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The Indian Quarterly – A Literary & Cultural Magazine – The Monster in the Bed

The Monster in the Bed

By Shreevatsa Nevatia 1

Childhood can be a time of cosy confidences—or experiences so devastatingly adult a child can never share them. Shreevatsa Nevatia on the trauma of childish secrets

I was 13 when I discovered Chatropolis. Since internet connectivity was unreliable then, I began paying more attention to my dial-up modem. My anxiety would rise with the tempo of its beeps and whistles. But I couldn’t leave my room locked for long. The laundry would invariably need taking out, or my sister would again be curious about my whereabouts. I’d have an hour if I was lucky. The trouble with Chatropolis, however, was that it needed time. Its adult chat rooms were all categorised on the basis of fetishes or sexual preference. To get something going, you had to loiter, and I was always in a hurry.

       Pretending to be a dapper doctor in ‘The Hospital’, I forgot my teenage plumpness. In the rooms of Chatropolis, no one asked about your everyday life. You were the pornographic cliché you wanted to be. For the first month, the conversations I had didn’t really go anywhere. I felt out of place in the ‘Nudist Colony’, and I could never muster the authority that other men seemed to have in ‘Office Seduction’. The sex ratio, I saw, was also skewed. For every five men, there was one woman here. Years later, I would tell myself that my decision to pick a female avatar was first influenced by statistics.

       Chatropolis gave you the option of replacing your screen name with a picture you had stolen from the internet. The avatars it would then generate for you were almost always sultry. No one assumed you were the nubile temptress you pretended to be, but these visual signatures gave your identity a contour or two. More importantly, they gave your personality an aura. After having decided to call myself ‘The Indian Courtesan’, I picked for my virtual self the image of a starlet wearing a bra and shorts. The odds of online chat roulette were suddenly in my favour. I had more than a dozen requests.

       I was unsure what this transgression meant, but I knew I couldn’t boast about my Chatropolis discovery. I couldn’t tell any of my friends at school that I was spending my time between math and chemistry tuitions claiming to be Meghna, a young housewife who was usually bored and home alone. After some time, I also began to feel a strange discomfort. The men who were lining up for Meghna’s attention were often unimaginative. I wasn’t aroused by them. I was aroused by Meghna. She knew what she wanted, and she knew how to articulate that want. She was sexy and, perhaps, too sufficient.

       I grew bored of straight encounters that failed to acknowledge female desire. My entry into the ‘Ladies Only Lounge’ would have felt like a natural progression had I not been so scared. Masquerading as a woman in rooms monopolised by men had seemed easy. As long as you paid attention to the self you were parading, chances of a careless revelation were slim. Surrounded by women, however, you were only a very small step away from humiliation. They knew how to weed out imposters from their midst.

The Visitor 1994 By Otto Rapp

The Visitor 1994
By Otto Rapp

              No one was queuing up to speak to me in the Lounge. I had to initiate conversations myself. I was tentative at first. I had seen other poseurs being publicly outed, and I felt I would never be able to stomach that ignominy. I began to mimic the few women I knew, but my real female signifiers were borrowed from those I met on Chatropolis. When describing myself to others, I began saying I had a cheetah tattooed on the small of my back. If someone asked me how I was, I’d say I was trying hard to distract myself from a particularly painful bout of menstrual cramps. I was 14, and I had a rounded alter ego. Meghna wasn’t too popular in the Lounge, but she knew how to find those available opportunities for pleasure.

       My grades began to dip in Class VIII. Half-asleep in school, waiting for the last bell to ring, I would devise strategies to make Meghna more believable. At home, I’d desperately wait for my family to fall asleep. In the dim glow of my reading lamp, I would spend at least a couple of hours every night trying to find someone who liked their roleplays to be detailed. In the vocabulary of Chatropolis, the word ‘roleplaying’ was used to describe a process by which two users imagined themselves to be characters—neighbours, boss/secretary, patient/nurse—in a story they scripted together. Given the time and investment they required, roleplays were not the preferred choice for most people. But I had begun to find cybersex mechanical and stilted. Besides, even at 14, I fancied myself as a bit of a writer.

       I worked hard at roleplaying. In these fictions, Meghna trained to be a masseuse and a delivery girl. She was a demure seductress who earned notoriety as a tease. I rarely had the time to offer graphic, lurid detail. Around six months after I had started hanging out in the Ladies Only Lounge, I met Luscious Latina (LL). Her avatar showed she had good taste in lingerie. Her sentences, I remember, were structured, and my imagination, by then, was vivid. On our first day, she played my superior in an office. I had told her I was 21. She told me she was 32. Our responses to each other were long and felt.

