What Being Raped Taught Me About Being Indian

Amita Vempati

Part Two of Three: Telling My Story in the Desi Community

Did you guys know that “unicorn idlis” are a thing now? Buzzfeed India, spring of magical ideas that it is, made a video featuring multicolored idlis, and I am truly heart-eye emoji. As much as the rise of the alt-right gives me significant pause about the benefits of teaching racists how to use the Internet, when it comes to sharing new ideas, social media is amazing.


Telling My Story

For the demographic of survivors with hearts pinned to their sleeves who have suffered the weirdly crippling sensation of wanting to tell everyone what they’ve been through, social media is one of the most accessible and modifiable platforms for sharing their stories. Some do so in the pursuit of collective enlightenment, perhaps (I think) as their own form of justice against a system that rails against them constantly from a wage gap to a language that simultaneously justifies violence, lack of autonomy, and domesticity. Others might find cathartic relief in letting others know why they may have seemed a little different of late…

Over time, the acknowledgment of my rape spilled out tentatively, an unplanned amalgam of friends receiving the news through Facebook messenger days after the event, emotional outbursts when I was stateside, and, much less often, almost scripted interventions with pauses where I could nod self-pityingly because, yeah, I did know how terrible my situation is. Said friends, being the sweetest people ever, balked and gasped and hugged me, and I realized I wanted everyone to know what had happened so that hopefully, they could begin to understand why I was suddenly so afraid, so anxious, so forgetful, and so sad.

This, as I was to find out a bit later, is not only a natural inclination but also a necessary part of healing from trauma: a traumatic incident is not simply bad but shatters one’s conception of the way of the world, reality, themselves. It’s an event that is so bad, justifying it requires displacing ingrained assumptions of morality, propriety, at worst, even basic safety. Victims most often engage in self-blame and are subject to perceiving the world through the distorting lens of trauma (for example, seeing men as perpetrators, being sensitive to loud noises for fear of safety). Open discourse and conversation is thereby crucial to assessing the truth about trauma and the victim’s role in it. Telling a story is not solely for catharsis but also for the value of parsing the logic and culpability (or lack thereof) behind a completely senseless event.

Z is for ZImmedar. From “The A-Z of Indian Aunties” by Aarushi Jain.

The Desi Community [and My Imagined Role in It]

But even before I could type out my first confession, I remembered the omniscient eye of the Desi community: aunties, uncles, family, and parents, all-present and all-knowing. Social media, like the markets and temples and pundits of yore, was now another tool for them to figure out what was going on in the lives of their perpetually wee ones. My friends’ parents following me are what keeps my parents in the know-how about how cute my apartment looks these days when they don’t have an Instagram account. It’s how we can ask each other about our lives even when years have passed making even the shortest-conversations as intricate, detailed, and embroidered as the fabulous sari’s I remember them wearing.

What’s weird though, as it was astutely pointed out to me, is that I’m not even someone who would consider herself “in” with the Indian community she grew up with. It’s not like every Indian-American from high school is keeping tabs on my news to go home and report to their parents, because no. I come home, what, like, twice or thrice a year and hardly have the opportunity to run into anyone I know. And barring my times in Austin and my time now in D.C., I have usually had extremely few close Desi friends. What gives me the right to think they have an opinion about me and that it matters?

Enter one of my favorite anthropological/sociological concepts: illusio. Conceived by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, it’s the idea that we, as humans within any given community, are collectively engaged in a social game whose fictional-but-not-fantastical rules we unquestioningly accept for benefits we have learned to expect. (Ex: “All we need is love and each other!” “Are you going to quit your job?” “Uhh…”) It’s like an all-enveloping Pavlovian responsivity, except we’ve all decided it’s a good idea to keep the bell ringing for-literally-ever.

So insofar as I know not to exaggerate my role in the Indian-American community, I do not have any right to comment on my assault’s importance to it, one as multifaceted, cosmopolitan, diverse, and dynamic as any other. Feeling like my story and its worth were not my own was my own doing. The filter I passed my thoughts through of worried, concerned, and, potentially, judgmental community members was one that I myself had created.

That said, I did not make that filter alone.

And I’m not the only one fighting it now.

We all joke about the universal Desi parent obsession with _________ Uncle’s/__________ Aunty’s son/daughter. Yet something about the way even my own family and friends had talked about _________ Uncle’s/__________ Aunty’s son/daughter, their grades, tantrums, talents, bad decisions, as an extension of _________ Uncle/__________ Aunty made me assume the worst for my own sweet parents if someone blamed them for my own horrible situation. Questions that should never have to cross a victim’s mind (“What will people think of my parents having sent their child abroad where this happened to her?”) were the reason I screamed in others’ voices and muffled my own. It still felt like my responsibility to make sure no one thought my parents had neglected theirs.

