Sexual Harassment: A Chronic Problem

As mortal beings, we put in a lot of efforts into saving memories. We click pictures, collect souvenirs and sometimes people like me even write it down.  But when the pictures are gone and the souvenirs are lying someplace we can’t seem to remember, there’s only one thing that comes back to us when that door somewhere at the back of our head cracks open and that is how we felt. Precisely, what we had felt at that moment. Was it ecstasy or fear or an excitement or a lull? Was it forced or faked or undesired? Did it feel victorious or quite the opposite?

A memory reminds us how we felt at a point in time and sometimes, for good reasons, memories shouldn’t be created.

In the summer break of 2005, my mother decided that it would be a good use of me and my best friend’s time to learn swimming and so, she enrolled us for classes at a local school that sublet its pool to freelance swimming instructors. I still remember the first time we went to see the pool along with my mother. We were introduced to two young instructors who promised my mother that they would extend all the necessary support and ‘watch out’ for us. The pool was crowded with all the kins, especially the mothers sitting by the pool guarding dry towels and clothes, cheering and motivating their kids, making friends with fellow mothers. It seemed like a picture perfect moment full of fun and frolic with at least 20 pairs of eyes constantly watching the pool making sure that a part of them doesn’t drown out there. Vedika and I giggled as we exchanged enthusiastic looks with each other just as any thirteen year olds would do. We had already decided the color of our swimming costume, the goggles and the cap. We were finally going to learn the butterfly stroke! Or so we hoped.

The first few days were easy. We were taught to hold our breath, float and scissor kick our legs. Being a hydrophobic, I always stood by the shallow end of the pool while Vedika explored the water until it reached her shoulder level. She would swim almost 10 feet away from me and then signal me to come but I always shook my head in a firm no. If there is one thing I learned then it was that nothing sucked more than chlorinated water up your nose.

A week later, one of my instructors approached me and said something along the lines that I need to try harder in order to overcome my fear of water if I really were to learn swimming. He suggested I should try to go towards slightly deeper side of the pool and in order to help me, he promised to be there by my side at all times. ‘I won’t let you drown’, he said and I agreed, mostly because my friends in the park, including my crush said the same, i.e. one needs to go into deeper waters in order to actually learn swimming. So we both are somewhere in the middle of 8 feet and I am doing just fine trying to paddle away the water until it struck me that there is no ground under my feet and I panicked. I could feel my heart hammering against my ribs as I gasped for air as the water sucked me in. I fanatically reached out for my instructor who was at an arms distance. He helped me resurface and tried to calm me down, ‘It’s okay’, he repeated again and again and the next thing I realized amidst all the confusion is that one of his hands is touching my inner thighs while he looked me straight in the eye waiting for a reaction. I wonder if I looked more confused or terrified or both knowing that I couldn’t even push him away from myself or else I may drown. ‘I want to go back to the shallow side’ I finally said not knowing how else to react.  ‘Sure’, he smiled like touching a person’s bare thigh is the most natural thing in the world.

That was definitely the end of swimming classes for me and never did I say a word about this to anyone simply because I wasn’t even sure what happened back then. Vedika never complained about anything so I thought maybe something was wrong with me or maybe I misread the whole situation. But this definitely wasn’t the end of sexual harassment I faced as a naïve teen ager. Once my ass was pinched at a crowded Diwali fair, even though my parents were just a few feet away from me and at another instance when I was hospitalized for a few days, the doctor thought the right way to listen to my heartbeat is by pressing the stethoscope right at the center of the breasts, which I observed wasn’t the case when my parents were in the room. And mind you, all of this is apart from the day to day eve teasing and name calling of body parts which involved no physical contact thankfully. At all instances I wondered if my behavior was provocative in any way? Was I wearing inappropriate clothes? What did I do to invite such depravity? After every single instance, I came back home with a little bit of innocence being replaced by a little bit of cynicism but importantly, I came back with the fear of being out alone.

I wondered what it must be like for women and little girls who are taken against their will. Every day the newspaper had a new story to tell which suddenly had all my attention and I realized that all this is for real. I couldn’t help but wonder if something worse happened to me.

