The Aftereffects of a Nightmare
Afternoons are the worst. Endless stretches of stillness when the mind ventures into undesirable territory and minutes go on for hours. Maya dreads these spells of unnerving silence over the weekends. The predictable security of an office day is missing and she is trapped at home. The streets seem to be deserted and she is too scared to venture out.
As soon as the breathless afternoon dissolves into a crowded evening, Maya leaves for the reassuring warmth of the local market. She is still getting used to the forced gaiety of a Delhi
market: courier shops with neon advertising, overflowing golgappa stalls with their sweet and sour enticements, surprisingly well made-up neighbourhood aunties haggling with vegetable vendors.
Today, she has to visit the tailor and that is a chore she would avoid if she could. The ageing tailor snips and tucks away at a tiny workshop in a narrow bylane that Maya has been too scared to visit in the past few weeks. She can feel her heart hammering as she takes tentative steps forward. Don't be stupid, it will be fine, she tells herself sternly. The main market is a minute away, they can hear you scream, her voice of reason adds for good measure.
The old man is not in the shop. There is a much younger man hunched over a shiny piece of pink fabric; one hand holds the needle taut in anticipation of the satiny thread which will eventually head its way in.
He looks up as Maya enters, blinking at her silhouette against the fading glare of the evening sun. But she is already backing away; the thought of being along in a confined space with an absolute stranger is too much. In her peripheral vision, she can see the young tailor getting up, puzzled at her reaction. He is a really tall man, she realises as she quickens her steps. Maya is almost running now. As she nears the end of the lane, seconds before the familiar chaos of the market engulfs her, she can hear him shout out, and ask her what is wrong.
Tailors were probably one of the few things her worried mother had not warned her against when she decided to move to Delhi about a year ago. Everyone else – courier boys, delivery boys, plumbers, electricians – had been on the list of ‘men who are likely to rape you’.
Maya had spent hours countering her mother's misgivings. Yes, she would find a flatmate to live with. No, she would not even think of living alone. Yes, she would ask someone to drop her home after eight pm. No, she would not open the door to strangers. Yes, she would always carry pepper spray. No, she would not go out in shorts.
Her mother would never know, never ever, that in spite of following every single rule of hers and some more self-imposed ones, her daughter had been raped.
Maya has spent considerable time and effort trying to block out memories of the incident. She wants to forget how long he was inside her, how easily he had held her down while she tried desperately to fight him off, how she had tried to scream but somehow couldn't, and how clumsily he had tried to apologise to her right after.
In a frightening moment of clarity, when she had realised that he was not going to stop, that no one was going to save her, she had furiously looked for a happy memory to distance herself from what was happening. All she could think of was a very rainy day in college when her father had insisted on driving through waist-deep water to pick her up. She had scolded him for his foolhardiness and he had sat there quietly, listening to her, waiting for her tirade to get over so he could take her home. And Maya, who had been chided by friends all her life for her utter inability to cry when the moment called for it, had started weeping, not from the horror of her reality, but from the tenderness of a memory that was nearly a decade old.
Now, weeks after the rape, Maya often caught herself in a maze of ‘what ifs’. What if she had decided to skip that party thrown by a friend where she had met him, which she almost did because she had a slight fever? What if they had never been introduced? What if she had not agreed to go out with him in the first place?
He was tall, well built and sarcastic, yet charming. She was flattered by his obvious interest, but also wary. She was in her late twenties and had survived a string of bad boyfriends. She knew by then there were no easy answers in complicated relationships. Yet, after going out with him a couple of times, she had reluctantly admitted to herself that she was falling for the man.
What if, she often caught herself asking, she had not invited him home that night? What if she had insisted on meeting outside, in a public place, in a ‘safe place’? What if she had invited other friends too? What if her flatmate had come back from work in time? What if her landlord, who lived on the ground floor, had been in town?
She had barely known him for four weeks and they had never even held hands. She had asked him home because she wanted some privacy. Her last relationship had ended more than two years ago; she wanted to see what it was like to kiss him, she had wanted to be held. But he had wanted much, much more.
What if, she wondered, she hadn't initiated a kiss? What if she had dressed more conservatively? What if she had refused to serve him any more alcohol?
After he had left, she lay there for a long time, numb and sore. She had forced herself to get up when she realised she was bleeding on her bed sheet. She had then thrown up every bit of the Chinese dinner she had so happily shared with him a couple of hours ago. Then she had had a long bath, trying to scrape every bit of him off her.