As an extension of that, my body once again came under scrutiny, as it stereotypically does in Asian communities all over the world. After years of having my weight commented on, years of people from my family to almost strangers at functions telling me that I was the smart one while my sister was the pretty one, my body felt even more unworthy of community approval. Appointments with the laser hair technicians that I commiserated with my girlfriends and cousins about felt more painful and more worthless. My mother perpetually telling me my neckline was too low (“everyone can see everything”) made me self-conscious all the time when I already had so much to worry about let alone cleavage. Watching way Indians and Americans now legislated women’s bodies…can you really blame me for the paranoia that my body now ruined would reflect badly on the people who made it?

What’s more is that there seemed to be no room for the kind of success that a survivor needs to see, namely the success of existing despite all odds while not pursuing the kind of “success” that everyone else would immediately recognize. Whenever my parents’ friends bragged to them, it would be about their son/daughter getting married, having a sweet job at a Fortune 500 company, getting their PhD’s, being doctors or some model minority stereotype like that, and my parents, I’m sure, would be pretty disappointed while I felt upstaged and hopeless. I saw extremely few parents and community members openly proud of a child for going through crazy tough shit (even kinda tough shit, like not knowing what to do with your life and still trudging through) and coming out a normal, well-adjusted-despite-all-odds human being on the other side— on behalf of my generation of Desi/diaspora kids, I wish more of you had been.

Already at the nadir of my vulnerability, at the mercy of the Indian community and my unspoken obligations to it, I realized further the burden of my heritage. No matter how deeply personal my trauma had been, it still fell very much under the cultural/ethical jurisdiction of people who were evaluating my worth by very different standards than what I had originally hoped. Or perhaps, more importantly, my internalization of those standards via a socialization process that equated morality to cultural purity had made me feel less a part of the community than before. There are too many women in India and too many pursuits of “honor” and “right” for me to dispute this as truth. And I hate that.

“Group of Three Girls” by Amrita Sher-Gil

Thus, despite every urge to scream my truth to the world, I hid behind how frighteningly normalized sexual assault is and rode the wave of Internet activism by sharing various articles on rape culture and sexism. Rather than pursuing a justice for myself, I continued to hope that contributing to a justice for all women would help me feel better. During that time, so many violated women shielded my violated body with their stories, a thankless (though I hope one day it is made clear how much we owe them) favor that I continue to not take for granted. Through them and like them, I desperately hoped that even casting our experiences into the vast sea of Internet-ness would lead to someone, anyone, thinking about assault and women and vulnerability a little bit differently.

But Frida Kahlo once famously said “Passion is the bridge that takes you from pain to change.” And if there’s one thing people know I love more than exploring different communities’ cultures, it’s helping communities understand that their cultures need not lock people out. If the wound of my trauma is pulled open again by me sharing my stories (something I am want to do even for the most basic and selfish reasons of self-justification) and it makes ripples in the way Indians — NRI’s, OCI’s, plain old I’s- and, frankly, everyone else discuss how culture dictates personal agency, then that pain feels worth it to me now at this point in my life. Perhaps it is because I am old enough for me to have agency of discussion (seriously! Who knew?) or removed enough from anyone’s judgment to care what they think about me. But there emerged at some point a chink where the need for me to speak subsumed my need to protect my image — it is only my luck that I found it, where so many others maybe cannot.

I am thankful to this end that I am as obnoxiously talkative and outspoken as I am and that my relationship to the Indian community is in so many ways tenuous as it is strong. There are so many who cannot afford to tell their stories for many reasons, but I hope as I hid behind others’ experiences to express myself, someone might find sanctuary in my story and reconcile their and others’ expectations in their own time.

For all that sweet sweet illusio in my life that makes me feel a little distant and a little bold when it comes to talking about the Desi community I grew up with, I am perpetually glad that I have had and now have the privilege of meeting so many warm, loving people just by virtue of us sharing the same place of origin. What seems cliquey to some is a privilege in many diaspora communities: we relate, we share points of reference, make bilingual jokes and sing Bollywood songs. I had to learn what an immensely comforting space that could be after being apart from an Indian community for a long time.

But maybe that growing comfort with talking about my healing and ethnicity also comes from seeing more of us better our communities to nurture individuals and not expectations. So many of us are realizing that we may or may not fit into that perfect flag-bearer narrative (ex. I’m probably not going to have a sweet job at a Fortune 500 company and am more than okay with the fact that it’s clearly just downhill from here). At the end of the day, all of us want to love and be a part of a culture that we are proud of. No matter who we are or what we’ve been through, we want to make sure all of you are proud of us too.

Which is why every time someone I call aunty or uncle likes one of my confessional Facebook posts, I still smile.

Amita Vempati

Written by

Desi-Texan advocate for mental health, traumatized communities, and intersectional/cross-cultural awareness

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