel complicit in the abuse of the others that came after you. I wasn’t the first person Jason had abused. But I could have been the last.
If only I had said something.
The survivor's guilt is the thing that still rears its ugly head. It's not like I do not understand why it’s difficult for victims of sexual violence to speak up. Trust me academically and professionally, I get it. I understand the individual circumstances that made it difficult, for me, to speak up.
However, I still remember the shame I felt the last time it happened. The same that made it easier to both repress but equally stay silent. The fear of being exiled by my peers, of being ridiculed and harassed. The fear that no one would believe me. I wish I could have had the courage to say something then.
It would have saved those that came after from the trauma of their own. It is one thing to have abuse inflicted on you, and yet another to know that your silence did to others what had been done to you.
While I say this, I am undoubtedly aware that there were others in the school, teachers, students, and non-academic staff that knew this man was trouble. As an institution, there were enough of us aware that this man had something rotten about him; but while they had the luxury of doubts, I had the experience of being the confirmation of those doubts. And yes, I know, the logical part of me knows.
I have been kind to myself and am learning to be kinder with every passing session. Yet there is a part of me that hurts knowing that my silence is the reason that so many others experienced what I had as well and that for some that abuse looked far worse than it ever did for me. I know some of them have read Fourteen. I know some of them because we’ve personally re-connected since, but as their senior in school and their Head Prefect (not that that ever mattered) I felt an incredible responsibility, one that I still feel and think will continue to feel for some time. However, something that has been missing from Fourteen is worth saying now, and therefore if you are reading this, as a young Scindian, as a person who has experienced sexual violence by another, as a survivor… I am sorry.
I am sorry for what happened to you. I cannot undo what you had to experience but what I can offer you is a space to share and be heard. A space to be believed. I find that every career path I have taken since has in some way been a means to be there for others and in the process, in a subconscious way, atone for the damage that my silence perpetuated. There is a larger journey ahead of me. I am healing, and I am truly grateful for that, but I want to sit with the feelings of the experience and not rush past them when it gets uncomfortable. I feel there is a great privilege in having found a space to do that and to have found a place where I am not shamed, ridiculed or blamed for what was done to me. I know that so many do not share my circumstances, and therefore I extend space to each of you. Whether you’re just making sense of it or are further along on that journey, my DMs, my home, and my heart are always open to you. I see you. I hear you. And most importantly,
I believe you.