Over thirty years ago on an afternoon in Chennai, when lizards crawled down pipes and crows danced on coconut trees, the tenant renting the apartment above our home tapped on the grilled door leading into our living room. I walked towards the door wondering if the man was in some sort of trouble. I couldn’t hear his words clearly enough from the inside of our home, but when I reached the door and held it open, this gentleman—I used to call him “uncle” in deference to his age—mouthed out a request that made my ears burn.
Within seconds, I realized that he had premeditated his visit to our home while my parents were away on a day trip to a town a hundred miles away. Now the large-bodied man stood on our verandah wondering if I would give him a kiss.
“Just one kiss,” he said. Eyes glazed, he waited.
I don’t remember my exact words to this incredible hulk—his wife was days away from giving birth to their second child miles away in Kerala—but I do remember my extreme humiliation. I recall yelling at the ogre while tears stung my eyes, calling him a cad, telling him I was not only shocked at his conduct, but deeply disappointed in him. I snapped the door shut against his face after which I ran around the house to ensure that the doors leading to the backyard were also locked.
When my parents returned home, I confided first in my father detailing what had happened. He told me not to tell my mother saying that her intolerance for such nonsense was well-known. Had my mother been informed of it, physical strength permitting, she might have boxed the man’s ears and dragged him, privates rubbing the gravel, as she set about to pillory him. My father, on the other hand, preferred to avoid confrontation especially on delicate matters of sexual transgression. Through tears, I told my father that I felt ashamed, as if I were a perpetrator myself. I asked him if I could I have done something that had made a married man dare to do what he did? Had my extroverted self and my visits upstairs with his family unwittingly given the man ideas? My father had no explanation for it. He offered me mealy-mouthed words of solace, telling me that sometimes men went insane.
Today I regret having complied with my father’s wishes. We were taught that the best defense for handling unwanted sexual advances was avoidance. Women didn’t blow the whistle to bring attention to offenders and thereby to themselves. It was the male prerogative to behave in a certain way; it was a woman’s obligation to put up and shut up in order to move on or move up.
In the eighties in India, a similar reaction made me shuffle out of a room in silence when, during an interview with the Indian Express newspaper, the editor—a large, illustrious man who filled the room with the miasma of his ego and accomplishments—used a double entendre during my interview. When his questions turned to current affairs in the north of India I didn’t do well; it was obvious that I had foiled my interview. As he wound down, the gentleman turned to his four or five other deputies on the panel and told them to continue quizzing me, if they so wished. “I think I’ve finished,” he said, breaking into a knowing smile. “You can have her now.” The men around him sniggered. When my interview ended, I felt humiliated as I trooped out of the room. While I was feisty by nature, that day I had been too cowardly to speak up. If I did, I’d hurt my chances of getting that job, I told myself. Furthermore, I was a nobody and that man was somebody famous.
Three decades after that, I know better. I know that people respected those who took a stand, even if their position were antithetical to the norm. If I’ve learned anything from my life and the sexual harassment scandal of Hollywood, it’s this: Every time a woman speaks up, she paves the way for another woman to forge ahead with her dreams.
When my children were little, I told them that I knew something that they did not, that years later, every minor and major assault on them would burn inside them like a small fire. Thankfully, my children are now in their twenties with enough agency, one would hope, to fight back.
Sexual predators filled the peripheries of my life. I was brought up in an atmosphere where women were conditioned to believe that the predator was, in fact, our victim, and that if we showed less, we’d be preyed upon less. But bikini or burqa, malfeasants found their way into us. Some were breast-pinchers who didn’t understand that a torqued breast left a scar as deep as a resection. In the by-lanes of my gritty town, there was always a strange man or two who pleasured himself while I averted my eyes. It was par for the course, people said, and women were expected to keep creeps at bay by dressing for the part.
I could talk to any woman anywhere on the planet. I know she’d tell me that just as a child measured her height by a growth chart on a wall, a woman counted her years by the endless raids on her innocence. I felt that one of the most humbling and heartwarming events of my life took place during my birthday week in mid-October. As fires raged a hundred miles north of me, women around the world joined their hands and minds to say “Me, too”—that they would not play victim to sexual harassment anymore.
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. http://kalpanamohan.com