I’ve been thinking of my grandmother a lot this past week. She was, among other things, a fabulous storyteller. My love for stories, it’s all my grandmother’s fault. She could make stories crackle with life, which is also the reason that I ran out of the room every time she’d start telling a ghost story. And wouldn’t you know it, she’d constantly try to corral me into listening to one of those. Finally, one day we decided to negotiate. She asked me why I didn’t like the ghost stories. “They’re fun!” she trilled. It took a bit of avoiding before I admitted the truth: “Ghosts are scary.” My grandmother looked bewildered.
“But they’re dead,” she said. “You’re alive.”
We both stared at each other, both entirely clueless about the other’s point of view. My grandmother tried again.
“But why is it scary?”
“What kind of a question is that?” I couldn’t believe I had to explain to an adult why ghosts were scary. It was ridiculous. This person was supposed to be bringing me up and they didn’t know the basics. What’s a five-year-old to do? “You know they’re scary. Everyone knows they’re scary. The whole point of them is that they’re scary.”
“That’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking why you’re scared of ghosts.”
“Because they’re scary.”
“And why are they scary?”
“I don’t know. You never know what will happen in ghost stories.”
“So you’re saying you’re scared of ghosts because you don’t know what they could do.”
I didn’t say anything. My grandmother was one of those people who I didn’t think would take kindly to the idea of anyone being scared of anything.
“Maybe if you knew the stories, you would know what they can or can’t do and then ghosts wouldn’t be as scary,” she suggested to me. “I’m not saying you have to like ghost stories. Just know the stories so that you know what you’re afraid of. That way, it’s less scary.”
Know the stories. I’ve been remembering that bit of wisdom this past week as news broke of a journalist, who works for Tehelka, having been sexually assaulted by her editor, Tarun Tejpal. This one story is full of so many more stories and they started swirling very quickly. It’s becoming a story-tornado of sorts now. First, we heard about Tejpal “recusing” himself.
Later it was suggested that recusal is the same as resignation, but that’s a separate matter. The dictionary that Tejpal and Managing Editor of Tehelka Shoma Chaudhury have been referring to while talking about this case is a particularly curious one. According to it, the word “banter” includes sticking your tongue down an unwilling woman’s throat and then sending her suggestive text messages.
But coming back to the stories. So first, a leaked email, written by Chaudhury to the Tehelka staff revealed there had been an “untoward incident” and Tejpal was going to step down from his position of editor in chief for six months because he was full of contrition. The first whispers were that Tejpal had hit on one of his women journalists. Then an email from the journalist to Chaudhury was leaked, with a detailed description of what Tejpal had done to the journalist. This was neither banter nor was it an innocent lapse of judgement. It was sexual assault, perhaps even attempted rape.
I’m usually wary of using the word ‘victim’ to describe people who have had suffered but have not been cowed down by experiences of sexual misconduct, but when a person is being victimized repeatedly, then victim seems to be the correct word. Her trust in her editor — who also happens to be a family friend and father figure — was violated. She was told that if she wanted to keep her job, she should comply with his sexual demands. There were attempts to make it seem as though she had ‘over-reacted’ to his overtures.
When the victim’s emails to Chaudhury started circulating, too many on social media and news media exercised zero restraint. Details of clothes, body parts etc started circulating and were even put up online. The more graphic the details, the more hits to your website, the more retweets. Net result: there was a frenzied scramble for juicy gossip. Some went so far as to release the victim’s name, which aside from being indecent is also a criminal offense in India.
Chaudhury and Tejpal, meanwhile, tied themselves up in knots. She admitted that her wording had been unfortunate, agreed that if the victim’s testimony was true then it was rape, but also said that Tejpal had a different version on the events that the victim had described. Chaudhury told journalists that it was upon her behest that Tejpal had sent his “unconditional” apology to the victim, despite there being a “different” version. (Why didn’t Chaudhury report Tejpal for rape once she had the victim’s email? Why did Tejpal apologise if there was a different version?)
Tejpal has since said that he was being framed. In an SMS he sent out to friends, he said that the victim had lied. “It is a totally mendacious account of what happened, in its details, in its tonalities, in its very suggestion of non-consensus,” Tejpal told Indian Express. The allegation that he had told the victim that the best way to keep her job was by not resisting his advances was, apparently, a half-truth. So why had he apologised and recused himself? Because Chaudhury made him do it. “I had no reason to do that,” he said categorically. Except you did, boss.
And then there were the stories from others who have worked with Tejpal. Stories of women who have climbed up Tehelka‘s ranks because they were Tejpal’s playthings. Stories of scandals that had previously made people smirk at some women who chose to either keep quiet or quit. Women who heard stories but did nothing, because it didn’t really affect them. Women whose accusations were not taken seriously, women who didn’t complain because they felt no one would listen or help. Women who remember him sticking his tongue down their throats from 20 years ago. Women who didn’t complain because they needed to be considered as tough as men and not of delicate sensibilities. Men who remember becoming human bulwarks between Tejpal’s libido and their girlfriends. Men who remember gritting their teeth and wondering how much they and the women they were with had to allow because Tejpal was the boss and he was so damn cool. Women who are afraid that now that this case is a criminal one, it’s going to bring the victim into terribly ugly territory.
It would be wrong to say this case has opened a floodgate. These stories have been circulating for a while. As one ex-Tehelka employee told me, “Everyone knows Tarun’s a sleazeball. The fact that he got away with it was, in some ways, part of his ‘charm’. And his legend.” The stories about men like Tejpal are so many and they used to be whispered in secrecy, circulated by gossips and at best, brought out at drunken gatherings.
In this way, we heard them, but only in bits and parts. Rarely did we hear the whole thing from beginning to end, following the story of either the perpetrator or the victim. All we got were snatches of stories that emphasised that these men, despite being slaves to their libido, were powerful. They’re the ones who won. The Indian media is filled with randy editors like Tejpal. Many of them are brilliant professionals, and in the stories that were told, their fatal flaws didn’t bring them down. “But he’s a brilliant writer/editor/boss,” co-workers said at the end of a story about a young woman and that writer/editor/boss; as though being brilliant made up for being a serial molester/ assaulter.
I know those old stories, which is why there’s a part of me that is terribly apprehensive about this Tejpal case entering the realm of a criminal case and politics. I remind myself that in India today, the burden of proof is no longer upon the victim and that it’s going to be up to Tejpal’s defense to prove he had her consent (rather than the victim having to prove anything). I try to dismiss the stories I’ve heard of people being trussed up by manipulations and implications. I try to ignore the idiotic judgements made by Indian courts when the victims are women.
Know the stories, my grandmother had said. I’m desperately, desperately hoping that at the end of this case, there’ll be a new story. One that will make all of us a lot less afraid.