       She and I started meeting regularly after that. We’d bend our everyday schedules to keep our online appointments. LL knew everything there was to know about Meghna. Sometimes I’d think she had invented her, not me. One day, a few weeks into knowing each other, LL called me to the copy room. While kissing me against the photocopier, she slipped a ring onto my finger. “You’re mine. I want this to be our little secret,” she said. In my secret life, I had chosen to be Meghna. In Meghna’s secret life, she had married another woman. I was too young to understand these layers, let alone explain them.

       LL, it turned out, was married. Before she had known me, she said she’d never been sure if she was bisexual. Our online affair, she said, was “cheating without the cheating”. I had slyly suggested that we limit our relationship to the internet. “The phone and things would just take this too far,” I had lied. I knew how to cover my tracks, and LL, in retrospect, seemed naive. I’d sometimes be terrified by our intimacy. The closer we got, the more duplicitous and transparent I felt. My board examinations finally interrupted our togetherness. My mother was suddenly more vigilant about me and my night-time internet activity. I told LL my new job was making me keep long hours. She understood. A week later, she had moved on. Fidelity, I knew even then, was a strange expectation to have on Chatropolis.

My sexual initiation happened a few years before Chatropolis. An 18-year-old cousin had invited me to share his blanket when I was eight. His imagination too was pornographic. Fondling my body, taking my hands between his legs, he made me imitate the actions of Debonairand Playboymodels. Replicating adult sex with a boy must have been a challenge, but Satyah* groomed my fingers with an eager tenderness. In the four years I was abused, my cousin reduced me to his fantasy of a perfect woman, pliant and sexually submissive. My body too was supple enough for him to mould in his mind.

       Satyah had taught me you only share secrets with people you trust. He was showing me his dirty magazines and films because he knew I would not tell on him. I loved him too much for that. He, in turn, would not tell our relatives my secret—that behind closed doors, I was his lover, not his brother. As time went on, he began sharing his perverse (mostly incestuous) fantasies with me. I’d be repelled by his narrations, but I’d then be excited when I’d hear him lower his tone and say, “I can tell only you these things. You know what will happen if you tell someone, no? I will tell everyone you are a sissy.”

       Secrets do no one any good. It took me much of my life to arrive at this realisation. Month after month, Satyah would reveal to me intimacies I sometimes enjoyed but could never comprehend. He would intimidate me when I met him with family, but each time he’d lock the door, leaving just the two of us inside the room, he would make up for all that torment with tactility. His desire almost always came as a relief. Both the fear I felt in public and the pleasure I felt privately helped keep me in my place. I would not tell anyone of my pain because I was certain that, in this affair, I was the sinner.

       Even though I did not have the luxury of confession, I started spending my mornings in the school chapel. I’d kneel down in the pews, begging Jesus for his forgiveness. I took to saying silent prayers of repentance each time I’d see a roadside idol. Surrounded by pictures of deities in a fairly religious household, I felt constantly pinned down by divine judgment. Years later, when I’d go manic, my bipolarity having convinced me I was God, I’d punish as much as I’d preach. I believed God was unkind.

       My guilt left me breathless. I confided in my father’s guru, a portly and compassionate householder. “I’m doing something very wrong, and I don’t think there can be any forgiveness for it,” I told him. He wanted me to elaborate, but I stubbornly held on to my secret. Children, he told me, were sometimes exempt from the strict rules of karma. I was again deliberately vague with a friend from school. He found me odd and, eventually, he stopped calling. Loneliness, I realised, was better than ostracisation.

       The ordeal of abuse ended with my puberty. At 12, Satyah could no longer ignore I was a boy, and even though he was just 23, he was ready to get married. I couldn’t help feeling dropped. I had an adolescence to enjoy, but I found teenage interactions hard work. Never being able to take their affection for granted, I would pander to my teachers and classmates. Even the slightest annoyance on their part would send me into a tailspin of regret and reproach. Chatropolis, though, afforded comfort.

