Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Old Man In The Housing Complex

I first heard about the old man in our housing complex from my daughter's 16-year old babysitter. I mean before that I had seen him walking around the complex but didn't really know anything about him till the babysitter spoke to me about him. Now a bit of background - our housing complex is similar to hundreds in Bombay, a group of buildings aggregated together in almost haphazard fashion in a certain area with a common boundary wall. Each building was a different housing society sharing a common area where the kids played every evening. As you'd expect there are many kids in the complex - ranging from a few months old (in their mothers' arms) to preteens playing "lukka chhupi" to teenagers knocking a football or a shuttlecock around.

Coming back to this "uncle" - he was seen every evening walking around the complex a few times carrying his infant grandson in his arms - the very picture of a loving, doting grandfather. After a while, a little tired due to his age and the burden of lifting a young child, he would down on a chair near where the kids play and watch them, an indulgent smile on his face, intermittently talking to his grandson in his arms. Sometimes he would call out to the playing kids and talk to them. Sometimes he would shout encouragement in their sporting endeavours. Sometimes he would ask the girls to come closer him and tickle and play with his cute baby grandson in his lap, as young girls are wont to.

So apparently this old man was very fond of the young girls who play together in the complex. A little too fond, according to the babysitter. He would call them, run fingers through their hair, caress their cheeks, put an arm around them - all pretty innocent gestures, except that the hand would remain in their hair just a tad too long, the pat would last just that little bit longer, the arm around the waist would squeeze that little bit harder, than the girls were comfortable with. Added to that were some inappropriate comments. Once he said to the babysitter when she wore shorts - "Aaj tum bahut sexy dikh rahi ho" ("You are looking very sexy today"). She was so shocked she never wore shorts in the playground again.

The thing was - she never told me this at the time it happened. I learned about this a few months later when I mentioned that I had taken a picture of a cute boy who was being carried around by his grandfather with my camera. Her immediate reaction was - "Bhaiyya woh achha admi nahin hai. Ajeeb hai" ("He is not a nice man. He is weird."). Upon my asking why she recounted the incidents to me. My immediate concern was my daughter, of course and I asked he if he had ever tried to get close to Tee (our nickname for her). He had not, to our relief, either because she was too young, or or because Tee was too indifferent to an old man sitting in a chair to walk up and talk to him. Plus the babysitter had ensured that she never let Tee get close to that man.

My mind was in a whirl. There were other children to consider, not just mine. On the other hand, there was no reason for taking any direct action because he had not done anything illegal. There had been no molestation as such - just an unnamed feeling of discomfort. I reiterated to the babysitter that while the man had not done anything bad yet, it made perfect sense for her to not just keep Tee away from him under ALL circumstances, but ensure all girls in the complex - maids, kids, babysitters, everyone - be careful around him. I was also curious if it was just her overactive imagination that had made her feel that way. However, that she said, Interestingly, that other girls who she played with, had also experienced the same sense of ickiness when near this man. And best and most gratifyingly, they had actually discussed it among themselves and decided to collectively, to politely boycott the man! Either education and knowledge of good and bad touch, or an innate sense of self preservation had made these kids take preventive action on their own!   

That's exactly what happened, and old man soon realized that not a single kid seemed to be interested in talking to him any more. In fact many would just move away from the immediate area when he arrived. Nowadays he stays within himself, still walks his toddler grandson around and does not seem to be trying to befriend other children.

Sometimes I wonder - was I overreacting? Was the babysitter lying or overreacting? Were the kids overly imaginative? The answer to all these questions is - Yes, maybe. But how does one know? And how can one take the chance? In the absence of any obvious illegal act, there was nothing official we could do. But it would be equally irresponsible and stupid to ignore or brush aside the feeling that teenage girls get when they are "creeped out". All in all, I thought we reached a satisfactory solution. But still when I see him in the complex now, I shudder involuntarily. Every time.

Only one thought bothers me. All indications were that the old man seemingly wanted to be close to girls. But what would I have done if it were boys instead, given he had a grandson he was with all the time? And what if his next grandchild is a girl?

Note: This post is in support of the Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Month - April (CSAAM), and is cross posted on the CSAAM blog here.

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