I was 13. My body had started to change. I had grown taller, my breasts had sprouted. I had also recently started getting an unwelcome bloody visitor every month. I was not sure if I was beautiful.
I went to a very highly accomplished school. Our teachers came from impressive backgrounds and there was a lot of buzz around words like ‘education’ and ‘international standards’. Ours was a nuclear family. My parents did not force any subject or ambition on me. I had never heard them say that I might not be up to something because I am not a boy.
I remember the day we heard some girl had an ‘abortion’. Gauri’s neighbor. By now, we knew that babies are not born because you prayed to God. There was something more to it. Something to do with boys. Gauri even said girls of our age can bear babies. She didn’t know how. When I asked my mom, she said something like “You will know at the right time”.
Google could only help so much. There was lot of information, but many sites wouldn’t open due to the child lock. I did get something though – I read words like intimacy and sex. When I saw a lot of angry comments on my mom’s FB page, I knew this was big.
I went back to Gauri itching to ask her if she has had any luck. Her response? Her mom scolded her for being too inquisitive. She said she thought it had something to do with the way her parents changed channels whenever there was a kissing scene on.
In the following week, our school announced that girls and boys will be seated separately from now on. They also said they will have a “special class” for students like us. The special class turned out to be something on using menstrual pads right. We were shown certain body parts that we should not allow to be touched (Yeah! Once again!) There was also something on “what to expect during puberty”. We kept huddling together and giggling through it. Nobody was brave enough to ask any questions. When Suman finally raised her hand, the teachers seemed displeased. They asked her to see them later. We scuttled back to our classrooms, still giggling. Somehow, the teachers seemed grimmer than ever. The boys and girls had separate sessions. We were not sure what they saw.
Around this time, we began noticing that many of our male classmates, who teased us openly and called us names like ‘idiot’ and challenged us for a cartwheel till a few months ago, had ceased talking to us( the girls) directly. They would answer everything in one word (“How did your practice go? “- “fine”; “Did you like this movie?”- “yeah”). If we had asked them to explain all 3 of Newton’s Laws in one word, they would come out winners. They would never look us in the eye directly. And they would always be shifting on their feet if and when they spoke to us. Also, we occasionally overheard words like “hot” and “sexy”. Of course, a sudden deathly silence would befall if one of the girls/teachers happened to pass by.
This made us suspicious that they clearly knew something we did not. We begged Smitha to snoop around her brother’s laptop. When she declared she found some ‘protected’ stuff, we labored over a plan to somehow lay our hands on it – we had to be sure the boys and the parents didn’t notice. Finally, after days of plotting, our super-star Smitha managed to get a copy. After even more meticulous planning around the parents’ absence, we finally found a time when we could watch it in a friend’s house.
We watched it more out of curiosity than anything. Gauri said this is how babies come. We were still trying to process this. Rhea gagged and threw up. I can’t remember why, but I was somehow sure that I didn’t come this way. I mean, I hadn’t seen my parents even hug each other. None of the girls spoke about it for the next few days.
I went back home and checked my breasts again. Do they look like the lady’s in the movie? I found myself getting vaguely excited. And the excitement peaked. Then it died. It felt good. But it also felt bad- like I did something wrong. I didn’t look at my parents the next day.
Every day, I would check myself in the mirror, trying to decide if I looked good. One instant, I would feel on top of the world- like the most beautiful girl living on the planet. Within the next 20 minutes, I wouldn’t even want to look at myself anymore. I hated all my clothes. They just made me look unbearably ugly. My fights with my mom increased exponentially. If I said I wanted new clothes, she would throw me one of those looks and say, “You just bought so many last week.” I felt like staying locked up in my room forever. Sometimes, I felt like hugging her for no reason. The reminders to ‘walk properly’ and ‘sit carefully’ increased with startling frequency, making it amply clear that I was ‘growing up.’
Meanwhile, school was changing too. One of my seniors, Rohan started looking cuter than before. Suddenly, I noticed everything about him. The way he stretched to throw the ball over the basket, the way he pulled out his hanky, the way he flung his bag over his shoulder, the way he said, “Yes, bro!!”. Shalini said she thought his voice sounded like a duck’s. I almost punched her. Then the teasing began.
We got busy preparing ourselves for the exams, which involved sitting in circles around the sports ground and exchanging smart tips and confirmed questions- apart from prolonged discussions over the phone (we prided ourselves on our democratic load sharing of the syllabus for every test). I got up, dusted my skirt – but Smitha pulled me down with lightning speed. “You have got a stain on your skirt!”- She whispered into my ear! The next few minutes were spent agonizing over how I can cover the damn thing. My friends huddled behind me making a smart human curtain, and suddenly it looked like all of us had to use the loo at the same time. Rohini suggested I use her jacket. I wore it but found that it didn’t cover the stain. So, I walked around the rest of the day with that thing tied to my waist. Of course, that arrangement made its purpose very clear to the rest of the world. I walked around looking down, too scared to look up lest I should find Rohan staring at my jacket.
Summer vacation was about to begin. I was swaying between happiness that I could meet my grandparents and anguish that I will not see Rohan for the next two months. Worse, I didn’t even know if he would miss me. The last few days were spent hatching a lot of silly plans to be where he was; aided by my loyal friends – in exchange for similar favors for their own crushes. If he was in the corridor, I had to pass the long pathway to refill my bottle from the next water filter- hoping he hadn’t noticed that we had just dunked the entire bottle in one go- on Rohini’s cue. If he was at the Basketball court, I suddenly remembered a book that is only available in the library past the court. Valentine ’s Day came and went. Rohan still did not know I existed.
