Mumbai. Over the past week, as India’s #MeToo movement grips the country, I have spent several hours, over twenty, on prime time television, both in English and Hindi, making sure people are listening.
I have been debating against men (and women) who believe that the #MeToo movement is just about defaming men; who believe that women use it to catapult themselves into the limelight; who just want to live out their personal vendettas. I have tried my best to make the point that the #MeToo movement isn’t about sending men to jail or naming-and-shaming or piling on the allegations. It is about shattering the assumptions that underpin the perceived and severely skewed — power dynamic between men and women in India. It is about understanding the basic fact that there are bounds around each woman’s personal space that cannot be invaded without permission, that are not – and cannot — be defined by men. It is about creating better and safer working and living conditions for women. Ultimately it is a way for women to tell their stories and by doing so, to educate others. Every woman’s story is important and a lens into how pervasive the issue is.
While I have actively participated in the debates, my heart has been clawed by guilt and cowardice. For I too have a #MeToo story and I haven’t had the courage to speak up. I am sharing this story because I feel that it is my responsibility to do so. Without me telling this story, I do not deserve the sort of platform that I get to speak and write on women’s issues. It is up to each one of us to do our part – big or small — in a much needed and long overdue chance for change, and with this piece, I am doing mine.
I met Chetan Bhagat close to a decade ago at the Jaipur Literature Festival. He was moderating a panel “Teen Deviya/ Three Goddesses” that I was a part of. Back then, Chetan was the star of the literary world and I felt both nervous and gleeful to be sharing the stage with him. During the panel, he asked me something to the effect “what do you do when men hit on you at book launches?” I replied – something along the lines of “I tell him that if he buys a 100 books I will kiss him, and if he buys all my books I will marry him.” I was 22 and I thought that I had just been very clever and sassy. I had not, however, given anyone permission or consent.
A few weeks later, he invited me to tea at the India International Centre, in my mind a perfectly innocuous place for two authors to meet. He asked me to come to his room but I suggested we meet in the tea-room instead. After our tea, he asked me to come up to his room on the pretext of giving me a signed copy of his book. As soon as I entered his room, he made a pass at me: I ducked as he tried to plant a kiss on my lips and then I laughed, because I didn’t know what else to do, or how to respond. I asked him what in the world he was trying to do and he told me coyly, without hesitation and almost with an air of entitlement, that he had bought a hundred copies of my books and donated them to a library in Pune, so a kiss was his prerogative. I ignored his comment and pretended to be amused though in reality I was shaken. This was a married man with children, whose family I had hung out with at the literature festival. This was uncalled for and shocking behaviour.
Many years later when I read snippets from his book “Half Girlfriend,” Bhagat writes a scene of his male protagonist making an unsolicited pass on the female protagonist Riya. It felt eerily familiar, and I couldn’t get myself to continue reading. I remember wondering how many young women Chetan Bhagat had reenacted this very scene with before he penned it into this book.
I continued being friends with Chetan though I tried to ensure that we were always in a public place or there were others around when we did meet – his wife, my parents, a friend. Over the decade or so, in the few times that we met every year, he seldom passed on an opportunity to make overtures, whether it was suggesting that we go to international literature festivals together, or take a holiday somewhere. I just rolled my eyes at all of it and over time became de-sensitised to this sexually-motivated behaviour, telling myself that this was “Chetan being Chetan.” Harmless as it was, the truth was that it did make me uncomfortable. After all he was and is a married man with a family, and this in my mind, was inappropriate behaviour.
A few years later things took a turn for the worse. Chetan met up with a friend of mine when they were both abroad. On a moving bus he groped her and then made several inappropriate passes physically and verbally. I was furious when I heard of this and I immediately confronted Chetan. He denied everything, said that she had a “bad reputation” and said that she was the one who had wanted to meet him and not the other way around. My friend is an executive working with a reputed MNC who was simply making the effort to meet an out-of-town friend. What men like Chetan fail to understand is that when a woman is friendly and frank with a man, it does not mean she wants to go to bed with him. By accepting an invitation to tea, it does not mean that she wants to make out with him.
When the stream of #MeToo allegations started to flow, I had a strong feeling that Chetan Bhagat would be called out. And when he indeed was, I knew that it was important for me to share my decade-long experience of his behaviour with me, my friend and probably so many others.
When I heard the accounts from those who came out privately, it seemed to me that the same story – the same behaviour and the familiar sense of entitlement — repeated itself, every time: Chetan Bhagat comes across a young woman, up-and-coming in her profession. The woman is friendly with him because he is, after all, Chetan Bhagat. Much like one of his novels, Chetan sets the scene through phone-flirting and then when – and if – he meets her in person alone, he makes his move, whether she likes it or not, whether it is appropriate or not, whether it hurts her, his family or not.
Close to a decade ago my publishers, Penguin Books invited Suhel Seth to speak at the launch of my first novels, and over the years, we were often together on panels at literature festivals and on television. I ran into him at social events, and occasionally Suhel invited me to one of his grand soirees.
As Suhel climbed the ladder of stardom, his behaviour with me and other women seemed to get worse. It seemed that the sense of entitlement grew and he often made loud, inappropriate and lewd comments. Once he commented on the size of my breasts, saying that I shouldn’t wear a bra, another time he asked me if I had waxed my legs or not, and once at another literature festival under the effect of alcohol, he made several throwaway comments about my “sexy yoga poses” on TV. I was often stunned by his comments, and usually just tried to ignore them or laugh them off. If I was quick on my toes, I would retort with a lame comeback.
Intoxicated, Suhel also became too familiar with me and other women – putting his arms around our waists at parties, holding us a second longer than necessary after a self-imposed hug, planting one on our cheeks or lips when you least expected it. Over time his leering smile, his ribald jokes, the lewd confidence in his voice and step made my stomach churn.
Both of these men possibly behaved better with me than they did with many others. They knew that I was the daughter of a prominent bureaucrat, and early on in the friendship, both had met my parents. When I was in my early 20’s I had the web of my father’s protection around me, and as I got older, I developed a name of my own. I often wondered how these men would have behaved with me if I did not have this safety net. Now I know. And I believe that there are many more and possibly worse stories to come out.
Over the past few days, I have thought deeply about why men like Chetan Bhagat or Suhel Seth behave in the inappropriate way that they do. Is it to gain validation? Is it due to an abusive childhood, a failed marriage, a hatred or mistrust of women? Is it because of a deeply unhappy emotional state? Or is it simply because they feel that they can just get away with it all.
Today, I am older, I am wiser and the voice of so many women has made me braver. Today, I know better about what is right and wrong when it comes to rules of engagement. Today, I am ready to speak up. The unsavoury truth is that all of us are surrounded by Suhels and Chetans. Because of the sphere that I inhabit I have had to deal with them specifically, but they exist in so many forms and ways. Young women are continuously abused and assaulted. Every one of us has a #MeToo story, yet we are trained by the generations before us, not to talk about it, consciously and subconsciously. We are made to believe that our stories don’t really matter, that they won’t make a difference, and that if we come out and speak then we are going to be thought of as attention seekers or trouble makers. We are made to blame ourselves if men behave badly. We are taught to quash our anger, swallow our pride, laugh and turn away. Meanwhile the Suhels and Chetans of this world are given free license to run amok and plough forward, being cheered on by nervous laughter at parties, applause at literature festivals and by their unsuspecting millions of fans on social media.
(Ira Trivedi is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. She is also a Yoga Acharya with shows on India Today and Doordarshan National. In 2017, she was named by the BBC as on its “100 women,” a list of global change-makers and influencers.)