Let’s Talk About It: Fathers, daughters and the R-word

Murder is kosher. War needs no introduction. Even school shootings make the cut at the dinner table. But rape? No. Never. We never talk about it.

My daughter, nearly five, can read. She reads fairy-tales aloud, she reads shop-signs from a moving car (we’ve successfully deflected her attention from the ‘Piles and Fistula’ clinics in the proletarian parts of town), she spots hilarious if confounding legends on the backs of auto-rickshaws (yes, we’ve had engrossing family debates over ‘Mother is god, lover is danger’) and she catches typos in the fliers that the paperboy gets paid for tucking into our breakfast reading.

When she’s really bored, she reads the newspapers.

At home we get two dailies, three on weekends. Since December 17, the headlines have consistently screamed a certain four-letter word in our faces. It has latched onto our consciences and eaten into the comfortable fabric of our lives. Despite such bombardment, we cannot escape being startled to violent, impotent rage every time it is uttered. The images it evokes are unbearably terrifying, even dooming. Yet, as we attempt to shrug away the deluge of horror stories now pouring out of the prisons where they have long been locked away, we hear and read that this – this thing – is more commonplace than we imagined. That it could be only a single frightening degree of separation from our sheltered lives.

It is rape we’re not talking about. Although we have all read enough to be informed that we must talk about it. But when we nod our heads in agreement in a social situation we’re talking detachedly about the lives of others – people we don’t know, over whose pains we shall never lose sleep.

And the headlines they continue to scream, telling of shocking tragedies that we pray we won’t ever have the misfortune to endure. If we’re careful, we whisper soothingly to ourselves, if we’re careful.

It’s only a matter of time before my daughter, who has learned to argue with conviction about her “fundamental rights”, asks me what rape means. We’ve discussed everything from butterfly migration (“Where are the blue butterflies we saw last year?”) to retail supply chains (“Where do the toys in toy stores come from?”), all in answer to direct, sharply framed questions from which there is no weaseling out. To her, I’m the fount of encyclopedic wisdom, the Jedi master who unlocks the mysteries of the Force. I can’t afford to let her down. Or she might go and find out from somewhere – or someone – else.

When I’m not Superdad, I’m a cog in a media machine where news is chosen not for its salience but for its propensity to turn casual, accidental readers like you into patrons who will come back for more. We media-types place rape high among our priorities, right up there next to the Bollywood starlet’s wardrobe malfunction and anything cricket. It’s a hot-ticket item with great stamina and shelf-life, what with all the moralistic chest-thumping and TV debates and candle-light marches and water-cannon-baiting protestors. Oh yeah, we devote a lot of space to rape.

But we don’t talk about it. Not at home.

Murder is kosher. War needs no introduction. Even school shootings make the cut at the dinner table. But rape? No. Never.

And not just because we fear or loathe it, but because somewhere in our heads we confuse it with carnal knowledge – an unwelcome, premature, irreversible initiation to life’s embarrassing truths.

Talking about rape isn’t like clearing your throat, putting on a poker-face, and delivering a preamble on birds and bees and dogs and cats. Though it begins there. Sort of.

Unlike consensual sex, which a person has a right to experience upon attaining legal age for it, rape is an act of violence where the perpetrator does not always care if his victim has attained sexual maturity. Minors, toddlers, even babies – of all genders – are raped more frequently than we want to know, most often by people known to them. People they trusted.

There’s the rub. So, whom can you trust?

My wife, for reasons she can justify, distrusts men in general. In her book, no one is a saint. Everyone – no exceptions here – starts at a zero-trust level and then works their way up, if at all. It’s an approach that is effort-intensive and stressful; it requires her to keep a sharp, paranoid eye on our little girl at all times. Often, when she deputes me to stand in, I can tell she’s not entirely confident of my level of alertness to danger. I’m comfortable with that for the most part, but there’s one thing of which I’m watchful: I don’t want our daughter growing up fearing the world she must at some point confront on her own.

We both want her to understand danger, to be able to read the warning signs, and to act appropriately to save her skin. We want her to be able to cope positively in adversity. We want her to be confident about her body, not resentful of it. We want her to feel proud of her femininity, not threatened or vulnerable on account of it.

There’s no easy way. We started the conversation with an iPad app for kids that confirmed her suspicions that male and female bodies are indeed different and work differently. While bathing her and dressing her, we encourage her to talk about her body without shyness or reserve. We tell her about parts of her body that are “private”, which only she and her caregivers can examine or touch, and in what circumstances it is all right for them to do so. We tell her about “good touch” and “bad touch” – and debate endlessly over the social mechanics of it. We drill her on how to respond and react if she thinks a touch is “bad” and how, and whom, to call for help. From time to time, when we get lost, we turn to The Yellow Book: A Parent’s Guide to Sexuality Education and other online resources.

None of this, we know, is going to erase rape from the world, or keep the headlines from screaming. At least not until fundamental systemic changes take effect in our society. Meanwhile, the questions, when they come, will fly at us thick and fast. I try to wrap my head around the answers I will give. I try to frame them mentally so that they sound neither unconvincing nor terrifying. Both are undesirable outcomes – the last thing we want is to have her believe that sexual abuse or rape isn’t serious enough to be talked about, or develop a fear of it so overblown and irrational that it cripples her for life.

I have but one chance to get this right.

Looking up from a book she is reading, my daughter smiles. Maybe she can read my mind.


Bijoy Venugopal is Editor, Travel. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook