Our Editor-In-Chief was in town from Mumbai and he had thrown a party at a city disco in Kolkata, something he always did when he was down and something we all looked forward to. I was in a bit of a hurry to leave because of some pressing responsibility back home and when I went to say bye to him, he said, “Why are you leaving so early?” I gave my reasons. Then he said, “But there will be transfer.”
I froze. I thought now it’s happening to me too, another whimsical editor threatening me with transfer if I did not stay on and dance with him.
Looking at my anxious face he looked puzzled. “Why are you looking so worried? There will be transport to take you home.”
I heaved a sigh of relief – he meant transport then and not transfer. He was trying to be genuinely nice but I think I can’t be blamed for presuming what he said. From the day I joined the Indian media as a trainee journalist I have been fed stories of brilliant editors who were equally talented womanizers. Editors who would unleash their libido in the company corridors, on the office couch, in the lifts, at parties and on working tours. Some accounts sounded realistic, some grossly exaggerated, and some figments of imagination, but like mothers tell children fairy tales and tell them to be scared of the demons and the monsters, our seniors told us tales of predatory editors and our imagination went astray.
So much so that when I was a trainee journalist, all of us would huddle into one room and avoid the Editor-In- Chief, like the plague, every time he dropped into town. Why? Because he had a reputation with women, that walked into a room long before he did. We would even discuss what we would do if he asked one of us to visit him in his hotel room. (Apparently that was his way of making a pass at women journalists and that’s what once again our seniors had told us.) At that point our unanimous decision was: we would obviously leave the job immediately.
Nothing like that ever happened. He didn’t even give us a second look when he rebuked us at the department meetings for all the wrong headlines. Then he walked off in a huff to lunch with our immediate boss, the prettiest woman I have ever met.
So were the stories we heard about him true? I don’t know. Or was our pretty boss the buffer that kept him from turning his attention to us? I don’t know either. But this much I know that we quickly put aside our unwarranted fears. Years later I met a journalist, much senior to me, and I was telling her this story with a laugh, she startled me with her confession. She said she had actually gone to meet him in his hotel room while working as a trainee journalist. (Her account is in my post tomorrow.)
As I gained experience in journalism I realised editors do hit on women, more precisely take their chances with them. It is the most common thing in the newsroom. Some women reciprocate, often looking at it as a good opportunity to go up the ladder, some don’t. But what is incredible is the shockwaves that Tarun Tejpal is sending down the spine of the media people. Isn’t this something we have always known? What has Tejpal suddenly done that has shaken us all? Aren’t we used to discussing stories like this over coffee right there in the office cafeteria? Is it shocking now because this story has spilled over from the cafeteria to the common man’s sitting room?
There is a pattern to the whole thing. Most often the relationships are consensual and when it is not, the woman journalist handles it in her own way. When she can’t, she leaves the job. But sometimes she does complain. It is always dealt with “amicably” and yes, Vishakha (Judgement) is kept out of the door consciously. After it has been dealt with, the woman journalist inevitably finds it tough to carry on in the job and resigns. But I have also heard of editors losing their jobs because there had been too many complaints against them. Also, as a male ex-colleague said, he has seen a couple of cases of false charges. Whatever the situation, it is always an “internal issue”. The only person to have had the guts to move court and fight a case for 10 long years is journalist Rina Mukherji.
Personally I have faced harassment too. I have to admit that no one has ever made any overt suggestion but the subtle hints were enough and in one job I have even lost a promotion because I failed to keep the boss “happy”. I never complained to higher authorities because I always felt, apart from making the gossip mills go on an overdrive, it would do nothing for me. There was also the chance of being labeled “the girl who sc***** her boss’ happiness” and my chances of finding another job would have been remote, in an industry where “news” travels fast.
And what would I have complained about, that my boss asks me out for a drink every day? What’s wrong with that? Because I didn’t go, I didn’t get a promotion. Come on, you are not good enough. My boss wants to walk into every party with me. Why, can’t a boss go to a party with a colleague? He often insists on having dinner from my plate at the party. Umm…what does that have to do with sexual harassment?
So in the end I have handled it my own way by sometimes wriggling out of a situation, by putting my foot down or by taking the help of supportive colleagues. In this regard I have to admit that it’s because of sensitive colleagues and some nice, caring, supportive senior people and editors (both men and women) women journalists are thriving in the industry. I remember there was an editor who was not even my boss but whenever I travelled with him in the office car, late in the night, he would step out of the car when I reached home. He stood in front of the gate till I had stepped in and locked it behind me. He got back to the car only after ensuring I was safe.
Sadly these amazing people will never make the headlines for all the good reasons, the Tejpals will. But instead of resorting to Tejpal-bashing (that his closest friends from the circuit are doing and behaving as if they never knew this side of him) and expressing well-rehearsed “shock” and “disbelief” at a fellow journalist’s folly, shouldn’t they be taking a closer look at their own lifts? You never know what’s lurking there.
(I have spoken to 10 journalists, all of whom are currently holding senior positions in different organizations. They have jotted down their personal experiences of sexual harassment which I have published in Part II.)
Check another post about Indian media: