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What living in Delhi taught me about shady men

[Book extract] Powerful men treat countless women with contempt. With impunity. Without consequences.

 |  21-minute read |   15-09-2017
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Delhi felt fleeting, though I was there for a year. And if it didn't teach me about boys, it taught me about the seamy side of life. Somewhat. Not enough to enable me to sidestep some of what was coming (Duncan, George, and er, Duncan, George) but enough to write a chapter on it years later with the feeling that I've lived some, haven't I?

The job I'd snagged was a dream. A rookie reporter job at a time when the news television boom was in the offing.

Anyone my age and with my artistic propensities would kill for it. So I hotfooted it to Delhi before someone did. The job itself was everything it had promised to be - I was learning, making friends and having fun. I was writing scripts (to the consternation of some senior reporters, I was soon being asked to rewrite theirs, but shhhh, let's not remind them of it). And to my young, starry-eyed delight, I was interviewing celebrities.

I was also, supposedly, learning how to do television edits, but I must admit I dropped off during many of these sessions; they were too technical to interest me. Plus, I was massively sleep-deprived as I had yet to find a place of my own, and in the dark of the editing suite, I was able to catch up on it (the edit booths had many excellent uses). Even better were the friends willing to take me in from time to time, but that involved subterfuge of a nature that could land them in trouble with their parents, landlords and hostel superintendents. So, I kept moving on, trying unsuccessfully to find my own pad, and spending far too many nights in the TV company's mosquitoinfested basement office in the meantime.

The first few months in Delhi were cushy enough, staying with family friends in a super-rich Delhi neighbourhood. But that honeymoon had to end and I was yanked out of that cosy existence into the scary world of the room-to-let racket.

I first found a shared room in Alakananda, which seemed above board till I realized all was not kosher below stairs.

From the duplex's subterranean kitchen where sausages were being stuffed and salami sliced for their deli business, the wrong smells were wafting out. Innocent vegetarian souls that my roomies were, they were oblivious to them, but my keen carnivorous nose sensed something fishy going on. Or the opposite of fishy. The sausage and salami meat did not smell or taste of pig or any farmyard animal I'd ever sunk my teeth into.

I was soon refusing to have any on the grounds that I'd turned vegetarian. I hadn't, but had every intention of turning sleuth. During the day though, our large landlady would position herself between the kitchen door and the passage that led to our bedrooms, reading filmi mag after filmi mag.

When she did vacate her chair to make her way to the toilet, her fearsomely moustachioed manservant would take her place with his formidable arms folded in front of him, and the chance to slip into the dimly lit and foul (not fowl) smelling Kitchen of Fleshy Mysteries would be foiled.

What I hadn't expected was that while I watched them, they, especially the man, would be watching me. I began to worry that their dark kitchen was the Delhi equivalent of Soylent Green and I was next on the menu (though none of my roommates, some of them a good bit heftier than me, had disappeared yet). But I was wrong about the nature of his interest in my flesh.

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One dark night while I was alone in my room, with my roommate out necking in some back alley (and getting arrested for her pains), the odd-job man came barging in. We had the tiniest of barred windows that let little light in, and though I couldn't see him I knew who he was from his distinctive smell - a combination of unidentified flesh and the betel nut he chewed. As he approached my bed sneakily and lifted the edge of the covers, I held my breath, getting ready to dodge his knife or whatever he used to pin his prey. But then he started stroking my bare leg, and it became clear he hadn't come to make mince of me; he had quite other intentions. So I yelled.

I screamed so loud it brought the house down. Down from their bedrooms on the floor above came tumbling the other paying guests. The lights in my room came on to show faces as aghast as mine. The manservant tried to brazen it out with a cock (what it's ever about) and bull story about a cat. Which seemed to be going down well with our audience when one of the women from upstairs suddenly exploded.

"You battameez cheez," she cried, as if about to start a quawwali performance. I almost expected the other roomies to jump in with the back-up thumri. "You snuck into my room too," she said waggling her finger at the man. "But there were two of us sleeping there that night and you chickened out (the only chicken then to be found in that kitchen, I thought). Don't you think we saw you sneaking away?!"

