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Voicing Silence 7

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Voicing Silence 9

(To get a background on this series, I suggest you start with the first post here and then scroll up)

In the days since I first posted this series, I have had several responses. The most common among them is "You're so brave!" and I thought I'd talk about that a little bit in this post. First of all, I feel a bit of a fraud for being called brave. I feel uncomfortable accepting such praise and it is not just false modesty talking here. Let me explain why I feel disingenuous about considered brave. 

I began sharing my experience at a time in my life, where, by doing so, I stand to lose very little. There is hardly anything at stake here. No lives whose course could change dramatically or limbs who could be severed by my admissions. If I had come out with these allegations several years earlier when the extended family was enjoying grand camaraderie and bonhomie with each other, and done so in such great detail, there is every possibility that the aunts, uncles, cousins and their spouses would have denied everything and reacted with rancour and rage (precisely as they have done in another instance). But saying so now, since the relations have already ruptured beyond repair, there is no new damage to be done.

I am at an age when I have been married for so long and have had children that, barring the inevitabilities of life, my life at present enjoys the gentle boredom of middle age. My current major pre-ccupation in life is figuring out if the new word that I have just learnt in German has a masculine, feminine or neutral article (Der Apotheke? Die Apotheke or Das Apotheke?*). If this had been say, 20 years earlier when, as an as yet unmarried woman I had made these allegations, the ramifications would have been much more. Any potential husband material would only have to google my name to land on this blog and then get cold feet (let's not pretend it doesn't happen, okay?) and knowing that such a possibility exists, would have made me hesitate in the first place. 

I chose to articulate what had happened to me at a time that suited me best. I have said what I have to, as to carry on any further would have eaten into me, leaving me sick, angry and bitter. What I have done is a selfish act of self-preservation and self-improvement. It is anything but brave. 

*it is die Apotheke, since you ask. 

Watch the feedback to Voicing Silence here 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Voicing Silence 8

(To get a background on this series, I suggest you start with the first post here and then scroll up)

It's almost two weeks since I posted the last instalment of Voicing Silence and I have heard from a number of people including some with whom I had lost contact years ago. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to do a FAQs. This list is by no means exhaustive and will continue to grow. Please feel free to add to it by either commenting below or by writing to me.

FAQs

1. I cannot believe something like this happened to you. Looking at you, I would never have thought that. Are you sure you are not imagining it?

Sadly, I am not imagining it. It is true what happened to me. 

2. But you grew up in a traditional Tamil Brahmin household in cozy 80s Madras. Such things don't happen in our community. It's a foreign invention.

Yes, they do. No, foreigners didn't invent child sex abuse.  

3. I still don't believe you. I think you are out to besmirch your family. 

Okay.

4. Why have you come out with these revelations now? After all these years? Couldn't you have remained silent?

There was never a good time to say what I have said. It was always going to upset someone. I commissioned Lucy to create Voicing Silence because it was the first time in years that I was ready in my head and knew I could afford to pay her for her services. No, I couldn't have remained silent any longer. 

5. And now that you have spoken out, have you got any closure?

I don't know what closure means. If it means zipping something up and putting it away for posterity, no. I don't know if I can ever be rid of the event or stop reacting to it. But what it feels like is this. Some days, it feels as if a scab has been freshly picked open and the festering, pustulating wound has been laid bare. It will heal eventually, I hope. 

6. What do you want out of it all?

To be honest, in the course of writing it and creating Silence, what I want out of it has changed over time. Initially, I wanted retribution, then it became articulation. Now, I just want to be able to share my story in my own words. I want more of us to acknowledge to our own selves what has happened and seek professional help. It really is not worth carrying on living compromised lives. 

I used to see initiatives around teaching kids 'Good touch, bad touch' etc and used to wonder why so little was being done to address the trauma that adults were coping with. While it is vitally important to prevent such instances happening ever, it is paramount we talk about those who are living in the aftermath of horrific abuse from their past and I felt not enough was being done about that. 

From personal experience I knew that there were several in my own small circle who had experienced abuse and I knew that none had sought professional help. And all the time I kept reading about kids and safeguarding and all that. In my head I kept hearing, 'but what about me? I am not dead, know. I matter too.' I sincerely hope more adults begin talking and taking care of ourselves. 


