Speak English, Drink Rum: Women at the workplaceby Vinta Nanda June 2 2020, 6:59 pm Estimated Reading Time: 11 mins, 20 secs
Vinta Nanda recalls the times when she was a smoker, enjoyed drinking rum and coke every other evening and also spoke fluent English.
I’m talking about a time towards the end of 1980’s.
Peddar Road ki Aulaad was what I was called, not jokingly, by the Chief Assistant Director on the sets of my first job. I was the junior most assistant to the director but now when I look back in retrospect, I must certainly have threatened him in some way, which is why he was prone to creating a boys club around himself when I was around; probably to bolster his own lack of self-confidence?
All the other assistants around him would laugh and make it seem like what he was saying about me to my face was derogatory and something for me to feel ashamed about. It took a few days to figure why it was an advantage for me to be who I was? I spoke fluent English for one thing.
I was junior to this bunch of boys and they didn’t like the fact that I was becoming their equal in such a short span of time. Moreover, at certain times it was a fact that I was also being made to supersede them because I was articulate and I spoke in a language, which the nouveau honcho’s of a burgeoning media and entertainment industry were more comfortable to communicate.
I was an average student, so my parents had taken precautions to make me attend a secretarial course after my graduation, worrying that if nothing else, it’s a skill that’ll help for me to stand on my own two feet.
One of my aunts had also gifted me a portable Olivetti, a precious asset to own in those times. What my elders had not imagined was that I would be able to make my way from theatre to films and finally to television and film direction and production. They hadn’t imagined a revolution, by way of which (useless) storytellers like me, without good grades, would find traction, popularity and professional success as well.
I remember once at work when I was walking up from afar towards my team, one of the boys said, “Aa gayee Convent waali (The one from the Convent is here).” The fact that I spoke fluent English wasn’t his only problem. The issue was that I also spoke good Hindi and I could read and write in English, Hindi as well as Gurmukhi. Then what also provided me with an edge over him at work was that I could type and take notes in shorthand so when my bosses would be in creative discussion, the material I would consolidate in real time, came handy later when scripts were being written and that would earn me brownie points.
Also those were not the days of computers and from proposals to scripts, everything needed to be sent for packaging to overworked typing and xeroxing stores and they were a pain to deal with. The fact that I could do that sitting at home, made me popular with the bosses.
From friends to bosses there was always a line up of people waiting for me to help them with their work, which I was delivering to them; free of cost of course! My paying guest or rental accommodations in Juhu, Andheri Lokhandwala and lastly Yari Road, were virtual adda’s because friends would turn up with two quarters of rum, one for themselves and one for me; and I would sit and type their letters and proposals for them.
I attribute my understanding and learnings of screenplay writing to all the varied scripts and creative works, which I typed for friends, colleagues and some very accomplished directors.
Later when the electronic typewriter started making better looking proposals than my ordinary Olivetti could, it was director Ken Ghosh’s office, where the adda shifted. Even I would be in line to get my work done from Ken, who would oblige us post his working hours – sometimes late into the night – with one quarter, which he would put out as his fee as well.
The fact that we struggle to build careers and we compete in this volatile business, the fact that we don’t have legacies to fall back on and the fact that we earn every cigarette, which we smoke, every peg of rum and coke that it takes to get us singing and dancing through tough times and also past the consequences of some wrong decisions made; doesn’t make sense to folks who are bigoted and therefore they believe that we, the english speaking and rum drinking people are loose characters.
What also bothers them about us is that we don’t wear our religion, class, caste or identity on our sleeves. Among other things, the fact that we question our elders and practices, which have no relevance to our lives, that we fearlessly plunge into the unknown, falling and rising again to discover and sketch a path for ourselves, only makes us more liberated and therefore also a threat to them – I, like many of my friends in the media have been called a Libtard, Pressitute etc.
Twenty five years ago, I was called Peddar Road ki Aulaad and Convent Waali, and now, so many years later, those who’re supposedly my kind of young people today, are called Lutyens and Khan Market Walas.
So nothing has really changed.
One of the first attacks that I faced from a collection of disgruntled colleagues, who called me Peddar Road ki Aulaad and Convent Waali, came at an outdoor shooting in Khupwara, Kashmir in the year 1987; where we were shooting for a film in which I was again a junior assistant director.
Being the only woman in this mix of boys, it was a bit of a challenge because I personally never wanted to be seen as someone who would run to seniors and complain. Hierarchies were held sacrosanct in the film industry then as they are now, so the bosses, HOD’s and actors, had cars to take them back to the lodges from location after wrap up every one of the many evenings, and the rest of the team would be transported back by bus.
