The following account contains descriptions of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
In December 2017, a friend invited Ishank Chibber to join a support group for adult survivors of child sexual abuse. The support group — Bola — was meeting in Pune, and Ishank committed to joining. Even before having met the others, the invitation to the group itself offered his grief a sense of belonging. Despite Ishank’s apprehensions about being vulnerable in the presence of strangers, he knew that interacting with other survivors would mean not being alone in having lived through such painful experiences.
Started in 2017 by development consultant Foram Mehta, Bola claims to be the first official support group in the country that is directly and exclusively working with adult survivors of child sexual abuse.
Mehta — herself a survivor of child sexual abuse — told me in an interview that it took her 14 years to fully own her experience and speak about it. She witnessed a curious dichotomy: Nearly everyone she shared her experiences with ended up confiding their own stories of abuse. At the same time, she hadn’t found any dedicated support space for adult survivors of CSA.
Along with a few other friends who were also survivors, Mehta formed the support circle with the simple idea of creating a culture of empathetic sharing and listening. They named the group ‘Bola’ — Marathi for “speak”.
On a Sunday afternoon in January 2017, Ishank joined five other people in an under-used and under-furnished library in the backyard of St. Patrick’s Church, on Pune’s Empress Garden Road. It was among Bola’s first few meetings.
Mehta, the workshop’s lead facilitator, welcomed everyone into the cramped space. She knew these meetings had to not only be worth two hours of a Sunday afternoon for participants, but also compensate them for the decades of being silenced. She knew that radical vulnerability was going to be hard to achieve in a group of strangers, but it was the only way forward.
“Your consent and willingness are the key factors driving what, how much, and when you want to share your experiences,” she told the people who had gathered for that first meeting, reassuring everyone on how much consent mattered in creating a safe-space anywhere.
Ishank instantly fell in love with the energy of the group, from the inclusive language, the tone devoid of condescension or pity, the conversations that didn’t tiptoe past anyone’s emotional boundaries or challenge anyone’s dignity. Sitting calmly amid people between the ages of 18 and 40, Ishank was finally hearing things he’d wanted to reassure himself of over the past two years.
He was convinced that being part of Bola would mean being supported, and an end to his isolation. That was enough to make him attend sessions every Sunday afternoon.
The first glimpse of recovery for the participants happened when RAHI, among the leading Indian organisations working in the domain of fighting child sexual abuse, conducted a healing workshop with Bola. The first day of the workshop left everyone feeling so vulnerable, it was as if they had been physically wounded, Mehta recalled.
“Everyone was sobbing. We experienced extreme back pain. It was just painful and extremely unpleasant. Everyone decided not to come back after the first day — but showed up for the next session anyway. That’s where we bonded with each other very strongly,” she says.
By the end of the workshop, everyone had experienced what a concrete step towards building a stronger relationship with themselves and those around them, could look like. It was a breakthrough to realise that what the group was experiencing were symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other forms of trauma — and not solely clinical depression. The focus of Bola and its members then shifted from sharing to trauma recovery.
At this point, Mehta decided to follow a rigorous, systematic process for trauma-recovery for the group members; due to the lack of resources available for the same in India, Bola sought (and received) help from the Norma J Morris Centre, a non-profit organisation based out of California.
The Morris Centre’s manual and workbook for adult survivors of child abuse advised that moving forward, circle/group meetings should involve structured activities and conversations on specific aspects of abuse. The work included 21 steps, categorised into three key phases: Remembering, Mourning, and Healing. For every step, each individual was tasked with homework to increase awareness and acceptance of their experiences.
The emphasis was also on using the meetings and the manual in conjunction with professional, trauma-informed psychotherapy. Everyone took a self-safety test to assess their emotional and physical preparedness to go through a triggering process. They also made an “emotional first-aid kit” — a list of things, people, and activities that might offer support in an emotional crisis.
The Bola group met every Sunday for seven to eight months, slowly working through each of the 21 prescribed steps. Remembering and sharing their own experiences would usually take survivors a step closer to accepting their painful realities and sometimes, to new revelations. One of Ishank’s unexpected epiphanies from this time included a session in which someone spoke of their discomfort with physical touch. He suddenly realised why he’d hated the smell of Lifebuoy soap all his life — it was what he used to wash off his abusers’ ejaculate and the evidence of the rape.
This seemingly ‘trivial’ insight was one that brought Ishank immense relief. He was also surprised by his own response to it: Not weeping or hurt, but a calm acceptance. It was a major milestone in reclaiming his memories.
Apart from such moments of insight, conversations in the circle would often leave participants feeling deep pain or sadness — especially in the Remembering phase, when they were sharing the details of their abuse. To ensure that none of the group’s members left a session in despair, Mehta encouraged them to end the meeting with a fun activity: a gratitude circle, a game, or Pranic healing — whatever might act as a reminder that the discomfort was temporary.
Each member was an assigned ‘buddy’ to another person in the group. Ishank’s assigned buddies are now among his closest friends, sharing late-night conversations whenever one of them felt triggered. Unexpectedly, helping another person in their moment of crisis boosted Ishank’s own confidence to make advances in his recovery. The focus on his experiences went from inciting helplessness to helping forge a connection with someone else in need.
The first time Ishank was gang-raped, one of his abusers held his face while threatening to kill him if he ever told anyone about the assault. Since that time, Ishank has hated for his face to be held. He’s also feared confrontation of any sort, and becomes anxious if there are more than 2-3 people around him. He grew up lacking confidence in himself and in others’ ability to offer him care and support. That lack of trust has often resulted in troubled romantic relationships for him as an adult.