7. What has happened since?

Lots, I am happy to report. One of the first people I shared this series with is my friends from school, including some whom I first met when I was three. My posts sparked a lively debate and it broke my heart to hear some say how they needed to borrow my words. Another friend from the same primary school group shared an incident which I have no memory of. 

She said that this happened when we were eleven or so. It seems it was my birthday and my mother had brought some sweets to the school but it appears, I had had a meltdown earlier in the day and my mother tearful when she talked to my class teacher about how I threw tantrums and how little I appreciated her efforts. Although I don't recall the exact incident, I know that that would have happened not long after the assault and it was when I started to get really, really angry. Just listening to my friend's recollection was touching. It meant that she had seen me, seen what state I was in and noted the instance when my social mask had slipped. 

I have heard from a cousin who wrote in a long email about how one can never be neutral when someone confesses as I had. And how he could not understand how anyone would doubt such an allegation. It was especially touching as it is the first time I had heard from anyone in the extended family circle in over a decade when similar allegations were first raised, which tore the family network  apart with several choosing severe ties with us. 

Long-forgotten friends and readers of this blog have written wonderful emails expressing sadness and promising support which has been lovely to read. 

8. Someone has just told me that they were abused as a child. What do I do?

Disclaimer: I am no professional or an expert in this matter. Please seek appropriate professional help. 

If someone tells you that they were abused as a child, please, please, please do not discount them. Or worse, doubt them. Listen to them. It takes a lot for someone to summon the courage and the words to say out loud what must have been whirring in their heads for so long. If they have chosen you to confess, they have placed their trust in you. Please just hold their hands and listen. And then very gently, guide them to seek professional help. 

9. All of this makes me very uncomfortable. Why can't we talk about something nice instead?

Yes, it is uncomfortable, yucky and unpleasant to talk about something so gross. For all the wonderful people who have written to me, there are a fair few who did not reply when I shared the blog series with them. And I understand their reluctance to engage with something so discomfiting. We would all rather run a mile than be confronted with something as horrific as this. We think it has nothing to do with us and we don't know of anyone to whom something like this has happened. 

There is a truly appalling statistic that says that as of 2007, nearly 53% of Indian children had been subjected to one or more forms of sexual abuse. I have no reason to believe that this number would have been less in the past, which means a majority of today's adults who grew up in India have suffered abuse. That's truly an epidemic proportions. Now tell me, do you really think there is no one in your family or friends group who has not been abused? 

We can either look away and hope that someone else will deal with it or step up and start doing something about this ugliness that pervades our every day life. The choice is ours. 

And since you wanted something pleasant, here's a picture of me and two people I am utterly besotted with. 


My babies and their mum


Read the next extract here at Voicing Silence 9

Friday, March 03, 2017

Voicing Silence 7

(To get a background on this series, I suggest you start with the first post here and then scroll up)

Headphones recommended




(Click on image for link or click here)

Written and narrated by 
Abhi Arumbakkam

Animation and edit 
Lucy Lee

Sound
Louise Brown

Music
Nefeli Stammatogianopoulu & Stelios Koupetoris



Read the next excerpt here at Voicing Silence 8


Thursday, March 02, 2017

Voicing Silence 6

(To get a background on this series, I suggest you start with the first post here and then scroll up)

One of my favourite speeches is this one that Neil Gaiman gives as the commencement address at an arts college in the US. In it he urges the students that whatever misery may befall them, to turn it into art. Use it as fuel to power their creative engine. I had decided that the best way to articulate my story was to make an animated short video of it and my friend Lucy was ideally placed to realise it. That said, how do I communicate the Madras of 1980s to someone who has never been to India?

I recorded a narrative and gave the audio to Lucy and she came up with her own set of question. Where did you sleep when you were young? Did you have beds? Did you change out of your day clothes to go to sleep? Did the rooms have windows? Did you grow up eating jam? What common insects would you find around the house? Would you sing or dance? Did you use ceramic mugs and cups? What did you wear on your feet when you went out? What sort of taps did you have in your house? Did you celebrate Christmas? Did it mean anything to you?

I started crowdsource responses including some from my school Watsapp group who were highly bemused with my request of photos of their kitchen sinks and utensils. My father sent me a whole bunch of photos from my childhood which prompted a blog post too. I sent links to Louis Malle's L'Inde Fantome which had significant portions shot in Madras but a couple of decades early. I sent links to some of my favourite Ilayaraja songs from that period and also some Carnatic music tracks which I grew up singing and listening to.

