“You don’t know what people here are like, especially towards someone like you.”
This was one of the first warnings given to me when I arrived in the village. The statement correspondingly led to the meeting of him, my security guard, assigned by the school to ensure my safety for the semester.
Why do I need a security guard? What do they mean someone like me? A teacher? A researcher? An advocate? A musician? A student? A traveller?
A woman. But really, an outsider woman.
I had just moved to a small village in rural Punjab to begin a six month teaching contract in an exclusively female college. I was expected to stay inside the college grounds most of the time, and only leave with the assistance of my security guard.
For the first 2 months I used to pay him to leave me alone, to ‘forget’ to leave the gate unlocked and to develop alibis if anyone asked my location. I paid him for my freedom as I couldn’t surrender to the protocol that was implemented for my benefit. My fierce, independent, over confident, (naïve) 22 year old ego didn’t allow me to be spoken for by a guard.
My ego realised my independence cost 250 rupees and a hot masala chai from the favourite corner side vendor. Those 250 rupees paid for me to travel all over Punjab, being fully immersed in a different culture. I didn’t know it yet that the experience would alter my existence, forever being changed by the stories of the lives I encountered.
Opening up my security guard took three months. I wanted to know him, learn him, understand him. This man who is assigned to be with me every day but I don’t know anything about. Finally by month three he began to talk, and more yet, smile. The rest followed like a montage in a film, supported with a cheesy soundtrack, sepia undertone and laughing audio bites to portray the fast development of our friendship.
He said he considered me as his daughter, and needed me to meet the rest of his family so they could all love me as much as he did. The first visit to his home was where the real initiation process occurred, the bridge transforming this friendship into family. The kindness and warmth was overwhelming, not only did I have a new Indian father but a mother and 2 brothers! He never had a daughter, but always wanted one. I was a blessing, an answering to his prayers, after all these years God had finally answered him. I had never experienced the love and intensity of a Punjabi family. It was like the rewriting of my history, as if I could see the baby pictures of me materialise into their photo albums. I could feel my blood starting to run hot with the blood of a new identity, a Punjabi identity.
A nightly ritual began where I would join Papa Ji for a 7pm chai outside his station near the gate of the college. Each day I looked forward to my 7pm chai’s, like a treat at the end of a long working day where I could replicate the feeling of home. One night I arrived at the gate station and resumed my normal seat like every other day for the past 3 months, but this time Papa Ji told me to bring my chair inside the office. Without a second thought I complied, chai in one hand, chair in the other, mid-sentence debriefing about my day until I heard the door lock behind me. It was then, locked in a gate keeper’s station, did I feel my chai fly out of my hand as I was pinned against the wall with full force.
Then, my Papa Ji, kissed me against my will.
The kiss felt like a knife to my lips slit me open and all the newly acquired Punjabi blood spilled out. The baby pictures unmaterialised, my 5 year old self pixelated before dissipating into nothing. The memories tainted beyond redemption. It was as if my entire Punjabi family entered a car and had a head on collision on the highway, but the one who died was me, as I evaporated out of the delusion I put myself into.
The irony is, he was the one to protect me, he was the one hired purely for the sole reason of my safety, and he was the one who breached it. Not just physically, but emotionally abusing me. It was then I realised this is how every child who goes home to an abusive family member feels. That confusion of what does it mean to be safe? What does it mean to be loved? When my father/mother/uncle/aunt/cousin tells me they love me yet continue to hurt me, is that the definition of love? Why does love feel so bad?
53% of people in India have been sexually abused as a child, and 88% of those abused have been abused by their parent. I, luckily, at the age of 22 knew my rights and my worth to address this problem and take proper steps to deal with it. A child would not know. A child is the emblem of purity and child sexual abuse is a crime against innocence. It is our responsibility as adults to protect our children, and defend that innocence.
Speak up, dare to be fearless.