The recent Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo spark is yet another reminder that even today, women at top of their fields face such sexual innuendoes by men at top of theirs, even in first world supposedly advanced nations and maybe in all those years, it wasn’t my fault for inviting such behavior and honestly, that’s bit of a relieve. It is a reminder that successful and even learned men treat women like objects and suddenly I can clearly see that face with the creepy smile in the middle of the swimming pool that said ‘Sure’.  Scandals such as these take me down the memory lane and even after more than a decade of first such incidence in my life, the first thing I remember is how I felt at that very moment and I precisely felt terrified.

But why am I writing about this after all these year when the discomfort of talking through this can be easily swept under the carpet? Well, I am sharing some of the darkest moments of my life because I know there are other young and naïve girls out there who don’t know how to react. To them I want to say, speak up. They are targeting you because they think you are young and vulnerable which is why they can probably get away with this behavior. We have to make sure that this screwed up mindset changes and for that we need to speak up.

Today, I wonder how many girls must that instructor have tried to molest before and after me? I wonder how things would have been different if I had shared this incident with my parents and then they would have probably taken appropriate actions to escalate the issue. Maybe, I should have slapped each one of those guys, I do imagine doing that sometimes and it feels good because then people like him would at least think twice before pulling such stunts. I wonder how many innocent girls I could have saved from being scarred because back then when I said nothing, they won. I gave each one of them the power by staying silent and till date, it bothers me.

To all the parents, I want to say, talk to you children both girls and boys because in the recent light of events, little boys are exploited too in ways we don’t want to imagine and all of this happens in plain sight of a pool or in social gatherings by people who look completely normal. It happens when you don’t even see it coming and it is of utmost importance that you tell your kids about in what ways and on which body parts it is not okay to be touched by anyone at all. You tell them, that you as a parent are open to such conversations because the world isn’t a fairyland after all. Such conversations are very difficult yet very important.

To some extent, I want to blame the society and the social media for my silence back then because of the victim blaming games they play. They somehow twist the whole situation to show that it was the girls fault. They mask the woman’s identity when instead as a society we should say, ‘Look, here’s a hero who survived disgrace’ but in reality, the questions that are raised are: Why was she out so late? Why was she dressed like that? Why was she breathing?

The conservative remarks such as ‘’Boys will be boys, they commit mistakes” that come from ministers holding political offices in India show how doomed we are as a society and how our leadership is screwed beyond repairs. Such weak men cannot handle strong women and more importantly they cannot handle being let down, being said ‘NO’ to by a woman and so they make up a world in their heads in which women are supposed to behave in a certain way while men can grab and grope anyone they please. It’s no surprise that 70 percent of work place sexual harassment in India go unreported.

It goes without saying that there are good men too, the ones I see in my father, brothers and friends who treat women as humans not above or below them but equally, and they are far more in number than the bad men which is why this world isn’t such a bad place to live in after all.  To such men, I want to say thank you, for your thoughtfulness and compassion is moving.

I know there is a long way to go but I also know that we have come a long way from a world where once there was practiced Sati to a world where women can be themselves more freely. It is bit of a paradox that we are born free but still we have to fight majority of our life fighting for some kind of freedom or a basic right. This is probably because we ourselves are our biggest enemy and the hunger for power overcomes us in various ways. History stands tall as an evidence that men in the past have oppressed and waged wars on other men for no rational reason at all but just to feel powerful and it shouldn’t be a surprise if such men and women with vile motives keep surfacing from time to time. Together as a society we can fight them all but as a starting point, we need to speak up.

 

Let there be Light.

Let there be light

For only light ever guided our way

Showing us which paths to take.

For where nothing reaches,

reaches light,

In yellow, blue, green and white,

Imbruing with colors

What it touches

That earlier grieved in darkness

Present yet absent.

Let there be light

For only light brings us to life.

A promise of new beginning.

A new day, a new leaf

Brimming with hopes

An emblem of grit

That surpasses every storm

Inside out.

Let there be light

As spark in our eyes,

As fire in our soul and

Dazzle in our smile.

***

He left his Home.

He left his home,

to gather light

to feed his soul

to construe his mind

to gather stories

to gather scars

to gather light

straight from the stars.

 

He left his home

for a new emprise

to nourish gain

to steer plight

to see come alive

what he had read as a child

the oceans, the mountains

the chaste and the vice.