Vacations began and, as I got busy with my summer classes, Rohan’s influence started to wane on me.
Adarsh was my neighbor. His dad, Rajesh uncle and mine were colleagues. Mom occasionally sent me over to exchange dishes. One such evening, when I went to pass on some Kheer. Rajesh uncle was working from home. Nobody else seemed to be around. Rajesh uncle took the Kheer from my hand and I noticed that he cupped his hands over mine while taking it. He asked me to sit down and got me a glass of water. His eyes kept dropping to my chest. Suddenly, my cheeks were red-hot. In my head, I went, ‘How am I sitting?” “Is my blouse too deep?” “Are my breasts sticking out?” “Is my knee showing?” I felt him sinking into the sofa beside me, his body rubbing my left arm, patting my shoulders. The next thing I knew was his hand on my thigh. His eyes glued to my chest. I felt sick with disgust. I pushed him away and walked back to my house. I went into my room and wept. I finally decided that I would tell my parents about what happened. I came out and saw Rajesh uncle thanking my mom profusely for the excellent Kheer. Mom beamed and invited the family for a breakfast outing. Dad and Rajesh uncle fixed up a time for a game of Tennis the next morning. Something made me go back to my room.
School started. I saw Rohan but somehow didn’t feel the same anymore. We caught up on everyone’s vacations and were dying to read the success meter on our respective crushes. Some of them, like me, scored abysmally. Some had made progress. One girl confessed to having kissed- like a full kiss and done ‘some’ of it. She became our hero and we sought out every detail- wide-eyed and expectant. We were disappointed when it ended.
One of the guys was wearing an ear-stud. He walked with a newly acquired swagger. We wondered who his new role model was. The next day, we spotted his parents in school. And the day after, the ear-stud disappeared. And with it, the swagger.
I told Rohini about my encounter with Rajesh uncle. She told me that her cousin did the same at a wedding. And no, she had not told her parents about it.
School picked up and soon we had our noses buried in assignments and projects. The boys were beginning to show that they knew how to form a full sentence. Rohini told us that she thought Gaurav from the senior grade seemed to like her. Which automatically meant that she liked him. They were in Shruthi Mam’s science workshop project together. We all pooled in to do the assessment- and declared results to be positive. He did look interesting; not bad-looking at all- about a 7 on 10. Plus, he was brilliant with his project. We gossiped about the new girl in class.
The next day, all was well. Until Rohini was called to the Principal’s office.
That evening, I went home and made myself some noodles. I threw in some chips and switched on the TV. The world cup highlights were on when the phone buzzed. As I picked up the call, I felt a terrible foreboding. The pit of my stomach tightened as I heard the other end. All I could hear was Rhea having a crying fit. She was trying hard to mouth words between her sobs. My mouth dried- though I didn’t know why. Finally, I heard ‘Rohini’.
My instinct had me bolt through the door. I ran all the way to her house, still in my school clothes. I don’t remember if I had any footwear on. I was aware of men and women staring at me; but I didn’t care. Terror gripped me. But hope kept me going.
They took her body away. Her mom was hysterical. Her dad looked frozen. Faces from our school were floating all over. Among them, I spotted our Principal and a few teachers in the far corner. Police too. It occurred to me that it was important to know if Gaurav was here. He wasn’t. Neither were his parents. And I knew. I knew this had to do with him. I knew this had to do with Rohini’s parents being in school this afternoon.
That night, I stared at the last words she had sent me, “I couldn’t take it, Anu. Watching my father cry was like staring into death itself!”
Is that why you weren’t afraid of death anymore, Rohini? Did you leave so you could finally belong?”
This is the story of 2 fictional adolescents, Anu and Rohini. It could have been different if any of the following were not true. For the same reason, it could be the story of any young adult across the country!
Survey after survey tells us that: ( All references provided)
- The biggest source of information on sex for Indian teenagers is porn. Most gain knowledge through friends and magazines. More and more children in the age 12-13 are watching porn.
- Even in ultra-westernized cities like Mumbai, talking about Sex is taboo in majority households. However, children are penalized when they decide to explore on their own.
- Only 18% receive any kind of guidance from their elders. However,80% parents back sex education in schools.
- 60% of young Indians between 15-24; both boys and girls report having had sex. More often than not, the reason is ‘to fit in’ with peers and belong in their groups. Hence, teenagers struggle with intense identity crisis between upholding their parents’ image and their own.
- Sex education is key to reducing violence against women, unwanted pregnancies and HIV/AIDS. However, Sex education in its current avatar in schools is useless. Many governments advocate banning them totally.
- There is increasing awareness about sexual abuse. However, sex is always referred to in a negative light. There is almost nil association of positivity with sexual feelings. There is a very high correlation seen between casual sex and negative self-image.
- India still has a major bias towards male sexuality. The girl receives a disproportionate share of disapproval which leads to shaming and sometimes even death. This is true for modern International schools as well.
- There is little emphasis on positive body image among teenagers, especially girls. Judging incidents as being ‘provoked’ by themselves is common for adolescents as well. There is shame associated with menstruation. Many sites like Mythri and Menstrupedia are dedicated to changing this.
- More than half of India’s children are sexually abused. 53% are abused by people known to their families. Only 6% of abuse gets reported.
I would like the readers to give a thought to the following:
- What do you think should have changed in the story?
- How easy would it be to change it?
- What would YOU do to change it?
Hint: Think Unconditional Love.