Posts Tagged ‘Kolkata’

Suzette Jordan

Suzette Jordan

Suzette Jordan has defied all perceptions of women in India. And for that, she has had to fight a battle which is still on – she is still awaiting the verdict over the Park Street gang rape case where she was the victim on the night of February 5, 2012. But in her refusal to cower down to the forces against her, she has won herself a stream of admirers, of which, I am definitely one.

Suzette chose to push away the trauma and despair that threatened to take over her life. She decided to talk about her experience to the media, reclaim her name which had become “the Park Street rape victim”, and repossess her face that had become a consistent blur on television and newspapers and, most importantly, find her voice that had been swallowed up by the storm that hit her on that fateful night.

Read her earlier interview here : https://amritaspeaks.com/2013/07/04/after-revealing-my-identity-as-the-park-street-rape-victim-i-have-got-more-respect-and-also-more-threats-suzette-jordan/

Now Suzette has been invited to the THiNK 2013, to talk her mind alongside speakers like Amitabh Bachchan, Farhan Akhtar, Medha Patkar, Shekhar Kapur, Robert De Niro, Farooq Abdullah and Garry Kasparov and a host of other notable personalities from around the world.

Amitabh Bachchan

Amitabh Bachchan

Farhan Akhtar

Farhan Akhtar

Organised by Tehelka, THiNK is a thought-provoking and egalitarian platform for ideas from across the globe.  http://thinkworks.in/

“I am honoured to be part of THiNK 2013. There is a lot to say and I am glad I have got this platform,” Suzette told me.

“Life has been a realization for me since the incident happened. I have been constantly made to feel like a piece of shit, humiliated at every opportunity and fooled considerably, but I have refused to give up my dignity. It has been terribly hard but today I am glad I did not give up,” she said.

Robert De Niro

Robert De Niro

At THiNK 2013, Suzette will be talking about her ongoing struggle and how life can be made a bit easier for women going through trauma like her. “You need counsellors to help you deal with things like post-traumatic disorder, something I had never heard of before. You need them to accompany you to the medical tests or prepare you for the gruelling sessions at the court,” said Suzette, adding, “I have to actually mentally and physically prepare myself for the cross-questioning in court so that my nerves don’t give way.”

After the Nirbhaya verdict, Suzette has much hope. She has so far has been through 16 such cross-questioning sessions and awaits more but she believes in patience. “It is not possible to hurry law and I know I have to be patient. Everything is worth it if there is justice in the end,” said Suzette.

Writer Sushmita Bandopadhyay and (right) Manisha Koirala playing her in reel-life in the Hindi film Escape from Taliban

Writer Sushmita Bandopadhyay and (right) Manisha Koirala playing her in reel-life in the Hindi film Escape from Taliban

The year was 2004 and the time was past midnight. I had just returned to the Times of India office in Kolkata, India, after a glitzy awards function where Manisha Koirala was given the best actress award for her role in the film Escape from Taliban. I just wanted to write the copy for the event I had covered so that I didn’t have to do it from home next day, which was my off day.

I was at my workstation when I got a call from security downstairs saying that a lady named Sushmita Bandopadhyay wanted to meet someone from my department. Puzzled, I looked at my watch. It was 1 am. Since I was the only one in my department at that time, I invited her upstairs.

Sushmita Bandopadhyay was a writer who gave Bengal a glimpse of the life of women in Afghanistan during Taliban’s dominance through her book Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou (Kabuliwala’s Bengali Wife) in 1997, a decade before Khaled Hosseini took on the world with his best-seller A Thousand Splendid Suns that delved into the same issue.

I had read about her daring escape from Taliban-dominated Afghanistan and at that moment I could feel the adrenaline rushing through my veins at the thought of meeting her. It took her some time to find her breath after her climb up the stairs.

After a glass of water, she gave vent to her anger – the reason that had brought her to my office at such an odd hour. She was livid with the organizers of the award ceremony (that I had just covered) for not inviting her to the function, considering the Bollywood film Escape from Taliban was based on her book. She also felt that if Manisha Koirala was given the Best Actress Award, then she too deserved some kind of mention or invitation at the ceremony.

“I am amazed that I am the writer of the book, sitting right here in Kolkata and they didn’t bother to invite me!” Sushmita said angrily.

That was Sushmita Bandopadhyay. She did what she wanted to do, even if that meant marrying and running away with a Kabuliwala to Afghanistan, escaping the country by digging a hole in the wall of her husband’s house, or even visiting a newspaper office at 1am.

At that point I felt her anger was probably justified. But as an entertainment journalist I knew for a fact that being the bestselling author of the book that had sold 700,000 copies was not enough. She would have probably found herself sitting next to Manisha Koirala had she been slimmer and prettier and had worn a designer salwar kurta instead of a how-dare-you attitude.

