While We Looked Away – Jasmine Kaur

 

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Illustration – Sukanya Roy

She was sent off everyday

With a bag on her back

And a peck on her head

Little blob of curiosity

She changes hands from one adult to another

Ushered into the house of learning

 

She is delighted

And rattles off one question after another

She places a hand on her face,

“Miss, what is this?”

“This is your nose. N-O-S-E. Nose”

She opens her mouth,

“Miss, what is this?”

“This is your tongue. T-O-N-G-U-E. Tongue.”

She rubs her belly,

“Miss what is this?”

“This is your stomach. S-T-O-M-A-C-H.  Stomach.”

She puts a hand between her legs

“Miss what is this?”

Miss squirms, alarmed at this display of ‘indecency’

“Nothing at all dear.

Take your hands away from there now, would you?”

The lesson is over

Perturbed eyes looked away

Perturbed hands lead her back to the picture books

 

But the answer she wants will not be found there

Her little picture book has no pictures of what is between her legs

‘My body’ it says

Bold lettering. Color glittering.

But what she asks, it does not tell

Miss does not tell

Miss was only told to teach

How to spell. How to read. How to talk.

Not what is between her legs

The little girl sits down to spell ‘nose’

To use what she is taught

Not knowing that

Life is what will really educate her

Soon. Very soon.

 

Another classroom. Another year.

Another book. No pictures now.

Only words. Big words.

She must be 7. May be 8.

What does it matter?

She will soon have lived one life too many

Died one death too many.

 

For now, she sits alone

Happily lost in her book.

While he watches. Quietly.

He watches her legs swing beneath the table

He watches her fingers play with the hem of her skirt.

Quietly.

 

He walks in.

She looks up as he casts a long shadow over her book.

Tall frame. Big hands. Dark skin.

And a face she will never be able to recall.

He asks her if she would like to play

She politely declines

But he picks her up anyway

For it was not consent that he was looking for

‘Come here, I’ll teach you a game’

She tries to wriggle away

But he holds on with a tenacity that sends a shiver down her spine

‘Hold this. I’ll tell you how to play.’

She looks down at where his hand is

Between his legs

Like the day she had asked Miss

But the question had been too indecent.

Perturbed eyes look away

Perturbed hands try to push away.

 

He rattles her arm

She shakes her head

This is not like any of the games she knows

His breath is in her ear now. His voice inside her head

‘Hold It. H-O-L-D it.

She pushes. He slaps.

She whimpers. He sneers.

Her knees buckle, throwing her skirt askew

He puts in a hand, takes out a life

And she screams a scream that will never be heard

A scream that dies behind the hand that holds her mouth shut

The mouth that will never be able to ask questions again.

 

He gets up, and stalks off without a word

Tall boy, whose face she will never remember

But who will come to haunt her every day for a week

And every day she will think of her old class.

Her old Miss. Her old question.

Which the picture book hadn’t answered.

 

‘My body’, it had said

Bold lettering. Color glittering.

But was it really?

For now there were new things

Things which had not existed in her lexicon moments ago

Questions which had long been evaded

had now been answered

 

Now she knew what was between her legs

Pain. P-A-I-N. So much pain

Shame.S-H-A-M-E. So much shame.

Self-loathing. Legs squirming. Eyes brimming. Head pounding.

Big words.

Words which were felt before they could be spelt.

Words which were learnt too soon . Too soon.

Questions which were answered too late. Too late.

 

For now she does not wiggle her nose. N-O-S-E.

Or stick out her tongue. T-O-N-G-U-E.

Or laugh with a hand on her stomach. S-T-O-M-A-C-H.

Or put a hand between her legs

Not after another one has been there.

 

No more ‘My Body’

She doesn’t know whose it is anymore

She doesn’t know what to do with it

She doesn’t want it

 

No more ‘My Body’

Only pain. Only shame. And big words.

Only because while she was asking questions

We had looked away

The questions were too ‘indecent’

What about the way she had to find the answers then?

Our job was only to teach

So she had been ‘taught’.

How to spell. How to read.  How to talk.

But how do you spell a pain so deep that no word can describe it?

How do you read when your eyes lie dead?

How do you talk with a tongue that has been cut off?

How do you live in a body that is not yours anymore?

She has been taught

The lesson was over

Education had been a job for life.

A student of the Integrated Program in management (IPM) at IIM-Indore, Jasmine Kaur is a vociferous feminist, confused Punjabi and a passionate poet. She loves reading, debating, cogitating, eating butter chicken, writing and Pink Floyd, not necessarily in that order.

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