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Molly's story

By Manjima Bhattacharjya

This April, which is Child Sexual Abuse Awareness month, a story about a searing summer of violations, to crack the wall of silence around the issue and remind us that over 53% of India’s children have experienced sexual abuse

child sexual abuse

That year was particularly hot. Molly spent her days wandering in and out of her grandparents’ small white bungalow in South Delhi. The mango season had begun and she scurried around the backyard packed with her grandfather’s mango trees picking up those that had fallen with a thud onto the ground below and gathering them in her white cotton chemise. In the early mornings and late afternoons she went swinging her arms squinting in the sun with her grandmother to the milk booth, having been put in charge of slipping the tokens into the slot. In between these milk collection and mango picking duties, she fiddled around with the radio, learnt by heart the lyrics of the hit song about a girl who looked like a Japani gudiya from a film intriguingly called Love Story, and sniffed the bitter lemon tree out front.

Molly was 5-and-a-half years old, and in transit. Her father had been called to another land to work in, and she and her mother waited to hear from him, for him to say “I am coming to take you”, after which they would hug each other in excitement and rush to pack their suitcases. Until then they were staying with Molly’s mother’s parents who were delighted to have them there, although they never said so explicitly. They eagerly waited for the trunk calls that would come in to the black phone on a side shelf in the sitting room, with an earphone so heavy it hurt Molly’s hand to hold it, while she listened keenly for her father’s voice to come up the telephone cables from his far-off place.  It was a cruel Delhi summer. Loadshedding. Mosquitoes fat and dizzy from a steady diet of sticky mangos and human blood. The occasional respite in front of the noisy industrial-size cooler, when there was enough water to fill it. The tinkle of the ice cream van to look forward to at 4pm, and two rupees from her mother to run out of the gate and buy herself the small vanilla cup, handing over the coins like a real grown-up. Nights spent sweating on the rooftop through hours of electricity cuts, then falling asleep as the wind came while cooling off on a charpoy under a blanket of stars.

Out of boredom she started visiting the old couple who lived in the lane behind them. They were family friends of her mother and grandparents. Her mother loved the kind white-haired Dida who lived there. Molly liked her too. She told stories about the gods and plied her with sweetmeats. Today a shondesh, tomorrow a lobongo lotika, always some nimki to be had. The Dadu seemed alright too. He had lots of stories too and was often in his garden pottering away between flowers of all colours he was proud to have nurtured. But the most exciting thing in their house was a black-and-white TV, a device Molly had never seen before. As the days got longer and her father’s calls got shorter she started going to their house more often, now without any escort. It was very easy, just across the back lane, into their back garden door and the same route back. Sometimes the Dadu told her stories, sometimes he showed her new types of flowers like the dogflower that seemed to bark like a dog if you wiggled it, and there was the delirious attraction of curiously watching the black-and-white TV flicker with images inside it.

