Over the years, it has become harder and harder to write about Katuwal.
I have thought of writing about him repeatedly in the last 17 years. Even though the incident occurred so long ago, it has been stuck inside me all this time—the way you feel when you swallow something you do not like the taste of and the distaste clings to your throat long after.
I am about to re-tell you something I had told a local newspaper some 17 years ago.
It was October. It was nearly time for Dasain-Tihar break. Before we closed, the students hung out in empty classes. We talked about bhogatey. I said grapefruits were important items for Kija puja and Mhaa puja.
Katuwal, who had just finished his lecture, had lingered for a while, listening to our conversation, smiled and left after wishing us all a happy Dasain.
In this all-girls’ institution at the heart of Kathmandu, teachers would sometimes hang out with students in the canteen and drink tea. They would exchange numbers in case students had questions and conduct open-air lectures on the lawn or in the canteen, and sometimes at the teacher’s home. Teachers were our deities.
It was just ahead of Tihar when I received a call from Katuwal, saying he had some bhogatey for me and that I should come with a big bag to Bhatbhateni. In those days, Bhatbhateni was a place known for its temple and not a department store.
I asked my mother if I should go collect the fruits. She gave me big sling bag to put the fruits in. This was a time when I still had not learned to ‘dress like a girl’. I would always wear jeans, t-shirts, sneakers and wore my hair really short. Some friends called me ‘tom boy’, an expression which I now consider a slur.
As instructed, I waited outside the temple. Katuwal showed up and said I should follow him to his house to collect the fruits. Some five minutes’ walk from the temple and we were in a yard with some trees and a house. I followed him up the staircase into a room with pale yellow walls, with a small bed by the window. There was a stack of books in one corner. He offered me black tea with sugar. I still had not seen the grapefruits yet. I sat on a chair near the door.
When I was done drinking my tea, I started getting fidgety. I wanted to ask him where the bhotageys were. But he was sitting on his bed reading a weekly Nepali magazine. He asked me if I liked photography. I said I liked photos. He motioned me to go over and look at what he was reading. I knelt down on the floor, looking at the photos. There were old photos of Kathmandu. But their preciseness blurs from my memory because he leaned down and put his mouth on mine as I looked at them. “Ke garnu bhako!” I shouted, pushing him away, my palms applying force on his chest. What was he doing!
I stood by the chair for a few seconds, fuming. Risako? He asked me. As though anger was not the response he had hoped to elicit. I said nothing. I picked my back and left, walking all the way home. The only thing I can recall from that walk were my ears–they felt like they were on fire.
My mother asked me what had happened to the fruits. I lied. I told her I could not find his house.
I did not know what I should have done after that. If I reported him to the Principal, they would also ask me why I had gone to his place to begin with. It occurred to me that I could write about it.
So, I wrote about it. As honestly as I could. Then I called up a reporter I had met at some poetry reading event and asked her if their newspaper would publish my experience. I also briefly told her what had happened.
I remember my voice breaking as I confided in her. She was the first person I was talking to it about. This was in the time of landlines and I had to lock myself up in my parents’ room to call her up.
The day my piece was published, however, I felt like my humiliation had been taken to a different level. An illustration, showing a man in a Nepali cap seated on the floor wearing a smirk, poking his girl student with a pen, had been used.
The size of the illustration was generous, and so was the degree of humiliation it inflicted on me. It mocked my experience, because it made it look like a joke, completely eclipsing the gravity of my experience.
I suppose, when people picture harassment or assault, they imagine serious crime scenes and not subtle events leading up to them. I suppose the mention of bhogatey made my experience sound like a joke. What kind of an idiot goes to her teacher to up grapefruit? Perhaps my experience had become just an article that filled the columns on a weekend supplement.
When classes resumed, some students who had read the article said: nice story. They thought it was a fabricated tale. For me, the rest of the year was woven tightly around bunking Katuwal’s classes. Fortunately for me (or so I thought then) Katuwal received a scholarship and soon left for the US.
My rage and discomfort spilled over to the newspaper reporter. I complained about how insensitively the publication had been handled. I told her the illustration had made fun of my experience instead of raising an issue. I asked if there would be a corrigendum. She said it did not qualify for one, and that it was the cartoonist I should talk to. I let it go.
I hated myself for sending the article for publication. I hated myself for writing it. And I hated myself for showing up greedily for bhogatey. I felt stupid and decided it was my fault. I had gone there on my own two feet and had knelt by the bed and then gave Katuwal a chance to stick his mouth on mine. It filled me with self-loathing and I wanted to scrape the feeling off of me.
It took me years to realise it was not my fault.
I’ve tried to write about Katuwal many times. I try to rewrite my experience to undo the self-flagellation I put myself through. And in all of those rewrites, my humiliation stares back at me in the form of the cartoon in the newspaper.
I cannot rewrite it enough to undo the sickening feeling of Katuwal’s mouth on mine. But neither the chill I felt when I opened the newspaper, and the cartoon hit my face.
Vagina Conversations, Pratibha Tuladhar
Educating your sons will protect your daughters, Anjana Rajbhandary