The Usual Suspects

This post is my contribution to Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Month. Kudos to the amazing people working towards this for the second year running.

He grabs her by the wrist, the grip firm yet cajoling. The alcohol on his breath hangs like vapour between them as he pushes her against the wall with his hips. His daring stuns her because her parents are in the next room along with so many in her extended family. Trapped between a wall and the arousal of an over-friendly “uncle”.

Years later, she recounted the incident to me, her narrative punctuated with wry laughter. It was like one of those awful, trashy romance novels, she said, his hardness against you and that sort of tripe. Only there is nothing romantic about being felt up and violated by someone you trust, someone your family trusts, is there?

Too many of us know this story too well. Too many have known the mortification of unwanted hands going where none had gone before. Too many of us were still children, young boys and girls. Not so young that this was incomprehensible, but not old enough to understand what it would do to us. How it would change us. How we would always view trust through a tainted lens.

When we talk about child sexual abuse, much is said about guilt and shame. You could almost be fooled into believing that this a default emotional setting for a victim. I know many people who genuinely felt guilty, ashamed and confused. I would not dream of telling them that their reactions were not legitimate. Yet the way these words dominate the discourse have made me suspicious.

Nobody talks about power. Cognizance of sexual power. This contrasts with so many of the anecdotes that I have personally been privy to.

I know it sounds all wrong. Talk of power does not fit in with the discourse of victimhood. Abuse has victims; it has desperation, humiliation and abiding shame. Depending on the degree of abuse you’ve been subjected to, at some stage, you can go through all or some of this. You may feel angered, overwhelmed and incapacitated by what you have been through. Because these are accepted feelings, it’s easier to sympathize. It’s easier to talk about. People abstain from talking about power because it immediately conjures up images of a Lolita-like vixen, highly aware of her charms and willing to tempt, to use them. Talking about power carries the risk to being stigmatized for being complicit in the act. That is not what I’m talking about here.

A dear friend went through years of sustained abuse from the age of ten and I can never forget her angry, tear-ravaged face hardening as she said this. “The worst part was that it was so easy. I turned them on just by being there. My physical presence was enough. My loathing meant nothing. I had breasts, a butt, chunky thighs. That was pretty much all it took. These men couldn’t have cared less that I hated them.”

Far too young to have learnt how to bat her eyes, sway her hips or be suggestive or seductive in any way, she had already felt, on her skin, the power of her physical being. Something she couldn’t understand about herself unleashed beasts in men.

She, like many others, saw her power up close and personal. In their grip. Crushed under their weight.  In her case, she recoiled from that sense of power just as surely as she recoiled from her physical self.

And that is just one of the ways this cookie can crumble.

With every violation, every unwanted, unprovoked reaction, every “innocent” hug that somehow ends with their hands wandering on to your ass, every unwelcome hand wandering up your thigh as you sleep, you know that there is something about you that reduces them. Your power is reflected in their depravity. Their abject, pitiful depravity. You straddle that terrible, endless path between power and powerlessness.

Nobody talks about contempt. Contempt that swells in your throat, threatening to suffocate you. Contempt at the ease of lust. Quietly-cloaked contempt that can colour significant relationships in your future, making a mockery of trust and fidelity. Contempt, an excellent companion on a self-destructive path.

Someday, if you are very blessed, someone will touch you with devotion, tenderness and such obvious goodness that you will allow yourself to begin the journey of letting it go and stop peeling scabs off your self-inflicted wounds. (Pretty huge “if”, that.)

What a wonderful world it would be, if we could take for granted, our child’s safety. Realistically though, the odds are stacked against us. Depravity is often unmatched in cunning and I doubt my ability to protect my own children a 100%. We can and should talk about preventing it, but it becomes just as important to widen the discourse to talk about dealing with that reality we don’t want to imagine.

I will not curtail their lives to support my fear. I will not deny my boys sleepovers, camping trips or impromptu visits to their friends. I can try and limit the risks every way I can, but I have to acknowledge that it just might not stretch. If paranoid, protective hovering was the solution, many of us should have been completely safe with over-protective parents. Yet, we weren’t. There are some days when I look at their beautiful open faces, their lanky, tanned bodies and it breaks my heart that I can never fully protect them. Body or soul. But I won’t curb their life trying to.