The mustachioed manservant deflated under the two-pronged attack, but just as we girls seemed to be winning, our landlady came steaming in like an overloaded cargo train.

Next thing we knew, instead of dismissal or a dressing down for greasy Mr Moustache, WE were being shown the door.

As I slung my single rucksack over my shoulder to leave the following morning, I noticed the man was making himself scarce (or had met his end in the landlady's industrial-sized meat grinder), but the lumbering landlady was guarding the kitchen entrance with an extra-scary scowl pasted on her face, just for us.

Months later, we discovered that the man had been arrested for spiriting pet dogs away from their posh south Delhi homes, and not for molestation as we might have hoped. But neither was a surprise.

I think I must have inspected more holes-in-walls than the rat catchers of Hamlyn. One was a house full of women in various states of drugging and dishabille, which was very probably a brothel. The woman I imagined to be the "Madame" said I could share a room with one of them but in a sniffy way that suggested she didn't think I'd make her much money. I already had a career (if not a room), so I made my way to the next property.

I usually reconnoitred rooms on weekends, as weekdays were happily and far more productively spent at the television studio. At the next place, I was eagerly led to a pleasant, well-lit room by the landlord himself (a task usually delegated to the wife or servant in Delhi, who were sometimes interchangeable). I liked the look of the room but not so much the leering landlord. It struck me that I'd been brought into the room through the man's bedroom. "And how do I let myself in or out, since I work at a television studio and keep unusual hours?" I asked, hoping to be pointed to a door leading out I hadn't noticed. "Naaat to baather, Beti" he said, his nicotine-stained smile widening, "you will be coming through my room but think of it as yours. I shall even wait up for you when you're late."

I didn't wait for more.

Eventually, I found a room with a kitchenette and a shared terrace in Chittaranjan Park, the stronghold of the domiciled Bengalis of Delhi. I thought that might be a good thing, that they might embrace me (platonically for a change) as one of their own. So I moved in lock, stock and barrel, ie, one rucksack crammed with very strange clothes (because I had yet to discover style) + a load of long johns I'd never wear (as my parents held firm to the belief that Delhi had arctic winters) + one frying pan (they also hoped I would learn to fry an egg at least).

While I looked around my new room, the reception committee of the landlord and his grown sons sized me up. From the dark interior of the house came a quavering female voice announcing the imminent dishing up of "maach bhaat", and the younger men scuttled out. My portly landlord, in a hurry to leave as well, handed over the key with a brief (very brief, with maach waiting) lecture on the "phaine moraaalsh" of the Bengali woman.

I could have whooped with joy. I finally had a place to stay and it wasn't too bad. But an obstacle was waiting just round the corner. Or rather, like with the last place, it was the absence of one that was a problem. There appeared to be neither lock nor handle on my side of an interconnecting door.

So, I asked very nicely about arrangements to secure it from my side. And the sweet, syrupy miasma that had hung in the air suddenly turned to frost. "Keno lagbe?" asked the patriarch testily. For security and privacy, I stated. At which he drew himself to his full five feet and said, "Aapni ki amader chor na molestaaar dakchhen?" and without further ado (including doing anything about the door), he stormed out.

And I realised why the last girl who'd roomed there had moved in such a hurry. Had anything happened, or had the implications of a door without a lock spooked her as it did me? I had paid a deposit however, and had nowhere else to go that night. But I had a plan. In the room was a cupboard that looked flimsy enough for me to push across the floor but not so rickety it could be knocked over without ruckus or effort in the dead of night. It took me nearly an hour to move it, but I did get some sleep that night.

I woke, however, to golmaal (or three very gol maals kicking up a fuss). The Bengali bhadralok had discovered they'd been outfoxed by a pint-sized Bengali woman and weren't happy. I was sent on my way with an outraged Bong flea in my ear, and without my deposit.

