From pinched bottoms to bruised souls: When will Indian society let even one woman say, no, not MeToo?

Uncles, doctors, professors, strangers — we've all had predators violating us time and again. I have, too. And we've often failed to retaliate the right way. I have, too. This is my story.

 |  16-minute read |   21-04-2019
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Recently, famous Bollywood star Kangana Ranaut, while speaking of women's safety in India, said she had shockingly had her bottom pinched in public by an unknown man and the experience made her even more aware of the dangers women face.

Well, honestly. What can I say to this revelation? What?

I don’t say it as a put-down, Kangana. Trust me, I don’t even mean it as a sweeping statement, making light of what you may have felt at that point.

I say it with compassion. I say it so as to, virtually, put my shoulder next to yours in support. I convey a sense of sisterhood for all the women who have faced similar incidents. And there have been many — big or small, black or white, Indian or Icelandic, Hindu, Christian or Muslim.

The female of the species will forever be grateful to Tarana Burke for coining the phrase 'Me Too' in 2006 and making society finally woke about the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and assault. And a big, big thank you is deserved by Alyssa Milano who resurrected it on Twitter in 2017 and made it contemporary and relevant.

To each one of us.

kangana-ranaut-701x4_032919054851.jpgKangana too? It doesn't just happen to women vulnerable in unsafe public transport or shared spaces. (Source: Reuters)

The MeToo movement has helped millions of women worldwide — to ferret out repressed scars and emotions, hang them out in the open in brave acceptance and move ahead to reclaim life and peace of mind. The other thing MeToo has significantly done is to help remove misplaced guilt from the doors of the perpetrated-on and put it firmly onto the step of the perpetrator. That should have always been the case. That is how a sane, normal, wise society would behave.

But we as humans, with all our complexities, insecurities and depravities, have never created a normal society — we have instead put in all our efforts to make it as dystopian as we can.

My first brush with MeToo was pretty early in the day — I was all of four.

Dad was posted at Clement Town in Dehradun and we were housed in those old world-charm Barrack bungalows with massive servants quarters in the back. One afternoon, post siesta, I found my way into the staff quarters during playtime and saw the 'batman' playing with himself. I had no idea that it was called masturbation, but I remember that it felt so wrong. He continued with his act even in my presence and, at some point, quickly enough, I ran out. I don’t think the 'batman' had tried to touch me but I felt repulsed nonetheless.

The other incident I categorically remember was during a summer holiday in Chandigarh.

In a replay of Monsoon Wedding, my maternal uncle took me out to Sector 17 for a chaat treat. I must have been in my pre-teens or early teens. In the auto rickshaw, the devilish man began, what I call, the “kissing game.”

“Give me a kiss here darling,” he said, pointing to his cheek. Completely unsuspecting of his intentions, I poured my love out and gave him a peck.

“Now, Mamaji is going to kiss you.” He planted one on my cheek.

“Now, one on the other cheek for Mamaji, darling.” I happily obliged, still clueless about what was to follow.

“It is Mamaji’s turn,” and with that, he put his mouth on mine and gave me a sloppy, lingering kiss on my lips.

Before I could catch on, he had repeated the act again.

I remember noticing the auto driver looking at us in his rearview mirror. I also remember feeling dirty and telling the Uncle, “No, Mamaji, I don’t want to play.”

I think I was terribly scared about sharing the sick episode with Maa. It was, after all, her younger brother.

When he invited me out the second time, I died a hundred deaths inside. I wanted to open up to Maa but did not have the guts to. Why was I saying no to the loving uncle, she would ask? Would she believe me? Would she doubt her own brother? Would the blame be put on me instead?

Nursing these thoughts in my little mind, I went along the second time, all the while with my heart pounding crazily.

Yes, it happened all over again. I wanted the evening to end fast, but luck was on the devil’s side. We returned to the relative’s house and I cried uncontrollably.

Amidst unstoppable sobbing, this time, I told Maa. She heard me out — and she believed me. She must have spoken to the evil man because after that point, he didn’t lure me out. Even when he visited us at our farmhouse in Doon, a distance was dutifully maintained.

I think it was after this scarring incident that one day Maa sat me down and told me how I should not let uncles hug me or get too close to me or make me sit on their laps. I was quite confused and irritatingly quizzical with my whys. Why Maa, what’s wrong with a hug? Why can’t I sit on the lap, Maa, and so on, I chirped. But Maa patiently imparted her ‘good touch, bad touch’ lesson that she repeated several times.

