An attractive 26-year-old man approaches a 16-year-old girl. Sparks fly. That these sparks will later burn her up to her very soul, is unknown to the girl. Right then, she only feels joy. She revels in the confidence that she is a mature young lady, attractive enough to win the affection and attention of a mature man. Ignoring her gut, looking past the nights spent crying and hoping that the man would respond to her texts and treat her better, she will try everything possible to make things work. They had to work. He was the only one who really loved her. After all, he said so himself. She would carry this heavy weight until college, proudly referring to it as her ‘long distance relationship.’ He would cheat first. With another 17-year-old girl. Slowly, in the process of discovering herself in college, and not being allowed to break up with him despite wanting to, she would cheat on him too. It was also the only way to get out of an immensely toxic relationship. “One wrong to set many other wrongs right,” as I would later be told by someone…***The first night, when I told ‘uncle’ that I had ‘cheated’ on him, he pulled my hair and held my neck. Uncle slapped himself over and over. We both cried. On the second night, we sat silently, with me occasionally whimpering “sorry” between my tears, and him smoking cigarette after cigarette, listing all the places he would have taken me to, and the gifts he would have bought for my upcoming birthday, had I been more sensible. Had I not done this to him.On the third night, I pointed out to him that he had cheated on me too. He pushed my face aggressively with his finger, and then slapped me…once, twice, thrice, after which I stopped counting. And that is the story of how I came to hate big rings. The scars they caused on my face meant I wouldn’t be meeting any of my friends the next week. Thankfully, I only had a few, because the others had been cut off when my relationship with uncle had begun. On the fourth night, my apologies would break through. Perhaps the scarred face was an added effect? Or sex was a basic need? Or, he believed I had been punished enough to have learnt my lesson. He set me on the table, to undo my dress. He threatened to penetrate me without a condom, just to hear me say no. To listen to my scared and trembling voice, to regain a sense of control over my body, which he had lost the night I had ‘cheated.’ Two fingers, one with a big black stone ring and one without, were put in. A declaration was made - it was not tight anymore. I was not a virgin anymore. And of course, virginity was important for an uncle who wished to marry me. I had not passed his slyly conducted Two Finger Test. It took me a long time to realise that drunk 17-year-olds do not cheat, especially if they’ve never had sex before. It took me more than a year to realise that I had been raped, by yet another older man. I was 17 years old and traumatized. ***He asked me to pack a sari that day. We were going to an OYO room, somewhere far away, because he wanted to run away from his problems. He took me along for comfort and coddling. Another time, a lehenga was the requested attire. He was 28 years old after all. Wedding fantasies were bound to be there. I was his 18 year old almost-wife. An almost-wife is like a wife. They perform basic tasks for the almost-husband—wash clothes, stitch torn clothes, look pretty. But one must wait for her to become socially appropriate before placing marriage demands, i.e., she must turn almost twenty-one or twenty-two. After a night of one-sided pleasure, I lay on his chest, watching our fingers dance together in the dark. “Today I overheard some boys from college. They were talking about you, pairing themselves with you.” My fingers stopped dancing. “What? Who? What do you mean, ‘pairing themselves with me?" “I mean they were deciding who would be a good match with you. Saying “you take her,” “no, you take her,” and all…”A young girl, fresh out of high school, in her first year of college, was being traded off--hypothetically--on the tables of a chai shop. I felt vulnerable, insecure. I wanted to disappear into his arms. It was horrible. What was happening?“What do I do? Do you know who they are?” I whispered into the ears of my wise protector. “No, but I think from now on you should be careful about how you walk and talk in college. Just don’t be so friendly. After all, you are my girl na?” A thousand protests erupted in my mind. Why should I change myself? Why should I care? Why are those boys not being shouted at? But all I whimpered was a sad “okay…”His fingers continued dancing. How small my hands looked next to his.***When a much older person establishes contact with a younger person by gaining their trust, usually by taking on the role of a mentor, a boyfriend, or a dependable adult, it is called grooming. It is often done to exploit the younger person for sexual pleasure. Dating an older guy is a kink for many. As a young person figuring out the world, it is very hard to navigate and identify red flags, especially for children from broken homes. I had been groomed by two different men in two different cities. That it happened twice, still eats at me. It took me a long time to accept that whatever had happened was not my fault. Almost two years later, I remain with random memories that catch me unexpectedly on some nasty days, only to choke me, and render me completely incapable of functioning. Every time I think of the way they touched me, I feel dirty, experiencing feelings that make my gut churn…like someone has put the fan, slicing the air above my head, in my stomach.I remember countless nights of lying in bed, screaming into my pillow until my throat gave out. Jokes didn’t seem funny anymore. Blades would inch closer to my skin on cold nights, only to shy away at the last minute. I remember tears alternating with every breath. I remember it all, until the day I froze outside the very same tea shop where I was being – hypothetically – traded. I cannot recollect what had happened to me after that moment of freezing. The six months that followed have merged into one big, black blur. ***Today, at the slightly more mature age of 20, as I work to make myself freer, happier, stronger, I want to hold a systemic practice accountable—that deeply embedded aspect of our Indian culture to “respect elders.”From a young age, we beat a few terms and conditions down on children - uncle is older, uncle has more experience, uncle knows all, you cannot correct uncle. Children swallow this and begin to depend on any and all uncles who approach them without thinking twice. They don’t know that a relationship is meant to be a two-way street, filled with open conversation and mutual respect. Instead, relationships become authoritative. Uncle will tell you something, and you must heed to it, or else uncle will get angry. Most women don’t even realise they are being groomed because of the indoctrination that men, especially older men, know everything, and must not be questioned. We have convinced ourselves that relationships are best only if the man is older than the woman. Grooming is simply the end result of such false ‘romantic’ ideals. These relationships rely on an imbalance of power. Groomers have a way of weaseling their way in, promising you that you are ‘different’ from others. He will convince you that he is not like your parent, but is your ‘special’ older friend. That the two of you share a unique relationship which your parents cannot comprehend, and so you should not bother to try and share it with them. Before you know it, they are dictating everything you do in life, worse than the way your parents would. You cannot go to certain places, mingle with certain people, because they have done it, they know how ‘bad’ it is, and they are being kind enough by looking out for you. You are suddenly restricted from important, life-changing experiences. Restricted from becoming an independent, blooming individual with a life of vividly colourful teaching moments. Simply because that does not suit uncle. If you become independent, who will rely on him? What if you become better than him? Yes, he wants to see you grow, but not grow past the need for him. If you have found yourself in this situation before, or are in one now, please remember – “He knows better”? “He is older”? “He has more experience”? Okay. Then he should also know better than to mess around with women who are much, much younger than he is. Women who are still trying to figure out the world. It is uncle’s fault. It will always be uncle's fault. Anika Eliz Baby is a student of St. Joseph’s College (Autonomous), Bangalore. When not making memes, she is cracking awkward jokes and fangirling over anybody who is not her. Read more of her writings here.
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