He tenderly caressed her cheeks which had turned crimson red. Her heartbeat had accelerated and sweat ran in rivulets down her back. And then, all of a sudden, panic slithered inside her. She felt a gnawing, stomach-churning twinge and turned around to scurry out as fast as she could. But, her body seemed to betray her emotions and her legs froze.
“Roshni, are you OK? What happened? I am sorry if I …”
Before Vishal could complete, Roshni zoomed past him with all the vigour she could congregate from every muscle within her and soon she was out of his vision, leaving him befuddled and disenchanted.
Roshni stood still outside the shopping arcade exuding copious tears. Dark grey clouds were looming large in the sky, as if the reason for their precipitous emergence was only to serve as a warning for her. A blazing red Swift screeched to a halt right next to her and an effervescent woman screamed from inside.
“Hey Roshni, hop in fast! It will start raining anytime now.”
Dreading the barrage of questions that she would be soon exposed to by her dearest comrade, Roshni plonked herself on the passenger’s seat beside Aanchal.
“So, how was your date? What did you talk about? And why did you ask me to pick you up sooner than the pre-decided time? Did something happen? Did he say or do anything untoward?”
Roshni kept staring out of the window and sat there in utter silence even while Aanchal kept pestering her to fill her on the details of her first ever date.
“You are crying? Come on Roshni. Tell me, what did he do?”, bellowed Aanchal with a tinge of frustration in her voice.
“He did not do anything. It was me. It was always ME! I asked for it today and maybe even that day. I violated my own self. I wanted to get intimate with Vishal. How could I?!”, blurted out a howling Roshni.
“What are you saying Roshni? I don’t understand anything. Which day are you talking about? And what on earth do you mean by violating your own self?”
Aanchal was oblivious to Roshni’s misery and could not fathom the reason for her behaviour. She was unsuccessful in extracting anything out of her. Aanchal was at the driver’s seat and wanted to reach home as soon as she could to talk to Roshni at a more secure and amicable place. She tried to manoeuvre her way through the gridlock of vehicles on the thoroughfare of the city but her efforts proved to be futile.
“Roshni, you have been continuously crying and this maddening traffic isn’t moving forward. Please say something for God’s sake!”
“That day too we were stuck in a traffic Jam.”, murmured Roshni.
“Which day?”, asked Aanchal with a sense of foreboding. Her voice had now mellowed down as she could recognize the deep pain and anguish in her friend’s words.
“I had just turned 10. Rajan Uncle had come to pick me up from my tuition classes as Mumma and Papa had to go to hospital to see an ailing family friend. He said that he knew I wanted it because I had begun to wear short dresses.”
Aanchal was gobsmacked. She felt a shiver running down her spine. The traffic had begun to move, albeit at a snail’s pace, and she steered the car towards her abode which was just a few minutes away. Those were the most uncomfortable minutes of silence the friends had ever shared with each other.
The moment they set foot inside the apartment, Roshni made a dart for the washroom to puke as she could feel bile rising up to her throat. Aanchal rushed to comfort her and asked her to lie down on her bed. Roshni assured her that she was fine and perched herself on the plush sofa in the dining room.
“You know it is so ironical. He was the one who named me Roshni and he was the one who pushed me into a dingy dungeon and till date I don’t know how to escape from there. I think darkness has actually become the light of my life.”, said Roshni in a melancholic tone of voice, taking sips of the lemon juice that Aanchal had hastily concocted for her.
Aanchal kept looking at Roshni with incredulity and despondency. She wished that this was all a bad dream but the truth was right there in front of her, sitting stoic and cold. The tears had stopped but the pain was palpable in those eyes. That day, Aanchal become cognizant of the mental struggle and havoc her friend had experienced over the many years and she couldn’t believe that she never even got an inkling of it. Had she been an oblivious friend, she wondered! She always thought her nerdy friend didn’t know how to enjoy life and she used to keep giving her sermons to live life to the fullest. She felt guilty for being insensitive and pushy, but her primary concern now was Roshni’s emotional well-being.
It’s not that Aanchal was not privy to the state of affairs in our country when it came to child sexual abuse but never in her wildest of dreams had she imagined that one of her loved ones would be a victim of it. She fumbled for words but held Roshni’s hands gently. It was her way of reassuring Roshni that she empathized with her, and come what may, she had her unwavering support. And this was enough to let the floodgates open. Between hysterical sobs, Roshni narrated her entire ordeal to Aanchal. From feeling furious on every perpetrator of sexual abuse to feeling disheartened about the grim situation of Roshni and the apathy of society towards this social vice, Aanchal’s mind was a labyrinthine web of emotions.
“Why didn’t you share this with me ever before?”, asked a concerned Aanchal who probably also knew the answer. She buried Roshni’s head to her chest and continued.