I was quite prone to colds, cough and fever, growing up in the cooler climes of Dehradun. We had a regular physician we visited for all ailments at the Cantonment Hospital.

We had lost Dad by now, and it was just Maa and me trying to get our lives back together. Therefore, we found comfort in the familiar, in the people we knew.

stethoscope_032919052916.jpgWho's going to cure this guy? What do you do when your doctor harasses you? (Picture for representational purposes only) (Source: Reuters)

Each time I would be under the weather, Maa would either take me there or ask me to cycle to the Cantonment Hospital to see Dr V. He would be perfectly fine when Maa was around. It was the times I would go to see him alone when his way of seeing me would change. He would ask me to lie on the inspection table and first feel my chest with the stethoscope. All normal, you would say.

Then he would feel me up under my shirt with his bare hands.

Just for a few extended minutes, before I would begin to squirm.

It went on like this three or four times before I realised that it was not the right way of medical inspection. Though I felt something amiss the first time itself, it took me a few more times of ordeal to know for sure. He was a doctor and was meant to give us a thorough check-up. He was from the noblest profession in the world, damn it. Further, he wouldn’t misbehave with a very young girl whose family he knew so well.

You couldn’t be more wrong. That has never stopped predators from preying on anyone.

We continued consulting Dr V but I never went to see him alone. In fact, by the time I was in first year of college, he treated me successfully for a very serious ailment. The treatment involved putting medicated bandages on the upper part of my body. While I agonised over it, I needn’t have worried. He made house visits. And he was a perfect gentleman. I was a grown-up girl now, and I feel he did not want to be caught and outed.

I think Dr V was more of a paedophile. 

With grown women, he knew his reputation would be at stake and it was a position of esteem he had in the Cantonment. One time I met him at the grocer’s and I remember crushing his foot deliberately while he thought it to be an accident.

While in post-graduation, one mid-morning, my two girlfriends and I were returning after watching the Passing-out Parade at IMA. We were walking along Astley Hall near Rajpur Road to get to Countdown — the very hip Chinese eatery at that time. An old labourer on a bicycle raced past us, pinching my right boob as I happened to be on his side of the road. A year or two before that, in a packed bus from college to home, I had a very old man in a dirty dhoti do his number on me. First, I tried to dig my elbow in his side, then gave him a few sharp jabs, but as he carried on pressing his manhood against me, I, with all my might, stepped on his foot and twisted my shoe.

He gave out a little whine — and moved away. 

While travelling in a mode of public transport from inside JNU campus to Dilli Haat, I had a boor pinch me on my back. I was wearing a sari and he was attracted to my back. Now, he must have seen his mother wear a sari all his life but still, he was not conditioned correctly. I couldn’t figure out who was the miscreant in that sea of people.

buswoman_032919052938.jpgStanding Tall: Every day, millions of Indian women brave perverts and harassment in public transport. (Picture for representational purposes only) (Source: Reuters)

I used to also freelance as a journalist while still in university, and would write for a large number of leading national newspapers and magazines. This meant that I would network with a lot of top editors — also those who handled the city pages and the weekend supplements. One time, one of them almost did a harassment number on me. The first few meetings were normal but he was increasingly becoming friendlier. I saw nothing wrong in that. Given the age difference, I only found him to be warm and avuncular.

He then invited me to lunch at the Hyatt one weekend. Still, all was fine. Then, he called me up a few times and that felt somewhat odd — but the conversation was all normal up until then. After a month or so, he again took me out for lunch. This time, we drove in this car from his office to the hotel. No, he did not touch me or act fresh in any way. Once at the hotel, in the middle of the lunch though, he started dropping hints and propositioning.

I pretended to not understand him fully and played up the wide-eyed innocence. Once the lunch was over, and I had escaped unscathed, did I think about what was to follow. From then on, I put as much thought and strategy into devising excuses to bat out each ball he threw my way as I did in writing pieces. It was difficult as hell because he was persistent.

I feigned sickness, I lied about not being in town and so on. Then, one day, the media house bosses rewarded his talent and acumen and sent him off on a lucrative international posting.

In one of my hotel positions, a colleague from finance developed a glad eye for me and generally made a fool of himself. He once or twice brushed past me but in such a smooth fashion that one could not haul him up.