 

To see what it made of him

to duck the mold,

to embrace the whim-

of creating the less created

of trying the less tried.

He left his home

to become worldly-wise.

 

The mirror now reflected

a thoughtful visage.

devoid of vanity,

pragmatism disparaged.

A face with eyes

that held what it saw

and saw as it was

no notions prefixed

no conclusions suffixed

 

A face with lips

that curved when it could

that kissed when it could

for love is rare

and did bliss ever lasted so long

that it would succumb every battle

one ever fought for.

Lips that weighed

what they say

for they had seen some

and didn’t like their ways.

 

Face with ears

that had grown more patient

Sometimes that wished

they had heard a bit harder

with not so much agitation

Maybe then,

just then,

some paths

may have differed.

 

A face that knew

you give before you take

A face that knew

that struggles only change.

So he ventured a little farther

for he had already left his home

a little farther wouldn’t hurt

a little farther

he might as well roam.

Despite all that has been

seen, said and heard

he feared nothing

but to be the one in a herd.

***

but to be the one in a herd.

Two Women

Two women sat side by side,

In an Uber halted across the road

One clad in a saree light

One donned in a business suit.

 

One cradled a newborn tot

against the warmth of her bosom soft.

One checked her phone

as swift as light

her expressions terse

her eyes bored.

One saw a figure sculpted right

draped in expensive clothes.

The other saw

the bloom of motherhood,

strength of an invincible soul.

Each wondered if an epoch had been

created or eschewed.

Invidiousness

in their insides rose.

 

One saw a selfless

labor of love

Sleepless nights of toil and work

One saw a persistent devotion,

to a hunt for identity.

to a point perceived

paramount

to be proven.

Reverence

in their hearts rose.

 

Who is finer?

Who is fine?

an absolute summation,

hard to define.

A canal of love or

A window of dreams

A picturesque view

together might yield.

 

Who mattered?

Who mattered though is

hard to say.

One raised a child

that built what they call great

then why such division

why such  deride

a difference in paths

doesn’t always mean

a difference in destination.

 

One stopped forth a glass dwelling

Other stopped forth her home

still wondering in their hearts

if an epoch

had been created or

an epoch had been eschewed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To be or not to be

A story of a girl who undergoes an emotional upheaval when subjected to an impetuous situation. [12 minutes read].

Gauri sat cross-legged on her queen sized bed, staring at her sixty five inch wide television screen, blankly changing channels after channels. On usual days, she liked to sink into her spotless white linens in nothing more than her bare essentials but today she did not even change out of her office wear. The awareness that she is going to turn twenty five in another few hours, in a new city, away from home, in an upscale yet unfamiliar hotel room- causing her this disquietness.

‘It’s just another day’ she repeated to herself but the realization that the past twenty four years have all been carefully preserved in well-organized folders by family and friends indicated otherwise. She remembered her birthday eve from last year, when she had made a reservation for ten at a local restaurant back at home in South Delhi and each one of her friends had politely declined the invitation at the last minute and had presented her with some feeble justification such as “we are stuck at work” except Gaurav, of course. When they returned to her apartment post dinner, she was only half surprised to be greeted by all her friends who had been hiding there for almost an hour, decorating the place and putting together a party. All through the dinner she could sense that something was fishy because Gaurav was checking his phone too often, which was unlike him and as it turned out, he had intricately planned all this for her. He ensured that everyone attends her birthday and those who couldn’t make it, leave a video message. How must he have managed all that? Has he moved on? Is he seeing someone else? Her mind wandered and she was in no mood for feelings that had started surfacing.

‘Could I be more melodramatic’ she thought after a while.

When her thoughts were interrupted by the doorbell, Gauri was partly relieved, “Who could it be?” She looked through the keyhole and saw Naman standing.

“Hi! What’s happening?” she flashed an animated smile trying to conceal her dreadfulness.

“Hey hi. I had such a long day…” He spoke as he walked in and absently sat on the couch next to the television, his thoughts someplace else.

“What happened?”

“Well… the client meeting was a disaster. I don’t think he’s going to buy honestly, no closings for me.”