She was clearly upset, but the fact that I gave her a patient hearing and noted down her words calmed her down considerably. After that night I spoke to her often on the phone asking her for quotes for my stories.

In my interactions with her I realized that even if she had escaped Afghanistan, that country defined her. It was because of her experiences there she found fame as a writer and as the years passed by and she receded in public memory Sushmita wanted to reclaim her status as the Kabuliwalar bangali bou, who had taken Kolkata by storm with her story.

What I read from the reports yesterday was that Sushmita went back to Afghanistan to write another book and film a series on the life of women there. People who knew her say she was foolish to have gone back there and can’t seem to understand why she went.

I think I know why. She once again wanted to be the woman, who could dare the worst and write the truth. She probably wanted to see her name flashed across TV screens and in the pages of newspapers all over again.

In the last two days, she is not only everywhere in the Indian media, she has also made it to New York Times, CNN and BBC.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/06/world/asia/woman-who-wrote-about-life-under-the-taliban-is-killed.html?_r=0

I am sure she would have been happy if the headlines had been about her next book and not about her bullet-ridden body.

May her soul rest in peace.

Confessions of a woman journalist from India

Confessions of a woman journalist from India

…My protection will be my responsibility, almost always. Editors, HR Heads who conducted my interviews said: “If you have to get into reporting, these are a few things you have to keep in mind:

  • You will have to keep long hours and you don’t know when you will go home.
  • You will cease to have a social life.
  • Don’t blame your job if you break up with your boyfriend.
  • If you think journalism is only about glamour, please don’t join.”

There was one thing that no one ever said though:

  • You will have to throw caution to the wind and get the job done if that means jeopardizing your own safety. And if you are not careful, you don’t know what you will land up in.

That is something that I learned on the job.

Baptism by fire

On the first day of my first job, my boss told me she had news that a very famous Indian singer was staying in a five-star hotel in Kolkata and if I could give him a call and find out if he would give us an interview. I was nervous because I hadn’t spoken to a celebrity before but the singer was sweet enough to agree to the interview.

Then I said: “I will come at 6pm for the interview. Should I come up to your room?” He said, “Okay. Please do.” I hung up satisfied that my first effort at getting an interview was going well.

But my boss was in peals. “Amrita, you should have never asked him if you could go to his room. He could take it as a cue for something else…you know….something more than just the interview…you get it, right?”

I wasn’t convinced I had done a faux pas. I argued back, “But I am a journalist asking for his interview, why would he think of ‘something else?’” My boss looked at me kindly… “It’s your first day at the job. In six months you will know what I mean.”

Now I began to get scared. So I coaxed and cajoled my boss to come along with me to the interview and she was sweet enough to relent. I called the singer from the hotel house phone and he asked me to join him in his room. After opening the door, when he saw my boss and the photographer, he couldn’t hide his surprise. He blurted, “I thought you were coming alone.”

His room was in a mess with his clothes strewn all around along with his under garments – definitely not the kind of room in which you wait for a journalist about to do an interview for a newspaper. He shoved the clothes underneath the comforter and got down to doing the interview, got friendly with all of us and impressed us with his knowledge of music.

But on my first day at a newspaper job he did give me a valuable lesson – to say it right, because men out there always look for cues. One wrong sentence and you never know what you are going to land yourself in.

And in the next six months, as my boss said, I learned a lot more. That’s why when a famous Bengali singer started giving me an interview only in his pyjamas, flashing his fleshy chest at me, I could tell him politely it would be nice if he could put on a piece of clothing while we spoke. He obliged.

That’s why when a 55-year-old Bengali writer asked me how I would feel if I was asked to kiss him, I could tell him I would be feeling like I am kissing my father and when one of the top stars of Bollywood wouldn’t stop smoking on my face I could tell him I would prefer to conduct the interview from the other end of the room and ended up doing just that.

In the film 15 park Avenue Konkona Sen Sharma plays the role of a journalist, who is raped when she go to a small town to cover the political situation there.

In the film 15 park Avenue Konkona Sen Sharma plays the role of a journalist, who is raped when she goes to a small town to cover the political situation there. Here also she went alone because she had to prove a point to her boss and to her boyfriend.

It’s always about getting the story

Journalism is a profession where you are constantly interacting with people from all walks of life and what often gets to me is the lack of respect at times women face because of this job. And back in the office, what only matters is whether you have got the story or not. If you say you didn’t because you were concerned about your personal safety chances are you would be treated as a lesser mortal. And that’s when it starts happening. Women start putting their own safety in the backburner in the pursuit of a story, to prove a point, to prove they are equally good or even better than their male counterparts.

