I was still finishing journalism school when a friend of friend got me an offer from a national daily in Mumbai. In the early 2000s, when there were fewer players in the media market and when this newspaper had still had quality reporting to speak of, working for it was a prestigious thing. It didn’t have the circulation of other market leaders, but it was run by a prodigious editor, credited with launching unputdownable publications.
The editor met me two months after I joined the Mumbai office. Based out of Delhi, his visits to the Mumbai office had the hallmarks of the bustle one associates with a room check by a hostel matron. Suddenly plants are manicured, reporters are better dressed, and there’s an eerie calm in one of the noisiest places on earth—the newsroom. The then Mumbai resident editor invited the new recruits to meet him, a moment of much excitement for those of us who got into the profession inspired by his articles, byline-worthy columns and his books, more than his stint as a member of Parliament.
As we sat around the conference room table, listening in awe as he extolled the virtues of honest, hard-hitting journalism. He made us feel like even though we don’t have much money as a company, we have our integrity. Claps all around. He asked each of us our names and what book we were reading currently. I remember when it was my turn, I opened my mouth to say that I was actually reading a book on stylistic devices for my syllabus and nothing as interesting as the others, realised my answer was irrelevant. He wasn’t fully listening, he was staring at my breasts. He heard a few words perhaps, said something mundane about balancing work and studies and promptly went on to the next debutante.
I told myself that it was probably one-off and he didn’t mean to. Why did I justify it? I have no idea. My only explanation for this can be that I really had this man on a pedestal and I desperately wanted my instinct to be wrong.
He’d make multiple visits to the Mumbai office over the next few months, each time talking to various departments and we’d get a chance to be in his presence, not always in a talking capacity. It was supposed to be a big deal for us. We’d hear of reporters and editors seething over something he’s said and we’d continue to mind our own business. My parents warned me a million times about working with him. But then they said that about all famous editors in the business at that point—there weren’t all that many in the first place.
His infamous temper, ability to send the most outraged emails and impulsive tantrums all paled against his towering personality and image of being a firebrand journalist.
He had a knack of picking out talent that didn’t even know existed. But he also had a type. The type that was confident, the type that was pleasing in personality and most of all, the type that was young. It was very obvious that a lot of girls in the offices across the country enjoyed having his attention. There were many, many more though, who felt deeply uncomfortable about being in the same room as him.
He’d call for meetings when he was in town and frequently call a more selective group of employees to fancy dinners at the 5-star hotels he stayed at. Sometimes, he’d call the juniors in the team and leave out the head of department. Most often those would be kosher. Sometimes he’d get a complimentary bottle of wine and pass them on to us. Once he hugged me and stayed on much longer than was considered normal.
He once told me to join him and my resident editor (who was on leave that day) for dinner at his hotel to discuss some work. It never occurred to me to check with the editor if she was en route. So I decided that I’d just reach the lobby and wait for her. Lie low and the night will be over. No pun intended. I was dressed conservatively, in my opinion. Formal kurti and leggings, a pair of one-inch heels.
When she didn’t come for 10 more minutes, I called her — because no one is ever late for a meeting with him. She had no idea this meeting was to take place but said I could just quickly chat with him and head home. I got the reception to call his room and inform him that I was waiting for him. He asked them to send me to his room because “I don’t come to you. You come to me.” I was starting to feel sick. My parents had warned me about this for months earlier, and I had told them that I wasn’t going to be alone. My boyfriend presumed I was at a work dinner and had told me to message him when I was on my way home. “Stay there for 10 minutes, feign a family emergency and leave” I told myself. Seemed easy enough.
When I reached his room, he greeted me with a whisky glass in his hand. He offered me a drink, I declined. He asked me to get him some ice from the minibar and I didn’t think too much of it until I felt my buttocks were being checked out. Women just know an unwanted gaze even when they aren’t looking. By the time I stood up, he was right behind me, uncomfortably close. I started to give him the ice bucket but he simply took a cube of ice and traced it down my arm.
I froze. My mind rushed with so many possible exit strategies, but my feet didn’t move and my parched throat didn’t let out a sound. Because I neither pushed his hand away nor did I start to leave the room, he forced his face against mine, slobbering over my lips most disgustingly. A wave of repulsion swept through me and I thought I could taste my own bile in my mouth. My hand suddenly lost grip of the ice box and it fell on his feet.