You know where this is going, right? Molly didn’t. After she finished watching a nice enough film called Sujata at their place one Sunday evening, the Dadu insisted on playing a game where she hid under a blanket and he came to find her. The first time he touched her in her private parts and took off her knickers she was surprised but he said this was part of the game. The next time she knew something was wrong. She was alarmed, shocked, repulsed, scared and sick with fear when he touched her again trying to put a hard finger into her and wiggle her like he had wiggled the dogflower. She went home and thought she would cry. But no tears came out. Instead she sat there choking on something she couldn’t identify. Perhaps it was shame. She went the next time under pressure, but Dadu acted as if nothing had happened. Maybe she had been mistaken. Maybe it was a game. Still, she reduced the number of visits and took care to always be around Dida when Dadu insisted on telling her a story, going only enough to avoid questions from everyone about how she had suddenly stopped going so frequently. Then one day, Dadu took her to the garden to show her a new flower he had planted. Molly went reluctantly; Dida had gone inside to do her puja and should be out shortly. Nothing could happen in a few minutes. But even as he asked her to look at the yellow flower, she heard a slight zippy sound (a sound she would remember sometimes when she heard a naada being pulled open in a hurry) and turned to see him with his pyjamas down around his ankles, drawstrings touching the dirt, and his hand on his exposed penis. He leaned out to make her hold it. She felt bile rise up as her hands were pulled away from her to touch it. ‘’Do like this’’ the old man panted, his face contorted, holding her hand around the penis and pulling it back and forth. As if all the world’s strengths had gathered in her, Molly bit her lip down and tore her violated hand away from his clasp and turned and ran. Through brambled bushes, dogflowers, roses, bougainvillae and a sacred tulsi plant blindly to where she knew by instinct the back door would be through which she could escape this horror. Molly didn’t go back. If others noticed her sudden disinterest in mangoes and milk booth tokens they didn’t say anything. “Children’s moods,” her loving aunts would whisper, “Who can understand them?” It was as if she had wished it to happen when within a week her father called and told her joyously of the tickets he had bought and how they would be finally coming to join him with another family going the coming week. Molly flew off into the sunset, returning to her grandparents’ home occasionally in the years to come, but never going back to that house, always making excuses – my stomach is hurting, it’s too hot, I have homework – not to visit the Dadu and Dida in the back lane. Molly knew things had changed inside her that summer, as if she had come across a horrible secret by accident over which she had no control. A secret she instinctively knew she could not share with anyone, and we all know those are the worst secrets to have. 

There were other incidents too in the years that followed: the fellow who lifted children into their cars on a roller coaster ride at an amusement park who had squeezed her 11-year-old breast (she had dug her elbow hard into his chest, knocking the wind out of him) and spoiled her roller coaster ride and her whole evening at the park; the watchman in her building who pinched her deviously (she kicked him in the shins); the man in the aisle of a departmental store who winked at her and flashed her as she picked out her favourite cereal (she stuck her tongue out at him even though panic had weakened her knees); an unknown hand that went up her school skirt while she climbed a crowded DTC bus after extra classes at school. Molly remembered each and every face of each and every perpetrator with the memory of a face reader. She could have identified them in a line-up, in the dark, in another life.

Molly grew up all right. She never blamed herself, she never doubted the touch of men she allowed to touch her, she loved, lost, had sex, had children, worked, laughed, cried. She was a happy woman who didn’t dwell too much on miseries of the past. But every once in a while her mind remembered that hot searing summer of violations like she had never experienced before, and wondered who else he had injured with those hands. And she wondered if he had died yet. A violent, terrible, unspeakable death.

How many of you were sexually abused as a child? Ask a roomful of adults, especially women, and you will be lucky to find a hand that does not go up or a head that does not hang down. Child sexual abuse is a reality in our lives, a secret that we grow up with. Some facts : over 53% of Indian children experience sexual abuse (I am convinced the real numbers are much higher) across location, class, religion and region; both girls and boys face sexual abuse; most are committed by people known to the child (uncles, family friends, relatives, cousins, domestic help, drivers, and fathers) and usually trusted by the child and the child’s parents; 5-9 years is a common period in which abuse takes place; children are usually threatened by the perpetrator to not tell anyone and often told that something bad will happen to their parents/siblings/loved ones if they do. Child rights and women’s rights activists have struggled for years for the Indian state to recognise child sexual abuse as a crime and pass a  law around it); this law called the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill 2011 has been put in Parliament this session. Still, child sexual abuse remains shrouded in taboos and myths. It is Child Sexual Abuse Awareness month this April, a campaign started by a wonderful group of bloggers who are using the Internet to speak out against child sexual abuse, to provide survivors a platform to share their stories (and there are some incredible, moving stories up on the blog already), to share information about abuse and give you ideas about how you can tell your child how to differentiate between good touch and bad touch, confide in you if they experience abuse, or watch out for signs that your child is experiencing sexual abuse (see Molly’s story is a true story; many survivors have fictionalised or heartbreakingly recalled their instances of abuse this month in the hope that these amplified voices will help crack the wall of silence around the issue and empower people to tell their own stories – of which I have no doubt, there will be quite a few.  

Infochange News & Features, April 201