When I read the account of the Mumbai rape victim in DNA http://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/1880414/report-dna-exclusive-account-of-the-hellish-evening-when-mumbai-gang-rape-happened my first thought was what was she thinking? These men were clearly leading her on. Then I realized she is only 23, maybe just out of college, raring to go, raring to prove a point with her camera. Nothing else probably registered, nothing else mattered.

I think journalists are often conditioned like army men. Follow the orders and get the story. And if you don’t, be prepared to be court martialed in the editor’s room. On top of that if a competing publication gets the story and you couldn’t, God help you.

My safety comes first

I remember once my boss asked me to go to a Kolkata disco to interview a starlet as late as midnight. When I asked for the office car he told me, “Just hail a cab.”

I said, “It might be 2am before I finish the interview. I can’t go home so late on my own.” He retorted, “Just get the story.”

I could not imagine hailing a cab at 2am from Camac Street. I decided not to go to the assignment. Next day all hell broke loose. The allegations against me were insubordination and lack of commitment. In two seconds all my exclusives, all my late night desk work and my supposed “positive attitude” was forgotten. I didn’t care though. I was safe and that was what mattered.

A few months down the line I was sent for another assignment by the same boss, to cover a clothing exhibition at a five star hotel at a decent time – 7pm. By then, I was almost two years into the profession, had developed sharper instincts and an even sharper tongue. The first thing that struck me was that the exhibition was at a suite and not at the banquet, as it usually happens. I went to the suite and rang the bell. A gentleman opened the door and invited me in. I was about to step in, but I noticed there were at least 10 men seated there, drinking, talking boisterously and looking at me lustfully. I could not spot any woman around. When I enquired about the clothes the man at the door said it was in the bedroom. My inner voice told me not to step in. I did not. I handed the man my visiting card and told him to send me the photographs of the clothes and a write-up. The man looked very disappointed and some of the men had by then got up and joined him in his appeals to me. I left.

Next day I described the scenario to my boss and asked him what was I supposed to do? This time he agreed with my decision and didn’t haul me up for not doing an assignment. Needless to say the photographs and write-up were never delivered to me as promised by the man at the door.

Trust your instincts and get out

When I look back and think of my experiences I sometimes wonder would it have been better to be in another profession? My inner voice always says a firm NO. True. Sometimes there has been disrespect, but more often than not it has been compensated by ample respect. There have been negative experiences but also enriching experiences and most importantly experiences that have made me a stronger person, moulded me into someone who can’t be pushed around or taken for granted.

But after the Mumbai incident one thing I have realized is that women joining journalism should know personal safety is always bigger than the story. And in this profession it is but obvious you will be on a sticky wicket every other day. If your instinct says something is amiss just follow it.

Headlines come and go but your life doesn’t.

And going by the court verdict today where the juvenile involved in the Delhi rape case (the one who mutilated Nirbhaya with an iron rod) has been given three years in a juvenile home, women journalists will have to work harder towards protecting themselves now because the law is surely not coming to their rescue anytime soon.

The South Point High School building

The South Point High School building

Since last night I have been trying to remember names of films or books where a girl and a boy are childhood besties. Films like Parinda, Parineeta, Slumdog Millionaire came to my mind along with Chetan Bhagat’s book Revolution 2020. Then I thought of the same direction all the stories take – best friends fall in love as adults.

But is this the direction every close man-woman friendship takes? Not at all! And I am sure all my friends from South Point School would vehemently agree with me on this.

You might wonder what makes me or my school mates so easily answer this question that has been a point of debate for centuries. As students of Kolkata’s first co-educational school established in 1954, which went on to become the world’s largest school in 1984 (and stayed so till 1992) in the Guinness Book of World Records, we can talk about this with conviction because we have all experienced this.

I will start with an example. A few years back I had gone to Pizza Hut on Camac Street, after work with one of my best pals from school. One of his neighbours told his mother that he was spotted with a girl at Pizza Hut. Aunty became quite excited hoping he had found a new girl friend. She asked her neighbour to describe the girl. When she did aunty was disappointed. “Oh that’s Amrita. They are best friends and can’t ever be anything else,” she had said matter-of-factly. We still laugh about this incident but on a more serious note this shows that it was not only us who believed in our friendship, our parents also did.

Our school group enjoying Durga Puja 1990 at Triangular Park, Kolkata (Pix taken from Arpita Mukherjee Mitra's FB albums)

Our school group enjoying Durga Puja 1990 at Triangular Park, Kolkata (Pix taken from Arpita Mukherjee Mitra’s FB albums)

Growing up together, sitting next to each other in class, sharing tiffin, playtime and non-stop chatter, there were times we never realized that we were of the opposite sex. As teenagers when we became more aware of our bodies and our differences most often that did not make a difference in the friendship. I have had at least a dozen close friends, who are boys and who never fell for me or me for them. We have moved on from school, to college to careers to marriage, but even today we continue to be great friends.