We can talk to them. We should also shut up much more and just listen to them. We can start early to teach them about their body’s integrity – not just by talking about “good touch” and “bad touch”, but by honouring their bodies. Not raising our hands to punish them, not force-feeding them, teaching them to care for their own bodies and care for themselves. Telling them every single day that they are loved. That they are important and smart. That they are better than all the horrors out there.

Ensuring that our actions match our words, because children – they are known for their superior I-see-right-through-your-bullshit skills.

Your 5 or 6 year old will probably tell you about a perceived transgression. It is unrealistic to expect a 11 year old or a 12 year old to do the same. Not because they do not love you or trust you, but because they are learning to be private, learning to have a life that needs to be separate from yours one day. Their secrets, good and bad, for better or worse, will be theirs. They are more likely to tell a friend or sibling than tell a parent. The only thing a parent can do, IMHO, is to prepare for the worst, despite doing one’s best. Practice, every single day, the Art of Not Overreacting in an Inappropriate, Dramatic and Uncomforting Manner. Nothing, absolutely nothing, will make a child clam up faster than an over the top reaction. Be the adult, wail in the closet for heavens sake if you must, but be the adult. Be genuine, be open, keep it real and be the adult providing comfort. It is not your child’s job to comfort you.

Screw the usual taboos. Acknowledge a precocious child. Acknowledge that some children develop early in terms of being sexual beings. Acknowleding is not active encouragement; it is positive, quiet acceptance. Yes, it was just yesterday your little girl was in frills and ribbons and now – not so much. There is nothing freakish about a pre-teen feeling sexual. It’s not because of any particular T.V. channel you exposed them to. It is nothing you did wrong. It has been this way since the beginning of time. It’s not abnormal just because it makes you uncomfortable.  Acknowledge all of your child, as hard as it is going to be. I can’t help but believe that children who know that their parents see them for who they are and love them for it, will have a lower threshold for coming forth with something uncomfortable or painful. Denying them their burgeoning sexuality, because of your own hang-ups, will bring you no closer to them, now or later.

Enjoy your body. Teach them to love theirs. Use it, be happy about it, dress it up, flaunt it, dance, sing with all your body, go climbing, swim, run, walk, teach it to be strong. Teach it self-defence. Kiss and hug often if it comes naturally to you. Inhibition never kept anyone safe – just miserable. Your child may have an inborn sense of his/her body, a joy in physical expression. It will never hurt to reinforce it with your enjoyment of this spectacular instrument you own. If you truly love your own body, respecting it will come naturally.

Openness can never protect your child from an unwelcome experience but our openness, understanding and acceptance will remain the main keys by which they process and understand difficult situations in their lives. Sometimes it will not take more than a few simple sentences.

It wasn’t you. It was never you. You are wonderful. You always will be.

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Talk To Me

For the past 4 months, Arvind and I have been going out for lunch once a week. I pick him up after school at 1:45 and we drive to his favourite dodgy Chinese restaurant and we ask for the “usual” – Macau fried rice for him and Kung Pao beef for me. The proprietor grins and brings us Coke and water without even asking.

We talk. There is no plan, no agenda and inspite of uncomfortable, highbacked chairs, we relax. We talk about everything that comes to mind – what happened in school, what is in the news, salient features of the Triassic age and the Jurassic age, why I should learn Minesweeper. Our words foxtrot effortlessly without stumbling over each other, without awkwardness.

There is the day Anders Behring Breivik is declared insane.

“Does this mean they won’t kill him, Mamma? Or put him in jail? Because I’m sure he is really really sorry that he did something so stupid. Everyone is sorry afterwards, right?”

“I wish it was that simple, love,” I say “but I think he meant to do it. As awful as it is, I think he meant to hurt people and he believed he was doing the right thing. In many places in the world, he would have faced capital punishment. The death penalty.”

“Death penalty?” he says the words carefully before spooning more rice into his mouth.

“Where you are sentenced to die for the crime you’ve committed.”

“Even if you’re very very sorry?”

