Call me the family adventuress: during long summer holiday afternoons, while the rest of my family was taking their siesta or reading in bed, I’d creep out the back door and scale a wall or climb a gate to avoid being seen, in order to pay impromptu visits to my girlfriends in the hood. Inside their bedrooms, with the fan going full blast, we’d giggle and whisper and gossip as we gorged on sweets and savories.
One family I befriended had settled in Bangalore a generation or so ago. The man of the house belonged to a Brahmin landowning family somewhere up in Himachal Pradesh. For as long as I knew him, he spent his time seated cross-legged or slumbering on his favorite couch, perusing the papers or some crappy thriller. His wife was a very different kettle of fish; a good-looking and hard-working woman, Hindu fanatic and Sanskrit scholar, she ran the household with iron efficiency. And yet, if her indolent husband were to crook his little finger at her—demanding chai, a snack, or someone to clean his ears or trim his finger and toenails—she, or one of their two lovely daughters, would run to obey.
Unfortunately “Uncle” took a weird shine to me. One weekend I happened to drop in on the family one sultry afternoon, not knowing that my friends were away visiting relatives. Uncle opened the door and summoned me over to his couch. He handed me the paperback novel he’d been reading and pointed to a specific paragraph. “Read this out to me, please,” he ordered.
That pride goes before a fall is the utter truth; vain as I was, I began to read in a loud voice, showing off my perfect diction. It was a Harold Robbins book, and the section he had chosen luridly described the sexy heroine being banged silly by the smoldering hero.
Innocent as I was then, I still knew that something was hideously wrong with an older man asking a thirteen-year old to read him what I did not have a word for at the time—which was soft porn. In seconds I was stuttering and red-faced. Uncle took a firm grasp of my arm to prevent me from escaping. I was doing so very well, he crooned; he was so enjoying my reading. Just then his wife entered the room. With a rude flick of a pudgy hand, he ordered that proud woman out. I wriggled out of his grasp, flung the book on the floor, and hurtled out into the hot afternoon, feeling a painful mixture of emotions: among them ranked guilt and shame and rage, that I had been so badly used by a man I trusted.
I was reluctant to confide what had happened to anyone in my family mainly because I sensed that I would be blamed. Who asked you to go there in the first place? I could hear my mother shriek. Weren’t you supposed to be sleeping? What? You jumped over the wall again? You are utterly shameless and deserve everything you get! You see? Already I was aware that in the world I inhabited, the female of the species served as the eternal scapegoat. Had I complained, a variation of that old song would have been sung: “Don’t blame me! She was wearing a red dress, and so I raped her.”