Only last October we reconnected on Facebook and decided to meet during Durga Puja in front of an electronics showroom called Anandamela on Gariahat, a place where we used to meet during Puja while in Class IX and X, way back in 1989-90. When I reached Anandamela I realized I was the only girl and there were 9 boys, more precisely men. But I did not feel uncomfortable for a moment. And as the day unfolded and we picked up the threads of our past, weaving it onto the tapestry of our present life, over endless adda (chat), it felt like the years had not gone by. We were the same Class IX kids, not spouses, parents or career people, we were just great friends. We didn’t talk about who’s achieved what, who’s got which car or a new posh address or a recent holiday abroad – we just talked of school.

A recent re-union of the our South Point batch in Kolkata (Pix by Sanjoy Saha taken from our FB Group page)

A recent re-union of our South Point batch in Kolkata (Pix by Sanjoy Saha taken from our FB Group page)

I guess this is what makes our friendship so unique – the comfort level we felt with the boys. This is not to say love did not happen. It was not uncommon to see a small note tucked in your notebook, a card with a heart sign on your birthday or someone loitering a bit too often in front of your class. But there was something cute about these advances too. One didn’t feel harassed or stalked. If a girl said no boys accepted with dignity or vice versa.

When love blossomed what was amazing was the seriousness with which some of them pursued that love. Most had the earnestness to carry forward a school romance to marriage (some romances, of course, petered out in school itself). Sometimes when I see the photographs of a few of my classmates, who have married, on Facebook, it brings a smile to my face thinking of their accomplishment. As a friend of mine, who has married a classmate, told me recently, “We are still great friends. We are equals in the relationship sharing household chores and parenting duties.”

I guess this explains the crux of friendship in South Point School. We were always equals in every way. Our school was also a great leveler in the sense we had friends belonging to every kind of financial background. We learned to love people for who they are, not for what they have.

Today South Pointers are spread all over the world but I am sure there is one thing they all believe in,  a man and a woman can be great friends – all their life, no matter what Parinda and Parineeta say.

That’s a relationship we all cherish.

Happy Friendship Day !

Bengali actor Bobby Chakraborty

Bengali actor Bobby Chakraborty

Actor Bobby Chakraborty is not someone who would say anything just for effects. If he says something, he believes in it and if he believes in it he practises it. That is why his brainchild, the project titled I Am The King of My Mind, has gained so much momentum among school students in Kolkata, India. The project aims at telling young people the consequences of addiction and how one doesn’t need to drink or smoke to enjoy life.

For more: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2013-05-30/kolkata/39627920_1_addiction-exxon-mobil-actor-bobby-chakraborty

When Bobby is not shooting at the studio chances are you will catch him at some school, somewhere in West Bengal, interacting with young people. His pet project regularly takes him to the most well-known educational institutions of Kolkata, like the Heritage School and La Martinere School, and also to the numerous schools located in the interiors of rural Bengal and the Sundarbans.

Check Bobby’s Facebbok Page:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/313095188790160/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0g6QylXwSkg&sns=fb

Bobby with children at a school

Bobby with children at a school

Bobby posing with local kids at Sunderban

Bobby posing with local kids at Sunderban

There is one more thing that Bobby believes in too – that is equal opportunities and respect for women.

“When I interact with students I also talk to them about gender equality and respect for the fairer sex. In today’s society where there is so much violence against women this is particularly relevant,” says Bobby.

When I asked Bobby to write his views for my blog the actor took out time from him busy schedule and sent his views to my inbox within a day.

This is what he wrote:

I have always believed in peaceful co-existence of man and woman. That is how nature has made us. But some men, with their so-called physical superiority, have always been trying to foolishly prove themselves superior to women. Physical violence and rape has been the tool for such men for centuries.

Patriarchy is to blame

A woman is probably the hardest worker in the family, but her job is thankless. Most often children do not learn to value the work that women do and they are taught that men, often the bread winners, are all important. So the male child does not learn to respect the women in his family. And he carries this attitude forward to his future interactions with women – as friends, girlfriends, wives and eventually prey.

Men feel insecure around competent women

Educated and competent women are claiming the same recognition as men and more often than not giving them stiff competition at work. This is creating a sense of insecurity and the false male ego is bruised. That’s when men are resorting to violence against women to prove they are the ones in power. This trend is most dangerous.

Alcohol is often the reason for such crimes

It is said alcohol often brings out the Devil in you. And that is so true. People often end up doing things under the spell of alcohol that they would not otherwise do in a normal state. Rapists are usually dead drunk.

I hope and wish my crusade against alcohol will help in making future generations more sensible and sensitised about women.

