TRIGGER WARNING: Rape, sexual violence, abuse, victim blaming.
Malini Mohana explores gender and sexual violence using different voices and different narratives, highlighting how each individual is Patient Zero in each of these circumstances. In most cases of GBV, the nuance of identity and trauma is lost - even within contemporary feminist rhetoric. And when identity (racial, cultural, socio-economic) and lived experience are not taken into account, each person effectively becomes Patient Zero in the epidemic of gender violence.
At the age of 15, my sister disappeared. It wasn’t a big deal. Girls disappeared all the time. As pretty and inconsequential as butterflies. Spring in Kerala would bring out the big ones, fluttering in the dense air with giant, gossamer wings. My sister would grab at them with her tiny hands, plucking them out of the sky. Each time, she would be confused as they succumbed, wings broken, unable to fly when she sent them free. Each time, she would return to our mother, full of guilt as she recounted hurting God’s creature. And each time, our mother would only sigh. Butterflies were never of much interest to her. They were silent and beautiful. They lived silently and beautifully and died just the same; remnants of their carcasses blown off consciences as quickly and quietly as their lives had been. No one noticed, no one cared. Least of whom my mother, who saw silent beautiful creatures plucked every day.
My sister’s turn came during a power outage. She had left to ask neighbours for matches. The light eventually came back; she never did. In-laws and distant family were more concerned that she would come back raped - a cold body would be preferable to a virtueless one. As the years passed and as attention drifted to their only remaining daughter, my family was glad that her absence provided some posthumous honour, relishing in the hypothetical futures of their demurely dead daughter. I, however, was considered either demanding or perverse, depending on who was asked. I spoke out of turn, smiled too seldom, laughed too loudly, possessed a sexual awareness that offended even the most offensive eve teasers. My personality was described as ill-fitting. Unnatural. In fact, the whole of Malabar Street in Mannar remembered the Delicious Restaurant incident as an example of what happens to unnatural women - the incident that had pushed my parents to feel that my disposition could pose another health risk to their depreciated family status. On the eve before Christmas, with houses adorned with gaudy paper stars and Christmas carols booming from cars in soft melodies, I had been sent to pick up puff pastries and vada for guests at Mannar’s least popular bakery - Delicious Restaurant. On my way back, two men sporting matching slippers on the back of a Bajaj scooter yelled unsolicited opinions of my breasts. I picked up a brick and flung it in their general direction as an apt opening for a barrage of ripe insults. The public stepped in before the men could beat me up for hurting their feelings, and I was punished for disturbing the natural order of things. Two months later, just 4 days before my 17th birthday, I was married to a 40-year-old man. I went silently and beautifully, as dead as my dead sister.
I was reminded of her when I watched my own gossamer wings collapse, powdered bits of sindhuram falling with my wedding dress. I felt the weight of them crumble, and I understood then why my mother didn’t care about butterflies.
I would tell you my full name but you likely won’t remember. Not for any fault of your own, of course, but for the same reason that people hate covers of famous songs. You skip the finer details, the ways in which they’re different and develop an impatience for its predictability, right before you find yourself switching stations. So call me “survivor” if it makes you feel better and skip me when you find that you’ve heard me before.
I like to invite the elephant to the party early on. Makes it easier to tell him to leave, later. At 15 I was sexually abused. Hello, elephant. I am now 25. I haven’t found Jesus. I haven’t taken up meditation. I haven’t written a book. I have done very little in the decade post-rape. I’ve had the money and the resources for countless shrink sessions, a family who loves to call me amazing and a formidable self-deprecating wit, which I use to fund my active and vanilla sex life.
