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Voicing Silence 6

(To get a background on this series, I suggest you start with the first post here and then scroll up)

One of my favourite speeches is this one that Neil Gaiman gives as the commencement address at an arts college in the US. In it he urges the students that whatever misery may befall them, to turn it into art. Use it as fuel to power their creative engine. I had decided that the best way to articulate my story was to make an animated short video of it and my friend Lucy was ideally placed to realise it. That said, how do I communicate the Madras of 1980s to someone who has never been to India?

I recorded a narrative and gave the audio to Lucy and she came up with her own set of question. Where did you sleep when you were young? Did you have beds? Did you change out of your day clothes to go to sleep? Did the rooms have windows? Did you grow up eating jam? What common insects would you find around the house? Would you sing or dance? Did you use ceramic mugs and cups? What did you wear on your feet when you went out? What sort of taps did you have in your house? Did you celebrate Christmas? Did it mean anything to you?

I started crowdsource responses including some from my school Watsapp group who were highly bemused with my request of photos of their kitchen sinks and utensils. My father sent me a whole bunch of photos from my childhood which prompted a blog post too. I sent links to Louis Malle's L'Inde Fantome which had significant portions shot in Madras but a couple of decades early. I sent links to some of my favourite Ilayaraja songs from that period and also some Carnatic music tracks which I grew up singing and listening to.

Lucy would get back to me every now and then with a line drawing or colour scheme that she was trying out and I would respond enthusiastically to it. I had left the artistic vision and the direction of the story entirely to her, secure in the knowledge that she would do it justice. She had watched the animated story of Malala and came back to the project refreshed.

Lucy wanted to bring in a sound designer and a musician that she had worked with earlier on board and as ever, I nodded eagerly. I also knew that she was juggling so many other projects and that the creative process some times takes as long as it does, so didn't want to push her too much with deadlines and demands.

Mangai introducing the Voicing Silence
troupe to gathered street theatre audience*
Me performing as part of
Voicing Silence*
I had decided to call it Voicing Silence, shamelessly plagiarising the title from a project about female infanticide and foeticide in Tamilnadu from the mid-90s that I had been a part of. It was also a lazy hat tip to A Mangai (aka Padma Arasu), whose ideas and work on feminism and theatre and gender and language I admired tremendously.

By the time Lucy shared with me the final version of Voicing Silence, I had watched the drafts so many times I couldn't react to it with fresh eyes but I knew it would be a conversation starter. Lucy had shared it with those in her circle and that prompted many to voice their own trauma which had not been spoken of for decades. But not everyone was as willing to react. It was difficult to accept that my own admission could startle and shock people that they would rather not say anything. Some people I sent the video to didn't reply and that is something I had to learn to accept.

Close friends responded with kindness and compassion. One of them called up and spoke exclusively about the film and  didn't say anything about the incident that had triggered it. She later wrote about how angry and how sorry she was that I had to go through what I had. She said that she found it easier to write because she would not have been able to say it to my face.

Lucy began sending it out to various festivals and we decided to give it year in the circuit before publishing it on the web. So tomorrow, with great joy and pride I give you Voicing Silence.

* images are screen grabs from A Mangai - a documentary (link here)

(This is a series of every day posts which will culminate in publishing an animated short film Voicing Silence that I commissioned and helped create documenting the sexual assault that happened to me as a 10 year old).

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Voicing Silence 1

There is no nice way of saying this so I will say it as brutally and as unvarnished as it needs to be said. I was sexually assaulted when I was ten and a half years old. While I recall the precise details of what happened that night, much of what happened in the immediate aftermath, I have little memory of. In the days and months that followed, I became increasingly angry. I would smash things, kick people, yell, scream and throw a tantrum at the drop of a hat. I was labelled difficult and called names. Rakshasi was a regular epithet and it clung to me like an dirty scent.

There were so many incidents of rage from those years and most involved destruction of some sort. I once lost a card game and went about meticulously ripping up an entire pack of cards much to the amusement of the gathered extended family. There was some other minor provocation which ended in a lovely red dress which was a gift from abroad being shredded to pieces, again to a mute audience

Word got around that I wa…

Voicing Silence 7

(To get a background on this series, I suggest you start with the first post here and then scroll up)

Headphones recommended




(Click on image for link or click here)
Written and narrated by  Abhi Arumbakkam
Animation and edit  Lucy Lee
Sound Louise Brown
Music Nefeli Stammatogianopoulu & Stelios Koupetoris



Sivaji, Jayalaitha And Us

I first noticed it when Sivaji Ganesan passed away. As someone born in the 70s, much of my growing years was marked by the rituals of Sunday evening Tamizh cinema and Friday night Oliyum Oliyum. And Sivaji Ganesan was a permanent fixture in them. Anyone who was melodramatic was a 'Sivaji' and rhymes like 'Sivaji vayile jilebi' were very much part of our book of nonsense rhymes.

