#MeToo in India: Stalked, harassed for a decade, how one journalist coped with the trauma

Editor's note: Siliguri-based independent journalist and Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) member Anuradha Sharma writes about the decade-long stalking and telephonic abuse that she was subjected to by a senior colleague. This post originally appeared on NWMI and has been republished here with the writer's permission.

***

Following the #MeToo conversations on social media has been one hell of a triggering experience: So many women, bearing the scars I'd been trying to hide, for so long. Even though I was triggered, I didn't feel like sharing anything: There was nothing new to add, and there were deadlines to meet.

But then the phone rang — and everything came flooding back. And I had to write this.

I write without taking any names because it does not matter who the abusers are; what matters is what they did. I only want to tell you about the 199th way one can be sexually harassed by seniors at the workplace.

It was some time in 2008, the year I shifted to Kolkata, that I first got a call asking for "Ladybird". Initially, it was just a stray call or two, then the frequency increased. The calls came at all times of the day, and also at night. I saved the numbers as X, X1, X2, X3 so I'd know not to answer. The callers wanted to speak to "Ladybird" — which, or who, I wasn’t.

Sexual harassment at the workplace can assume myriad chilling and predatory forms, as journalist Anuradha Sharma's #MeToo account shows

Sexual harassment at the workplace can assume myriad chilling and predatory forms, as journalist Anuradha Sharma's #MeToo account shows

Then one night, a caller asked me: “Rate kya hai (what is your rate)?”. I was on the night shift, busy making pages. “Kis cheez ka (for what?)” I asked back mechanically, and while I tried to make sense of the conversation, something kicked me in the gut.

The next morning, I began calling these numbers one by one. Most did not respond. The first one who answered asked me to call later — “I am with family now”—but on being pressed in a stern, no-nonsense voice, told me where he got the number: “The toilet at Haldiram’s restaurant. But I brought it to the notice of the management and asked them to remove it from there,” he said. Others spoke of tea shops, a sleeper coach of an express train, public toilets and so on. Someone had scribbled my number, alongside ‘LADYBIRD’.

All these guys had been calling me, fantasising about sex with Ladybird. Whoa!

What rang a bell was a particular restaurant close to my former office in Siliguri, where my colleagues would occasionally go for tea and pakoras. Sometimes I would join in. X2, a tourist, saw my number in the toilet there, and he called to “just chat” because he was lonely, “otherwise I am a very decent man”.

After several calls, I discovered a pattern. They came from places a senior colleague from my previous company frequented, even the sleeper coaches of the train he used to take frequently to travel to his family home. I had some callers phoning from the moving train itself!

It became clear that the “mischief” was the doing of my ex-boss who was then in his late 40s. Calls came from everywhere in the state and also from wherever he happened to have travelled. By just mapping the origins of the calls, I could trace his movements. When he began covering south Bengal, I started getting calls from there. I heard names of small towns and villages in Bengal I did not even know existed. I would ask my callers about their location, and they would hang up. I never guessed wrong. I would check with my former colleagues at my previous workplace and its headquarters to confirm: “By any chance is he is Delhi now? There, I knew it!”

***

I was forced to quit my previous job because of this man.

At first, he was nice. He was friendly, interesting, helpful. But in no time, the friendliness tightened around me like a python. I found myself being chased by this man everywhere — press conferences, PR events, exclusive interviews, exhibitions. Somehow or the other, he would sneak in. Then my friends and colleagues from other media houses began to tell me that he would call them and ask about me. Things like, “I heard that she had come (here), who did she come with? How you know her? What do you know of her? What about the men in her life?”

The stalking assumed ridiculous proportions when this man visited my place in my absence (I was on an assignment), and without my knowledge. When I confronted him, he said he had gone to meet my folks at home because he wanted to greet them on Poila Boisakh (the Bengali New Year).

Then, one day, I finally put my foot down. I now forget what I said, but I remember screaming so loudly in the office that people from other departments came running. He apologised, I remember. Almost shed tears, almost fell at my feet. No, I am not exaggerating.