The sun was setting one evening and when everyone was packed in the bus ready to leave, the chief assistant ordered me to run up the hill where we had been shooting all day and bring back to him a file, which he had left behind there by mistake. I followed orders as usual and when I was still running up the hill, the bus cruised away. I turned around and they were gone, most of them waving to me from the windows.
At first I thought it was a joke so I didn’t bother with it and remained duty bound. Then reality sank in when the bus disappeared and darkness started to envelope this paradise, which we had spent the day in.
I turned around and walked. I walked about four kilometers through a broken down road towards our lodge as it grew darker by the second in a place where there was no other light in sight for miles. Nor was there a soul along this path, which was flanked by thick forests on both sides.
I returned to our guest house and I was frozen (it was the month of October) and the scars of frostbite on my legs remain today to remind me of that night. I shivered as I got into bed. I spent the night transfixed in fear. I went to work the next morning like nothing had happened. Life went on as usual until the end of that schedule.
Then another late night many months later, I found a theatre director, television host and good friend of mine standing at my doorstep asking me for sex.
Yes, as plain and simple as that.
I started to laugh, called him in, gave him water to drink and offered him a drink. I asked him what it was that had made him assume I wanted to have sex with him?
His words spoken in chaste Hindi ring in my head till today. He said to me that he always thought I was that type?!!! That I was so modern, I spoke English and that I lived alone so I would be game. “Sab ke saath toh karti hi ho na tum (you do it with everybody) toh mere saath bhi kar lo (so do it with me as well!),” is what he ended his explanation with in a very matter of fact tone of voice.
I had to sit him down and make him understand that I didn’t do it with everybody and if in case he had heard so, then I’m afraid there are men among us who are saying things, which are not true.
Our friend left my house after drowning a whole bottle of rum with me, thinking and hoping perhaps that in drunken state I would ‘have sex with him. Sweet man, became a very popular television star later, who couldn’t understand why a woman who spoke English, lived alone in an apartment, smoked ciggerettes and had rum to drink wasn’t ready to have sex with him?
The next day at rehearsals, while I was working backstage, he gave the whole crew a long lecture on ‘angrezi bolne waale log - English speaking people’, and then for no rhyme or reason, he shouted at me for being useless at work and asked me to leave the theatre group.
The third and most bizarre among all experiences I’m writing about was, when I was running a successful production company a few years later. A young auditor, extremely bright and very smart, who worked for my company, dropped by for a meeting citing something urgent as the reason. He sat across the table from me and said that he was getting married. I congratulated him. Then he said, again point blank and to my face, ‘I’m not experienced’.
It took me a few seconds to understand what he was trying to say to me and once I was able to wrap my head around it, I must’ve laughed for want of anything better to do, so he asked me once again – very seriously - if I would oblige him by providing him with ‘the experience’.
The shock on my face obviously must not have registered, because he went on to assure me that he would arrange for a top class five star hotel, where he told me I could conduct this workshop for him!!!
My immediate reaction was an irrevocable ‘N-O,” but being sensitive towards him because he was embarrassed, I continued with the conversation and asked him - on hindsight I feel it was a rather foolish thing for me to have done - what it was that made him think I would be fine about providing him with the experience? He said, “Well you are a woman of the world, successful, you speak English, drink rum, you smoke; everyone knows you’re having an affair with your business partner (I was as a matter of fact in a relationship with my business partner), who is a married man.”
I remember I questioned some of my friends, colleagues and cousins. I asked them if they would do anything similar to what my auditor had done with me? All of them – Peddar Road ki aulaadein, Lutyens, Khan Market walas, Convent educated, Libtards, Pressitutes or whatever you may like to call them - said, “No way!”
I asked them how they handle performance anxiety? All of them said that they had no issue with it. Don’t we all know that lovemaking happens when there is consent on both sides and where there is force or when one of the two partners involved is reluctant; there is bound to be anxiety?
I look around me now and find that nothing has changed over the years.
While women have taken the curve and crossed boundaries, most Indian men are still caught up with their angst with women who are equal to them or maybe at times, who are also better than them at work. It’s the labelling, stereotyping and grouping that helps them get away with a lot when working with women at par.
When so much conversation is going around about women at the workplace and especially post the #MeToo movement, we need to take a pause and understand that what women face is an every-single-day reality and however much we may have advanced with our cultural evolution as well as policy, it’s mindsets that remain stagnant irrespective.
Silence is the biggest evil. The second biggest evil is those women among us who perpetuate patriarchy by giving birth to men, raising them as well as endorsing overt masculinity as a virtue.
Little do they realise that they end up making the men they are presumably holding up to high esteem, lose self confidence in themselves, which in turn starts to make them hate all others around them who value themselves, know their worth and are thus fearless.