I have long since found what I needed to survive. Thanks to my privilege, I’ve managed to find the fool’s gold version of resilience, so I’ve stopped thinking about the ‘incident’ completely. Can you cold turkey trauma? I don’t know, but I sure as hell tried. See, when there is no cure, you search for the morphine. Whatever form it comes in. When you can’t afford that legally, you find a way to live with the disease. Except, once in awhile, you start to scratch at the breakouts. Eventually, you start to scratch into your chest for hours every day until the skin gives way, until you feel the flesh congealing under your nails and the curve of your bone, your brain pumping dopamine to calm your panic. You scratch until you’ve excavated a little hole, a tiny space for the abyss to pour into you like a car under water. When you feel it fill up, that’s where you find resilience. A personal reservoir of silence, a vacuum that swallows each memory whole before you have a chance to even glimpse it anywhere close to your mental periphery. Stripped of meaning, of weapons, pushed into the gravitational singularity of that abyss, disappearing faster than it appeared. The beauty of it, is that it’s quiet in there. It’s thick, viscous, and plastic. It’s the silence between the screams, the breaths between the sobs, the spaces between these written words. I live in those echoed spaces now.
You see, I have found resilience. I found it a long time ago. Resilience is just another word for emptiness.
My husband was a usually a decent man, albeit a simpleton. We moved to South Africa after marriage, where he started working at a car manufacturer. He combed a side path over his balding head, wore deodorant that would clump in his armpits, provide boisterously stupid political commentary that I’d quietly nod at. I learnt to accept him.
For the first year of our marriage I passed the time by reading everything I could find. I watched the news every day, I often asked the neighbours for their old newspapers, old books they no longer read. Three years later, in 1994, my husband once spoke about the failing economy because of ‘blacks’ in South Africa – I told him the old system was unsustainable and that he too was ‘black’. He slapped me.
In the nights, I let him climb on me, touch me, enter me, with a type of resignation associated only with gratitude. The gratitude to live in quiet, to read in rooms drenched in sunshine, to walk alone in the streets, eat heartily in the kitchen on my own. The gratitude to say yes to the inconvenient things, so that I could say no to the horrendous ones. I have seen the horrendous in my mother. I have seen her with broken teeth and bruised arms, with eyes that held that disease; the one that rots women from the inside. I know what horrendous looks like. This is not so bad.
Did you know that I have also raised a girl? She was perfect. I had taught her to be outspoken. To be different to me. I had raised her to say no, loudly and unapologetically. When she was a toddler she grinned in brazen defiance, asked more questions than necessary and had a habit of kicking boys. At six she wrote a letter to a boy in her class stating: “Tim, you are grate even thou your forhead is big. Bring me your mother’s sanwiches at braketime”. I stifled a snort.
The teachers called her “aggressive”. I expected it and I encouraged it. Her obstinacy was my salvation. She was why I said yes to him every day and every night when I would rather be saying no. She was why I was grateful.
When she turned 16, something had begun to change. It felt as though it happened overnight, but perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention. She asked me to help her shave her arms and her legs. I refused. So she stopped playing sports and she stopped wearing skirts. Her interest in her favourite subjects waned and she became quieter and more agreeable. She straightened her wild curls for three hours every second day. She shortened her name to an anglo-persian twang. I fought against it. I yelled at her, out of frustration and panic. I told her to put the damn mirror down, to write the things she used to enjoy writing. A few months before she turned 16, she would come back from school in tears, showing me a photo of her and a boy, posts on the internet that children had written about her. Koelie slut. Paki bitch. Easy. Whore. Tits and tash. Hooker. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slutslutslutslutslutslutslutslutslutslutslutslutslutslutslutslutslutslutslutslutslutslutslutslutslutslutslut.
The word started to look odd to me. Just shapes on a phone shooting out shrapnel. I started to speak to her but she couldn’t hear me, even though she nodded. I felt like I was yelling for her through a storm and the louder I yelled the higher the waters rose. When she finally emerged, she looked across at me with familiar eyes. For the first time in 22 years, I saw my mother.
Nobody wants to think about what rape looks like. Nobody wants to look it in the eye and see its blood and flesh and semen. Mine never made it onto front pages, or even in the shrunken blurb before a comic strip in a community newspaper. You see I wasn’t dead or mutilated; and who has page space for the garden variety rapes?
