Simple rules of workplace behaviour: If you hear a ‘no’, back off; if you don’t hear a ‘yes’, back off as well.
My #MeToo moment goes back some 30 years. I was a young reporter in a new job in Mumbai and was visiting my parents who lived in Delhi. My new editor happened to be in town and the three of us – the New Editor, another journalist and I went out for dinner at a restaurant in Hauz Khas Village.
After dinner, in the car on the way back home, New Editor made his move in the back seat. I pushed him off but he kept coming back at me. I didn’t feel threatened or I would have yelled – there were two people in the front after all, the journalist and the driver, oblivious to what was happening. As New Editor, a tiny man with big hair, kept making ridiculous kissy faces, I had to fight the urge to laugh.
Back in Mumbai, I did speak about the incident, not that I was traumatised but as a ‘can you believe this ridiculous man?’ kind of way.
Word got around to New Editor who summoned me to his cabin. “You shouldn’t talk about it because people will think you are showing off,” was his gratuitous advice. I was not just angry but deeply insulted. Showing off about what? I left his cabin, walked straight to my desk and wrote out my resignation.
Back then, the term ‘sexual harassment’ did not exist either in law or editorial practice. Hell, I even served my three-month notice period, even though I had worked for less than a month. There was no social media, no handy screenshot evidence.
What we had was an informal sisterhood where we’d warn each other about creepy editors. A few women in senior positions sometimes came to the aid of younger women who had complained privately to them – making sure they weren’t given assignments where they had to report to their predators.
In today’s women-dominated newsrooms, it’s hard to believe that women were once only a handful. My generation was fighting a different battle, to get a toehold in the newsroom. And another fight at home to just be able to work, and to escape the pressure of an arranged marriage.
I never spoke about my #MeToo, except to a few friends. I pushed it out of my mind and got along with my life and career. Barring one other incident – a prospective editor invited me to dinner after interviewing me in his hotel suite (I said no; didn’t get the job) – I never personally encountered another assault in the workplace.
Some years ago, I ran into New Editor (now Ex-Editor) at a literature festival he was organising. I wish I could say that I confronted him or even ignored him. To my eternal shame, we exchanged pleasantries. To dredge up that whole sordid episode of so many years ago would have been far too traumatic. I had buried it deep and that is where I wanted it to remain.
It’s only now, years later, that the current #MeToo movement has summoned up old ghosts and a new generation of women warriors is telling me that I have a right to be angry.
And I am angry because in three decades, nothing seems to have changed. Angry because I was wronged against without atonement, repentance or regret.
I am angry because of the internalised patriarchy that makes me feel guilty for asking why I didn’t speak up. Wait. Let me modify. I did speak up. It cost me my job.
I am angry because as a survivor of that assault, whether I speak up or not, whether I name my abuser or not is my prerogative. This resentment flares when Mumbai Police tweets to a traumatised woman, who has named Utsav Chakraborty, who has worked with AIB, as her abuser, on why she hasn’t got in touch with them.
The same social media-savvy Mumbai Police files a case with alacrity against Tanushree Dutta at the behest of Raj Thackeray’s MNS. This is not an ‘alleged’ victim since there is an eyewitness to the incident involving Nana Patekar. There is video footage too, of her car being attacked by a mob as she tries to leave the film set.
From Patekar to Vikas Bahl to Chetan Bhagat, every story that has come tumbling out in the last few days does not bear the same degree of harassment. Some involve pesky office bros who can’t understand ‘no’. Some aren’t colleagues at all, but random guys. Others are serial offenders. Still others are predatory bosses and supervisors who believe that young women are perks of the job.
Not every revelation falls within the legal definition of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace, but all of it does fall within the ambit of general douche-baggery— men obsessed with their penises and absolutely certain about their perceived right to put them anywhere they damn well please.
This movement is a work in progress. Someone asks: Does this mean that men and women at work can’t fall in love or hook up? No, it doesn’t. But male bosses in supervisory roles will have to take their uncontrolled testosterone outside the workplace – though they still have to obtain consent first.
Romance in the office is a tricky area to negotiate, but again, the rules are simple. If you hear a ‘no’, back off. If you don’t hear a ‘yes’, then continue to back off.
Some will talk of due process – and here I will say unequivocally women have to be better than men. Nobody advocates chucking out due process or promoting a lynching through naming and shaming. But what does due process mean when Nana Patekar does not get called out by the leading male stars of the film industry? Forget calling out, could Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan and Aamir Khan not summon even the blandest statement: “We don’t know the details but of course this is very bad and no woman should have to go through this blahblahblah.”
What does due process mean when an R.K. Pachauri is still invited to attend award ceremonies all over the world? In a civilised legal system, a man is innocent until he is found guilty. Yet, three years after the filing of a police complaint, the trial has not even begun and his accuser continues to live terrified to enter an office or open her email for the absolute fear of who or what might be lurking there.
Due process is broken because an eco-system of toxic masculinity prevails without challenge. For those of us who fight this, each day is a struggle—an endless examination of who we are and how much of patriarchy’s messages we have absorbed. Of what it will take and does take to fight it. Of wondering when it will all end. It is exhausting, and frustrating.
“Beware of women’s anger,” I recently told a male politician at a TV talk show. It will burn down the house.