How I reclaimed my body and life

Nishtha Gautam
Nishtha GautamJan 05, 2017 | 12:14

How I reclaimed my body and life

In November 2016, I came across the man who abused the four-year-old me. He was present at the last rites of my grandfather, his friend and neighbour for half a century. Strangely, I did not feel any rancour towards him. I only took my seven-year-old daughter aside and told her to avoid him. She had already been schooled on avoiding abuse. I also ensure that she learns her lessons by heart.


A day later, my visiting cousins were casually sharing a rumour about this man’s depravity, how he didn’t spare any woman in his family, including his daughter and daughter-in-law. And how he now stands banished. That’s when I spoke up, in a flat voice, about what he did to me more than two decades back.

Shocked and hurt, my male cousins held my hands tightly in empathy. They thought that I needed support. Frankly, I didn’t. One of them was surprised at how calm I was.

At 31, I’ve realised that what was done to my body when I was four, seven, ten, 12, 14, 16, 18 and 22, need not be a part of me.

A child of four does not know that the organ between the legs is not just for passing urine. A seven-year-old does not know what molestation means, she has no vocabulary yet for ir. A 10-year-old is only embarrassed about the slowly emerging roundness underneath her t-shirts. A 12-year-old is further mortified. She’s been masturbated upon by an utter stranger in a crowded bus. By 14, she’s tall enough to be mistaken for a grown-up woman. At 16, she learns to slap people on the bus. At 18, she kicks and punches and hurls abuses even when she sees other girls suffering in silence. At 22, she learns that “come home for coffee” invites from friends do not involve coffee.

I had no agency in deciding what my body underwent at different stages, in different cities, caused by different people. Photo: AP

I had no agency in deciding what my body underwent at different stages, in different cities, caused by different people. I was only left with bewilderment, pain, shame, unreasonable guilt and regret, anger, and an acute sense of betrayal. Nobody boards a bus after a tiring day at college and drama practice to be pressed against a hardened penis.

“Man is a social animal” rings in your ears ironically, while society, which is ideally supposed to ensure an individual’s well-being, collectively fails in keeping the integrity of your body intact, your dignity safe.

I stopped fighting for the window seat after my breast was conveniently grabbed by the just alighted co-passenger standing at the platform. I was only an arm’s length for him but for me, he was several milestones ahead. While the incident shocked everybody around, it was me alone who felt the shame. Not a single person approached to console me. I was made to feel tainted.

Reclaiming the window seat, and my life, came only gradually and after deliberate, concerted efforts. I first taught myself that my body doesn’t get impure or dirty by unwanted touch. The ideas of impurity and honour are constructs to silence women in the face of abuse.


My second lesson to myself was: There is no hierarchy in my body. My wrist or waist are as “off-limits” as my breasts or my bottom. And the latter need not be fussed about all the time.

I didn’t mind my breasts being crushed at crowded fees counters at university, but I have told some acquaintances to not insist on a handshake. Why should a body part be accorded more “respect” than the others?

I democratised my body.

The third lesson was a bit difficult to put in practice.

Never think twice before intervening if you are a witness to bodily violations of others. A man pressing against a hapless girl’s body in a crowded public transport must make you uncomfortable in your own skin. I’ve picked countless fights on behalf of silent sufferers and it worked wonders for my relationship with my own body. Those were the moments of truth and reconciliation. Fighting for others was a way of saying sorry to my body for being silent when a scream was needed. Or a shove.

With age and understanding, I have become both cautious and defiant. I’m more aware of my surroundings, but I’ve also learnt to lead my life on my terms. Neither am I embarrassed of my body anymore. Nor am I ashamed of what was done to it. I realise there are many women around me who’ve faced sexual assault, varying in degree and form, and it’s important to hold an empathetic colloquium even if through gestures.

I haven’t stopped travelling in public transport. I don’t get paranoid in crowded clubs. I accept coffee and wine invites. I call my male friends over, chat and laugh and read out poetry extracts well past midnight. I dress to flatter my body and not to eyes upon it. Like a skilled driver, I’ve learnt to avoid accidents while enjoying the ride on the freeway.

I refuse to hang the albatross of somebody else’s actions around my neck. My body need not be weighed down by it.

Watch: Woman assaulted in Bangalore on New Year talks about the incident

Last updated: January 05, 2017 | 14:32
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