You’re twelve, it’s three thirty in the afternoon and you’ve just found yourself a window seat in a public bus.
You missed your school bus because you stayed back after school to discuss your essay with your English teacher, an essay you got an A on and you weren’t expecting it. She wants you to work on your handwriting—which, let’s face it, is illegible. Part of the reason you weren’t expecting an A was your handwriting. But she was too generous or kind or lax about it so you didn’t want to push her into reconsidering her decision. When she told you to work on your handwriting or you would end up losing your grades, you look at your shoes and silently nod.
You made a dash for the gate as soon as you got out of the classroom but you are slow and heavy and out of breath and by the time you get there, the bus has already left. Slowly, shuffling your feet through the dry dust that rose in grainy clouds of red around you and covered your feet in a thin film of grainy redness, you made it to the bus stop. You pulled out a copy of Great Expectations, which you had to plead to the librarian to lend it to you because it was against the school policy to have more than two books issued at a time. But you were too distracted to read so you placed it in the front pocket of your backpack and waited. You kept checking the watch on your wrist until the bus arrived. The watch is new, red with a big circular silver dial; a present from your dad you received three months back on your birthday. You’re not accustomed to it so you find yourself getting distracted by it often during class, especially in Math when you are particularly predisposed to distractions. You waited for seventeen minutes, though it felt like hours now that you can gauge time accurately, before the bus pulled up at the stop and you got on.
You’re still thinking about the essay and how your mom will finally be satisfied with your grade and let you watch TV for half an hour longer today. Maybe even an hour if she is in a good mood. She might not, though, because you missed your school bus. She might cool down eventually if you told her you stayed back to discuss the essay, which is true. Yes, you will go with this excuse. It is the most plausible. Maybe today you will be able to skip homework altogether. All you’re supposed to do is read that one chapter from your Marathi textbook. You could just read that on your way to school in the morning. Today, you could spend the evening watching The Powerpuff Girls reruns.
What you don’t know yet is that in about three minutes, all this is going to change. You haven’t noticed the man who just sat down beside you, a little too close for comfort. What you don’t know is while you’re basking in the triumph of your essay and planning your TV diet for the evening, his fingers have inched close to your shirt and in three minutes he will try to grope your breast. And as soon as he does that, you won’t know what to do. You will know this is wrong but you won’t know what you should do next. You don’t even have the concept of breasts yet, you got your first trainer bra last month after you realised that you were developing breasts and it wasn’t in fact rolls of fat around your chest. Your mom didn’t try to tell you otherwise either and you will never know why. You will try to elbow his hand away but the man—you won’t remember what he looked like but you will remember he had his backpack on his lap, black with a picture you recognise from the movie The Mummy printed on it—will persist. You will be scared and will try to look around to see if someone will help you. There’s a lady sitting right near the door and the seat next to her is vacant. You know you should get up, sit next to her and tell her what has happened but you will be frozen. You will remember your mom words, she told you to silently walk away and not create a scene if a stranger tried to be too friendly. You will realise that this was what she meant by “too friendly”. If you got up and sat next to the lady, would that mean you were creating a scene? What if this man did something dangerous if you angered him? You will not want that. You will be scared and sit fixed at your seat while the man continues to grope and squeeze and touch you. You will be disgusted by yourself, by your own body. You will think your body is ugly and flabby and fat and makes people do these things to you. You will try not to cry, try not to be worried and will keep nudging his hand away while you think of a way out. His hand will move towards your skirt next. Now is the time to get out of here, you will have to be really quick. You are two stops away from home but the bus will slow down before it hits the speed-breaker and if you time it right, that will be your cue to get up, push past the man and disembark on the next stop. You will manage to make this manoeuvre but years later you won’t remember the technical aspects of this decision. All you will remember is walking through a slow, near-empty street on a hot April afternoon, looking over shoulder between sobs to see if you were being followed.
The rest of your school years will be a smear in your memory. You won’t remember much of who you were back then. All you will remember from those years is the sack of shame that was your body. You will vaguely remember dragging your feet through the halls while your sad, sagging frame followed. Your thighs will chafe under the school uniform from the friction between the hammy bulk. You will be painfully, disgustedly aware of how gravity acts on the bulk of human mass for the rest of the years of your school career. You will develop an unsightly hunch and every teacher you interact with will tell you to correct your posture. They will keep reminding you to sit up straight. You will keep hunching over from the invisible weight of the shame hanging over your shoulders. The resulting pain will be invisible, but it will be there. It will weaken your muscles and your brain. It will hang around like a rusty iron anchor you drag with you everywhere. You will withdraw from the school hockey team because you can’t bear dragging that invisible anchor around your neck anymore. It will slow you down. You will learn how to be silent and invisible and roam around the corridors like a ghost of your existence. You will not want to be seen – not as a person, not as an object, not as anything visible in the sun. You will learn to walk with your head slung low, never looking up from the ground but your peripheral vision will expand enough to make sure you don’t run into people or light poles. You will not want to draw attention towards yourself.
