From the shadow of pain

IN recent years, two major literary works by Indian writers - Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, and Rajkamal Jha's The Blue Bedspread - have broken the terrible socio-literary taboo on describing and discussing child-abuse and incest. The success of both books may have made the subject somewhat chic for media- discussions but for the thousands of actual recipients of such abuse, there is still an immense gap between public opinion and public policy. When faced with irrefutable evidence of such heinous crimes against defenceless children, both the society and lawmakers mostly choose to give the benefit of the doubt, not to the victim, but to the perpetrators. And, just as often, mothers of molested children who summon the courage to register a case against their husbands and sons are forced to take back the cases, under threats of physical harm and social ostracisation. Nonetheless it is important to understand how intricate, and inset with emotional landmines, this subject is.

Recovering And Healing from Incest (RAHI), a Delhi-based support centre for women surviving incest, has just brought out a timely publication about the subject. In The House I Grew Up In, five first-person accounts by women from middle-class, affluent urban homes reveal how they were hunted and molested by close relatives during their childhood. All have lived to tell the tale, but with awfully scarred selves. Eighteen such women, the foreword tells us, were approached to tell their stories, under a promise of anonymity. Sixteen did. Of these, five stories are presented in the volume.

Once the victims of incest start giving their own version of the environment, events and reactions that led to their vicimisation, we find incest is not about precocity or glamour or titillatingly deviant sex. It is a deep violation of a child's body, and it also destroys, forever the possibility of forming a trusting relationship with another human being. The stories also attack the famous Lolita myth that has long been propagating that some precocious young girls may actually enjoy sex, sexual domination, even pain and servitude, to older men. The women, who recount these tales, are now between 19 and 67 years old and for all of them the memories of the violation during a long past childhood, even now are laced with immense pain.

"...I have washed and washed and washed, but the stink really surrounds me, the dirt and shit have entered in my skin, under my nails, in the corner of my eyes, in my nostrils, in my mouth, in my digestive track and in my blood..."

Yet the stories are not nihilistic. Broken up as they are, the brave nameless tellers of these tales of incest do not give up trying to make the readers understand, how amid the horror and the sense of betrayal that an abused child carries on her soul all through her adult life, she still has hope and the will to live. She still believes that painful though it is, the telling of her sorry tale may save other girls from similar experiences.

The most terrible part of incestuous child-abuse, social scientists tell us, is that the perpetrators are mostly family elders or trusted and respected family friends and the place where they are violated is their own home. In the case of these women too, the molesters were uncles or brothers they once loved trusted and respected. But after this betrayal, they are objects of hatred and terror to them:

"It (incest) moulds you with its swift fingers at an age when you haven't even begun to discover your self, leaving you with no choice but to be pulled further and further away from who you could really have been. Its secret remains safe, you become what it wants you to become..."

There are heart breaking descriptions of helpless little girls being stalked, being isolated and controlled by cunning adult men within their own homes. And then equally horrific details about fearsome threats, about self-loathing and not being allowed to speak out in public, by family members, who often knew what was going on. The RAHI testimonies are not only a severe indictment of the hypocritical mores and moral standards within the traditional society, they also teach us to care and help the victims. They hold hope for those, who have been similarly violated and are now slowly recovering or have receded into a dark shell. They show victims that there is life beyond an abused childhood; that it is possible to love yourself and regain your lost sense of self-worth.

The saddest thing about these stories is the utter loneliness and isolation of the victims that they portray. Even a victim of caste-based violence knows there is a community to whom one may turn to for help. A victim of communalism similarly can appeal to the civil rights groups. But abused children even if they unite, are not a strong enough presence in the social world, controlled and created by adults. Disbelief and denial are the standard response they get, even in a society that is today virtually brimming with pornography, domestic violence and incest. The help and support for child victims of sexual-abuse is still thin, and comes from tiny groups ill-equipped to cope with the sheer mass of such cases. Clearly as the foreword to the book says, much remains to be done. These five studies can only point to the vital directions that need to be explored, analysed and studied carefully and with great empathy. We need more research into the incidence of child-sexual abuse and the effectiveness of large scale public education; a careful psychiatric profiling of paedophiles, a long term assessment of incestuous child-abuse, and last but not the least, a whole network of clearing houses to disseminate information, safety guidelines and vital counselling and care for the victims. Many NGOs may have noble intentions, but most of them lack backup of long-term safety homes and expert psychiatric counselling that the victims of sexual violence need so acutely. Girls still have mothers and sisters without the power or courage to break the silence and rescue their abused daughters from the clutches of powerful family males. The power of the male within the family mostly remains above question or even the law. Only Bollywood can fantasise about a plot where the victim of sexual abuse can effortlessly avenge her molestation and ride victorious into the sunset. Today, the stories tell us the question is not only how to raise our daughters to avoid incest, but how to stop raising men who fit the terrified descriptions of these women and how to tell the parents to believe a child, trying to tell them haltingly and amid hiccuping bouts of weeping, what a father or uncle or brother has done to her.

As you read on, you no longer question why each of these five girls succumbed to the abuse; but begin to ask instead, where she found the courage to escape. And the courage to relieve the horror in the telling of her tale? In the microcosm of these five accounts, we see a miracle unfold: the way in which human beings can survive and fight back after being broken and violated, to live a normal life. And the voices are unforgettable.

".....I knew life was not meant to be like this, though at that time I had not developed any sense of my real self, of what I wanted to do.... I had no great dreams, no great visions of the future. All that I knew was that something in me was being stifled. It was my spirit - I recognise that now, and the thought of it being broken, made me carry on."

It must be repeated, that in dealing with such a crime, as with rape, the, "lock-'em-up", "castrate and hang-'em-publicly," brand of rhetoric is both impractical and senseless. Going through the searing and painfully honest accounts of five brave girls, one realises that dealing with child-sex-abuse means not shedding tears or raging; but patiently and scientifically, re-examining several contentious issues with equal honesty. Issues, such as children's versus parents' rights, the provision and methodology of sex-education to children at a young age, questioning the privacy and laws of silence that suffocate the victims when they want to speak-up, and challenging the lenient sentencing of fathers, uncles and brothers because, "they are the sole supporters of their families".

No one will disagree that somebody must suffer for a such a heinous crime, and no one will disagree either, that it must not again and again be the child.

(Readers wishing to read this and other books on the subject, may e-mail RAHI: rahi@vsnl.com)


The author writes in Hindi and English and is a freelance journalist.

Recommended for you