       Satyah had spent years imagining I was an adult woman. He had not just included me in his fantasy, he had made me internalise it. Together, we had created a character whose only purpose was to bring him pleasure. On Chatropolis, I first gave this character a name, and later, I was able to give her more agency. Meghna could choose who she’d like to chat with and, more importantly, she knew when it was time to disconnect. She shaped her own gratification, and some of her partners made her realise sexual relationships did not always hinge on hierarchy. Strangely, she was happy even when I was not.

       Secrets are often only precious when their consequences are dramatic. Terrified of punishment and discontinuity, children, as a result, are often very good at keeping them. Years later, I asked myself why no one ever stopped or confronted Satyah. I always failed to see the obvious answer. It was me who had held on to a secret a little too tightly. I didn’t tell anyone about Satyah because he had convinced me that sexual favours were the true expression of love. Chatropolis helped perpetuate this myth. Meghna was delightful and feisty, yes, but that didn’t help my confusion. Though my experience of adulthood was premature, I realise it is my childhood I find myself still atoning for today.

My childhood complicated my understanding of sexuality. Discovering I was heterosexual was a surprise. I had grown up telling myself “Satyah made me gay.” The desire I felt for women came coupled with empathy. I would never know what it was to bethem, but I felt I knew what it was to be likethem. Usually, a few days into a relationship, I’d confess my abuse to my partner. Each time, I’d hope for solace. I didn’t want to be rejected. I wanted to be free of all my demons: Satyah and Meghna.

       My Freudian psychoanalyst had taught me that childhood trauma isn’t something one stops negotiating suddenly. Its effects are inimical and, even if you might have put the experience behind you, you have to stay mindful of its possible ramifications in the future. Having been diagnosed bipolar in 2007, I have suffered mania half a dozen times. On each of these occasions, I have returned to my abuse in an effort to appear wronged. This disclosure has lost the dignity of a hush. I feel I use it to simply browbeat family and friends. I shout with a primal rage because my manic mind starts to resemble a child’s. The world is a sum of rights and wrongs, blacks and whites. There is only self. There’s no room for an other.

       Secrets, in my experience, are deceptive. When shared, they build an affinity. More than Satyah, I had felt seduced by our relationship’s secrecy. I had come to know things I shouldn’t. I had been included in a pact. Being trusted with adult confidences at eight felt like a triumph. It didn’t take long for me to feel implicated by the very secret I’d treasured. From feeling naughty, I soon began feeling hideous. Satyah, I remember, was once standing against his car, laughing with a friend. Looking at them from afar, I felt convinced they were talking about me. Later that night, I asked him, “Do you talk to your friends about me?” He smiled. “Yes, I tell them what a good boy you’ve been.” I shuddered. I wasbeing talked about.

       You feel lonely when you have a secret and no one to say it to. As a ten-year-old, I’d shut my eyes and hope that by the time I opened them, the world would have disappeared. I wanted to be absolutely alone. Four years later, hunched in front of a desktop night after night, I felt my wish had somehow been granted. The only world that existed for me was one that I was carefully creating. Initially, it was hard to separate my desire from Satyah’s. I was still sitting behind a locked door, doing something I shouldn’t have been doing. In time, however, I stopped whipping myself and my nights felt less illicit.

       Hindsight often deludes us into thinking that history should have told us a different story. While writing my memoir last year, How to Travel Light, I regretted my past. I yearned for control over it. I bawled before I started writing about Satyah, but was then confounded that some recollections were leaving me aroused. My therapist said to me our bodies and minds weren’t good at keeping secrets: “We repress our memories, until we stir that pot. That’s what you’re doing.” I imagined writing was purging me of my pain. My trauma, I felt, would fast lose its teeth. Six months after my book was published, I was manic again. As if talking about my abuse for the first time, I again ranted about its injustice. Some secrets, I learnt, have a habit of renewing themselves.

       I’m sure now that writing about my childhood trauma doesn’t help dull its violence, but disclosing my secrets almost always makes the forbidden less alien. It gives illegitimate desires a legitimate vocabulary. Rather than talk about sexual pleasure and pain, we are usually quick to sweep it under the blanket. Mine is dark, damp and stuffy. Also, it is stubborn. It still won’t make the world disappear.

 *name changed

This essay was published in the Oct-Dec 2018 issue. The theme of the issue is “Secrets”.

One Comment

  1. Otto Rapp October 17, 2018 at 7:31 pm - Reply

    Great story, and I am happy you chose my painting for an illustration of it. It has to do with repressed childhood memories. It is a self portrait as a child and as a man.

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