Monday, December 2, 2013

TEHELKA ETC. You know the story too well, but do you know this?

Nischay Pal

By now, you know the story all too well. Already, the chatter is dying down. The TV channels need the OB vans somewhere else. Results of the semi-finals of electoral politics will soon be on the anvil. "Delhi without Shiela Dikshit?" –the headlines will scream soon. Madhya Pradesh is too big a state to spare any OB van for a girl crying hoarse that justice dispensing machinery is working in flawed ways.

But still, you know the story all too well.

You may not have known the story in slightly different circumstances.

What if it was the editor of a lesser known fly-by-night portal?

What if it were not Tehelka but some other magazine, one that did not have the history of having stung big guns of Indian politics?

What if the girl were not someone who would have been working in Tehelka but an unemployed woman hired only to assist in looking after certain logistical arrangements during the ThinkFest in Goa, not something as fancy as chaperoning a Hollywood star?

What if she had been too shocked in the initial moments or the few days following the incident, and had not confided in anyone about what happened?

What if a couple of friends that such a girl (not the former Tehelka employee but our unemployed girl in contractual arrangement with Tehelka) confided in had been afraid to later speak out? Or one had contradicted her version? After all, even in the actual case, talk about there being many "versions" did not take long to emerge.

But still, you know the story all too well.

This was a girl who came from a family where her father was a journalist and a former colleague of Tarun Tejpal. This was a girl who had known some of India's top journalists first hand even as a child. This was a girl who was working in a top-of-the-line journalism brand like Tehelka. This was a girl who was professionally so excellent that she could be entrusted with chaperoning Robert de Nero and his daughter around Goa.

As I said, you already know the story all too well.

This was a girl whose communication skills surpassed many of the rookie journalists who come from small towns across India, landing in cities like Delhi or Mumbai, all starry-eyed and fired with ideas of impressing the bosses and giving their best, taking for granted that their bosses who run newspapers and magazines and TV channels will stand up to oppose every single wrong.

This was a girl who could muster the courage to write in horryfying detail what she had suffered in that godforsaken lift, and later as lies and innenduoes and obfuscation and outright pressure took over.

This was a girl who, at a young age, had forged friendships close enough and strong enough that they endured the crunch-test. Her friends chose to stand by her, bear witness, resign from their jobs, not to waver. Not everyone is that fortunate in finding friends such as these. Not many journalistic pieces have given them their due. Each one of them proved to be as brave as the girl who decided not to stay silent.

Of course, you that story all too well.

Now, think of a girl at a small shop, working as a sales girl. Think of it being a shop that sells women undergarments. Let's sound more polite and call it lingerie. It becomes easy to have "conversations heavily loaded with context". You don't even need references to "rain" and "thunderclouds".

Think of a female nurse at a small-time hospital where references to body parts can become "heavily loaded with context", particularly if Punjab's killer roads become lazy some night, not sending too many blood-soaked patients, and the senior male nurse has little to do but make casual comment or "indulge in light-hearted banter." Please do not cry off and accuse me of defaming the pious profession of medicine. Why can't a male nurse on a full-of-free-time night indulge in a little banter the like of which they do in certain other organisations? What a "poor understanding" of nurse-nurse relationship in a small time clinic in a small time town in the dead of the night?

Think of a primary school teacher in any Punjab town where English medium schools have been mushrooming in every third street, employing teachers at monthly salaries equal to what the coffee-serving barista makes in tips in a week at any decent coffee lounge. If I am wrong in that particular calculation, I wonder if the teacher will point it out. My experience is that their visits to these coffee lounges are a bit too infrequent. But I am sure the light hearted banter comes easy at the expense of a young woman teacher for whom the low-paying job is the only lifeline unless she wants to travel by bus everyday for an hour and a half to the school in a nearby town where she will get better salary. And then, where is the guarantee that someone will not indulge in light hearted banter there?

And if you would rather picture a teacher who goes to these coffee joints, and is not posted in any small town but a city as swank as Chandigarh, you will notice that many of these coffee joints have posters that can trigger/prompt context-loaded conversations. All one needs to remark is that it is not just the coffee that is hot. Presumably, context will take over and banter can be tried. No need to keep the lift in circulation. If it leads to uproar, arguments can be marshalled at will -- no fiduciary relationship, it was an open place, not a lift, there were people around, and besides, what was she doing these having coffee post-school timings?

But then, you know such stories all too well.

You know of the ones that happened at Tehelka. Or the one in which the girl was an intern with a former Supreme Court judge. Or the ones in which the girl was a JNU student and working at Indian International Film Festival in Goa. These girls were empowered. They were all in fiduciary relationship. They could communicate. They were in cities where OB vans can be marshalled for a high eyeballs story. They could each write a complaint in English. They had enough confidence to communicate with sharp journalists. They could muster the courage to fiercely keep their identities secret.

But TV channels cannot spare camera teams for incidents at shops, in small time clinics, or private schools. Local neighbourhood cop may not be as tough as Inspector Sunita Sawant of Goa police. And the woman nurse/salesgirl/teacher may not have the added advantage of the country's top anchors breathing down the neck of the accused and his apologists night after night after night.

Of course, you also know how the story turned even in Goa.


Even Tarun Tejpal could not resist the temptation of indulging in character assassination. His references to the girl partying after his assault seemed to be so much in tune with what an Asaram might have come up with. In fact, remember that Tejpal's comment on the girl partying was based as per legal advice. Well, Tejpal is in good company. There was no dearth of people who thought it was alright to pump a bullet into a girl who refuses to give you a drink after the bar closes -- "After all, what was Jessica Lal doing there, serving drinks?"

Prurient interest in the story was in keeping with Tejpal's "lapse of judgment". Those who know I have friends who have earlier worked in Tehelka were calling to ask where they can find the name of the girl. Some told me they were able to look up her picture on the internet. "Do you have the complete mail? The actual mail?" a senior reporter working with a top newspaper with edition in Chandigarh asked me. This after much of what the mail contained had become public knowledge.

But I am sure you know that part of the story well, also. Worse, the salesgirl/nurse/teacher also know that story. That’s why you don’t read about it all the time, or your daily newspaper would be full of such episodes every single day. Less than rape, it is not news. And you know that too, don’t you?

So has it become easier after Tehelka-Tejpal-Supreme Court judge intern-JNU student/IFFI episode for the salesgirl/nurse/teacher to raise their voice if someone suffers a lapse of judgement?

Let that be your bantering subject tonight.

For all those having, possessing, or having read or circulated the Tehelka girl's mail, just try to picture someone who know closely -- a sister, a wife, a mother, a close friend, a girl friend, a friend's close friend, a cousin, a cousin's close friend -- in that lift. Now try and visualise if any of you would have the sense, the courage and the persistence to write that mail.

You know the answer to that too well, don't you?

The only thing that I would want to know is from where does a girl so molested and so traumatised find such calmness in her heart to say just the right thing in just the right words to just the right persons and confide in just the right friends, and then stay the course of the truth and dignity and everything that one elusive thing that each one of us must aspire for - the courage to refuse to be cowed down when one is right? From where?

Neither you nor I know the exact answer to that, and you and I both know that, too well.




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