“I cannot even imagine your pain Rosh. I am so sorry for what happened to you. I cannot see you in this distraught state. Do you want to visit your parents for a few days? Maybe being at home with Uncle and Aunty will make you feel better.”
At the mention of the word home, Roshni’s body language noticeably stiffened.
“Home? What is a home? Home isn’t a place, it’s a feeling right? We visit home because we feel at home there. And I do not feel at home inside my parents’ multi-storeyed bungalow. Why do you think I do not live with them in spite of living in the same city? You know I had confessed to my mother about what Uncle did the very next day. “
“You did? Didn’t they file a complaint?”
“Complaint? Why would they? My father was convinced by Uncle that I was the one who enticed him. Till date, I don’t know whether my father really believed him or just pretended to believe him. After all, Papa was indebted to him for his many financial favours. Mumma did believe me but she thought that since I was only touched inappropriately on my thighs and vagina, and there was no penetration, it was better I kept shut for my own good. The matter died down then and there, and with that a part of me died a silent death too. I did not know how to handle my emotions. I was scared. I was guilty. Many a time, I wondered whether it was really my fault. I started wearing fully covered clothes on most occasions and this was not intentional. I immersed myself into the world of books and found some solace in them. When I became independent, the first thing I did was to move to another place of dwelling, and though I still never really felt at home, I was at least on my own and away from the persistent questions from my parents and neighbours about my “stuck up” nature or about when do I plan to marry. ”
Aanchal winced. Before she could say anything, Roshni continued.
“When I met Vishal at my workplace, I did feel a connection. It was something new, it was something special. And when he reciprocated, I felt a kind of happiness I never felt before. But, this happiness was short lived. It has been a tough battle I have been fighting within. The problem started when I began to feel sexually attracted to him. It was like I wanted it and I didn’t. And when he touched me, it was as if I was violating my own self. It is hard you know. The lumbering weight of being violated and the guilt of being the violator amalgamated to create a storm inside me. I know I owe an explanation to Vishal for having left abruptly but I don’t know what to tell him.”
“Rosh, please don’t worry about him. You need to heal first. It was NOT your fault. Please don’t blame yourself. I think you must get professional help to come out of the trauma inflicted on you during childhood.”
“No! No way! How can I share this with anyone especially a stranger? No, I cannot do that Aanchal. Sharing all this with you, my closest friend, was itself so difficult. I cannot recount the horror in the presence of anyone else.”, denied Roshni vehemently.
“I understand Rosh. I really do understand. Look, a very good friend of mine works at an NGO which rescues and rehabilitates survivors of sexual assault and trafficking. The name of the NGO is “Shakti”. They have their own rehabilitation centre and I know they are doing great work. You can research about them yourself on Google. I really think you should meet the founder. I am sure she will be able to help you.”
After a lot of earnest insistence from Aanchal, Roshni reluctantly agreed to visit “Shakti” for her friend’s sake. The moment she entered the premises of the NGO, she found the aura of the place to be placating and hospitable. She felt a strange sense of familiarity in a completely unknown environment. She met some girls of different age groups over there while she was on the way to the main office. There was warmth in those smiles which seemed to have a thawing effect on her soul. When Roshni reached the administrative office, she was welcomed by the founder of the organization, Miss. Kavitha Swamy. She had done her research the previous day and had read on the web that Miss. Kavitha had been gang raped at the age of 14. Her journey from being a gang-rape survivor to becoming one of the most notable social activists of the country was immensely inspiring and stirring, and she was indubitably a woman of incredible grit and determination. She was very affectionate to Roshni and her affable demeanour helped Roshni to let her guards off and open up to her.
To her own surprise, Roshni found herself heartily accepting Miss Kavitha’s offer of temporarily moving to their rehabilitation centre. That weekend itself, Roshni shifted there and least did she know that a new life was beckoning her. She was away from the luxury of her opulent apartment and was amidst strangers. Yet, nothing felt alien. Finally, she felt at home. Yes, she was home.
Author’s Note: This story is based on real life incidents and characters whom I know personally but the names have been changed for privacy protection. What seemed like an insignificant step to Roshni at the beginning proved to be the turning point of her life. After associating with “Shakti”, Roshni was not just able to transform her own life but also became a driver of change for many others. The wounds have not completely healed but she has found a purpose in life and has learnt to love herself. Today, she helps spread awareness about sexual abuse through campaigns and also conducts gender sensitization workshops. She actively works for “Shakti” to ensure every survivor gets the right help and support to resurrect their dreams, hopes and confidence.
Every change begins with a small step, whether it’s a change within your family, or the whole country! India’s hero, Padman, had its digital premiere on ZEE5, on 11th May. Don’t miss this inspiring true-life story, only on ZEE5. Download the app and subscribe now. For every subscription, ZEE5 will donate Rs. 5 towards the personal hygiene needs of underprivileged women.