When Naman told Gauri he was having a bad day, she believed him. Naman seldom failed to impress his clients. He had a certain way of talking around his words which made almost everyone believe in him. He painted a picture so lucrative that the deal seemed godsend, almost hard not to buy. He did his homework well and was always prepared to answer any questions. In the textbook language, he had complete knowledge about self, product, company and the customer. When Gauri joined the sales team of one of the leading advertising firms as a Young Leader, she was not sure if she was actually cut out for the job mainly because it required to ‘open up’ and Gauri wasn’t sure if she could do that. It was Naman, who had already been with the firm for almost a year, who taught her the art of appearing to ‘open up’ and yet being impersonal. Gauri knew he had been trying to set up this meeting for almost a month now and dejection was palpable.

“Anyways, did you have dinner already?

“Oh yes, I was just preparing for bed.”

“Oh come’on, we have been in Bangalore for a month now, we have got to explore some new places. Let’s check out this new place round the corner.  Mayank told me the crowd is really good there” He grinned.

“I know what that means…”

“Well good! Quickly get ready. Let’s put today to a good use because we are back “on time”, you know.”

“Yea, I know” replied Gauri as she slouched on her bed. “Better than being depressed on a Friday night…”

“Yea”

“…which also happens to be your birthday…” She quietly added to herself. She changed into a pair of denims and a wine colored off shoulder top as she set out for the evening.

***

Gauri inhaled the smell of smoke and sweat as she and Namit walked inside the Pentagon Club. She observed that the interior was colossal with a circular bar at the center swarmed by a bubbling crowd. The earsplitting music was a mix of popular EDM, hip hop and tech-house. The lighting were a dim yellowish-just as she liked- bright enough to see others but not enough to reveal their exactness. The vibe was upbeat and the energy contagious.  Naman looked around for a table but the waiter suggested that they wait by the bar as it may take a while.

“What are you smiling at?” asked Naman as they made their way through the pulsating crowd.

“Nothing, I am just glad we came here. The place is nice.”

“Yah, me too.”

“It’s my birthday today…no tomorrow, actually at midnight so…” Gauri smiled sheepishly.

“You are telling me now? This calls for a partayy! You should have told me earlier.”

Gauri couldn’t help but smile as Naman ordered shots of ‘Passed Out Naked on the Bathroom’.

“No way. I have to work tomorrow. I can’t get sloshed!”

“Come’on, it’s your birthday! This day onwards, you can legally get drunk in this country.” He said as he raised a toast.

“Turning 25”

“Turning 25”

Gauri was pretty sure that she heard the guy next to her say “Hear, hear”.

***

Next morning when Gauri woke up in her hotel room, she was relieved to be safely tucked inside her bed. She tried to concentrate for a minute in order to put together a series of events from last night but there were patches of nothingness between what seemed like mind games. There were flashes of images of people she did not recognize. Her head throbbed like a drum as she tried to think harder. She dialed reception and ordered an aspirin. She groggily checked her phone and there were seventeen missed calls from family and friends and her WhatsApp was flooded with messages. “Happy birthday to me” she sighed. She reluctantly got out of the bed to use the bathroom. She splashed her faced with cold water as she observed her reflection in the mirror. Her mascara was smudged and hair ruffled. She reached out for a hair band and tied her coral black hair in a bun just when something caught her attention.  She leaned closer towards the mirror to examine what appeared like a discoloration on her upper shoulder. She tried to rub it off but it was then that she realized that it wasn’t a discoloration, it was a bruise. She took a step back and sat down at the edge of her bath tub, her head buried in her hands. “What did I do…”

She called Naman who instantly picked up her phone. “Hey birthday girl, how’s it going?” he chimed.

“What happened yesterday?? I can’t remember a thing after the shots.”

“You really wanna know?”

“Yes I do!!”

“Well, I don’t know. We were having drinks and then we started dancing. Your friendly neighbor joined us in a while with his friend and I don’t know, you seemed to like him so I didn’t say much.”

“What??”

“Yea, I mean you were laughing at all his jokes. Anyways, my client called me in between and I had to step outside for almost twenty five minutes, I guess.  The good news is he changed his mind and he’s on board! Can you believe that?”

“Yea, who dropped me to my room?”

“God.”