“Even then.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” he frowns. “Why would they do that?”

“It has never made sense to me either.” I tell him.

I tell him about the various forms of capital punishment, about execution squads, about my impressions after visiting the Spandau prison in Berlin and as he turns his barrage of questions towards me, the couple next to us look like they really wished they had ordered take away Moo shoo Pork.

From death by capital punishment, we move onto apple pie, religion and afterlife and I might have snuck in that at least once in his life, he should read Catcher in The Rye because Holden Caulfield? He will stay with you forever.

“You’re sad, Mamma,” he says one afternoon. “You’re smiling, but you’re sad.”

“I am.” I say quietly but directly. I am unwilling to explain this darkness, this desperate suffocation I am feeling. The feeling that the already tenuous centre of my life is unravelling at a pace faster than I could keep up with. I don’t know how to tell my son that I don’t know how I got out of bed that morning.

I try to remember being myself at his age, so much like him. The child who sensed discord and discontent, who picked up even minor distress and made it hers. I know that I want to accord him more credit and respect than I was given in those circumstances.

“You know how sometimes, in school, everyone seems to be having a great time except you and even though everyone wants to play with you, something is just not right? You either feel too much or too little? Or somedays you are sad or angry about something that happened some other day?”

He nods, sombre in the moment.

“It’s like that for me sometimes,” I say. “Sometimes being sad and being angry comes from a place you can’t see anymore, that you don’t really understand. But I am trying to understand. I need to understand so that I can be a better mother for you and Armaan.”

“But Mamma..” he begins and stops short as if a little overcome by the moment and I am ready to hurry in with my effortless guilt.

He pulls out a pencil and paper from his bag and writes

DU ER FIN SOM DU ER.

You are fine just as you are. Just as you are.

There is the 1000 volt realization that no-one has ever said that to me. Not in that way or in any other way. And I have known so much love.

In those moments, a gift so huge, so vastly generous that not a single thing in my life could possibly feel unaligned.

Because I am enough. Just as I am.

“Also, you cry easily,” he says, slightly alarmed by this unexpected reaction.

“But of course I do,” I laugh. “Your mother is an emotional woman. I have tears for the happy and tears for the sad. This is really going to annoy you at your graduation.”

He grins. “IF I want to,” he says, “Maybe I’ll just make lots of money playing and making video games.” And we’re off again.

We still clash, we still fight, but something has changed so fundamentally. We are quicker to diffuse, quicker to get it, quicker to laugh.

Today, on the 17th of January, he turned 9. He awoke to music he’d selected the night before, (“Kiss” by Prince. Spell VICTORY for me.), Super Mario Toad cupcakes, candles and presents.

“Soon, I’ll have to fold you in four if you’re going to fit in my lap,” I joke. He grabs a cupcake and brings his shaggy haired self to the sofa, where he contorts his ever-lankening limbs in to my lap, his head contentedly tucked under my neck.

“I want some Us time today” he says quietly, while his brother clamours that he wants a birthday too. NOW.

So I pick him up right after school, we come home, eat more cupcakes and at the stroke of 2:30, the exact time of his birth, I gather him in my lap again to tell him how lucky we are to have him in our lives. To tell him that he should always be himself, true to himself, no matter what, because nothing in life will ever feel quite as amazing.

You are fine just as you are, I say.

Remember the book All I Really Needed To Know I Learned in Kindergarten?

Well, Robert Fulghum, you were wrong. Or maybe my Kindergarten was just lousy.

All I Really Need To Know I Keep Learning From My Sons.

When Macau met Kung Pao

Nine. Going on sixteen. Occasionally 46.

Because he wouldn't approve of a post without Luigi

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Filed under Arvind, Life Lessons, Parenting, Self, Togetherness

Sink or Swim

I was eight years old. My teeth spilt wantonly out of my mouth, refuting order and containment. I had legs all the way up to my armpits.

“You have beautiful legs. So shapely.” says a strange lady at the swimming pool. I blush, completely unaware of my body, unaware of how it’s all pinned together. Many years later I think, “What an odd thing to say to an eight year old.”

