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    Posted December 30, 2013 by

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    India: the Stories I Never Got to Tell


    CNN PRODUCER NOTE     Back in August, CNN wrote about an American student, Michaela Cross, who said she experienced relentless sexual harassment during her study abroad trip to India last year. As 2013 ends, Cross wrote in to CNN iReport once more, this time with a reflection on her experience. (See her original iReport here.)

    “Getting to hear other peoples’ stories definitely helped me, especially from South Asian people. It helped me in the process; it helped me realize I wasn’t a crazy person,” she told CNN. “It wasn’t just a fact of me being a tourist in India. It is a real gender problem in India that people should recognize.”

    For those reasons Cross was inspired to address the countless commenters she couldn’t respond to personally.

    “All criticism of my essay is as valid as the praise: I wrote it to be part of a conversation, not to conclude it,” she wrote. “And it has been a true honor to be part of this story, and to be a miniscule part of a fight that is not against India but for India, and for the women who I hope will have to fight less and less to live with dignity and without danger.”

    Since the original story ran on CNN, Cross has gone back to school at the University of Chicago.
    - zdan, CNN iReport producer

    Just about a year ago, I was in India, and I was in hell.


    “Hell” is how I describe a luxurious hotel in Goa, where my classmates were spending the day on the beach but where I’d refused to leave my room. Because I didn’t feel like wondering which staff member serving me had tried to rape my roommate, and I didn’t feel like wondering which guy on the beach had tried to lure me into a dead end the night before to do the same. And in that locked room with the blinds down and the door bolted shut I was doing something I barely ever do.


    I was praying.


    I was on my knees, and I was saying this:


    “God, I don’t mind fighting— I have strength enough. But I need a reason, some reason, to fight.”


    Nine months later, I got it.


    You see, nine months later a friend interning at CNN suggested that I write an IReport on my story, and two days later I did. I uploaded it onto the CNN website at 11 o’clock at night, not thinking much about it. And the next day I woke up famous.


    My friend had thought he’d need to push my essay to an editor. I’d been counting on the power of nepotism, but never on the power of India.


    My story hit India, and it exploded.


    I got attention in America because it was the story no one hears; I got attention in India because it was the story everyone knew, and not enough people were telling.


    And for my fifteen minutes of fame I was no longer Michaela Stone Cross. In America I was “the student who was groped in India”; In India, I was the woman who spoke up.


    I was also “naive” or I was “exaggerating”. I was crazy or not crazy enough. I was a “liar”, or “courageous”. I was “racist” or I was “brave”. I “exposing” India, or I was “bringing her shame.”


    It was hard to hear. But harder still was the American who wrote that I “should’ve gone to Europe”. And the many Indian men who reached out to apologize to me and say that they were “ashamed of India.”


    I couldn’t respond and say that of all these words only “honest” describes me. And that of the six countries I’ve traveled to so far I’ve only fallen in love with one.


    When people ask me why I love India, I tell them it’s because of the stories India’s given me. I used to be referring to the Mahabharata. And now I’m referring to the people.


    Because all of the insults, the compliments and the pity was nothing compared to the answer to my prayer. And that was the people who told me my story represented their own.


    When I offered up my story Indian women began offering me theirs. And men told me the stories of their sisters, their mothers, their wives. These are people who know far more about India than I do, and they confirmed for me what my gut had been telling me all along:


    I was not frozen due to weakness, nor insanity. I had glimpsed something very wrong, and very real. And I was burdened with a silence even heavier than that knowledge, with a story no one seemed to want.


    But I was wrong. And I know this because I recieved message upon message of women telling me that this was the story they had been unable to tell.


    That was my privilege as an outsider: to tell a story without the consequences so many would have had to face.


    I didn’t tell this story because I hated India, no more than I told this story to become “the student who was groped in India”. I told this story because I’m a writer, and I saw injustice. I wrote about myself because I’m the only person I have a right to write about. My story was only special in that it represented many others. And if it hadn’t, my story wouldn’t have been read and wouldn’t have done any harm.


    A thousand words wasn’t enough to tell a story with heroes as well as villains. I had no space to talk about the women I danced with at the Ganesha festival, of the people who kicked a certain man off a bus.


    And now a thousand words isn’t enough to address all the voices that spoke up to join mine.


    But I’ll address a few.


    To the people who called me brave:
    It’s easy to speak up as an outsider, but much less valuable.


    To the Indian men who apologized:
    You’re not the ones who should be apologizing, and besides, I’m not the one you should be apologizing to.


    To those who said they were ashamed:
    Shame is useless; Only pride in India can save India.


    To the people who said I was insulting India:
    I would never insult India by ascribing disrespect towards women as part of Indian culture.


    To those who said that what I spoke of exists everywhere:
    In India I had to fight everyday to be respected as a woman, and in America I do the same. But it only takes someone with eyes and internet access to know that India is a far more dangerous place to be a woman.


    All criticism of my essay is as valid as the praise: I wrote it to be part of a conversation, not to conclude it. And it has been a true honor to be part of this story, and to be a miniscule part of a fight that is not against India but for India, and for the women who I hope will have to fight less and less to live with dignity and without danger.


    In America my story has turned me into a victim, but in India it has made me a writer. I hope to return to India soon and to one day write a real story about India.


    A thousand words was just about enough to write about all the bad I encountered. I will need many more pages to write about all the good.


    Thank you, India.


    Photo credit: Jacqueline Raeanne Nesbitt

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