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THE ROPE INTO THE WELL

- Quandaries of the Indian Left-liberal man
The Thin Edge

When the Goa scandal exploded, I called a close friend to talk about it. The friend is a highly intelligent, strongly feminist and tenaciously fair woman. After a bit, my pal interrupted me: “Listen, the thing is, you men, you’re all like this only!” “What do you mean?” I snapped, and immediately began to defend my record on consensuality (Like many men of my demographic, I’d done a mental check, all the way back to my youth, just to be sure). My friend remained unimpressed. It’s not that she could imagine any of her close male friends forcing themselves on someone, it is that too many of us, far too unthinkingly participate in a milieu where the kind of thing Tarun Tejpal is accused of is all too common.

I’ve thought about what my friend said and she’s absolutely right. When I look back over the decades that I’ve been involved in film and journalism, the years are littered with examples of behaviour that make one cringe. I remember horrifying ‘casting couch’ stories from Bombay, where people like me were outraged inside but carried being on friendly terms with older, more powerful men who had forced women to have sexual intercourse with them under terms that may or may not meet technical definitions of rape, but should fill anyone with revulsion. In the journalism world, I remember several occasions on toasting or freezing Delhi nights (they always seemed to be one of the other) where I ran a ‘defence’ for women journalists being pursued by drunken older pals of mine, things sometimes coming perilously close to molestation, if not rape. Me and others might have helped the women extricate themselves, but that didn’t stop us from drinking with the same men the next day, perhaps with just a growled warning not to repeat the behaviour. Often women friends working in TV or print would come back with horror stories of being out on assignment in some obscure town or election stop, when some senior hack or photographer had made life hell for them. Next week, if that same senior hack offered us an assignment, nobody refused. Academic and political activist circles have also not been free from men — with or without greying beards — literally chasing and cornering women, pushing them into ugly situations. These are the same men who’ve then gone and made outraged art films about Dalit women being raped by feudal landlords, thundered about police rape in their exposes, written papers analysing the connections between capitalism and sexual violence under over-arching phallocracy(ies).

In our self-nosing, lefty liberal world, the unspoken assumption is that ‘attacking and raping women is what the other guys do’, the zamindar, the cop, the working-class men driven insane by oppressive factors, the lower middle-class daughter-defilers, the power-crazed politician, executive or tycoon, and, not least, the slimy, religious charlatans. We, of the Left-liberal world, are ‘new’ men, each and every Haridaspal of us. Yet, we sit around making all kinds of sexist jokes, we lech at women (as in differently from finding women attractive and discussing our attractions), we exchange ‘girlie’ magazines that objectify women’s bodies, we watch all kinds of ghastly porn, and we treat our women colleagues, friends and acquaintances with overt or barely hidden sexism. Tarun Tejpal may or may not have done the things of which he stands accused, but, in this, both he and I are among the guilty.

Tejpal may be guilty or he may be acquitted, the elevator of the case has currently stopped between two floors and we don’t quite know what we will find once the doors open, though we can hazard some guesses. I’ve known Tejpal and his wife for many years and, when the story first hit the fan, I have to admit my first reaction was scepticism. “H***y idiot, but he can’t have actually molested someone.” Then, as other details emerged, I felt the opposite kind of doubt, rapidly followed by horror. The whole thing was compounded by the language in both Shoma Chaudhury’s and Tejpal’s various letters of explanation and apology.

Tejpal is a good writer of English but the most irritating aspect of his prose is the pomposity that sometimes leaks out of his usual control, conjoined to which is the habit of using complicated words when smaller, simpler ones would work better. Here we have the quite awful use, given the context, of “smothered”, (which he is, by that smelly blanket, regret), then we have a long paean to himself and his “institution” before the ghastly deployment of “laceration” and “recuse”. Both words have incited widespread sarcasm and gut-busting hilarity, and both unfortunate words are now going to be leeched on to the man forever. In Chaudhury’s letter, she parrots the grandiose “institution” (it’s a magazine that’s been around for 13 years, not a hundred and thirty) and the inexcusable “recuse”. At this point, many of us are thinking ‘whatever he did or didn’t do to the woman, there is no question that Tejpal has, yet again, unforgivably molested the Thesaurus.

Flippancy aside, the contrition seems totally contrived and insincere. The language aside, from this point on the stink of a botched cover-up begins to spread rapidly, along with the perception that Tejpal and Chaudhury, their huge arrogance un-recused, are trapped in a large prophylactic bubble of unreality. As this Indian film noir unfolds, everybody and their brother-in-law gets into the act. Immediately and at once. In both prose and TV, arguments are unzipped as frenetically as bodily-parts in a knee-trembler. When I discuss this with another writer friend we both agree that all these people rushing to procreate an opinion might look really foolish a few days later. Among the more sensible pieces counter to the the lynch-rush is one by T. Kadam in First Post, where she argues that various external forces have pushed the two parties apart, perhaps against their will. Ruing the emerging simplistic binary of guilty and innocent, she writes: “[I]n fact, something else was indicated: a third scenario, in which both the journalist and the editor are conscious of a nuanced truth, and maybe, inclined to a nuanced justice.” Kadam points out that even women activists advising the young journalist were leery of registering a case, but “with an FIR forced on the situation from outside, as it was, it could only explode. The two accounts, neither too far from a middle-ground, would blast apart”.

Kadam may be right — the ship of a possible fair, non-judicial compromise may have long sailed. Out of a possibly truthful and articulate complaint of sexual molestation, the Bharatiya Janata Party may have wrested a ready-made, already-sprung honey-trap against one of its chief media enemies. Most importantly, it may have done this against the will of the ubiquitously labelled ‘victim’. Duplicitous lawyers might have sidewinded both parties with the intent of milking out of the case both money and political capital, heedless of the justice the young woman might need or whatever punishment Tejpal might deserve. Regardless of the closure the young journalist may have initially wanted, the case has clearly opened up an orgasmic gold-rush for many people on ‘both’ sides of the supposed political divide.

The story is ongoing, the film (or book) maybe only half-way through its plot-graph, if that far along, but some lessons are already plain to see.

Between the horrific gang-rape in Delhi last December and the events in an elevator in Goa this last November, the game has suddenly become steeper for Indian men of all classes, castes and creeds. Which is a good thing.

In the modern, shark-eat-shark world of Indian media, you’re only part of a school or posse until you catch a nick and start to bleed. As Tejpal and Chaudhuri might have discovered by now, there are very few real friends, the rest just clink glasses with you, hiding their distaste and detestation until such time as it’s advantageous to bite into you. There is no real ‘right’ or ‘left’ in the media, there is only who is ‘up’ or ‘down’, ‘in’ or ‘out’. Of the people in the public eye who will consistently oppose you, there are the ones who have no choice but to openly hate you, and the far less numerous ones who are honest enough to convey that they’re critical of what you do and don’t really care what you think about this.

Lastly, people like Tejpal and I were formed in the 1960s and 1970s, and he has now come up against people who coalesced in the 1990s and 2000s — the same age as his offspring and mine. There is a strange Lav and Kush trait in this younger lot, without any of Ram’s honour accruing to our generation. Leave aside the woman who the media mindlessly keep referring to as‘ the girl’ or ‘the victim’, this generation of 20 or early 30-somethings is at once hugely confident and deeply confused. “We’re young. We’re not prudes, we’re not politically correct, we’re sexually free,” they say, and yet, they are not wise enough or honest enough to examine the old gender-traps they jump into, not until they realize the depth of the well. Our fault, Tejpal’s and mine, and of supposedly suave, urbane Indian men like us, is that we haven’t helped fill up this well, that, in fact, we might even have made it deeper.