This indifference was like a petri dish, growing a cloying tumour that someone had inserted in me. A disease that demanded to be felt and heard and seen – a little more than physical pain, a little less than mental illness. Except very few people care in the way they care for actual illness. Because some point in the future, in some star-lit distance, people who care about you would like you to let it go. After a month, after a year, when you’re smiling again in public, it’s preferable for them to pretend it never happened. Sometimes I wished my hair would fall out and my skin would peel so that they could cringe every time they see me. Instead, I talked about it. Everywhere.
I spoke of it at women’s shelters, in columns, in books, on TV. I spoke continuously, angrily. I spoke of it in townships across the country, in my own community with my sisters, in universities with bitter, white men. This is what ‘corrective rape’ looks like. This is what it means. I gave it validity with academic rhetoric, meaning with genuine emotion, power with my irreverence. I needed to do all of this because I have learnt that by itself, rape has no meaning and no entertainment value - no click-bait closure.
Over the course of this process, I have been called a flurry of favourable words: “Incredible, amazing, powerful. We’re so glad you speak of this so loudly and courageously. What an inspiring story, what a moving experience.”
Fuck your experience.
My candour is not for your benefit. It’s not your Oprah moment. I’m not trying to become stronger, or make you feel grateful, or model inspiration for your daytime viewing pleasure. I’m not attempting to find meaning in the violence. I suggest you don’t either. So don’t tell me it moves you. Tell me it horrifies you, tell me it makes you angry, tell me it makes you want to do something differently. Tell me it makes you see how broken my constitution is, that it makes you rage in the knowledge that I am not allowed to love who I love. Tell me my words make you fester with unhappiness and rage. How we walk the same line in the abattoir, not knowing we are valued, killed for our body parts. Stupid, stupid girls. I am not an inspiration, I’m not your motivation, I am not exceptional. I am a casualty in a world that feigns equality, sobriety. And so are you.
This is what I say to them each time I’m there on a podium. And every evening when I walk off that stage, I see the person I am speaking for. The one who I do this for, over and over again. She’s always there waiting for me. With her almond eyes and her white smile – the smile they had tried to take from me, and the very one they couldn’t touch. There is no salvation from this kind of pain, but she is the closest I can hope to come to it. Every evening I go to bed with her, the curve of her hip under my hands and the sheen of her skin through the light from the windows. Every night with our legs entangled, she looks at my face, my pain just a layer of skin away – my marks of violence immortalised in the pale branding of scars. She doesn’t see them.
My story is not for you. My story is for her.
I once loved a man who lowered his gaze and smiled as he asked for my name, tripping over his own feet. A man who listened as though words were melodies he’d heard for the first time. I once loved a man who turned molten under my touch, his smell still permeating my dreams, wafting into the early hours of the morning. I once loved a man who picked up a distortion mirror, and changed my face into something else entirely. “It’s not a big deal” I said to them. I once loved a man who was admired and adored, whose voice spoke of old books and sweet temperments. “No one would believe me” I said to them. I once loved a man who stood over me one night, who pulled his zip down and stepped out of his skin, and splayed my insides across his bed without asking. “I was just confused”, I would say. Frightened accusations scuttled across the table. I once loved a man, a gentle, beautiful man who left infected holes in me, who walked back into a haze of normalcy as the sepsis crept into my bones. “It’s too late now anyway” I said, crushing a scuttling accusation under my foot. I felt it crunch. I once loved a man who stepped back into his skin, tightened the belt, and smiled at me as I lay on my side, staring into his mirror at my distorted face. I kissed him anyway. “I just drank too much” I said to them. I once loved a man who was perfect and kind and brilliant, who’s living his life in the absence of my screams. I once loved a man who I wish were dead.
I once hated myself.
Hated myself for gathering my splayed insides, for walking home quietly. I hated myself for the screams I didn’t scream, the fights I didn’t fight, for the words I had chosen to keep locked in old drawers. I hated myself for smiling at a man with zip-up skin, for lying there silently on his bedroom floor. I hated myself because I once loved that man.
Maybe you once loved him too.
Words and images by Malini Mohana