“…This is not the time…”

“Of course, I did! I don’t know what’s happened to you. You seemed fine or maybe I was equally drunk. Anyways, any more questions? I am in middle of a report and I spoke to the boss, it’s okay if you want to take the day off. Thank me later.”

“OK.”

Gauri unlocked the glass door that led to her balcony and looked down at the traffic that appeared so tiny and quiet from the fifteenth floor. There was a sea of conflicting emotions surging within her but the city went on. Nobody seemed to pause. Nobody knew but her. She wondered when did she became this person who made out with strangers and forgot. What caused this?

She remembered the day when she was eighteen and was packing her bags to leave for the hostel. Mother had joined in to assist her with the packing. She told her about the time when she had moved to the hostel herself. She was just eleven and nanaji had decided to send her along with some other cousins, to the big school in the big city. Mother told her that her warden was one hell of a woman who never spared the rod and that she was not even allowed to meet her brothers sometimes. When they were almost done with packing two hefty suitcases and an A4 sized checklist, mother made her sit down and held her hands in hers. Gauri would never forget the next few words her mother said, mostly because her mother was never a woman of too many words. She said: “My darling, it has not been an easy decision for your father to let go of you, not just because we love you but also because you will always be our baby girl. But I know him, you and your sister’s education will always come first. This is his way of showing how much he truly loves you, by choosing to let go of you, for your betterment. Education is the only thing that will ever empower you, even if your world comes crashing down. So pour out your heart to whatever you choose to study and nail it… but the important thing to remember is that ultimately education gives you knowledge and that is something which does not just comes with the books. Besides that, well,”…she paused as if searching for the right words, “my dear, never bring dishonor to the family, for now we live in a big house but we hail from a small place and your father is a self-made respectable man. Dishonor lingers for longer if it is brought upon by a daughter.” and then her mother just chuckled like she had said nothing at all. Gauri realized that it was up to her discretion how she interpreted this message. She never completely grasped the width of it but she did understand that it meant a lot. She wondered what her mother would think of her if she told her about this incident. Such conduct would definitely not be considered acceptable even in a modern society. She suddenly felt even farther from home. She realized that she had even forgotten to call back her parents in between this mayhem and debauchery.

She checked her phone for messages and there was one from Naman that read, “Drinks lot of water, you’ll be fine. Shit happens.” Gauri had a feeling that Naman knew what happened and was trying to respect her privacy. This is the thing she liked about boys that unlike most girls, they did not like to dissect every single detail.

As she looked on to the coordinated traffic, a part of her couldn’t help but feel a bit thespian as she could relate herself to the prima donna in one of Hozier’s songs where the protagonist seemed to be undergoing a kind of deep agony caused by some sort of irreversible love loss that caused her to resort to meaningless intimacy. “How could this have made her feel any better and what possibly is my suffering?” She pondered for a while without much of a comeback.

Gauri went back inside her room and decided to take a hot shower. She examined her svelte figure in the mirror as she tardily undressed. She stepped under the shower and turned the lever on high allowing the water to wash down her body as steam fogged the glass walled cuboid. She closed her eyes as her skin soaked in the heat and her thoughts jaded. She stood until her legs got tired after which she finally stepped out and patted herself dry. ‘What next?’ she thought as she slouched on her bed. Her phone lit up as it flashed Varsha, who had been her best friend since college first year.

“Happy Birthday girl!” came a cheerful voice from across the phone.

“Thank you!” replied Gauri trying to match the excitement.

“What’s happening? You have been conveniently ignoring my calls.”

“Yea, I have been busy celebrating my birthday.”

“So…what did my big girl do?”

“Well, you know, the usual, whored around and stuff,” replied Gauri in a condescending tone.

“Huh? What? Tell me everything!” demanded Varsha.

Gauri knew that she couldn’t escape this one. Girls are not best friends until they say everything out loud.

“OK. So I went to a club yesterday with Naman and…. I kind of got drunk and I may have made out or…more with a guy at the slightest opportunity that presented itself…God! I don’t want to talk about it. I feel so guilty as such.”

“Guilty? What? Why?”

“I don’t know. I am just not that kind of person.”

“What kind of person?” Gauri could suddenly sense seriousness in Varsha’s tone.

“A person who… you know… does all this and its okay for them” replied Gauri.