Lucy would get back to me every now and then with a line drawing or colour scheme that she was trying out and I would respond enthusiastically to it. I had left the artistic vision and the direction of the story entirely to her, secure in the knowledge that she would do it justice. She had watched the animated story of Malala and came back to the project refreshed.

Lucy wanted to bring in a sound designer and a musician that she had worked with earlier on board and as ever, I nodded eagerly. I also knew that she was juggling so many other projects and that the creative process some times takes as long as it does, so didn't want to push her too much with deadlines and demands.

Mangai introducing the Voicing Silence
troupe to gathered street theatre audience*
Me performing as part of
Voicing Silence*
I had decided to call it Voicing Silence, shamelessly plagiarising the title from a project about female infanticide and foeticide in Tamilnadu from the mid-90s that I had been a part of. It was also a lazy hat tip to A Mangai (aka Padma Arasu), whose ideas and work on feminism and theatre and gender and language I admired tremendously.

By the time Lucy shared with me the final version of Voicing Silence, I had watched the drafts so many times I couldn't react to it with fresh eyes but I knew it would be a conversation starter. Lucy had shared it with those in her circle and that prompted many to voice their own trauma which had not been spoken of for decades. But not everyone was as willing to react. It was difficult to accept that my own admission could startle and shock people that they would rather not say anything. Some people I sent the video to didn't reply and that is something I had to learn to accept.

Close friends responded with kindness and compassion. One of them called up and spoke exclusively about the film and  didn't say anything about the incident that had triggered it. She later wrote about how angry and how sorry she was that I had to go through what I had. She said that she found it easier to write because she would not have been able to say it to my face.

Lucy began sending it out to various festivals and we decided to give it year in the circuit before publishing it on the web. So tomorrow, with great joy and pride I give you Voicing Silence.

* images are screen grabs from A Mangai - a documentary (link here)

(This is a series of every day posts which will culminate in publishing an animated short film Voicing Silence that I commissioned and helped create documenting the sexual assault that happened to me as a 10 year old).

Read the next excerpt here at Voicing Silence 7

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Voicing Silence 5

(To get a background to this series of posts, I suggest you read the first one here, the second one herethe third one here and the fourth here)

For years I had been wondering how to articulate my trauma. And then, a little while after I'd moved to the UK, I'd done courses in documentary film-making and had started telling factual stories. Could there be a possibility there? What purpose would retelling a personal story in all its gory detail serve? And is this what I wanted?

In 2013 I watched Yael Farber's Nirbhaya in Edinburgh to an auditorium full of sobbing men and women. I found its portrayal in all its attendant specifics and bit too real. Even the actors playing it had each suffered horrific abuse and it was their own story that was being told. It was discomfiting and I knew I didn't want to go down that route.

With Leslie Udwin
A year or so later, I met with Leslie Udwin, director of the documentary India's Daughter, the day
after it had been banned in India. Leslie was deeply upset about the ban and couldn't understand the reason for it. I however, only got it too well. We would much rather look away and will it to go away than be confronted with its dark underbelly of entrails.

So what do I do with my experience? It had been playing in endless loops in my head and I wanted to share it with others. And the answer was hiding in plain sight.

With Lucy Lee and our respective boys
I had known Lucy Lee for well over a decade and we had worked on a few projects together. Our kids - her first and my second - were born within months of each other and we compared notes on motherhood frequently. For a while, Lucy would bring her newborn to mine on Tuesdays and we'd spend the day listening to talks, discussing pressing issues and setting the world to right.

Lucy also happens to be a talented animator who graduated from the National Film & TV School which is widely regarded as one of the best film schools in the world.

So I decided I would commission Lucy to do an animated short documentary of my experience. After all, as Lucy would often point out, the advantage with animation is that it is the medium of metaphor. You could say a lot without showing anything literal and letting the audience fill in the gaps. I sounded her out and she was delighted to be asked and we set to work straightaway.

There was only one issue. How do I communicate the world I grew up in - its sights and sounds and smells - to someone who has never been to that part of the world?

(This is a series of every day posts which will culminate in publishing an animated short film Voicing Silence that I commissioned and helped create documenting the sexual assault that happened to me as a 10 year old).

Read the next excerpt here at Voicing Silence 6