In that moment, I snapped out of this trance-like state, picked up my purse and ran out. I ran down six out of 22 floors of that hotel, before removing my heels and running barefoot for the rest of the stretch. I thought an old man like him wouldn’t be able to chase me. It never occurred to me then that he didn’t want to chase me down at all. He wanted to see how far he could go with me.
I reached the ground floor and ran for a good 600-800 metres before feeling like I could die of breathlessness. My stomach was in knots, my body was shivering, I was sweating profusely, and I had tears streaming down my face… I didn’t even realise all of this. A cab driver slowed down, presumably to check if I wanted a ride, and saw what a mess I looked like. He got out, opened the door for me, gave me his napkin and asked me where I should be dropped. He told me he wouldn’t rape me and that he wanted to help me. I went to my boyfriend’s house and just cried for an hour before realising my parents have no inkling of all of this. I had to get back home.
I went home, composing myself on the way back. I showered and then cried myself to sleep. I had to quit my job, I thought. I didn’t tell anyone at home. I woke up the next morning and told myself that I couldn’t let him think that I quit because of him. Why give him that importance? What I didn’t know then was he couldn’t care less.
I avoided him for days after that, making sure to mark my Resident Editor on all emails from then on and was comforted in the fact that he was not Mumbai-based, so my interactions with him would be limited.
He didn’t reach out to me personally or via email apart from the group work mails, for many months. It was like I didn’t exist outside of Reply All mails. I couldn’t tell a soul in the office. There was no real HR team to speak of…just a person or two handling HR/admin and accounting responsibilities, who would tell you that they’d check with Delhi (head office then) for any small query. They inspired no confidence in protecting my interests. I considered telling my Resident Editor about it but she seemed to dislike my growth in the organisation. She didn’t spare an opportunity to be mean even in the best of times. You can’t confide in juniors, you’ll erode their faith. You can’t confide in seniors who grudge you and you can’t confide in contemporaries who’re waiting for you to stumble. My boyfriend kept telling me to quit and I kept hearing him out and said that I would do on my terms but not out of shame.
In the months that followed, the editor gave me career opportunities that I couldn’t even imagine. I was constantly juggling the thoughts of whether these came my way because of my competence or because he wanted to make it up to me. Neither situation made me feel better but I thought I’d go with the flow and figure how to tell my parents I wanted to quit. I had no standing job offer so my parents would see right through it. And I knew they’d get worried sick, want me to give up my media profession and get a “safer” job. Or worse, get married. So that wasn’t an option either.
I patted myself on my back for not going all the way with him, not quitting my job out of shame and still doing the work I wanted to do. Wow, naivety of another kind, it seems like.
A few years later, he met me at an office party and just couldn’t get his eyes off my breasts. I have no idea what got into me, but I snapped my finger to break his gaze and said “Sir, let’s do this (greeting each other) again. This time you look me in the eye.” And that was it. That’s all it took for me to gain an upper-hand in this sick, perverted work equation.
I gained a kind of confidence that I never knew I had. I became irreverent and completely not in awe of his brilliance. I could see through his fakeness, his compulsive need to take his chances with colleagues, and his overfriendly overtures to others. He never did that to me again, treated me and my work with respect and a humility I hadn’t ever known him to have. Even when he was finally sacked for completely unrelated reasons (I always thought his raging penis would be the end of him), he called to say that this was going to happen.
Today I have forgiven him and moved on. I do believe I could have made some better choices and done some things very differently. I experienced shame, anger, guilt, fear, shock and so many emotions that almost broke me. At that point, I did not want these episodes and other less aggressive ones in the middle, to be linked to my sense of self-worth. Yet today, I cannot hold on to this negativity. And most importantly, I cannot not call him out in this climate because ensconced in his important government job, he seems to believe that he’s protected.
The author has requested that her name be withheld to avoid causing emotional anguish to her family.
Network 18, of which Firstpost is a part, has received complaints of sexual harassment as well. The complaints which are within the purview of the workplace have been forwarded to our PoSH committee for appropriate action.
Updated Date: Jan 08, 2019 13:16:15 IST