I wish I'd known then about the handbook all these Delhi landlords owned, and not just landlords, but a great many men around the world. It tells them all they need to know about women (ain't much to us, y'know). The most thumbed bit is frequently the section on feminine harlotry called the SLUT Scale. S for slatternly, L for Loose, U for uninhibited, and T for tramps. It puts forward the age-old and still firmly held belief that most women are just waiting to be invaded by man's many icky, sticky (and often stubby) protrusions.

There are, of course, degrees of decadence amongst us, but we do all figure somewhere on this global slapper index. From the totally innocent five-year-old to the eighty-five-year-old grandma who would rather find her teeth than a man, we've all managed to lure some hapless man to his doom with our uncontrollable coming-out-of-our-ears sexuality. Indian politician Vijayvargiya wisely warns women, "Your provocative dresses are responsible for all deviations in society." While Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi thunders, "many women who don't dress modestly lead young men astray and spread adultery in society which increases earthquakes".

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And if you thought such "wisdom" was the preserve of the East, check this pearl out from American media mogul Pat Robertson, "Feminism encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians." This can't go on. No further man, beast, deeply flawed economic system or slippy-slidey tectonic plate should be endangered by our earth-shatteringly sluttish ways. But just how slutty are you?

Garden variety or microsluts: She'll lead you up the garden path but won't let you past the front door. A tepid tease and no more, registering a mild 2.0 to 3.9 on the Harlotry Index. "Environmental damage limited to trembling of indoor objects." Tina Fey is our Garden

Variety Slut gold standard, because she sure does provoke, but only with her abandon with words.

The "light to moderate" practitioner of harlotry is the Stealthy Slapper, who, at a 4.0 to 5.9 on the SLUT Scale poses a middling hazard to mankind's health. You know her by her hint of cleavage and uncovered legs, triggering that uncontrollable frustration in men which culminates in all the sexual harassment and molestation that's about (proof that when men can't rein it in, it's not their fault). "Can cause damage of varying severity to poorly constructed buildings."

J-Lo's our pin-up for this one: "People equate sexy with promiscuous. They think because I'm shaped this way, I must be scandalous39." Of course you are, Jen, since so many boys insist.

The Slut Major or the Slagosaurus is an unapologetic, irredeemable harlot, who takes her pleasure where and when it suits her. They follow the gospel of Jessica Alba: "I don't think a girl's a slut if she enjoys sex. I could have a one-night stand … and not try to make it more40". An earth-shaking, burn-at-the-staking 6.0 to 7.9 on the SLUT scale, these women cause death and destruction wherever they go. "Damage can be caused far from the epicentre. Strong to violent shaking at focal point". Yet who really inflicts this damage to our social fabric, women asserting their sexual independence, or the men who seek to control them? It's a mystery.

But who should really come out on top with a humongous 8 to 10 on the slut scale? The sage Christina Aguilera even sang about it, "If you look back in history it's a common double standard of society. The guy gets all the glory the more he can score while the girl can do the same and yet you call her a whore." The average man, for a range of reasons, societal and some claim, biological, is a whole lot more wanton than the average woman. Western men have an average of seven sexual partners in their lifetime to the five for women and the gap is greater in the East. But do they ever get called those short, staccato, venom-dripping names like slut, slag or whore? Reserved for them are those mellifluous, rolls-off-the-tongue labels like Don Juan, Casanova and Lothario. Even language is unfair to women.

More seriously though, what the widespread adoption of this all-women-are-slags belief leads to are frequent sexual assaults and sexual harassment. When the old man in a packed bus rubs up against your schoolgirl derriere, you know you're being molested, regardless of how inexperienced your bottom might be. But when your co-worker leans over your desk to look down your top repeatedly, you could be left wondering whether he really needs to borrow your scissors that many times or should you ram it into his nuts instead. In much of the world, sexual harassment gets swept under the carpet constantly (rape does too except it's rather more obvious some of the time). In India, sexual harassment is bizarrely called "Eve teasing", implying that like Eve, the woman had tempted and the man had succumbed.

She'd asked for it, so, nine times out of ten, the "teasing" goes unpunished.