Bobby at a candlelight vigil in Kolkata in June, protesting violence against women

Bobby at a candlelight vigil in Kolkata in June, protesting violence against women

But right now as responsible men it is within our capacity to make an immediate impact and make the environment safer for women. With the following examples I say what can be done:

1.           You are not a Superman but you can call for help

If you see a woman is harassed by some men and if you feel getting into the situation might be dangerous for you, call for help.

I will give you an example of what I did once. It was around 8.30pm and I was taking a walk on Marine Drive in Mumbai and enjoying the drizzle when I saw a gang of around eight-10 guys harassing a girl. I knew if I tried to intervene they would overpower me. So I ran in the opposite direction and alerted the traffic police on duty who in turn alerted the mobile van. Within no time the van came and rescued the girl.

2.           Put your foot down if you see a man trying to get fresh with a woman, be it on public transport or at a party

Women are most often strong enough to deal with these situations but it is our duty to let them know we are always there to lend them a helping hand.

I have seen drunk men often make advances at women at parties. A civilized talk with the drunkard might help but if that does not work then security should be called in. There have been instances when I have been threatened with dire consequences after they have been thrown out of the party. But men who use alcohol as a license to misbehave are usually cowards. So you can be sure that threat will always be empty.

3.           Stand up for your co-workers

In the workplace too there have been situations when I found out that a co-actor was being sexually harassed by someone. The first thing I did was to draw the producer or the director’s attention. If that does not work it can always be taken up with, in my case Artists’ Forum, in other cases the supreme authority at the workplace.

4.           Always remember REAL men respect women

If you are a real man then you will learn to respect every woman in your life – from your mother to the woman you are travelling with in a public bus to the maid, who is working in your house. This way you will learn to respect yourself. When you have self respect you have everything.

(Bobby has recently starred in National Award winning filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s hindi film Station which is part of the series Thrayadashi.)

equality2

Can men be feminists? My answer is yes, absolutely! And in the last one year that I have been blogging on women’s issues I have heard myriad men’s voices and views that have enriched my own thoughts and perceptions. That is why I decided to run a series where men would give an insight into gender equality and violence against women. Like charity begins at home I believe feminism begins at home too. And for me it truly begins at home because of all the fierce feminist men I have met in my life, I guess I have been living with the fiercest one so far, since I tied the knot with him 12 years back.

I start off this series with my husband Jaydip Sengupta’s views that he’s penned down himself. Here goes…

It’s a given men and women are equal

I have often wondered if being a feminist makes me any less of a man. I have looked up the definition of the word feminism and it roughly means a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women.

I have never felt the need to be part of any such movement, or to appreciate the burning of bras. Instead I have tried to figure out why it needs to be established that women are equal to men. I mean, shouldn’t that be a given, something that need not be reiterated time and again? Yeah sure, men are better at certain things but then women are better at most other things.

 Now, that’s a fact men have been unable to accept. History or for that matter mythology hasn’t been kind to our women folk and it hasn’t helped that they were written by us men folk. Women were worshipped, but in reality all they got to do was service to ‘mankind’. So now, when they work as many hours as their male counterparts and for extra measure cook, keep the house in order, bring up the children and do everything else necessary to keep the family going, they are still expected to continue that service. Why, may I ask?

There should be a code of conduct for men

It all seems hypocritical to me but I am not surprised. When I see and hear wise men in our country preach about how women should behave instead of how men should not, it somehow tells me that we have only been paying lip service to gender equality all these years. The instances of molestation and rape have come out of homes and into the streets, but really, are only the men to blame here?

equality

Women should alter their own beliefs

For generations, women have been conditioned to play the weaker sex. Most seem to revel in their subservient role, especially at home and it’s a state of being they have found difficult to shrug off elsewhere as well. Maybe it is part of their defence mechanism. Do you really have to be physically stronger to stand your ground and retaliate when needed?

I know that’s easy for me to say as a man, but how many times have I seen this role-play. Who convinced them that they can only be feminine if they are soft-spoken, gentle and hence ladylike, whatever that means.

I still remember an incident during my college days. I used to travel by local train and one day as I was making my way to the platform, I saw the sister of a school senior being followed by a group of boys, who, I could make out from the distance, were saying something to her.

Even before I had the chance to hurry up and see what was going on, I heard her voice boom around the platform, “Don’t you guys have mothers or sisters at home? Is this how you behave with them as well?” Of course, they scurried away pretty intimidated. The girl in question didn’t lose an iota of femininity by making herself heard.

I applaud the girl at Howrah station

That was 20 years back. The situation has definitely worsened for women since then. The incident that happened at Howrah station recently didn’t shock me in the least.

