The men in corner offices

I was 22 and he was about 35 when we were introduced. Actually, I had no idea how old he was and only knew he was fairly high up the food chain. He was intelligent, charming, witty, interesting, fun. And then he hit on me.
And I went scuttling back into a corner. I was too young to know how to deal with his advances, I was in a relationship, I was intimidated by his seniority and in an awkward position, and I was not interested in him at all. Period.
And then I felt very guilty about it. About how uncool I was being. About misunderstanding what might have been jokes. But they weren’t. He was hoping I’d respond in kind. I cut off all contact. He got in touch with me again, about 2 years ago and I ignored his message. I was older and now very sure that he crossed a line he shouldn’t have.
He passed away a while back and while everyone was singing paeans, all I felt was resentment for how uncomfortable he made a young girl feel. How he ruined our mentor-mentee relationship, and denied me his friendship and experience, and turned it into something grubby and grimy.
A few days ago, I was working on a project, again, with a man who has been in media for more than 30 years. He was, once again, mentoring us. And there it was again – the inappropriate comment, the whatsapp messages at odd hours, the off colour jokes that I smiled painfully through because hey, I’m an adult woman and it’s okay, right? Because this is media. We’re cool like that. Until I decided it wasn’t cool. The best part is that I was shocked. I’m married, almost bloody 40, and have a soon to be teenage son. Am I still to be fending off advances at this age?! WTF!
I called my partner on the project and told her he was making me uncomfortable, that I was going to ignore his one-on-one whatsapp messages and would henceforth only interact with him when she was around, and in a strictly professional capacity. No jokes, no fun. Naturally, she supported me all the way, even if it meant losing his help on the project.
This is the problem with men in positions of power. They’re men, they’re in positions of power, they misuse them.
And we liberals, we people in media, we’re so forgiving of all their sins. Especially the men in media, who immediately band together in a fraternity. I feel particularly betrayed by them because I expect them, more than others, to understand concepts of consent, patriarchy, abuse of power, and yes, nuance. I don’t expect bullshit from them about not knowing when a feeble no means yes. If you and I are doing BDSM, honey, trust me, we’ll both know. Until then, let’s not be dishonest here.

//Women are unable to call out their harassers in real time for a variety of reasons — key among them the fear of being judged and disbelieved and the fear of losing one’s professional edge. And consent, like choice, is a loaded word in the gender debate, especially when it comes to a man who wields extreme power and a professional woman who is dependent on his approval to survive. Could Monica Lewinsky as a young intern have really said “no” to Bill Clinton? If a twenty something reporter’s much older boss maintains that she has a conflicted crush on him, is the onus on him or her to establish equality? In some cases, the violations are obviously coarse and need no debate. But when liberals become complicit in the conspiracy of silence that shrouds such cases, we only come out looking like weak and hypocritical frauds.//

The gradations of a no

I’ve always been the irreverent, cheeky parent. My kids and I horse around, wrestle, tickle, have pillow fights. Naturally, for years, I’ve held back and not used my strength.
This evening, however, the Brat and I got into a tickle fight and just like that he caught my wrist, and I knew I couldn’t release it without giving it my all. I realised that I’m no longer holding back, because I’m actually his equal. Actually, strike that – I’m not his equal, I’m weaker. If anything, I could sense him holding back, and gently releasing my wrist so that I didn’t get hurt.
This is how early the male realises that he is physically stronger than the female. This is how much stronger the average male is, compared to the average female. A grown woman like me, who doesn’t exercise, can’t beat a 12 year old boy who does nothing but regular play in school. He’s not a sportsperson, he’s not big built.
We were both laughing hysterically, with the Bean jumping in periodically and getting a poke in on any side, just to keep up the tempo. And I gasped through my laughter, ok, you win, I give up, stop.
This is how early he has learnt that even when you’re playing, even if you gasp it out, a no is a no. Even if I initiated the fight by whacking him on the head with a cushion, stop means stop. Even if he’s stronger and can get away with it, he *must* respect my desire to stop . I don’t know why so many adult males find it so hard to appreciate this simple rule. So Mr Farooqui might be a great artist, but if he can’t understand that even a ‘feeble’ no, is a no, I have no time for him.
For now I’m going to go sob in the corner over this milestone. My baby boy is stronger than me.
Title courtesy my friend Thinking Cramps.

