Chilka Lake by Shuktara Lal

When I was 13 or 14, I was molested on a boat by a guide cum fisherman during a family holiday at Chilika Lake (Orissa). It took me years to put this episode in its place and learn how to deal with it when it would suddenly push its way into the foreground of my brain, not least because, for a very long time, I didn’t know if it was something I needed to deal with. After all, maybe I had overreacted. Maybe there was nothing wrong in his constantly caressing my cheek and the side of my neck – maybe that was the way he was affectionate with kids. My brother, then about 4 or 5, had been next to us the whole time and my parents not far away at all. So maybe there was something wrong with me for feeling repulsed by his touch. (Why would he do something that didn’t seem quite right in front of my family?) Later, when he got me down from the boat, cleverly lifting me right under my armpits so that his hands were on my chest, maybe I was being stupid in wishing he had held my waist or, at the very least, waited to see if I asked him for help.

These were some of the maybes I attached to this incident as I grew up, an incident I would come to (and continue to) think of as “Chilka Lake”. It was only when I was in my early twenties that I realized I wasn’t to blame for what had happened, that I hadn’t somehow or the other asked for it and that there was a reason it haunted me and made me recoil. These realizations happened only because some of my friends had shared their experiences of assault and molestation and their feelings in the immediate aftermath, which were not very different from mine.

I said it took me years to deal with Chilka Lake. I should correct that: in strange ways I’m still dealing with it. I suspect it has played a major role in my possibly obsessive paranoia about being objectified by men. Moreover, even now, I can remember the exact sensation of his rough, course hand on my cheek and how he smelled of fish. I’m 29. Since Chilka Lake, I’ve had some wonderful experiences of positive touch, all of which are far more recent in time frame (and I’m not just speaking about sexual physical contact; physical contact that is indicative of platonic affection or empathy counts as a form of positive touch). However, ask me to recall those moments; ask me to recall the sounds and smells associated with those moments: it will take me quite some time. Then ask me to remember an instance of bad touch; Chilka Lake will creep back into my senses – far more mutedly than before and I can disassociate from it more easily, but creep back it does. This doesn’t upset me anymore because as someone working in the area of theatre for therapy and empowerment, where you have to be in tune with your body and your head, I know what a huge store of memory (and, as a result, traumatic memory) the body is. Nonetheless, I do want to reach a point in my life where I can remember physical contact I liked with the same clarity and perhaps even reach a point where those experiences have the power to take over my head the way Chilka Lake once did, while the latter becomes something that takes time to remember.

That I have been able to deal with Chilka Lake and other such episodes to the extent I have is largely because of theatre, workshops, drama therapy sessions and a lady called Sohini Chakraborty who started the NGO, Kolkata Sanved, for whom I work as a consultant, at present. With Sanved, and independently, I have conducted workshops on safe and unsafe forms of touch, boundaries and safety, embodied memory and sexuality. There are some things I firmly believe in which form the backbone of the workshops I conduct. I list them here.

1. It is never too early to explain the concept of safe and unsafe touch to a child.
Children are always a lot sharper than we give them credit for. As parents, explain to your children who are allowed to take off their clothes, bathe them; when they are taken to the bathrooms in their schools, explain how they should be cleaned. I’m not suggesting you take your one-year old and drill all this into his head in one seating. Take it slowly, step by step, using associations they understand. Above everything else, let them know that if they ever are touched in a way that they don’t like or feel is not quite right, they should tell you immediately. This was the big mistake my parents made with me. They never spoke to me about sex till I was in Class 11, when my mother made a feeble attempt at bringing up sex ed. because I was doing a school play on the subject. By then it was much too late. Now, thanks to years of hearing me go on and on about abuse, child safety, the need to be alert (an aside for Potter aficionados: exactly like Mad Eye Moody’s mantra of “Constant Vigilance”) and how horrible Calcutta is as far as
street sexual harassment goes, I know they will be far better grandparents in this department than they were as parents. And I am incredibly proud of them for that.

Coming back to forms of touch. I recently conducted a workshop with teacher trainees where I asked them to mark the parts of their bodies in a drawing of the human anatomy that they would not want anyone to touch without their consent. The male trainees marked three body parts. The female trainees excluded three body parts and added that certain types of touch would not be acceptable on those three parts either, without their consent. While these teacher trainees will hopefully take an active role in teaching their students about acceptable and
unacceptable forms of physical contact, we can’t be too optimistic about a lot of other schools. So the onus is again on parents and guardians. Talk about the human body with your child. Explain different kinds of touch to them. Unsafe forms of touch do not restrict themselves to the genitalia and chest. Repeated stroking of the hand can be equally discomfiting. You can use other material to explain negative forms of touch – rubbing fingers on sandpaper can be connected with scratching, running stems of grass on one’s arms can be correlated with tickling (or “shurshuri”), applying a lot of sand on your hands may be similar to being grazed by stubble. Any kind of touch can have positive or negative implications depending on how it is done. Let your kids connect their sensations when they touched those different materials with types of touch they recognize. Let them tell you who they think can touch them as well as how and where people can touch them. Again, this should be a process that is repeated, not something that is done one day and forgotten after that.

2. If you are uncomfortable talking about any of this with your children, give them
books. I saw a post on the CSA blog which listed titles. To those I would add It’s My Body: With Tinkoo and Tina, brought out by ‘Aangan’ Rozan, Islamabad. You can also look up play therapy groups (literally, the therapeutic and educational potential of playing), where you can put your child in. Samikshani runs one in Calcutta.

3. The brain is not the only, or even the primary, receptacle of memory. Your body remembers equally, sometimes more. So while the brain may block out some memories and compartmentalize experiences, it’s the body that will register a form of touch it had experienced years ago. For survivors of sexual abuse, this is all the more important: apart from giving time to your head, you have to give time to your body. To understand this better, I would recommend reading Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, Bessel A. van der Kolk’s essays, “The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma” and “The Body
Keeps the Score” in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry. They may be somewhat academically heavy in parts but they are worth reading. An easier to read essay is “What Your Child Remembers: New discoveries about early memory and how it affects us” by Robin Grille.

4. This is especially for parents of girls: sensitize the men in your life to the insidious ways in which girls can be abused and how early it can start. Draw their attention to something as fundamental as how women are looked at on the streets of your city when compared to how men are looked at. The male relationship with streets in India is so absurdly different from the female relationship with Indian streets. The more men there are who notice and react to how women are (mis)treated in public spaces, the safer it will become for women. Consequently, all those adolescent girls who have to navigate the country’s streets, not always
accompanied by alert adults, will not have to wrestle with such a nightmarish time of exploring their right to live as teenagers. I say this all the more because there are only two men I have been able to let my guard down with when walking in Calcutta: the first is my brother, the second, the husband of a close friend. The majority of the men I know are, sadly, for whatever reason, not in tune with the female experience of streets in India.

5. Know that even after doing all this (and much more) you will still never be able to exercise absolute control over what happens to your child. That act of violation may somehow slither its way in. But know that you would have given your child the tools to identify what was happening and alert you to it. This is so many steps ahead of children who don’t know what to make of the Chilka Lakes in their lives and are engulfed by them instead.

Chilka Lake. Some day I will go back there, perhaps with a very close friend, or with someone I can see myself spending the rest of my life with, and create some amazing memories. Because I cannot allow that one repulsive act to determine my entire perception of that place. I need some other memories so that some day, I can refer to a happy, immensely satisfying period of time as “Chilka Lake”.

Some day. But not just yet.

The above post has been written by Shuktara, who works in drama therapy and cross posted from here