Them? What’s them? Nobody is born like them, they become them and who we become is none of anybody’s business until it is at their physical, mental or emotional expense. Come ‘on! Does this mean you have been judging me all this time?”

“No! Of course not! I don’t judge you or anyone but it’s just that I don’t want to become that person.”

“Then don’t. A single instance never defined a person, for both good and bad. I think you are being too hard on yourself.”

“Really? I am not being hard at all. I just didn’t expect this from myself. I am quitting alcohol. I wouldn’t even recognize that guy in the broad daylight. I am not even sure if…you know…if I liked it.”

“Oh.. too bad if you don’t even remember. Calm down though. I have an idea. How about you gift yesterday to yourself on your birthday for the fact that this could very much be classified as a new experience.”

“Hmmm, I am listening…”

“You know, you have aged an year older and learned about a completely new side of yourself and this at least, presents an insight for the future” Continued Varsha.

“Yes, maybe.”

“And you know it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you don’t repeat them. Take it as a lesson although this is not a mistake. I repeat – not a mistake. An experience perhaps. We are strong, independent women, man!”

“Wow, look at you talking all grown up. Can we talk about something else now?”

“No. Give me at least some details. Your stinginess is killing me here.” Varsha teased.

“Okay. I have to hang up. Mom’s calling. Byee.”

“I know, I know. Happy Birthday. Bye and come back soon!”

As Gauri hung up the phone, she thought about what Varsha had said about a single instance not defining a person. It would be like going for a run for a day and then presuming results. If this happened then there would be no persistent efforts to prove oneself, no grit to chase one’s goals and probably no joy in life, for joy comes when a possibility becomes an actuality once the former ingredients are tactfully executed. Maybe building a character was something like building a body. She thought that the surfacing mixed sentiments are probably a manifestation that she hasn’t completely lost her way. She could still embrace a path she thinks fit because if she would have already chosen one then there would have been no disorientation, no mixed feelings and this in itself presented a hope. It also meant that knowing is always better than wondering and the fact that she had gained a new experience without any irredeemable smirch on her consciousness, was perhaps even worthwhile. Maybe she will laugh about it someday when the layers will be old and dusted but until then, maybe it’s just better to keep on going like the never halting traffic because time never really stopped ticking for anyone, then why should you?

                                                                       ***

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Search

At some point in time, we all tend to be lost in this strange labyrinth of life, not just because it is uncertain, challenging and demanding but because just sometimes one stumbles upon a realization that there is a void and nothing ever seems to fill it.

 

Sometimes in to the nights so dark,
sometimes into my thoughts so deep
I look for you with all my heart
up till where my eyes can see.

I look for happiness
I look for peace
I look for something
that shall mean something to me.

I tried for clothes
I tried for books
I tried for drugs
still my hunt didn’t cease.

I don’t know what’s written for me
I wonder if ever anything is written for anybody
I wonder if life is just a journey
Or a bubble, a dream-so momentary.

Not always are my paths so right
At times I walk without the light
At times into the forests so dark
I keep wandering till the last.

So my heart sings me a song
tells me these thoughts are a Pandora’s box
tells me to listen to what It says
but like a wild feather, the heart sways and sways.

A travesty, a game, a drama or desire
Questions, confusions, a truth so satire
A deck of cards or a house of one
many conjectures to this world.

still I look for it
up till where my eyes can see
into the nights so dark,
and my thoughts so deep.

 

(Originally written in 2011.)

Rainbow in my head

When Siddhant came back from work he saw that the front door of his two bedroom apartment was wide open. He kept his office bag down on the couch as his eyes scanned through the apartment. He saw that the closets were ajar with clothes lying all over the floor. Even the fridge door open, kitchen cabinets emptied and house in a complete disarray. “Must have been in a great hurry”, he thought to himself.  He went inside his bedroom and was not surprised to see that the locker was open and the cash was missing. He felt a knot inside his stomach.

He called his brother but his phone was switched off. He paced across the hall for a few minutes contemplating his next move. He reached out for one of the open kitchen cabinets and fetched an old bottle of whiskey which he used either when he was ecstatic or morose.  He made himself a drink and finally dialed 100.

‘Police station.’ said a coarse voice across the phone.

Siddhant immediately disconnected the line.

Continue reading “Rainbow in my head”