Check here: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2013-07-24/mumbai/40771008_1_howrah-station-tv-anchor-subrata

What, however, gives me hope is the way the girl hit back.  To me women’s empowerment is not about having separate seats in metros, buses and trains; it’s about behaving like an equal and when needed putting men in their place. And that again is something I am sure they can do as well as anything they put their minds into.

–         Jaydip Sengupta is a sports journalist, husband and father

Suzette Katrina Jordan

Suzette Katrina Jordan

I haven’t met Suzette Katrina Jordan in person although I would love to. As a Kolkatan and as a woman I know how much courage it takes to do what she is doing. So while talking to her over the phone from Dubai I was not at all surprised by her conviction. “I have always questioned every norm and never accepted anything just because it is the system,” said Suzette in an intense voice.

So it is obvious why Suzette decided to fight for her dignity after she was gang raped on February 5, 2012 on Park Street at gunpoint inside a car. Although after the incident, for the last one and a half year her life has been a constant battle, Suzette feels that being called “the Park Street rape victim” was the greatest sham, the worst nightmare she had lived.

She tells me why she wanted to reclaim her identity and how her life has been since she did so…

“A TV channel unethically showed most of my face and gave out my address and my father’s name so many people actually knew I was the Park Street rape victim”

I see no reason to hide my face behind a dupatta when most people in my neighbourhood know that I was the one raped on Park Street and I have been tolerating their stares for the last 16 months. I am the victim and I have done nothing wrong then why should I hide my face every time I talk on TV or go to a procession? I was finding this absolutely ridiculous.

“Since I have revealed my identity I have been getting more threats”

Since I revealed my identity and came on TV the threat calls have gone up manifold. Only a few days back someone in the locality told a family member: Apni oi Park Steet er meyetar barir lok na? Okey bolben ektu chepey jetey, khuub lafalafi korcchey.  (Aren’t you from that Park Street girl’s family? Tell her to step back she creating a bit too much of noise.)

“I am in a lot of financial crisis but I will never accept any kind of compensation from the rapists”

Even before the incident happened I was going through a tough financial situation because the small data-entry-cum-call centre business that I was running with my sister had gone bust because two employees had run away with all our money. Then after this incident I went looking for work through an NGO. People somehow understood that I was the “one from Park Street” and never gave me a job. My confidence reached an all-time low along with my finances. There were days when there was nothing to eat at home. I felt so ashamed to ask for help from my friends or family.

My friends, who often dropped in, understood my predicament and bought me food and groceries. This was the time when I was repeatedly offered big money and out-of-the court settlement but I cannot imagine living on that dirty money. I want justice, I want to see those men behind bars.

“It is amazing how some people have given me more respect than ever before

My teenage daughters have been the pillar of my strength. Happily enough I have not seen any change in the attitude of their friends towards me. I used to be very friendly with them and whenever I go to their school now they still greet me with the same warmth and respect. In fact, the principal of my daughters’ school, with whom I have had a difference of opinion many times, have been so supportive. Also I am grateful to my lawyers who are fighting my case for free and are working so hard just to give me justice.

“I think my single parent status has often gone against me”

Since the incident happened, the fact that I am a divorced single parent has been looked upon as a crime. But no one has appreciated the fact that I have been dignified enough not to tell people the reason for my divorce (which she tells me is domestic violence) and draw sympathy from it.

“It is absolutely ridiculous that Ma Durga is worshipped with such fervor in Kolkata”

I have grown up in Kolkata and while we were teenagers, we could wear anything we wanted to, go anywhere we wanted to. Now every woman is constantly judged for what she is wearing, where she is going, whom she is befriending. On top of that, from the autowallah to the boss at the workplace you are taken for granted. Only recently I was screamed at by an autowallah because I didn’t have Rs 1 change. When I retorted people around me said, “Choley jaan. Ei shober modhye porcchen keno? (Better leave, why are you getting involved in all this.) This is the attitude that is killing us.

Then you are molested everyday on public transport, your breasts are touched, your derriere is pinched. It’s a nightmare. So much brutality is happening to women in Kolkata and in the suburbs but still people in power say these are one-off incidents. I wonder what they say when a four-year-old girl is raped? Do they ask if she was drunk? Or do they ask if she was a prostitute? I am not fighting against the government because governments come and go. My question is why can’t women expect some basic rights in a place like Kolkata where Ma Durga supposedly reigns?

“My daughters will never get the freedom which we got as young girls”

If my daughters want to go to the movies I say no because I am always worrying for them. If they come home five minutes late I break into a sweat. I never remembered my parents being so tense all the time. For starters Kolkata is not the same anymore. On top of that they have a mother who has decided not to keep her mouth shut. So as a consequence I am curtailing their freedom because sometimes I am scared for them.