I love the water, the element of my dreams. Underwater dreams, enveloped in a thrumming quiet and staring at a soluble spot of light somewhere far, far above me. Dreams of swirling in indigo, cyan and azure.

I was eight years old when I learnt to swim.

I was seven years old when I actually learnt to swim, but I spent a year convincing myself that I couldn’t swim without armbands.

My obsessive, elemental love for water warred with the fear that it would not let me come up for air. The fear that I might not be embraced back.

I feared sinking like a miserable, unworthy pebble.

“You can swim!” My uncle’s hearty, commanding, teacher’s voice booms at me. I ignore him, wading sullenly in the shallow end, desperately concealing my need to believe him. I float, infatuated by the lightness of my body against the gentle ripples. I want this so badly. Almost an entire summer vacation spent in longing, fighting diffidence and knowing that this need consumed me.

“Of course you can swim!” he boomed again.

In retrospect, I blame my waterlogged ears. My ears were practising being a mermaid’s ears that summer. I didn’t register the waves, the discreet splash created by his legs as they powered through to me in my shallow end sanctuary.

In a sharp, unmeditated move, I was wrenched from my safe, aquatic quiet and flung through the air.

I recall with masochistic clarity, the brutality of my limbs crashing through the glassiness, plummeting like a pebblestonerock, heavy, stubborn and unmoving. Water within. Water without. Wide open eyes. The beauty in murky green.

I was here. I was here. I had always known that I would be here. I had seen this all before.

No breath. No breath. No breath.

Panic and movement in oneness. I kick. I slice. I punch with my arms all the way to the soluble spot. I splutter in the sunlight and my indignant rage fuels these now familiar motions. Push, heave, kick and lift. Furious, powerful arms and aqualungs.

I manage to swim to the other side of the pond. I drag myself up to my full height, a few inches immediately added on by wrath; by exhiliration.

“You BASTARD! You awful brute!” I splutter.

I will never forget the absolute glee on his face, the unrestrained heart in his laugh and the droplets clinging to his beard.

What I have forgotten over time is the force of  that untiring faith.

I’m still there, on that diffident edge, dying to be brave. So brave that I’m willing to fail. Waiting for that push from the arms that won’t let me drown. Yet, at 35, I’m too old to be thrown into the deep.

A woman of a certain age, she needs to learn to propel herself.

And jump.

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Coupland etc.

I decided to clear my head a bit. And re-read some Douglas Coupland.

Now think over this one. Really think over it.

After you’re dead and buried and floating around whatever place we go to, what’s going to be your best memory of earth? What one moment for you defines what it’s like to be alive on this planet. What’s your takeaway? Fake yuppie experiences that you had to spend money on, like white water rafting or elephant rides in Thailand don’t count. I want to hear some small moment from your life that proves you’re really alive.

And then this passage that gave me the kind of goosebumps money can’t buy. So. Who is yours?:-)

Everybody has a ‘gripping stranger’ in their lives, Andy, a stranger who unwittingly possesses a bizarre hold over you. Maybe it’s the kid in cut-offs who mows your lawn or the woman wearing White Shoulders who stamps your book at the library—a stranger who, if you were to come home and find a message from them on your answering machine saying ‘Drop everything. I love you. Come away with me now to Florida,’ you’d follow them.

No, not going away to Florida anytime soon. Too pregnant with posts, too head-first in life for that.

Back with more than quotes soon.

 

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Turning Four

Armaan turned four on the 1st of October.

This of course means that the crazy, technicolour, LSD trip that is Armaan has been around for approximately 1460 days, which honestly does no justice to the life that the kid packs into his being. I mean – DAYS? These lame parameters of measurement, I say.

Had I been the sort of mother I everyone wants me to be, I would have posted this the night before, with the usual quaint anecdotes about the wonderboy he is. As it stands, I am glad that I am neglectful (also read intuitive) and a patently bad mother. Why?