So much so, I remember being fourteen and being part of the school drama team enacting a popular scene from Sivaji's Thiruvilayadal. It was a plum role that we all vied to play. Sivaji played Lord Shiva in the movie and in our minds, he might as well have been immortal. So years later, when news broke that he had died, I was in utter shock. Heck, I was not even a fan. Apart from Motor Sundaram Pillai and more recently, Thevar Magan, in every one of his movies, I felt Sivaji had outacted the entire cast. As if to tell the producers, you've paid me a lot, so let me give you your money'…

Tide - 17

Part - 17 “Are you waiting for me, Kamakshi?”, asked Padmaja a little breathless from climbing the stair case. She had never been particularly slim. But lately, she had noticed a tightening of her blouses, particularly around her upper arm that she taken to using the stairs over the lift.
“Hmm? Everything okay? Why do you want me to keep quiet? What is the matter, Kamakshi?”, Padmaja reeled off questions with mounting alarm.
“It's nothing”, hissed Kamakshi between gritted teeth guiding her neighbour by the arm away from her own door. “Come in to my house. I need to tell you something, Padmaja”.
And once inside, Kamakshi's behaviour was even more erratic. She said something about a letter and answering and now meeting someone and the man waiting for her at home.
“Where?”, demanded Padmaja.
Kamakshi silently pointed her finger at her neighhour.
“Where? In my house?”
Kamakshi nodded.
“Have you gone mad, Kamakshi? I gave you the keys in case you don't see me for days a…

What Would You Do?

This afternoon, I went to our local leisure centre to use their steam room and sauna. I had an hour to kill before it was time to collect my son and the leisure centre is across the road and I couldn't think of a better way to spend a tenner and so I went. No sooner had I settled into a corner of the steam room than I heard a voice ask me, 'are you from India?'. Yes, I nodded before it struck me that if I couldn't see the person clearly neither could he. Yes, I said. To this he (by now I could make out a dim outline of a man) volunteered in a very heavy accent 'My country Bangladesh' and then went on to ask me if I lived locally and if I was living with my family (yes and yes, I answered) and told me that he worked in a local Indian restaurant as a chef and that I should visit them if I hadn't already.

Having exhausted his arsenal of polite questions to ask a rank stranger, he fell silent. Shortly, I left the steam room to take a shower before dipping into…

Tide - 7

Part 7

Dear Mrs,
With regards to your advertisement in last Sunday's Hindu. My name is Mr.S.G.Santhanam. I am 65 years old. I retired in 2007 after 40 years of service in the Indian Railways. My daughter and my son are both married and settled abroad. I am in good health except for slightly high blood pressure. Last year I have undergone an operation for a growth in my retina and now my eyesight is better than it has ever been. I follow a strict vegetarian diet (no oinions no garlic) and I have managed to bring down my cholestrol levels also. Recently I have suffered from pain in my hips and my doctor has adviced me to go for a hip replacement operation which I am due to have some time in the next month. So if you reply to my letter, I can arrange to meet you before I check in to the hospital as I will have to be in bed rest for 6 weeks after my operation. I have also attached a photo of myself with this letter. This was taken before I had my new set of teeth.
Your's sincere…

Voicing Silence 4

(To get a background to this series of posts, I suggest you read the first one here, the second one here and the third one here)

Some years ago, my mother mentioned to me that she had attended my sexual assaulter's Sashtiabdapoorthy and I was appalled. This filthy beast was a pillar of the society and had had the temerity to invite my parents to its (no human pronoun for it) birthday celebration. Suffice to say I was apoplectic.

It was also around this time that the whole sordid episode of Jimmy Savile came to light and I had a thought. I began to wonder if I could take my abuser to court on historic sex abuse charges.

For days I fantasised about dragging the filthy piece of shit to court and have it look me in the eye as I would recall in graphic detail what it had done to me. Then, I would watch with glee as it lost its house, its job, its status in the society and delight in the gradual unravelling of its life.

I would have my perfect revenge. I would be able to show it that i…

Voicing Silence 3

(To get a background to this series of posts, I suggest you read the first one here and the second one here.)

In the intervening years since my assault, the whispers grew ubiquitous. Hushed conversations from scarred friends who all talked in coded language about what had happened to them. I should have stopped becoming angry but I just couldn't. Instead I channeled all my rage into the blows I rained on the random stranger who once groped me as I was walking past him one evening when I was in my early twenties. The nonchalance with which another pervert thought he could get away with pinching my breasts made me chase after him faster. But I could rarely sustain the rage which would blaze fiercely and frequently but never long enough for anything positive to emerge. There were no planned course of action to follow through, it was largely fire fighting on a daily basis.

And then something happened a decade ago which reminded me of what triggered my anger all those years ago. I won…

Voicing Silence 2

(To get a background to this series of posts, I suggest you read the first one here)

I realised, almost instinctively that what had happened to me was not a one-off. A casual conversation with a cousin revealed that she too had been touched by the same person. She didn't give me details but all she said was, "that one, him, you know...he's a devil" and gave me an almost imperceptible nod. A secret code that meant that she knew about what had happened to me too. It was our shared language of shame, wrapped in silence and consigned to the deep recess of our minds.

Every now and then the incident would get an airing but I would almost dismiss it by making light of it. During joint studies with classmates from the 11th and 12th standard, two of them talked about the improper touching that had happened to them as children with an almost casual aloofness that I added my incident (for it was now entombed and labelled as Exhibit A in my mind) to the mix. Being abused was so…

Voicing Silence 5

(To get a background to this series of posts, I suggest you read the first one here, the second one here, the third one here and the fourth here)

For years I had been wondering how to articulate my trauma. And then, a little while after I'd moved to the UK, I'd done courses in documentary film-making and had started telling factual stories. Could there be a possibility there? What purpose would retelling a personal story in all its gory detail serve? And is this what I wanted?

In 2013 I watched Yael Farber's Nirbhaya in Edinburgh to an auditorium full of sobbing men and women. I found its portrayal in all its attendant specifics and bit too real. Even the actors playing it had each suffered horrific abuse and it was their own story that was being told. It was discomfiting and I knew I didn't want to go down that route.

A year or so later, I met with Leslie Udwin, director of the documentary India's Daughter, the day
after it had been banned in India. Leslie was de…