Memory is bizarre. It blocks out traumatic incidents, only to flood us with them when we are least prepared to deal with the deluge. Whenever I read about child sexual abuse in the news, a trigger is pulled. I feel like the memory is lurking around a corner, just waiting to pounce on me. The memory defeats me in one stroke, as the fear I have been struggling with engulfs me.
Part of my hesitation in talking or writing about my experience is the apprehension that straight people may wrongly attribute the origins of my sexuality to that one incident. There have even been instances where queer people have asked me not to mention that incident when I share my experiences growing up as a gay child.
It’s not just straight people who have such notions, actually. Once, I broke down in bed while having sex with my then-lover. I was also obliged to tell him my past, as we both wanted to take the relationship further and wanted no secrets between us. I recounted the sexual abuse that I was subjected to when I was seven, an incident that had left me feeling dirty and guilty, for no fault of mine. I felt relieved after that disclosure. Until the next day, when he casually asked me if I had turned gay because I was abused by my teacher twenty-two years ago. That was the beginning of the end of our relationship.
I did part of my schooling in the most celebrated school in town. Until second grade, I was in the nursery section. All the staff members were women, except for our school head, who was a Catholic priest. I was excited when I graduated to third grade. Third grade was in the main campus, which meant I was no longer in the nursery section. To me, it was a sign of being all grown up. This campus had all-male staff, except for a couple of aayahs (maids).
As I look back on third grade, many incidents stand out in sharp relief.
I was slapped hard on the face by the headmaster, for running on the school grounds during interval.
I fought with a fellow classmate who stole my stamp collection, and, as a result, my parents were summoned to the school.
I heard the term ‘chicken pox’ for the first time and I wondered why someone had to take a leave of absence because they had had a box full of chicken.
I was asked to write extra assignments in Tamil to improve my handwriting.
I was hit by a thick cane, for the first time, by my math teacher because I did not pay attention in class. He happened to be a neighbour, and the news went directly to my parents from him.
I became the boy who did not pay attention in the classroom.
I also took drawing classes on weekends. These classes were held in a house across from our school, in a lane barely 100 meters away. Our drawing master from school came there to teach us, a handful of children.
The house belonged to Mr. N, who was also my science teacher. Mr. N was in his mid-fifties, and came across as a man who loved children. Young parents saw him as a father figure. He had a granddaughter who was my age.
He would pull boys towards him by holding their penises. Yes, our little penises. I was always scared to go near him because it hurt when he did that. He would also make a few of us stay back in our classroom during intervals and lunch break. He would unzip his pants and we had to pull down ours. Suffice it to say our penises would not be the focus of his attention then.
I grew to dread those weekend drawing classes. I would stand outside his house until our drawing master entered, and would run out as soon as the class was dismissed. My parents stopped sending me to drawing class after my master complained that I wasn’t paying attention.
My parents were concerned over my falling grades. They cut down on my playtime, and increased my after-school study hours at home.
I did not have Mr. N as a teacher after third grade, nor did I have any more encounters with him. I not discuss my abuse with anyone, until I got to seventh grade. At that point, we had moved to a new house, and a boy from the neighbourhood happened to be a schoolmate. We had common friends and teachers. It turns out we had also had Mr. N in common.
And that too: our secret, our shame.
I never spoke about it to anyone else until eighteen years later, when I opened up to my ex-boyfriend.
The man who abused me and many other children at school, year after year, is no longer alive.
My fragmented memories, and the fear I live with, remain my only witnesses.
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