You will come back home after school and lock yourself into your room under the pretext of studying. All you will do is sleep instead. You will read pulp fiction—they belonged to your dad from when he was younger—and fall asleep. Your parents will think there is something wrong with you. They will think you are doing drugs or your hormones are unbalanced or you are just plain ol’ dumb. You will stop doing your homework and reading your school books to support the last claim. Otherwise there would have to be too much explaining to do. For the rest of your school years, you will let them believe you are plain ol’ dumb. You won’t answer questions in class or complete your tests even though you know the right answers. You will learn that not getting good grades takes attention away from you, makes you even more invisible. You will learn that when no one expects any brilliance from you or sees any kind of potential, you become invisible. So you will work on exactly that. You will stop applying yourself in schoolwork and read pulp fiction. You will devour book after book and wait for your edges to fade. The trick to this is to put just the right amount of effort. You want to find yourself fit into the bracket of average grades. Just get 65 to 70 percent of the exam questions right. That way you won’t attract too much attention. If your grades dip too low, everyone will notice. If you fail, your edges will become solid again.
You will graduate from school and will barely remember how you did it, but you will manage it fine. You won’t have to work on becoming invisible any more, you will ditch that filthy uniform goodbye. You will start off in college and they won’t know you or your dirty secret here so you will be able to start afresh. You will start getting a little more solid, a little more visible. You will stop thinking about the incident now. It will be lodged in your memory like a poppy seed in a tooth cavity—there but can be ignored. But college will come with a new set of promises and you will be fine. You will find academics interesting again. You will want to study, to ace the tests and apply yourself again. It will make you happy to start resembling your solid self. In college, you will meet a boy and he will be nice to you. You will fear his niceness initially; you will question its nature. But you will relent eventually and call him your boyfriend. It will be a good two summers, you will feel loved and special, but that is how long it will last. When he leaves, you will be heartbroken. You will spend your nights listening to corny pop songs, the ones you listened to together, and cry in your pillow. Eventually, you will get over it. You will move to a city you always wanted to live in and start afresh all over again. You will get more solid now that you are here. The years of pudgy flesh you have heaved around will start to take structure and shape and will whittle itself around this new identity. You will be a person in the world, not wanting to hide. You will like this person you have become. You will get the job you wanted since you were sixteen. You will make new friends and will discover the wonders of a monthly paycheck and what it can get you. You will discover good food and alcohol and dancing. You will forget the life you left behind when you go out with your friends for Friday night drinks. This new life will become the general idea of life to you, as if this is what it was all along.
Years later, you will meet a boy at work. He will have kind eyes and a kind smile and a kind way of looking at you. You will spend your evenings in seedy bars, drinking cheap whisky and discussing the books you like. He will listen to you with intent and a smile on his face. He will see you for who you are and you will see this self through his eyes. You will say goodbye outside the bar and he will kiss you. And he will kiss you again, a few days later when you are at the movies, and again one evening. And you will want to kiss him back. You will want to kiss him and be in his arms and feel safe. You will go to his place one evening, the both of you buzzed from the cheap whisky and conversation and the general high of just being in each other’s company. You will kiss him and he’ll hold you in his arms and you will tell him that it is about time you slept together. He will look at you in a way even your drunk brain will register and ask you if you are sure. You will tell him you are absolutely certain you want to sleep with him. He will take you to his bedroom. You will start kissing him again and unbutton his shirt. He will stop you, look into your eyes and tell you he wants you to be sure of the course of action, he doesn’t want you making drunk mistakes. You will tell him that you’re fairly sober, at least sober enough to know this is what you want, and start kissing him again. You will take off his shirt and start undressing yourself. He will place his hands on your bare shoulders. His hands will be soft and warm. His hands will be kind, just like him. But the moment he does that, you will remember another set of hands. Violent and coarse; the opposite of kind. The life you ran away from will come rushing towards you, dragging along the shame and disgust at the speed of light. Before you know it, it has collided with this life and left everything in shatters. And you will remember the bus and the fear and the shame. You will remember the girl you once were as tears start streaming down your eyes.
But right now you’re twelve. It’s three thirty in the afternoon and you’ve just found yourself a window seat in a public bus.
Dyuti Mishra is a journalist and features writer from Mumbai. Her articles have been published in Femina, Vogue, Conde Nast Traveller, L’Officiel and other magazines/websites. She also writes fiction when she is not trying to have meaningful conversations with her cat.