He had lived with these consequences all his life, but now, with an acute awareness of why they came to being, he grieved for what he’d been robbed of. He felt the injustice that had been done not only to his younger self, but also his current self. As an adult, he desperately longed for not letting his abusers shape his personality or life choices in any way. The growing sense of loss exacerbated his triggers for rage, thus making his reactions a lot more aggressive and gut-wrenching.
“Coming to terms with what happened to me as a child, and that it wouldn’t happen again to me as an adult, was my biggest challenge. To keep reminding myself that I am in control of my situation, and I am a different person now, not as vulnerable,” he explains.
“The only emotion that surfaced, almost volcanically, was a blinding rage — years of anger accumulated from repressing the abuse, the violation, the trust issues. Every time I was triggered, I would spin out of control, with my friends having to calm me,” he adds.
Once, when he was particularly triggered, Ishank decided to end his life. “I felt defeated in a way that I hadn’t before,” Ishank says, of his mindset. Ishank thought he would jump off the balcony of his home in Pune, but before that, he called one of his buddies from Bola.
His buddy immediately reached out to several other people in their network and at least five people (including Foram Mehta) rushed to Ishank’s home, while someone kept him engaged on the phone, and another contacted a suicide helpline for more information on how to deal with such a situation. By then, one of the five reached his home, broke down the door and managed to save Ishank.
The incident was a painful reminder to Ishank that he hadn’t made as much progress with his recovery as he believed. Bola members too were left shaken about their under-preparedness to deal with trauma-induced self-harm actions.
Bola curated a resource list of therapists specialising in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse. Ishank got a new psychologist and psychiatrist using Bola’s database.
As he worked with Dr Sonia Malhotra and continued his meetings with Bola, Ishank realised that a big part of him had been trying to make up for all that the abuse had robbed him of. “What marked the Mourning phase in Bola meetings for me, was realising that I won’t get that time (in my life back) again. So I have made my life as wonderful as possible,” he says.
The counselling and the continual sharing from everyone in the group about their progress helped Ishank to de-escalate his triggers. For months during the Healing phase, Ishank slowly learned how to direct the love for his eight-year-old self from rightful indignation to self-compassion.
The growth, while slow, was definite.
He finished his tenure with Bola in October 2018, with greater control over his life and the changes he wants to see in it.
Ishank, who is now 29, lives in Delhi and has had no major incident of rage or self-harm over the last one year. He is building his expertise in digital marketing and is proactive about sharing his experiences as a survivor. With the help of his very supportive partner and friends from Bola, he still works on his recovery.
While Bola helped him to understand his trauma much more deeply and to help him maneuver his reactions to it, he still lacks control over being triggered. Even the slightest unexpected touch, or being in an unfamiliar place could sometimes set him off. His current psychologist is a sound therapy expert who is helping him let go of this muscle memory of abuse.
“One can try to forget the abuse but its impact on the body at the physical and emotional level stays. Ishank used to feel body aches every time his repressed memories would resurface. He also felt discomfort with physical touch in general. The last five sessions with him have been very effective in reducing that,” Ishank’s psychologist, Seerat Grewal, told me.
In August 2019, Bola began its fourth batch with a new set of participants. The group has been able to find more partner organisations to conduct awareness sessions and reach out to survivors looking to connect with others. After two years of struggling to find reliable, rent-free places to conduct their sessions, Bola recently announced their new venue for the upcoming cycle — the Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Library in Pune. With new facilitators and a professional counselor joining the core team, Mehta now focuses on finding ways to formalise Bola as a legal entity. She wants to scale such groups, in at least the major cities, as much as possible.
“My dream for Bola is that every city and town and even village will have some kind of support system network. They don’t have to follow the 21-step programme but I am working on creating some sort of superstructure that could be used in multiple settings. Practically speaking, maybe 20 cities (will have) at least one support circle where people can speak up,” Mehta said.
RAHI co-founder Ashwini Ailawadi views positively the growth of groups like Bola and the culture of openness in families, which such initiatives are helping bring about. Unlike the time when RAHI started, terms like ‘child sexual abuse’ and ‘survivor’ are now not only known but are often used during dinner table conversations in middle-class families, especially in the times of #MeToo. However, Ailawadi also sounds a note of caution: “The culture of toxic masculinity which silences boys and their vulnerable expressions is going to pose the biggest danger.”
In January and June 2019, the Union Cabinet in India approved ordinances making the POCSO Act more gender-neutral (i.e. making the sexual assault of boys as stringently punishable as girls’) and included amendments to make the process of registering a complaint and the trial more child-friendly (i.e. child courts, sensitive interviewing, identity protection etc.). There is also no statute of limitations for survivors to report child sexual abuse.
Ishank is now working towards setting up a Bola chapter in Delhi. His first-hand experience of how powerful such a safe-space could be, not only in trauma recovery, but also in coming to terms with who he was as a child and who he is today drives his passion for creating change. He hopes to have one such space opened by the beginning of 2020.
Ishank’s current therapist notes that “it is important for people to know that while abuse has a long lasting impact, there is a way to work on it meaningfully.”
Or to know, like Ishank, that “I am not a victim anymore. Not even a survivor. I am a thrive-r who is vehemently going to oppose my abuse from defining me”.
Updated Date: Aug 26, 2019 09:25:40 IST