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#MeToo: A personal account of dealing with harassment over a nearly two-decade media career

This is by far the toughest piece I have ever written. Mind you, I have fought back tears, simmering rage, Braxton Hicks contractions, a urinating toddler, maid-on-leave woes and more, while trying to meet a deadline. So, I do know a thing or two about what it takes to finally get down to writing what you want to, without life finding a way to derail your best laid plans.

When I’m in a moral conundrum, I usually make a 'Pros' and 'Cons' chart in my notebook and hope that I would be guided to the answer. I did that today — to write or not to write? The reasons to not write far outweighed the reasons to write. And this is after working with pervert seniors who grope, eager juniors who have used misogyny to try and get under my skin, celebrity interviewees who have explicitly asked for sexual favours, the middlemen who set up these interviews expecting obvious sexual kickbacks, you know the kind. This is not counting the male relatives who have copped a feel, “friends” who wanted to see how far they can go, and all those unknown men in buses, crowded places including temples, who are determined to make life for a woman, far from peaceful.

Normally, I’d turn the page over and move on to the rest of my day… I have a life to live, after all.

Today, I had an overriding emotion that rendered the facts in my chart, useless. I make it sound more dramatic than it is, but it really was an urge to shake off my perennial state of mental laziness. Not apathy; just the kind of pure, unadulterated laziness that makes being reactive not an impulsive gesture, but one that is usually pondered upon.

Given the increased interest in the #MeToo campaign, some of you might be interested in knowing what a journalist with 17-odd years in the Indian media has to say as powerful names come out of the woodworks.

Let me stop you right here and tell you that you will find no names in this article, so you may proceed to scan social media to quench your thirst for knowledge on the subject. The reasons for this are later in the piece because they are not relevant at this point in my thought process.

 #MeToo: A personal account of dealing with harassment over a nearly two-decade media career

I have watched this #MeToo campaign unfurl internationally and in India, like any responsible journalist would, writes Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri. Image via Reuters

I write today to tell you why cheerful, sorted, level-headed girls like me, who can be both a girl’s gal and a guy’s buddy, often choose to stay silent on the subject. Why do outspoken women who seem modern because we cuss easily, unapologetically chase careers and romantic dreams, who don’t shy away from talking about any subject that we’re interested in (no matter how outrageous), exercise restraint when speaking on a matter that is so close to our hearts?

Why do we joke with the very people who make us uncomfortable? Why do we shrug off damning judgment from both men and women when we tackle sexual harassment in a way that is unconventional? Why do we ignore the branding of being “easy because you’re chirpy” from women who lack humour and a widened perspective, or men who lack respect and a basic moral compass? In my defence, I have never laughed off disgusting behaviour with a thoughtless giggle. When I haven’t frozen with shock, I haven’t had a brilliant, angry comeback that would make me proud either.

Is India’s #MeToo moment here? Women are angry and they are naming and shaming their abusers

But I have always, always, had a witty comeback. It seemed more natural to call out people with a dry joke than insult them with volume and melodrama. To have grace even in the heart of indignation. It has probably got to do with the fact that anger is not a knee-jerk reaction for people like me. It is a simmering accumulation of instances and people who make you feel like you’re losing control of the narrative of your life. Driving in Mumbai, though, is an exception.

I do not mask pain with humour though I could completely understand why some people would do that. I’m not a comedian, but I’m one of the funniest people I know. I can already sense you judging me as one pompous person. God, I’m loving this already. (Aside: I’m agnostic, so I use the word God not as an incantation but for effect. Some people would replace that with a ‘fuck’.)

Let me set this record straight: I was born funny. Not funny-looking, but funny as a person. I was always the kind of person you wanted at a party. Self-deprecation wasn’t defence mechanism, it was my strength. It is my strength. And I will not have you rob me of that by appropriating it to all those episodes of men who have verbally, mentally and physically violated me.

You’re already thinking: “Okay, so you were raped, no?” Well, my limited understanding of criminal laws in India tell me that since there was no forcible vaginal penetration, I have not been raped. But every single time someone has violated my personal space, my sense of dignity and my intelligence, I would imagine how much worse it would be for a rape victim. And then, I would tell myself, “You’re better off. Why complain about it?”

And just like that, we tell ourselves that we’re either overreacting, or reading it all wrong. That’s a common thread for most women, it appears; that we’re trained to second guess our razor sharp instincts for the greater common good of maintaining status quo. We are raised to rise above. What cockamamie.

I have been “accused” of being an incorrigible Pollyanna. I wear that title with such pride. That, coupled with a naturally inappropriate sense of humour, has held me together when the going has gotten really tough.

When a Bollywood actor I interviewed, and who isn’t my friend, asked me to join him for the 2007 Led Zeppelin reunion so we can “explore” each other, I laughed and told him, “Thanks but I don’t find you deep enough.” I shook it off, took a deep breath and moved on.

When a top-billed Bollywood sensation had the nerve to say as soon as I walked into the interview, “With those pipes, I’d want a booby hug”, “Might as well, your girlfriend is a walking carrom board.” I shook it off, took a deep breath and moved on. And then he bid farewell with a kiss on the neck. Not my cheek, not the air near my face, not any place that first-encounter acquaintances would. Again, I shook it off, took a deep breath and moved on.