But our parents did it too….

I didn’t share the video of the little girl being beaten, not only because I thought it violated her privacy, but because it upset me so. Years ago I whacked the Brat once and I’ve never been able to forget it, or forgive myself. It was an unacceptable loss of control.
But I’m following the conversation on every FB wall and almost everywhere I see people saying – but we all got whacked and turned out okay. Yes, we did. Because our parents didn’t know better. And maybe this mother didn’t know better either. And maybe we’d have turned out more than okay if we’d not been whacked (btw, I didn’t really get whacked, and the jury is out on whether I turned out okay or not!)
Our parents also let us go off with this driver bhaiyya to buy samosas, sleepover at that cousin’s place, and curl into bed with this uncle and listen to a story, never realising that we were being sexually abused by people we trusted. I have often written about being abused by the errand boy at our place, from the age of 4. He was a young boy himself and probably didn’t realise how much harm he was doing me. It’s why I don’t keep male househelp and won’t allow my kids to go anywhere alone with a driver. We know now that there are sexual predators everywhere, so shouldn’t we try harder? Only yesterday I got into a debate on a whatsapp group where one of the parents was planning a sleepover and had invited the Bean. I am not comfortable with her staying over in homes I don’t know well, with people I don’t know well. It wasn’t right to debate it on the group that the invitation went out on, but the conversation just flowed that way and before I knew it, I was knee deep in that one too. And yes, someone trotted out the good old – but our parents allowed it too.
The fact that we did it, or our parents allowed it, isn’t a good enough reason to do ANYTHING. Even animals can give birth. It takes a lot more conscious thought to be a halfway decent parent, and even then, life mein jitna bhi karo, saala kam pad jaata hai. Every day, ask yourself, can I do this better? Maybe it will contradict the way I parented yesterday, and I might even feel a little stupid – but can I reassess my stand? Should I always fall back on the old – My parents did it, so it much be okay, line? Our children are growing, evolving, and so are we.
So no, it’s not okay to justify such a tiny kid getting beaten up over a few numbers. We know now that corporal punishment does more harm than good. And the fact that it happened to us, sexual as well as physical abuse, is exactly why we need to protect our kids better. Even if from ourselves.
Yes, I’ll get off my soap box now.

Goodbye, Justice Seth

Within a week I’ve felt the loss of two people I loved and admired in very different ways. Vinod Khanna. And Justice Leila Seth. I found it hard to post immediately after each loss because it hit really hard.
I interviewed Justice Seth shortly after Jyoti Singh died, while she was on the Justice Verma committee. After we spoke about the rape and the law for the story, we also chatted about much else that didn’t make it to my piece.
One of the things she said about parenting, is something that ever after, guided me. She spoke about how her son Vikram spent 7 years typing away in a little room above the garage, writing his first book. (Reminder of what goes into a great book for those who think anyone can write one!) And how neighbours and well-wishers wondered rudely and aloud, how they could ‘allow’ their son to fritter his life away so. And would he ever make a decent living as a writer? Tsk tsk. What a waste of a child, coming from two such successful parents.
Her point? That we need to stop projecting our fears on to our kids, along with our aspirations. Even the most evolved parents say very proudly – I told my child, be a sweeper if you want, but be the best bloody sweeper. Err – why? Why best? What is the best?
The one that earns the most? Why not the happiest? (This was in context to her son’s sexuality.)
She went on to say that we also worry needlessly about our children needing to be successful in conventional terms, to maintain the lifestyle we’ve raised them in. We assume that it is a guarantor of happiness to earn more than your parents, and marry traditionally, into the safety of your own community. That it is our own fears that we need to let go of, and trust them if they choose to be unsuccessful but happy sweepers.
As long as you ensure that you equip them to accept the consequences of their choices, whatever those might be. They might never own a four wheeler or a flat in the suburbs (conventional markers of success), but if they’re happy on a cycle meant for two with a partner of their choice, then it’s your own fear and ego that you need to deal with. Not theirs.
I also got her to sign a copy of her book  We, the Children of India, for the kids (you can check out the review on our ever dependable Saffron Tree). If you don’t already own one for your babies, this is a good reminder to pick it up. RIP Justice Leila Seth. A few hours with you shaped me in so many ways. I don’t know if they will make more like you.