And Maya had remembered from a tawdry spy thriller she had read as a teenager that rape victims ought not to have a bath because that tends to wash off physical evidence of the crime. She had laughed then, in the shower, marvelling at how treacherous memory could be. She also knew at that moment, beyond doubt, that she would never tell anyone.
Her flatmate, who came back home sometime later, had asked her what was wrong. Maya had told her she had had a bad day at work, but she didn't want to talk about it.
She had gone into her room, locked the door, peeled off the bedsheet and pillow covers and put them in a trash bag. Then she had curled up on the floor and, much to her own surprise, fallen into an exhausted slumber.
But in the days that followed, Maya’s demons caught up with her at the most unexpected times. A financial report at work, where the numbers didn't quite match up, would move her to tears. She would be overcome with a blinding fury while buying shampoo at the supermarket. She would leave the house to complete a few errands and then realise she was neither carrying money nor her house keys. She forgot to pay her bills.
She went out only during the busiest hours of the day, when the roads were crowded and bustling. She only used public transport; she stopped taking autos and cabs. She avoided what she thought were deserted localities and streets. She stopped meeting the few friends she had in the city. She spent hours staring blankly at the rambling, apologetic messages and emails sent by the man who had raped her; she never read a word in any of them.
She shrank away at the sight of tall men, well-built men. If one of them happened to venture near her she would turn around and flee. If she caught any of them looking at her, even out of idle curiosity, she would go cold with fear.
Maya read every article she could find online on sleep therapy, but none seemed to help her. She could not sleep till she drugged herself into oblivion after downing every painkiller and allergy medicine she could get over the counter.
With the same zeal, she avoided reading stories about rape survivors who had managed to put their game face on and leave the trauma behind them. The vivid details recounted by them unsettled her further; their messages about how she would one day no longer think of that night every single moment of her life, rang hollow.
Most nights, she woke up in the middle of her very own nightmare, a silent scream trapped in her throat. She felt every bit of the weight of the man on her body, his breath on her face. She spent terrified moments wondering if this was merely a memory, or if this was the actual rape, and she had somehow spent weeks with the ghastly premonition of it.
Maya often thought, during moments of hopeless rage or unstoppable shame, of punishing him.
She fantasised about killing him, shooting him in the head, or stabbing him hard and watching his intestines spill out. She even considered sending him to jail, where, she hoped, he would get viciously sodomised.
But then moments of sobriety followed and she knew that just as she could never actually kill him, she could also not go to the police.
She could not, simply could not, live the rest of her life as a rape victim. She could not imagine explaining to a constable that yes, she had indeed kissed the man but no, she had not wanted to have sex with him. Yes, she had invited him home willingly for drinks but no, that did not mean an open invitation for sex.
She shuddered at the thought of going for a medical test. The doctor, probably a man, would insert his fingers insider her bruised parts and ask her questions about her sexual history. She would have to tell him that no, she was not a virgin before the rape. Yes, she has had multiple sexual partners but no, that did not mean that every man had the right to have sex with her.
And, at the trial, she would be forced to recount excruciating details of the night she had spent every waking moment trying to forget.
At work, people would talk about her in hushed tones with barely concealed excitement. Conversations would stop the moment she would walk into a room and awkward silences would follow her around. Vicarious colleagues would probe with uncomfortable questions; the kindly ones would avoid her because they would be too embarrassed to look her in the eye.
Her parents, sweet, uncomplicated, implicitly trusting people who had always indulged every whim of hers, how could she do this to them? How could she let them know that their only daughter had been mercilessly raped? How could she let them know that, in spite of all that they had done for her, they had failed to protect her at the moment when they were needed the most?
So she had said nothing and confided in no one.
Maya comes home, exhausted by the shadows inside her head. Almost on autopilot, she ticks off the long list of steps towards self-fortification. Double lock on the door, check. Windows shut, check, Curtains drawn, check. Try not to think of what happened just now at the market, check. Try not to think of what happened to her in the next room that night, yeah right! Turn on the tv, check. Pretend to herself that the exaggerated characters and inane storylines would help clean up the clutter inside her head, check.
Sanchari works for a news website, and spends about ten to twelve hours in a day writing copy about what the Prime Minister said or the Finance Minister worried about, and trying to make stories about a hundred-day agenda or anti-price-rise measures exciting.
In her free time, she writes, largely for herself. She loves books. Among the writers whose short stories she has enjoyed are Satyajit Ray, Agatha Christie, Janice Pariat, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and, of course, Alice Munro. Her twitter handle is @SanchariB1.