We, the Women…thank you, Tarun Tejpal.
It is astounding how it takes just one case for the worm to turn! For decades, we have been talking about the abject sexual harassment of women in the work place…. with NOTHING happening. And suddenly, the issue is out there - the genie is out of the bottle, folks! And there’s no looking back now. The seminal moment is here. If we don’t recognize it…. if we are foolish enough to let it slip away noiselessly - unnoticed and trivialized – we will be condemning ourselves to live with humiliation and degradation for the next fifty years. Two generations of women in the work place have silently suffered some form of harassment or the other, unsure of how to handle gender crises – big and small. Our time starts now.
So….thank you,Tarun Tejpal. You have played the role of a catalyst in this vital discourse. And we owe you a big one. Media houses, in particular, have always bound themselves by some peculiar oath. The oath declares – when men f*** up, nobody say nuthin’. And nobody does. Or did. Overnight, that omerata has been thrown right out of the window. A woman has spoken up. And spoken up strongly. Inspired by her courage, more and more women have also spoken up. It took guts for the young woman to do what she did ( and can we please ignore the misogynists in our midst who are saying it’s all a dirty right wing conspiracy?). The young journo expected justice from her employers. She got none. But she got something much bigger in its place - she found her voice. And it is this voice that is being echoed across India. Hundreds of women have come forward to share their horror stories. Hundreds have derived succor from the young journo’s courage in taking on someone as well known and as well connected. Especially since we have seen the fate that has befallen some other, equally gutsy women who have tried to expose the misconduct of their bosses. Some were killed, others driven to suicide, still others banished to a life worse than death, with no hope of future employment.
In the bad, old days women who spoke up were called witches and burnt at the stake. Today, they are called bitches. And ostracized. I hear men labelling such women ‘trouble makers’. I hear men complain, “She doesn’t co-operate…” Or the newer version : “ She refuses to adjust.” Decoded, these statements mean just one thing … there is just one connotation : She refuses to give. If a woman refuses to give, that amounts to professional suicide. Word gets around very quickly. And she becomes dead meat in the market. Remember, even Tejpal held out the same threat when he allegedly told his employee the best way to keep her job was to go along with his sexual overtures. Most women in her situation would have got the message loud and clear….but not all of them would have found the courage to speak up. By doing that, she has inadvertently breached a dam. Now that the floodgates have been opened, there is no going back .
Whichever way this bizarre case goes - and I certainly don’t see it taking either a logical or predictable course – the inner landscape has definitely changed for the women of India. For a few brave ones, so has the outer. With more support systems emerging from unlikely quarters (who could have imagined conservative families standing by abused daughters even five years ago?), today’s young women simply can’t be pushed around. If the boss can’t keep his pants up, sorry, he should brace himself for handcuffs. For all those men who leer, pass cheap remarks or accidentally brush past their female colleagues in the belief they’ll get away with it, the writing is on the wall in big, bold letters – THE PARTY IS OVER.’ It has taken one brave woman to change the old rules of this ugly game. And brave she most certainly is. Make no mistake about that : each time a woman makes a charge of sexual misconduct against a powerful man, she risks her life. We have seen this in case after case. The victim in the Tejpal case is no different. She too has risked her life.
The Tehelka journalist has expectedly resigned. At the time of writing, there was a clumsy attempt to convert the case into a political battle, in which – get this – Tejpal is the victim. If not a martyr. It started with penance, atonement and laceration. The only thing that now remains is a dramatic self- crucifixion. If even that doesn’t succeed, other options will present themselves. Given Tejpal’s penchant for florid prose, there will be any number of publishers waiting with juicy contracts for his memoir. Trouble is we can’t be sure of the version he’ll write, given that his narrative has changed so many times in under a week. A smart literary agent should tell him nothing sells as well as pure, unalloyed truth. Take a tip from the victim, Tejpal. She has stuck to her story. And freed countless women. If Tejpal really wishes to redeem himself – in the eyes of his shamed family, in his own eyes, and in the eyes of the world - he should have the guts to speak the whole truth and nothing but. In so doing, he too will free men like himself… by holding up a mirror and showing them their own sorry selves in the reflection. Give it a shot, Tarun. You’ll feel so much lighter. And so will we.