I wonder if getting your dick out in a darkened office with one female colleague left in, and waving it in her face, is light teasing? Just a laugh? Well, I know the lady in question did not laugh. First, she couldn't believe her eyes, then she felt so sick she could hardly shift. When she could get her trembling legs to move, she ran like she'd never run before.

She told her boss the next morning. The man was brought in, a senior executive. He denied it, and there it ended. But then it happened again. He found her alone at the end of the day and this time, in retribution, he sneaked up on her and hung it in front of her face. SHE left. Not just the company but the country. And he continued on his glorious trajectory to the top of the corporate heap.

Sexual harassment couldn't be more in-your-face than in this instance, but it comes in so many shapes, sizes, shades and degrees of ambiguity that it can leave you mightily disturbed without a smidgeon of certainty about what really happened. One in three women are sexually harassed in the workplace. On the streets around the world, it is 65 per cent of all women, of whom 71 per cent do not report it (which rises to 90 per cent in India) and only 15 per cent of those who did, felt it had been handled fairly (falling to only 5 per cent in India). Waving your unsolicited wick in a woman's face is clearly harassment (and you still get let off the hook), but there's a legion of less obvious forms of pestering that I think we should try and identify in a little game (which is all that harassment is to some men) I call

Slug, Parry, Avoid after the odious British TV reality show "Snog, Marry, Avoid".

1) Let's start with Barack Obama. An easy target, standing tall, dark and handsome in front of the whitest of white preserves - the White House. But when he said of Indian-American Attorney General Kamala Harris days before her induction, "She's brilliant, she's dedicated, and she's tough. She also happens to be the best-looking attorney general", was he crossing the line himself? Political commentator Amanda Marcotte certainly thought so. "As a tool to keep women playing along with male dominance, benevolent sexism works far better than hostile sexism,' she explained. Reporter Katie J.M. Baker opined, "Women put up with enough unsolicited attention as it is; the President doesn't need to legitimize the practice by piling on."

But were they right in this instance? He said she looked good after praising her brains and character. Best to not say it at all, I agree, but haven't we commented on Mr Obama's fine figure ourselves? Haven't we warmed to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau partly because he isn't hard to look at? Plus, how it's said also matters. Barack Obama, I imagine, didn't deliver his compliment with a smirk and a wink and a quick feel of his crotch. And he apologised for his comment after, though in the face of a whirlwind of womanly ire, it has to be said. So in this instance, avoid, I say, by which I mean ignore. Because though Obama himself may be big fish, this particular incident is small fry in the annals of sexual harassment.

2) On then to Bill. Bill Clinton. Unlike the previous scenario, where a mildly inappropriate comment was made, the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio was a whole different mouthful. Now Clinton is one of the better presidents the US has had. He's smart, his politics are sassy, but his treatment of women is quite another matter.

He took advantage of a much younger woman in his power, drawing her into humiliating albeit consensual sexual activities (we ne'er did believe your "I did not have sex with that woman" bluster, Buster). As Monica herself confirmed in Vanity Fair in 2014, what made it sexual harassment was not that it was forced but that she became the scapegoat for the whole sorry affair (as women do). For a situation she was half-manipulated into, she was hounded, humiliated and hung out to dry (not unlike her infamous blue dress), even by the man who had said he'd look out for her.

"I was the Unstable Stalker, the Dimwit Floozy …the Clinton administration, the special prosecutor's minions, the political operatives on both sides, and the media were able to brand me. And that brand stuck, in part because it was imbued with power42."

Ten years on, she's still a byword for slutty sex while Clinton has returned to his position as one of the world's most admired men. But it's not just him. Powerful men treat countless women with similar contempt. With impunity. Without consequences.

Think Tehelka and Tarun Tejpal, or TERI's Rajendra Pachauri. They abused women in their power. What the women didn't do or felt compelled to do doesn't change that fundamental fact. So, slug. Knock 'em off their pedestals, rub their noses in the dirt a little. That's all the humble pie they're likely to taste.