Because on the day he turned 4, certain evil, green elves (and since I have no evidence AGAINST said elves, I am running with this) entered his head and performed a life-altering lobotomy, changing his personality in distressing ways.

a) For one, the WHINE, dear God, THE WHINE. The unbearable I WANT and WAAAH and clearly we were put on this earth to harsh his frikkin’ mellow. This from the Artist Previously Known As Sunshine, whose farts smelt of roses. This is where Life jumps in with a “Muahahaha, Imma bite your butt”, because we have always adored not just his happy ways, but the inbuilt decorum the child seemed to possess, which made him look on in horrified silence when other children melted down in stores or threw fits of rage. I may even have worried that Armaan was suppressing his true feelings sometimes.

Now of course, I wish he would SUPPRESS the hell up. Because he simply has to learn that Mommy dearest splinters into furious smithereens in the face of continued resistance because she is mature like that.

b) His relationship to food has become bizzarre. From sipping our cappucino to eating our sushi to chomping down spicy mutton, this child was what the universe owed me after Arvind, who played the lead role in Everything You Make Positively Revolts Me. For the past week everytime I bring a vegetable within a metre’s radius, my inner warning system sirens “You fool, you complete twit!” and I know I have drawn blood and I must pay. Pay dearly.

“NO VEGGIES!! DON’T WANT MEAT! Only pasta. And yogurt.”

His entire diet is now reduced to beige coloured carbs and a dollop of turkish yoghurt. He flounces away from the table (something he earlier TOTALLY judged) and has to be brought back firmly. Luckily, the evil elves have not coached him about the shattering side-effects of consuming fruit. With a kosher list of about 5 items, life – it’s just the bloody gift that keeps giving if you know what I mean.

c) Them Nights of Fury. He is enraged about having to wake up to pee. He is furious that I am not beside him every minute he sleeps. We gave him the benefit of the doubt. Must be coming down with a virus, we said the first couple of nights. Virus in HIS BRAIN, I might have muttered resentfully, on the 4th night.

“I suspect our son is possessed by evil.” I moaned quietly into my pillow last night as his screech rent the peaceful night.

So on this day, 6 days into his fourth year, I am blowing out a candle and making a wish to get my baby back. The one, who still irrepressibly comes through in fits and starts of bright colour. Only, I want him ALL back.

The boy who nuzzles my neck and adores his mother’s “ticklishy”. Who has perfected the art of making me read book after book with him with a “Wummore. Wummore” set to a blinding smile. My co-pilot in the kitchen, cooking, stirring and tasting everything with absolute gusto. Hell, I just want his HAPPY back. And his absolute adoration. No pressure:-)

I want ‘em elves gone. And while they’re moving out, Mamma needs mojitos. Then maybe I’ll write that seriously gushy post. In the meanwhile, my two favourite pictures with Armaan from 2o11 so far. And the picture taken on his birthday – an Indian summer birthday in October in Norway. A picture that will make you disbelieve absolutely everything I have written in his post. *sigh* It was before the elves. Really.

I IZ FOOOHHHH.

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Words Alive

“Mamma, can you keep the night light on so that I can read myself to sleep?”

And I realize that I have waited for this moment, through all these years of reading to him.

The day when he would take over and struggle to keep his eyes open to cover yet another page.

The day I would take the prone book off his chest and place it on his night table before tucking him in.

When I would whisper, “The thinks you will think and the places you’ll go.”

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Filed under Arvind, Parenting

Lost

Tequila shots lined up on the grimy, grey mosaic floor.

“How many for you to take your shirt off?”

“As a matter of principle, three shots after yours comes off, so I have time for a  fuzzy SWOT analysis.”

The pleasurable burn of  tequila rushing through her, his hands through her hair, her face in his unwavering palms.

Move in with me. Stay with me. Be with me.

Her face stilled by shock, unregistering. The darkness of her neck as she flings her head back, laughing.

Not more than a heartbeat or two and the steely chill sets in his eyes, reflecting all that is irreparably rent. The weight of his defeated arms hanging by his sides.

Not more than a couple of seconds lost to her disbelief and mirth in the minute that changed their lives forever.

Tell me not to go, she whispered against his lips months later, as GoodBye Central bustled relentlessly behind them.

Why would I do that, he laughed, easily planting a kiss on the top of her head.

Hopeless seconds when she would greedily memorize the softness of those lips and his leaden heart would lock her scent away forever, in the minute that sealed their loss.

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Filed under Fiction, love