I met my first bully in kindergarten. Mrs H had a son, a boy of 7 or 10. He studied in a different school. Once a week, he would be dropped off at our school during the “rest period” so Mrs H could take him home. Most days he would monkey around on the playground. But on some days, when Mrs H had a staff meeting, he would come into our class, pulling plaits or boxing our ears. He did receive a gentle rebuke from his mother but that only seemed to fuel his antics. As weeks went on, he became a terror. He had picked up his victims, and I was his favourite; I was puny, stick-like - a good target. From pulling my hair, to whacking my head as he ran about laughing, it was dreadful. School became a fearful place because there was no knowing on which day he would come. One day he hit my knuckles with the wooden end of the blackboard duster. My fear of this boy was absolute from then on.
Amma had a word with Mrs H. I was reassured I won’t be troubled anymore. As usual that week, Mrs H’s boy came. I could see him on the playground, kicking mud. Just before the bell rang, Mrs H stepped out. The boy walked in. He started his usual mayhem. He flung a little girl’s bag, pelted us with chalk pieces and pounced around like a monkey jumping from one tree branch to another. Then he came towards me with the duster. When he grabbed my hand to hit it, I pushed him away. He staggered back, surprised. I was surprised too. Then, I swung my school box against his head. Yeah, instead of a school bag, I had this small aluminium box – a miniature suitcase. Quite popular apparently, because we could stick labels and stickers on the lid. We both stood stunned. He with the duster, me with the suitcase. I felt ashamed for some reason. And then he started bawling. Mummyyyyyeeeee. Mrs H came running in. The bell rang. Mrs H and Amma had a chat I think. School closed for the summer and that was the last I saw of him.
I am glad Amma neither gloated about my reaction, nor did she sermonise. I am glad she allowed me to figure out things for myself. This was a delicate balance – she obviously did not want to reinforce or reward me hitting another person. At the same time, she did not want me to cow down when bullied. That experience distilled in the growing years. Bullies like that kid drag you down to their level. The incident left behind an aftertaste that instinctively bubbles up like acid reflux when I come across some people. There’s a pattern in their behaviour and body language which seems universal.
I met the boy with the duster in many forms in later years, especially at work. Only now, the forms of bullying were more sophisticated with sexual overtones. In the early years of my career, I came across a project manager – there was something about his body language that made my stomach clench. I came to know he was quite a harasser. A friend narrated an experience - she was discussing a project with him. Although the conversation was professional, she felt uneasy because his eyes roved all over her. Then, out of the blue, he asked her if she had kids, about her husband, and resting his eyes on her chest area, commented his wife was very thin. I heard a similar account from another lady too. What do I tell the HR, one of them asked. Nothing. That was how clever it all was. He will call you someday, one of the girls said. He always does. Any new girl on the floor, he tests the water. It was such an open secret. Everyone knew, yet no one knew.
He did call me over to his desk. He wanted to discuss having me in his team. Sky is the limit, he informed my breasts, well covered in my salwaar and dupatta. I stared at his desktop monitor. I bet I could swing it just as easily as my trusty aluminium box. Tell me about yourself, he coaxed. How come you are not married ya?
I did not speak a word. I got up. I left. I kept thinking about how I could have reacted. Frankly speaking, like De Niro, I wanted to punch this jerk’s face. I felt angry and frustrated. The thing is, you can’t complain that someone gives you the creeps, or someone stared at you in a ‘wrong’ way. It’s all too subjective. I waited for the repercussion. In whatever form it came, I promised myself to have a good fight and make life difficult for him. But nothing happened. He merely accosted me in the cafeteria and said I was arrogant. How dare I get up and walk away when a senior manager is speaking to me? Excuse me, I said. I’d like to get on with my lunch. His eyes bulged. There was the surprise at first. Then the pout and the blubbing. This attitude won’t take you far, he warned. I knew I’d won this small battle.
It’s like seeing shit on road yaar, a friend mused. You can only cover your nose and take a detour because you will meet many like this. How much will you complain and where all will you complain? She asked. Yes indeed. There were quite a few. Like the VP who always, always stared at your breasts when he spoke. Zero eye contact. It did not matter if you were wrapped in yak skin. The knowledge that you have breasts somewhere beneath all those clothes was enough. Or like the senior manager who was angry with his female peer for having commented on his strategy in a management meeting – he ranted in her absence - saree samballe apni, chali aayi mujhe business sikhaane (it is enough if she manages her saree, how dare she tries to teach me business).
Then, there was this specimen. He would make sure he used the word ‘rape’ in every other sentence. ‘You have to give me the estimates, or I’ll get raped in the meeting.’ A bad project schedule? So, all of you are getting raped, eh? Ha ha. He’d always find a way of sexualising even the most mundane business scenarios. Things got worse when his sexual innuendo stretched to day-to-day interactions. When a female colleague was discussing a presentation, he stared at his crotch and said, shit, I think my trousers are torn. He told a colleague she needed ‘more stroking’. And quickly added, I mean you need more acknowledgement for your work. He would come over to our cubicles and sit on the desk, legs spread, and go on about deadlines and his impending “rape”.
This time, we did talk to the HR. It was a very clinical conversation and the premise was simple – as employees, we have the right to work in a decent, professional environment, and he was failing to create such an environment. His speech and behaviour had a sexualised pattern which was unbecoming and caused anguish on some occasions, and discomfort on a daily basis. There were other men on the team who looked surprised. He was a good manager, they said. Yes, he uses those words, even worse when the ladies are not there, ha ha. But it’s harmless. He’s just exuberant that’s all. The line, “you women are overreacting”, was unsaid, but heard loudly in the room. Surely he meant no harm. Surely he can’t have meant it that way...well because he’s married and has kids. Surely, we must have misunderstood. After all it was guy-talk.
No, that’s not guy-talk. Because for every creep like him, I also know fifty other perfectly decent men. I know what a decent, professional interaction is. I also know what a decent, personal interaction is. Many of my cherished friendships are with men. Many of my cherished professional interactions have been with men. None of these interactions involve rape terminology or sexual innuendo. And it’s not just about us women – the harassment men face from the likes of such assholes is even worse. It may not be sexual in nature, but comes in the form of brutal mental abuse and emasculation. The tragedy is men have extremely limited avenues of seeking redressal.
The thing is when a woman goes to work, all this objectification sort of comes like a package deal. Your wife, daughter, sister – everyone will have a story. (So, next time you make a rape joke, keep them in mind.) Everyone will know about it. Everyone will shrug. Because there’s always a “but” for such behaviour. But, he’s such a good leader. But, he’s such a good project manager. But, he’s just a little boy. But, he’s doing all this charity. But, his father used to beat him. But, your top was a bit tight. But, you wear lipstick. But, you are a woman.
But, he’s probably going to be the President of United States of America.
© Sumana Khan - 2016