“I wonder if there will be any real change”

I have been blessed to have come in touch with so many amazing people who have been supporting my fight and believe in change. But what worries me is that no concrete step is being taken by the people in power. Like I believe there can be more stringent policing or monitoring. But the good thing is there has been an awakening and women are willing to fight for their rights.

“Indian women are very strong they just need the push”

In India, anything happens to a woman and you are expected to hide. Talking about it is complete taboo. If she talks about the injustices that happened to her then she has to face the flak. I think it is very important that we talk about these things and sensitize the next generation about it. Just because we don’t talk people are harbouring all kinds of botched-up notions and acting accordingly.

“I wonder if I can ever go back to a Park Street disco to dance”

I have always loved dancing and music is my life. I really enjoyed going to the disco with my friends, I enjoyed dressing up. All that has changed for me now. I don’t think I will ever be able to go back to a disco because it will bring back my trauma. I have felt really uncanny the couple of times I have been on Park Street in the last 16 months. But at least one thing has changed for me. I have a name again. People don’t call me the “Park Street rape victim” anymore.

Suzette currently works for a helpline counseling victims of violence.

 

 

DSCN3960

It’s common to witness Dubai bashing in the international media but when one comes across a report like this in Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/britchick-paris/why-dubai-is-rapidly-beco_b_3156110.html#postComment

one is indeed pleasantly surprised.

More than anything else what struck me most in the article is the following paragraph:

Dubai allows you to be you. And controversially especially if you are a woman. I’m not the only woman to think that. I feel safer here in Dubai than I do in London or Paris. There is a healthy respect that means you are just left alone, so long as you in turn respect the local values and customs.

Also in Europe there is often an underlying chauvinism, that means that men can do it better, hence the paucity of women board members at big Western companies. Here from my experience and that of my entrepreneur friends, women in business are admired. I can hear all the cynics ready to wade in but I cannot refute the evidence I have from the last few weeks working here. It has been a breath of fresh air. Not to mention the openness and creativity that comes from a city that is exploding and growing at lightening speed. In ten years it has achieved what New York did in 150.

This egged me to write about what I know about the city living here for the last six years.

Ask any woman from any nationality if they feel safe living in or travelling to Dubai the answer will always be “yes” without a second thought.

Without any statistics at hand it might be a bit hard to explain why the answer is always so but I will try to do so with a few examples.

When I first moved to Dubai in 2007 my husband and I would go for after-dinner walks to the Dubai Creek which is 20 minutes from my home. One day while sitting there and enjoying the lovely view we never realized it was 1am. It was a weekday and the place was empty except for a few men sitting around here and there in twos and threes chatting amongst themselves.

I looked around and told my husband fearfully, “Do you think it’s safe to hang around here so late?”

He said, “Don’t worry, Dubai is totally safe for women. The longer you live here the better you will know.”

That’s when I spotted an abaya and sheyla-clad lady walking rigorously in her sneakers – all alone.  Coming from India, where a woman’s safety is a perpetual concern, this was quite an impossible scenario for me. Six years down the line I have not yet experienced a lone walk at Dubai Creek at 1 am but I have comfortably walked alone at 12am to the 24X7 supermarket in my neighbourhood to fetch something, I have driven back home from the outskirts of the city at 2am after an office party taking a detour to drop a female friend on the way. I have hailed a cab post-midnight and reached home safe and sound lost in conversation with a friendly cabbie, and I have walked back home from a friend’s place all alone pretty late in the night.

Men and women hang out at a cafe in Dubai. many cafes are open till 4am or through the night.

Men and women hang out at a cafe in Dubai. Many cafes are open till 4am or through the night.

In the neighbourhood where I live, it is not uncommon to see women coming back home from work really late, mixed or even all men’s groups sitting around and chatting in the cafés late in the night. Nobody will give you a second look, nobody will try to follow you, make passes at you, hassle you with lewd comments.

In India we are always looking over our shoulders, something we hardly have to do here. So when something happens in Dubai it always comes as a shock.

Does this mean crime against women does not exist in Dubai?

Not at all. With 120 nationalities living together in a metropolis it is inevitable crime will exist and one gets to read about sexual crimes against women in the newspapers often. Dubai is also fighting human trafficking and domestic violence is also one of the issues here. But one has to admit that the rate of crime is much lower in Dubai compared to other cities.

Teenage girls move around the city comfortably

Teenage girls move around the city comfortably

Women are as comfortable in western clothes as they are in traditional ethnic wear

Women are as comfortable in western clothes as they are in traditional ethnic wear

Moving around the city late in the night is not an issue at all

Moving around the city late in the night is not an issue at all

Then how is Dubai safe?

For me it is safe because every time I step out of my home I don’t have be constantly on my guard. I come from Kolkata where I am used to being groped, commented and stared at all the time. That way Dubai comes as a breath of fresh air for me. I can be myself, wear whatever clothes I want, not worry about attracting too much attention in my short skirt, go for after-dinner-walks at 11pm with my son and travel comfortably in public transport. And also, the same Indians who misbehave back home are civil here.