3) Quite another kettle of icky fish is the little man in his dark corner of the office, skulking behind his daily rag, occasionally flashing the bared boobies on Page 3 at you. To let you know you're on his mind. Parts of you, anyway. Page 3 may be a phenomenon peculiar to Britain, but there's no dearth of the same all over the world - men's magazines, internet porn and even celebrity pages heaving with bums and breasts. Not to forget the "item number" in India, institutionalised objectification like the British Page 3. If 'enjoyed' in seclusion, no one can have anything to say about it.

When it's shoved under women's noses, draped over shared workspaces or used to send clear messages of intent, then that isn't acceptable at all. The fact is, guys, gawping at pornography in public does nothing for your chances of getting lucky (which you bizarrely, inexplicably, seem to think it might do; what are the chances Pia will whip out her breasts when she spots you peering at a paper pair?).

Studies show that when men are asked 'Would you ever consider forcing a woman to have sex?' after they've eyeballed sexualised images of women, they are more likely to answer "yes". Slug. There's no other way.

4) There are many more manifestations of sexual harassment. From actual touching to belittling on the basis of gender ("Aww, c'mon, you'll never be able to do that, you Little Woman") to sexist trolling ("Look what the slag's wearing on Facebook") to stalking ("She showed me the soles of her feet, clearly begging me to follow her." No, mate, she was running away from you), there's such a vast and frightening range, that all you can do is slug, slug, slug, parry, parry, avoid, slug, parry, slug. And in real life, never ever stay shtum about it.

It's a good time to remember there are many good men too. My husband (the second one), my father, my many fabulous male friends and millions of other fine fellows out there would never raise a finger against a woman (or stick them where they don't belong). But there was a particularly chivalrous young man I wanted to tell you about. The bearded one I'd shared my first kiss with. He'd moved to Delhi around the time I was in search of a home there. Being a single man doing a post-graduate course at Delhi University, landing a shared room with another such fella proved easy enough for him. And there he stayed for the most part, immersed in academia.

Neither of us knew the other was in town. So, one winter's night, when I'd walked out of another unsuitable room, and gone looking for a friend at the university, I wasn't expecting to bump into my bearded boy of yore. Mellow after a few rounds of momos, I thought nothing of going back with him when he offered to share his narrow boys hostel bed for the night. And this, for a change, is not a cautionary tale. Because sometimes you just know what's in a person's heart. And my bearded boy had a heart of gold. As I drifted to sleep in his arms that night, fully clothed and perfectly unlover-like, I was warm, happy and... safe. The other boys who had been sworn to secrecy played their part too. Keeping a lookout for the hostel superintendent. Forming a human hedge that I ducked behind on my way to the bathrooms that night. Food, too, was smuggled up to me in my friend's Santiniketan jhola.

Grown used to being objectified and harassed by the landlords of Delhi, the respect and bonhomie I got from my friend and his buddies that night was a joy and a relief. In the morning, he wrapped me in his warm plaid jacket as my own, he decided, was too thin for the temperatures Delhi had plunged to. When I returned to Kolkata, that jacket went with me, because the pressures of career and education had meant we hadn't managed to meet again.

The jacket changed hands again and again and BB and I only ever saw it in pictures, turning up on different people over the years, and we laughed about its journey. Our own journeys took us from Kolkata to Delhi to Europe, never to meet again. But our friendship, which went from a kiss to a night of warmth and protection, blossomed into a friendship that ran deeper with every passing year, over the net though it all transpired. We became the best of virtual friends, talking daily, exchanging confidences about love, life and our troubles, which included strokes, depression and divorces. We giggled, I cried, he cheered me up. We promised to meet. Nearly every day. Till one day he travelled from his home on a day trip, slightly under the weather, and never came back again. He died of a massive organ failure whilst still in a coma, in a hospital far, far away from me.

I am still getting used to life without my dearest virtual friend - my beloved Bearded Boy.

(Excerpted with permissions of Harper Collins from Memoirs of My Body by Shreya Sen-Handley)

Assembly Elections 2018
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Shreya Sen-Handley Shreya Sen-Handley @shreyasenhan

The author is a writer and commentator in British and Indian media.

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