I started going alone to school in 6th standard. I stayed 14 km away from school and travelled with a few friends who lived close by. But I lived the furthest away and so spent 10-15 mins travelling alone, and that was why my parents were reluctant to let me travel alone. I talked for hours on end to convince them about how my friends took the daily pilgrimage to school alone and how I was more than capable of doing the same.
Eventually, they relented. And so began my days of freedom. I loved travelling alone. After school, my friends and I would run to the bus stop to get into less crowded buses. If we got delayed for some reason, or if we had some money saved up, we would go to a bakery to have soda sherbets and egg puffs. We were from different classes so we would exchange news about who got punished, what homework had been given, what questions were asked in tests, talked about the latest gossip, and discussed books and movies.
And as I said earlier, I would be alone in the last leg of the journey back home and in the first leg to school in the morning. This was before Steve Jobs turned the walkman into a device that “put 500-1000 songs” in our pockets, so I didn’t have the luxury of podcasts or music to keep me occupied. But this was also my favourite time of the journey, especially while going back, for by then a couple of seats would be vacant and I could sit down and admire the route.
On one such day, I got into a bus in the morning. I was elated to find that the bus wasn’t crowded and there was a vacant seat towards the middle. I ran and jumped onto the seat, kept my bag on my lap (I didn’t like keeping it on the floor of the bus out of the fear that it would get dirty). A few minutes passed by, and I felt something crawling up my lap. I didn’t realise what it was at first, but then I realised that the man next to me was sliding his hand up my shorts!
I didn’t know what to make of it. Was he trying to pickpocket me? I laughed at the thought in my head because all I had was five Rupees and thought he was a lousy thief for trying to steal from a child. But soon I realised that this was something else as his hands started moving up further. I pressed my bag down on my lap to prevent his hands from going any further. I was at a loss for words and was trying to figure out what was going on. Why was this man touching me!
The man realised that I was putting up some resistance and started getting more aggressive. He finally pushed his hand upto my groin. I grabbed his hand, pulled it away, and jumped out of the seat. I got down at the next stop. Sat at the bus stop for a few minutes and got into another bus.
I didn’t tell anyone about this for years. I guess I didn’t really know what to make of it. But I was a lot more careful about who I sat next to from then on and preferred to take a seat only when my friends were around and kept my bag on the floor. It did happen to me again once or twice, but I was more prepared for it then. I always grabbed the molester’s hand, twisted it, and moved to another seat. And no, I did not tell anyone or make a scene.
I didn’t tell anyone till I was 15-16 years old. It had been a while since it had stopped. And it popped out in a conversation with my friends. I had another friend who travelled alone. We were talking about a classmate we found creepy and he said, “He’s like one of those uncles in busses who grabs your balls!”
My first response was, “It has happened to you too?”
He said yes. And other friends who travelled by bus said they’d had similar experiences too. I was relieved to know that I wasn’t the only one. They had many such stories and not just in buses either. We shared these shitty stories that day and exchanged our ways of tackling these perverts. But we kept this to ourselves, and to this day, I don’t know of any of my friends telling their parents about what happened to them. It has remained a secret among friends.
Now you might wonder why I’m talking about this. It has been over 19 years since I was first molested by a paedophile. Most of my friends were around the same age when it happened to them. And yet, it has left deep scars within us all. I still freeze when someone touches me public transport, something that happens a lot when you get into a Mumbai local (and hence, my dislike of trains). I also keep one hand in my pocket, always at the ready to grab objects that get too close to my crotch.
But some of my friends have deeper scars and trauma. One of my friends is slightly homophobic because of what happened to him. He seems to have confused a paedophile with a homosexual person. Some paedophiles might be homosexual, but not all homosexual people are paedophiles. I’ve been trying to explain this to him for years, but the wound is too deep. And I’m sure that there are others like him, people who have been through incidents that were worse.
Now that we are getting older, we see youngsters around us. It could be your brother/sister, child, nephew/niece, or anyone who might be a potential victim. It is our responsibility to take care of them, make sure that they are protected, and ensure that they don’t go through such experiences. Talk about this to kids, they have to know that there are bad people out there. Tell him how they can deal with such people. They might be uncomfortable conversations, but it is time we learnt to have them. And above all, let them know that you care for them and that you’ve got their back no matter what.
I wrote this piece to share my experience and to start a conversation around such rogue elements in our society. I’m not saying we beat them up or anything. They need psychological attention and professional help. But the more we talk openly about such topics, the more awareness is spread and fewer lives are scarred.
I was inspired to write this when I saw the following posts by Syam Sathya on Instagram. Here’s what he posted.
Share these photos with your friends and family. Spread awareness. Have discussions with the people you know. That’s how we combat this, and that’s how we protect our young ones.