Police has a major role to play

The police here provides an amazing safety net for women by efficiently patrolling the city 24×7. Be sure to spot a Dubai Police patrol wherever you go. If a woman dials 999 for help they will be there in two minutes. And most importantly the Dubai police force command respect and fear among the people for their commitment. Unlike in India, where bribes can settle matters with the police, that is unthinkable here.

Another thing that keeps women in Dubai safe is the inevitability of punishment. There is no escaping that. A British woman was raped and kidnapped by three men last July. They were eventually caught and in eight months the verdict was out and they are now in jail. Justice is delivered quickly and efficiently.

Read her story here:

http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/general/call-me-a-survivor-says-gang-raped-woman-in-dubai-1.1155077

Recently an intoxicated Pakistani bus driver tried to rape an American lady tourist in an empty bus only to be beaten up by her. She escaped from the bus and reported the incident to the police. The man has been arrested and the court proceedings have already started. I will not be surprised if the case is settled quickly. Read about it here:

http://gulfnews.com/about-gulf-news/al-nisr-portfolio/xpress/female-sailor-escapes-rape-during-dubai-visit-1.1175039

In this regard I would like to share an incident that put my friend in a tricky situation. This happened a few years back when she had just moved to Dubai alone. She and another friend were returning home late from a party when some men in a four-wheel started tailing them. They drove around town trying to shake them off but to no avail. Then after much deliberation they called the police. The officer on patrol duty immediately came to their rescue, did not ask them why they were out so late, escorted them home and needless to say, nabbed the men immediately.

Dubai Police patrolling the city

Dubai Police patrolling the city

My friends with teenage daughters growing up here say that they are less worried about them when they go out for their tuitions or to meet friends than they would have been had they been in India.

That day a friend asked, “What is it you will miss about Dubai when you move back to Kolkata?”

My instant reply was, “I will miss venturing out of my home, even at unearthly hours, without a care in the world.”

When I move back to Kolkata I guess I will have to sharpen my claws all over again.

(Photographs: Amrita Mukherjee)

parents 1

 

I had the most loving, happy-go-lucky, jovial parents till I was 12-13 years, but thereafter things began to change. When I turned 12, I did not want to be accompanied by my mother when I went cycling in the lane behind our house in Kolkata but I was not allowed alone. I wanted to walk the short distance from home to Ballygunge Phari with my friends, but I was not allowed. If I went playing with friends and came home five minutes late, my parents acted like an earthquake had hit the city and I hadn’t reached home yet. Their worry translated into frequent scolding that made me angry. I just kept thinking; what are they so worried about?

At 14, when I wanted to walk the seven-minute distance from my home to South Point School, alone, I was greeted with a negative shake of head from my father. By then I had become so adamant that I put my foot down and said I was not going to school if my mom came along. They came to a compromise. They allowed me only if I went and came back with two of my female friends. They claimed they were concerned for me. I kept thinking I was a responsible girl, what were they so concerned about?

After school I wanted to join Presidency College but my father was keen on me going to the nearby girls’ college, Lady Brabourne. My father was the happiest when I took admission there, but the happiness did not last long when the admission test results were out in Presidency College. I had got through and I had my sights set on that college. My father was livid. Going to Presidency meant taking a public bus ride for almost an hour and going to a part of the city, which he felt was not at all familiar to me and also not too safe for women. My mother, however, stood by my decision and I joined Presidency College. But my mother had no clue that my joining the college would add to her stressful existence of being the mother of a daughter. Thanks to the traffic, political processions, college functions or fests, I was perpetually reaching home late. And she claimed her hair was turning grey while she waited for me on the balcony. I just did not understand what all the fuss was about as I was a grown up girl now.

drink

 

Then, when I graduated from college and started going to parties my dad drummed into my head not to accept any kind of drink from anybody at any party, “Beware, it might be spiked” was his refrain. When I went to the disco, my parents worried about the men all of whom they believed had ill intent. “If anything untoward happens what will we do?” was what they always asked me. I would say, “What nonsense, can’t I take care of myself?”

Now when I look back I think they were justified in their worry. They were prudent to know about all the beasts that lurk in every nook and cranny of our country, our city, our own homes. They knew girls in India – no matter what their age, status, class or caste – are never safe.

I wonder what my mom’s reaction has been to this news today http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/Five-year-old-girls-rape-case-Accused-arrested-in-Bihar/articleshow/19643044.cms

I am sure the paranoia she experienced in my growing-up years came back to haunt her but she’s probably glad that she doesn’t have a daughter growing up in these times.

Finding my past in Muscat through Facebook.