Suhel Seth's return to Twitter says less about people believing women and more about how rich, famous men are protected

It doesn’t matter how many people believe Suhel Seth’s accusers, what matters is his return to public life, and our collective response to it

Sonali Kokra November 30, 2019 18:06:30 IST
Suhel Seth's return to Twitter says less about people believing women and more about how rich, famous men are protected

Ladies of social media, rejoice! Suhel Seth, 56, self-professed believer and broadcaster of profound pearls of wisdom such as, “A man is only as old as the woman he feels,” in the past is back on Twitter. Yes, I know Groucho Marx “joked” about it first, but a man is only as good as his word, no? So we must take Sethji for his word. When you think about it, it might even be an honour. What higher compliment can a man give a woman, other than calling her his own, personal time-turning device — until she reaches the unappetising age beyond which he does not wish to grow?

Let me make one thing very clear before I proceed: I am a committed supporter of men and women’s right to feel other women and men, provided that they enthusiastically consent to being felt by the hands headed their way. But that has not always been the case with Suhel Seth, if all the #MeToo accusations against him are to be believed. The thing is, like all sensible people must, I have worried endlessly about the potential for misuse and manipulation that social media accusations of unprovable crimes come with, even as I recognise their importance.

When it comes to matters as sensitive as sexual offences, often there are no witnesses or physical evidence. How can you prove someone you were trying to shake hands with decided to stick their tongue in your mouth instead when no one was looking? You can’t. How can the person being accused prove that he didn’t? He can’t either. Mass opinion more or less boils down to who has more credibility, ultimately. It might not seem like a fair system, and it’s certainly not a foolproof one, but it is the only one we currently have. It’s either this, or muzzling women who have spent years and decades stewing in silence as their abusers carry on, remorselessly.

Suhel Seths return to Twitter says less about people believing women and more about how rich famous men are protected

And so, despite all the angry fist-shaking and gnashing of teeth against us evil feminists who will “believe anything without due process” or even an iota of concern for the delicate constitutions of the men being “unfairly targeted”, most feminists who are also rational human beings — how surprising, the two groups aren’t mutually exclusive! — are keenly aware of the power imbalance we’re enabling, every time we say we believe the accusers of unprovable crimes, especially when they’re also anonymous. We live in fearful agony of that power being abused and exploited, and there is a lot of misery going around in our “man-hating” circles when those fears are realised, as they seemed to have been, last week on Twitter in the Utsav Chakraborty-Mahima Kukreja case. Among those of us who didn’t immediately leap to our keyboards to launch into 240-character opinions, with more aggressive interest in beating everyone else to the punch than in being sensible and constructive, there was a lot of quiet dejection and introspection. This might come as a surprise to many, but believe it or not, none of us want innocents of any gender turning into collateral damage.

But why am I dissecting the anatomy of accusations around sexual misconduct? Because amid the confusion, every now and then, there erupt accusations you instinctively believe for reasons more complicated than “believe women”. I don’t personally know any of the seven women who have publicly, and on the record, accused Seth of groping and kissing them, and yet, I believe them wholeheartedly.

I also realise that it’s easy to believe that he is guilty — he’s not exactly been discreet about his fondness for women or attempted to keep his wannabe Don Juan-like ways a secret. He takes delight in being surrounded by and photographed with models. His breast-shaped 40th birthday cake is a matter of easily accessible public record. He’s hardly the first or only famous middle-aged man whose face was smashed in a pair of chocolate and fondant double-D breasts, but most have the sense to not let it become a part of the news cycle.

Given our cultural obsession with vilifying sex, sexuality, and its public expression, even the slightest impression of promiscuity can be enough to seal your guilt in the minds of the people. But no, I don’t believe Seth’s accusers because of what his life outside of the accusation looks like. I believe them because I’ve seen his bad behaviour play out in real time on far too many occasions, and laughingly brushed aside as “Oh, that? That’s just Suhel being Suhel!” by far too many of his friends and acquaintances, to need much convincing. It’s true, no one but Seth and the women accusing him can ever conclusively know what happened between them, but when one version of events corroborates every other account you’ve ever heard, and some that you’ve witnessed, it’s tough to keep parroting the word “allegedly” simply because you must.

