High spirits, but only for men: Women come forward alleging rampant sexual harassment at Pune bar

The owner of High Spirits, one of Pune's most popular clubs and performance venues, has been accused of sexual harassment by several women as well as one man. If you have a Twitter account, or are active on social media, various updates about High Spirits have probably flooded your timeline.

High Spirits. Image courtesy: Zomato.

The owner of this establishment, Khodu Irani, has been accused of groping, sending lewd messages, fat-shaming and harassing multiple patrons/employees of his cafe.

Women and men have also spoken about the culture of the club, calling it 'toxic' and claiming it is not only turning a blind eye towards this behaviour, but also perpetuating it.

The first person to talk about this was Sheena Dabholkar, a Pune-based writer and blogger, who began a thread on Twitter highlighting the harassment witnessed at High Spirits, as well as the response she got for calling it out.

"The behaviour is literally (sic) excused and the abuse is minimised in favour of 'they're harmless', 'arrey Irani dudes are like this, a bit mad' etc," she wrote. "My friends who worked at High Spirits have all been fat shamed or slut shamed. None have spoken out. They have told me they can't," wrote Dabholkar.

Speaking to Firstpost, Dabholkar said the first time she spoke about this, she was silenced, and memes were made about her and posted on the official Facebook page of High Spirits.

When asked why she chose to speak about the issue again, she said, "This time there was no incident. As a person with interests in mental health, permaculture and feminism, I think about safe spaces a lot." She also said that "awards" are given out to women for "best b**bs" at the establishment.

Vijayta Lalwani, a journalist, told Firstpost about how she was harassed twice at the venue; the last time was in September 2017. "I was harassed in the same way by two men on two separate occasions. They were both strangers. I was alone, watching a band perform when it happened," she said. She also added that she has heard from friends about the "best b**bs" award being given out every year during their anniversary celebration party, which is an invite-only event. "Women are apparently told beforehand that they will be receiving this award," said Lalwani.

Meanwhile, a bunch of women chose to tweet about their experiences with High Spirits.

"Been years since I have been to High Spirits, but it had that obvious and typical frat boy culture. And believe me knowing High Spirits, the owner and his coterie, this was no stray or isolated incident," wrote Aparna, who goes by the handle @fucshiascribe.

"I've spoken about how I felt violated at High Spirits, seconds after it happened, to friends and employees, and to the perpetrator later... This is not an act of revenge; together we have turned up our volume because our previous quiet and personal conversations regarding the perpetrator made us feel more unsafe, irrelevant, helpless and stripped off our dignity," writes Anya Reddy on Facebook.

Tanmay Bhat, founder of All India Bakchod, also tweeted about being groped on stage by Khodu Irani.

Dabholkar, who received many responses, put up screenshots of some of the women who wrote to her and sought anonymity.

When asked if she had filed a police complaint following these incidents, Vijayta Lalwani said no.

Recently, a Medium blog written by an ex-employee Divya — who has only mentioned her first name — gives what seems to be an inside view into this issue. As per the post, she worked at the club for three years until 2013 in the capacity of a PA, social media manager, front desk employee and artist manager. She writes about how she was groped and bullied by her boss, and how she spoke to his spouse about this.

"...and so he (my boss) then poured a pint of beer on my head during my shift, and told me told that if I went home to change, or ever brought this up to her (his spouse) again, I would lose my job."

He also allegedly fat-shamed her and groped her in the process.

"He came at me — pinching and tickling my ‘fat’ stomach until I was backed into a corner, sobbing on the floor. There was another girl present, but she didn’t interfere," reads the post.

"This was only the beginning. Groping (butt and boob), body-shaming, slut-shaming, pinching, bullying, intense verbal and emotional abuse were part of the daily routine. I was called ugly, fat, and disgusting, on a regular basis. If I got upset, I was called ‘weak’, belittled in front of other people, and told that this was all ‘for my own good’ — so that I could ‘toughen up’.

He said it was because he cared about me. No amount of protests on my part — saying NO, STOP, or fighting back, made any amount of difference. I repeatedly tried bringing it up to his spouse, and mutual friends, but their responses were always the same: ‘you’re just over-reacting’, he ‘didn’t mean it’, he’s ‘a good person, don’t worry’ and worst of all — ‘he’s harmless’," she goes on to write.

Her post mentions that other employees, including women, told her that he was "only joking around". This sense of complicity is a common thread running through most accounts of victims. So rampant was the issue that female employees allegedly took to crying in the restroom as the only resort.

She met him in 2015 for a "courtesy meeting" and recounts the experience of being harassed by him, yet again.

"He tried to belittle me, but I defended myself verbally. When I got up to leave, he gabbed my waist from behind and did a few vigorous thrusts with his pelvis into my buttocks, saying “oh that’s the most action I’ve gotten in six months” (his wife has just birthed a son a few weeks earlier)," she writes.

Saleena Aggarwal, another ex-employee, also wrote about being groped and forcibly kissed by Irani while she worked there.

Firstpost has reached out to High Spirits on e-mail and Facebook, however no responses have been received on either platform. A source who does not want to be named but claims to be a close associate of Irani and a former employee, said that he is speaking on behalf of the owner, who he claims is not in the country at the moment. "High Spirits will not be able to respond with an official statement for the next one or two days. If you're obligated to write this piece, please go ahead, but I can't give a statement now," they said.

When asked if they were aware of the allegations made against Irani, they declined to comment.

When asked why High Spirits is choosing to remain silent, the spokesperson declined to comment. In a statement previously given to Buzzfeed, a spokesperson for the establishment said that all these allegations are "agenda-driven" and an attempt at trying to "tarnish reputation". "We are deeply shocked and saddened by the allegations, and completely deny the same. It appears these lies are emanating from a single person, with an agenda, who appears to be motivated by the desire to tarnish the reputation of a bar that has an unblemished record of not having any issues like this arise in its premises in all 13 years of its existence," said the spokesperson. They added that women's safety is their "top priority" and that they have female bouncers staff and administrators "to ensure assistance and vigilance for female patrons, and even screened rickshaw drivers for female patrons, to make sure women get home safe". In light of these allegations, many comedy groups have expressed anger and condemned both Irani and his establishment, adding that they will no longer perform there. Notably, not a lot of musicians have responded to these allegations.

High Spirits continues to be open and performances have still been scheduled. They seemed to have referred to this outrage as "a few days of calm" and their rating on Zomato is 4.1.

Firstpost awaits an official response from High Spirits.

Updated Date: Oct 17, 2017 21:44 PM

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