Coz you are so very

I just watched Pink and like most others, enjoyed it. But this is not a review. This is just a collection of thoughts. Every few months I end up recalling something from my eventful past – and this is one such.
( SPOILER ALERT)

There’s a scene where one of the girls’ faces is morphed onto that of a sex worker’s (discussion about why that is so chee chee, for another post) and the image passed around her office. That hit pretty close home.

It was the year 2000, when I was home for a break, and my parents casually tossed me an envelope that had been couriered to them. It had black and white printouts of my face, morphed onto a naked body. The body was too, err, well endowed to be mistaken for my 43 kilo self. Nonetheless, it was a horrific sight for any parent to be faced with and once again I am floored by how amazing my parents are, to have dealt with it the way they did. There was no melodrama. They just told me that I had clearly pissed someone off, so to watch out for more serious, physical harm. I assured them that I was unharmed and would stay alert, and the matter ended there.

A few days later, the images got more obscene, more graphic, sometimes my skinny brown face on massive white women’s bodies, emailed to me. I figured it was the same guy/s. I asked a few tech savvy friends to help me (I don’t think there was much in the way of a cyber crime cell in those days) and they traced the emails back to a most insignificant classmate. In fact, when they named him, I had to rack my brains to recall his face.
The story is such a stereotype, it almost writes itself – it is always the quiet insignificant type that burn with this sort of rage, because indifference is so hurtful. And because I chose to be friends with other boys, but not him. He was interested, I wasn’t. In fact I hadn’t even recognised his overtures for what they were and I suppose that is what was most galling. He’d waited four years to serve me his revenge, cold. I had the usual gang of friends offer to beat him up for me, but I’d been away from U.P. long enough to not take up the offer. He got tired of mailing me naked women. I forgot about him.

Today the movie reminded me of those who worry about our images being misused. Mine were misused 16 years ago when it was unheard of and to say I was devastated, would be understating it. I’m pretty much forged by fire now. (How did he find my pictures? I am guessing he got them off Orkut, off a common friend’s album.) I refuse to let the paranoia of pictures being misused, ruin my time and space online. I trust that my kids’ pictures are safe among those I trust enough to add on FB. To me this victim blaming of why-did-you-put-it-up-on-the-internet is no better than those who ask you why you went out late at night, wore a short skirt, or had a few drinks.

This is the internet, it is here to stay as a part of our kids’ lives, and I’m not going to tell my daughter to hide her image on Facebook because someone will photoshop her face on to a duck or a naked body. I’m going to let her know that worse might happen, and the only thing she can do is hold her head high, steel her spine, and say FUCK IT (Ooh, this is a first for me!) . I feel much safer and better for doing so myself. Sticks, stones and morphed images won’t break my bones. And it’s strange to say there is no loss of honour for a woman, in getting raped, while behaving like it is the end of the world if someone photoshops her image. We’re giving our girls contradictory messages. If someone does that, he’s a dick, just like the guy down the road who flashes you. Can’t put life on hold for it, so live it the way you want, fearlessly.

And while the movie ran on, I experienced what is common for most of us women. Manspreading. The guy on my right took over the common arm, and then stuck a leg out in front of my seat so that I was forced to squeeze into the OA. I didn’t realise that I was doing so, because we’re so used to making ourselves shrink and disappear. Move off the sidewalk, wear a veil so that you become faceless.I don’t think the guy meant to harass me – it was just his male sense of entitlement. He didn’t even *think* before spreading out. It didn’t bother him that his elbow was touching mine, his ankle bumping my knee. It was for me to move away.

The OA noticed it, and was about to tell the man to shove off and give me my space, when something snapped and I pushed back – it was my fight. It was a small thing, but a big one for me because I’m always so careful not to give offence – what if I’ve misunderstood? I defiantly crossed an ankle over my knee so that the sole of my shoe was almost at his knee, almost invading his space. He moved away. The OA saw that I was fine, grinned, and got back to the movie.

This is so much more about good manners than anything else. We were raised to be considerate, to not take up more space than we require, to never put our feet up on a table or stick our legs out so that our shoe soles faced anyone. Fighting back requires us to put our manners aside. And this is a hard line to walk. I find it really hard to teach my kids that they needn’t be polite to people who make them uncomfortable, because this is not a lesson that I have internalised yet.

PS: This song played in my head right through. Aerosmith’s Pink