Men with some kind of abuse or assault on their mind are very crafty about how they conduct themselves.

bca4d941-227d-4c34-a_032919054354.jpgIt could be a brush of the feet. A quick stroke. A swift pat. But its humiliating effects could last for ages. (Picture for representational purposes only) (Source: Reuters)

In such cases, it is difficult to pin them down, whether in personal spaces or in our places of work. At those times, a forceful elbow, an inadvertent jab, a sharp turn, a toe crush is a great comeback. It might not put too much sense in them — but it will certainly cripple them for a while.

Some men just don’t get it. They don’t understand it when women are not interested. They don’t take ‘no’ for an answer — there is an astonishing sense of misplaced entitlement in them.

I have had a close relative try to tell me dirty jokes to get his cheap thrills. He once asked me if I carried a vibrator in my bag. My husband was in the same room, not in the same group though. It was put across as a private joke to me and I pretended to not understand what a vibrator was. That doused water on his libido.

Another time, in another hotel job, a colleague from Food & Beverage sent me a porn clip on my office computer. He was an overfriendly Frenchman, yet this time, he crossed the line. I saw the clip the moment I heard the sound of the notification and deleted it from my hard disk. He came running to my office to ask me if I had received something that he had sent to me a while before. And I said no. He said you got nothing and I said no, nothing. He checked my computer, shook his head and went back.

Possibly he got the message as there was no repeat of his lewd act.

God alone knows what step I would have been forced to take had he been relentless.

I had every right to lodge a complaint. I had a good mind to spoil my equation with him. Thankfully, I was able to nip the indecency in the bud. But why should I even have had to go through this?

One of the most important things MeToo has achieved is that it has helped us come to terms with what we had repressed for so long — we spoke about it in hushed tones all this while, if we ever did talk about it, but now we are holding the bull by its horns and bringing it out on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and so many other platforms.

No offensive act is big or small. It is trespassing into someone’s personal space, it is a violation of another person’s sense of safety and it is robbing of that person’s peace of mind. All deplorably punishable acts and all people committing such offences must be booked and treated as the criminals that they are!

I implore women to stop being harsh on themselves — the tide has turned. Those who have faced such devastatingly sick exploitation, and have embraced life the way they have, deserve respect and lauding.

metoo-dailyo-inside_032919054429.jpgMeToo, with its awareness, openness and uninhibitedness, has made coming out therapeutic and cathartic for so many of us. (Source: Reuters)

The sense of shame and humiliation is slowly being shifted to where it should have been to begin with — inside the mind of the wrongdoer. The feelings of denial and oppression are being substituted with the gall to confront, to meet head-on, to acknowledge and to move on.

It took me a number of years to fight the unpleasant feeling that stemmed out of the uncle case and the doctor case. Only in my late 40s did I get comfortable with speaking about them openly.

My mind opened to the reason that I was not in the wrong — that it was not me who had committed the crime.

They may have touched my body, impinged on my very private, personal space but they can never touch my spirit or shake my soul.

That I was not a victim or somebody to be vilified because of somebody else’s ill-mindedness! It was and is the violator who is always deathly vicious and vile.

MeToo, with its awareness, openness and uninhibitedness, has made me much more aware, empathetic and understanding of my body and mind. And of other women and men who have faced such intrusions on themselves.

The movement and the coming out has been therapeutic and cathartic for so many of us.

It has made me stronger in my conviction that like any other criminal, these assaulter cannot be allowed to go scot-free. There must be repercussions and reproach for all reprehensible acts.

The one thing that MeToo must expressly do is to tackle the issue of rape sharply and stringently. In a society, there must be no place for rapists — and no justification for it whatsoever.

I can’t even imagine the amount of courage those men and women who have been raped and who have come out with it show. They are extraordinary people with the kind of strength we see in our divinity. The criminal committing rape, on the other hand, shows the weakest moral fabric and complete lack of humanity, even bestiality — because beasts are superior to him.

For such sick elements, it has to begin with the right grounding, coaching, counselling, role-modelling at home, it has to capture and remove the stigma from society, and it has to end with strictest laws, responsible and effective judiciary and swiftest, hardest punishment.

Only then will we begin to live in a sane society and feel proud to bring our progeny into it.

Only then can we actually even think of a society where a woman, from Kangana Ranaut to any student or kid in college or an intern, could even perhaps say, nope, not MeToo.

Also read: #MeToo: Surviving the badshah of the newsroom

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L Aruna Dhir L Aruna Dhir @arunadhir

Seasoned PR & Communications Expert, Poet, Hospitality Feature Writer.

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