At some point, not acknowledging the worst-kept secrets of society makes a mockery of the truth, and a subversion of justice — if simply being able to tell your story of abuse on social media and have it be believed can be called justice.

As a journalist, I mustn’t assume guilt, but as an adult human with functioning eyes and ears, I can’t ignore what I’ve seen and heard, in the interest of not seeming biased. It’s not a bias if you’re simply describing what you saw. Suhel Seth’s fondness for sexually charged jokes and comments are a staple within Mumbai and Delhi’s party circuits. If you stand next to him at a do, and you happen to be a possessor of breasts, there’s a good chance you might be subjected to an impromptu, unwelcome bum-pat — it doesn’t matter that you only met him 30 seconds ago — or suddenly find his arm flung around your shoulder in a gesture of (over)friendliness and (over)familiarity. If you’re lucky, someone will warn you of this beforehand, so you can ensure you socialise from outside the circumference of his arms. Not everyone is, which is why they find themselves in shock over the brazen liberties he takes and gets away with. Since the assumption is that invading someone’s physical space is just “Suhel being Suhel”, it is also the accepted assumption that if you’ve chosen to consort with him, you’ve basically consented to being felt up by him every now and then. It is exactly as horrifying and unfair as it sounds.

I could go on, but it boils down to this: it doesn’t matter how many people believe Seth’s accusers, what matters is his return to public life, and our collective response to it. I’m not surprised by his imperious, sorry-not-sorry comeback after a conveniently long social media exile of one year. Convenient for him, of course. In his short time away, he also acquired the accessory that men in serious need of image makeovers often do: a wife, for some measure of respectability. I hate to describe a wife as something to be acquired, but I’m hard pressed to call it anything but, considering he was married within three months of multiple women describing, in excruciating detail, his particular brand of predatory behaviour — a combination of silver-tongued charm, indulgence of his abhorrent behaviour by all those around him, and unlimited access to women far less powerful than him, thanks to his rich and powerful connections. Perhaps the insinuation is that if this woman (I’m purposely refraining from naming her) has agreed to marry him despite all the mud being flung his way, there is more to the story than we’re being told.

Seth was never going to lose his friends or their largesse — not for this. Why would he? He’s done nothing out of the ordinary, and to ostracise him would mean accepting their own roles as enablers, and who has the time for that? The self-proclaimed “bon vivant” has been keeping his thumbs busy on Twitter for the last week, racking up likes and retweets for his cheeky hot takes on Maharashtra politics. Sandwiched between them are tweets and retweets singing praises of the group that fired him after sexual assault accusations against him increased from one to seven, adding celebrity names to the small, but impossible-to-ignore list.

Appearances must be kept, after all. I wasn’t surprised by the allegations against him, and I won’t be surprised to see him back in newsrooms and at literature festivals in the coming months and years, bellowing at us in that indeterminate but impressive accent that I’m convinced is taught at secret schools for the ultra rich and their favourite sidekicks. It might take time and effort, but it will happen.

If I sound like I’m hopping mad about that, I’m not. I’m used to seeing serial abusers staging grand comebacks with warm receptions, while their accusers and the activists who support them struggle to find work, punished through the behind-the-curtains mechanism that exists to protect the rich and powerful. And so, while I want to barf every time I see Suhel’s 240-character witticisms being received with delighted giggles, “welcome backs”, and “we missed yous”, I’ve lost the ability to be shocked by them. What’s next, a full house at a widely publicised session in a popular lit fest after some more months have passed, where the accused men of #MeToo “finally” get to put their side of the story forward, sponsored by the most benevolent of his many benefactors? Why not? Seth is, after all, a branding expert. Now he can also be his own client.

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