When an A-list Bollywood actor with that family man image held my hand tightly and started to answer my question in the interview, saying, “I need to hold a hand to get my thoughts in place”, I retorted, “Is this a Bollywood way of saying ‘Oedipus Complex?’” I shook it off, took a deep breath and moved on.

When a famous Bollywood Sufi singer — meeting me for the first time — greeted me with a hug that lingered, I asked, “Missing mom, are we?” I shook it off, took a deep breath and moved on.

When an editor I worked with, watched my computer screen over my shoulder and toyed with my bra strap, I said, “Yes, I’ve checked. It’s elastic. Now may I get back to my job? Pull your own undies if you want to check more.” I shook it off, took a deep breath and moved on.

When another editor didn’t think much of kissing me on my lips to wish me for my birthday, I wiped my lips with his tie saying, “I’m surprised at what a poor judge of people you are. You’re not my type.” He didn’t back off. He thought I was a tease. So he persisted. “Why am I not your type? Because I’m your senior?” I said, “No darling, because you’re a fossil.” I shook it off, took a deep breath and moved on.

When a colleague saw me in a white T-shirt and said, “That would look so much better wet”, I said, “Sure, will do that at your funeral.” I shook it off, took a deep breath and moved on.

When I was among the youngest features editors in my publication, I had men in my team who were years older than me. One of them didn’t think twice to say, “Just because you whored your way to the top job, doesn’t mean you can tell me what to do.” I said it in my calmest voice, “Just because nobody would pay for you, doesn’t mean you need to be bitter about having a woman boss. Be a man, take it on your chin.” I shook it off, took a deep breath and moved on.

Whether they were in positions of power, in the throes of celebrityhood, in a subordinate role or completely irrelevant to my work or personal being, it never stopped these men and many more from seeing how far they can go. Every single time, I shook it off, took a deep breath and moved on. That did not happen immediately but every single time I gave myself closure and moved on.

#MeToo in India: KR Sreenivas, Gautam Adhikari respond to sexual harassment allegations

They robbed me of my composure, insulted my intelligence by reducing me to just my gender, threatened to abruptly end my career, doubt my Pollyanna nature and even think that maybe I wasn’t as funny as I thought. It took years of wondering about my inability to fight back with rage but the ease of fighting back with wit, to come to the conclusion that my humour is my strength because it lets me control the strings of my mental health, it lets me not allow such episodes to occupy more of my mindspace than I’d want them to, and it buys me time to process all these insults without giving these men the satisfaction of seeing me rattled.

Naming them today, would only give them yet another opportunity to rob me of this moment. This very moment of reliving all of this while writing this article. Their names will make headlines, and not the ones they’d want to read. A lot of women will judge me for withholding their names. I’m not protecting them… I’m making this article about me.

About me being me despite such men. About me being me, because I’ve had the good fortune of meeting some amazing men too. Some male readers, on the other hand, will dismiss this lack of naming as an admission of my “complicity”. A lot of women co-workers and industry colleagues have already dismissed my ability to come up with a wisecrack instead of screaming or slapping or having the wisdom to go via the HR route. Apparently because we’re funny, we’re also flirtatious, and therefore, we’ve asked for this. It’s a wholly different story that flirting is an art, a fine balance between banter and outright creepiness. So it’s a ridiculous theory, if you ask me, propagated by men and women who lack the intelligence for wit. To me, cracking that joke gives me the first mover advantage. It disarms the men who aren’t expecting it and reminds them that this is a tough cookie to crack. I’m not tough, I’m selfish. Self-preservation has been a governing principle in coping with this.

So why then, have I decided to write today at all? Because I admire the women who have braved their own personal demons to call out sexual harassment. Because my heart has always gone out to the women who have suffered so much more, endured the pain for so much longer and finally found the courage to speak about it. Because I will not judge anyone for their decisions to adopt various means to do this. Because I have watched this #MeToo campaign unfurl internationally and in India, like any responsible journalist would: Not sitting in judgement, wholly aware that such movements also have elements who can turn it into a witch-hunt, while treating each allegation as a separate episode where context is crucial.

You may not agree with my approach to this. I’m okay with that. Those close to me may wonder why I often shut them out of the process of dealing with such horrors. Perhaps it’s this inherent need to protect them from worrying about me. Or protect them from the awkwardness of not knowing what to do or say. And when you’re already dealing with your own issues, you really don’t want the added baggage of thinking about their reaction to your reaction. Above all, it’s about a feeling that I can fix this on my own.

I never fixed the situations. I only fixed me. I don’t offer this as a solution. I’m just telling you that if you’ve done what I’ve done, you’ve not perpetuated patriarchy or misogyny or any other such thing. Don’t have other men and women convince you of that. If they’re doing that, they’re judging and already diluting the #MeToo movement. If you’re being called opportunistic for speaking today instead of all those years ago, don’t let it define your pain of reliving the torture just to admit to it today.

Not all of us are meant for loftier, public purposes… some of us just use our strengths to move from one day to the next. We travel light, without grudges or resentment. We unconditionally forgive not out of magnanimity, but out of the need to move on. We convert our angst to creative energy. We strive to be the best version of ourselves every single day. We really couldn’t give a damn about people’s opinions. We love our guy friends as much as our girls. We laugh at and crack crass jokes because that’s truly our sense of humour. We believe we can be serious about ideology and still be able to laugh at the ridiculous trappings of it.

We laugh, therefore we are.

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Updated Date: Oct 08, 2018 09:52:51 IST