I may have been as old as the young journalist or perhaps even younger when I was sexually assulated by a senior manager in a blue chip company I was interning at, twenty years ago. I was able to tell him off and decided to submit along with my internship report, an account of what had happened with me as an epilogue. I had secretely hoped that the man would be hauled up appropriately by the head of the department, who incidentally was a woman. Nothing of that sort happened. I was not even summoned by her. I assumed that the report was a mere formality and no one bothered to read it and the truth may have got buried along with the file.
That did not kill my passion for work. Right from my teens I had wanted to work like my father, travelling to different places, meeting new people and doing new assignments in different cities.
Having grown up in now what is called the rape capital of India, I was very aware, like umpteen girls and women of Delhi, that one must be extremely vigilant of an amorous male gaze, a lingering hand shake of an aquaintance and a strange man’s gait in a lonely street. Self protection had become second nature to us that I believed that all Delhi girls are born with it as a natural instinct. So whether it is holding up the notebooks to protect your chest from the errant gaze of the professor, or carrying pokey things in your cross body satchel when you travelled in a DTC bus, or deciding to cross the street suddenly on seeing a lecherous sway of a male body approaching you from the opposite direction, the women of Delhi have always been prepared. We exchanged notes on the merits and demerits of each ‘armour’ of protection and who amongst our common male aquaintances could be labelled as sexually deviant.
Each situation we faced, and God knows how many each one of us may have faced, added to our learning and sharpened our self preservation instinct. Rather than lament the evil, women became conditioned to its existence and adopted creative ways to survive it. My method of surviving my internship assault backfired on me when I discovered that the company did not allow me to sit for the placement interview. Apparently they did not want ‘trouble makers’ to join their company as their culture was of respecting the organizational structures and protocols. I got employment elsewhere. And I got a scolding from my family for having ‘crossed the line’ by taking ‘panga’ with the management. After so many years of working and many more sexual harrassment attempts later, I have emerged wiser. It is as though a part of any Indian woman’s work experience leaves her richer with another experience of handling male colleagues. She journeys through various emotions of guilt, anger, revenge, helplessness and frustration to emerge stronger with an armour of self preservation and self respect despite an effete system that refuses to improve.
It is the woman who atones for the ‘momentary lapses of male judgment’. She suffers and then learns to fight the suffering with no help from society, employers or even family. That is a different kind of atonement unique only to India. It is not a six month recuse but a life long penance. A majority of women are able to do it successfully. I have seen a few that succumb. Whether it was the female head of the department then or the managing editor now, they ought to imagine themselves or their daughters going through the ordeal. And still if they feel that ‘right thought and action’ is what they have followed, then I am all for it.
Have all these years of surviving men made me bitter and less trusting of them? Not at all. I have some very cherished relationships with many male colleagues. My only complaint is that we focus too much on the legality and less on the morality of it all. The entire social media is screaming for a just punishment. But we all know how many cases have been dismissed for lack of evidence after scores of years. How long is the list of the high profile accused who have been put behind bars in all these years? Our system is shy of punishing the guilty especially the well heeled ones. Over dependence on an elusive but just legal system is a telling comment on our failing morality. We are not outraged at the moral sin of custodial rape done by her father’s colleague but on the salacious details of the act and its deserved punishment. Tarun Tejpal did touch upon the morality by recusing himself but the timing and trigger of the atonement is questionable and makes one think it is a designer penance or a long awaited sabbatical he wanted rather than a true ‘prayaschita’ as defined in our scriptures.
So the story continues. Another woman starts her journey of atoning for the sin of a society that bestows on her, her first few scars of life – a society that wants to be practical in meting out a just legal punishment in an impractical legal system. A society that does not understand the meaning of a moral sin and true atonement.