It was a really strange situation, and very confusing for me, because otherwise he was a very decent person.  He was very soft-spoken and gentle, always respectful towards me and other women, never made any indecent remark or touched me inappropriately. He took permission — yes, you heard that right — when he wanted to give (me) a New Year hug at an office party where his wife was also present.

He only stalked, and hijacked my stories whenever he got a chance; showed no qualms in inserting his name into my byline, even in my exclusive stories, just because he followed me to these assignments.

I finally complained about him to the chief we both reported to at the Kolkata headquarters. When nothing came of it, I used my only option: I quit.

***

I changed cities (which turned out well for me in the long run — although not without the initial years of trials and tribulations which merit a separate #MeToo story) and took up a desk job. From being a principal correspondent, I demoted myself to senior copy editor. I was in my late 20s then, and already too tired to hunt for jobs. I took what I got.

However, even at the time of quitting, though I thought of my former senior colleague as intolerably irritating and really sick, I did not frame my ordeal as “sexual harassment.” But what he subsequently did leaves no room for doubt.

When he could not stalk me himself, he let loose a barrage of men seeking cheap sex, on me. All right, I’m presuming they wanted it cheap, because most often the first thing they’d ask would be my "rate". If I responded angrily, as I did initially, they’d hurl abuses. Some of them surely thought that my anger was extended foreplay — they would keep calling back.

Mostly, I would pretend to be a policewoman. “Mohila thana (women’s police station)!” I would say, when answering suspicious calls. I had a voice especially reserved to announce “police station”. I thought this was a sure-shot way to keep those pesky callers at bay. But what do you know, many still thought it was a game. They laughed. I only ended up becoming a joke with genuine callers whose numbers were not saved on my phone.

I tried a new trick: Instead of muting the ringer, I received the calls but did not speak. I would keep the phone next to my keyboard and go on working on QuarkXpress. This, in the hope that they would stop calling if they lost money on every call. This helped sometimes. Now who would like to hear a keyboard clattering when they were in hot pursuit of the Ladybird!

Then, finally, advised by a well-meaning police officer friend, I changed my number. I had called him to know if I could file a police case. He explained to me the futility of it all, and I saw his point.

I got myself a new number, and kept the old one aside — it was too beautiful a number to throw away.

After some time, I gave the old SIM to my sister. I thought the callers must have got tired of hearing the beeps, instead of raspy Ladybird, after all this time. But trust the doggedness of men in heat, the calls persisted. One day, when enough was really more than enough, my brother-in-law confronted my harasser on the phone and demanded that he desist. Apparently, he did not deny scribbling my name on public walls. That was the confirmation I needed, in case anyone thought I was imagining all of this.

I sometimes wonder how he felt, knowing that his “revenge” on me (for whatever I must have done to him) was also impacting my family members. In good times, our families had met and he knew my sister well. Was he pleased to know his act was tormenting her as well?

What did he have against me at all? Why would he do this? Why would a seemingly nice and gentle person who was always ready to help, sometimes annoyingly unsolicited, do this, that too after pleading for forgiveness innumerable times? I had left the office on a good note; there was a farewell lunch with the whole team.

Over time the calls subsided — maybe also because the number remained inactive for some time in between — but never really stopped.

I gave up thinking about it, because I increasingly blamed myself. Everything boiled down to: I must have encouraged him. It must be me. I locked that shame in the back of my mind, and carried on with my life, pretending everything was all right.

Even when Sandhya Menon and others kicked off this recent phase of the #MeToo movement in India, I resisted the very thought of it. I tried not to talk about it.

But then the phone rang again — I have the old number back with me now. Someone called and asked, “Kaun? Who?”

“You called, you tell me who you want to talk to,” I said.

“You,” he replied.

“Who 'you'?”

Arrey, you 'you'.”

“Who are you?”

“I am me. I called to speak to you.”

After several calls and similar conversations with the same caller, I blocked the number (now my smartphone allows that). I am not sure — there’s no way of knowing because the caller just wouldn’t say much — if this call is related to the “Ladybird Calls". I get these calls every once in a while; I feel the same pain every time. This is why I am loath to take calls from unknown numbers.

Somewhere on an unpainted wall my number must still exist, and my pick-up name: Ladybird.


Updated Date: Oct 30, 2018 10:17 AM

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