Truth or Dare…? The Alchemy of Desire Deconstructedby Vinta Nanda November 26 2013, 4:13 pm Estimated Reading Time: 15 mins, 54 secs
I am completely compelled and driven by an intense need to write this piece because I’m no longer now, able to be in denial of the force driving me to give some perspective to an insanity that has gripped our nation consumed by desperation, a madness to know more and more from the repetitive versions of the narrative of what happened in an elevator in Goa earlier this month. People around me and everywhere else in India cannot stop discussing it, and this country, its media has been on the verge of hysteria for over six days now.
I’ve battled with ways of expressing myself about it, without hurting anybody’s sensibilities, because I know the complexities involved when everyone is in the grip of intense disbelief, as well as shock. I find no other way but to speak about it through my own experiences as a woman in a dynamic new world where evolved, educated and empowered women like us can and are prepared to face challenges of all kinds as well as find solutions along the way.
One of the biggest challenges faced by women across the world is to find equality with men in their place of work, and to not be compared to them in performance by their gender.
Where I started in a hugely male dominated world almost 25 years ago, it was far worse.
I started out armed with the power of the words spoken to me by my father when he was informed by me that I wanted to be a filmmaker and a film producer. Unlike most other parents in those times, my father was happy to hear of my decision but also told me that he would be greatly disappointed in me if with all that he and my mother had provided me through education and other forms of empowerment, I was to use my being a woman as an excuse for chickening out of any duty assigned to me when I was stepping into an environment at such a time when you could have counted the numbers of women behind the camera’s that rolled to capture the essence of our cultures, in all their glory and all their shame, on your fingers tips.
I was in a city that was then termed as the safest for women in India, and I was on my own, and not once did it deter me from taking on work through late nights only because I feared getting home on my own, or that I would need someone to drop me back.
I grew from the ranks, so as a third assistant director, from where I started, I never expected privilege, nor offer of any because I was equipped with the knowledge that nothing came free and there were no free lunches offered to any man or woman in this world.
I was 20 years old and at an editing well past midnight along with a battery of senior assistants and editors, all male, on a film and the director had left instructions to be called to the editing room as soon as a particular scene had been cut and made ready for him to see. When ready, the chief among us tried calling the director by phone, landlines in those days, but couldn’t get through, so ordered me to go by auto rickshaw to the directors’ house which was a distance of about 2 kilometres from where we were, and bring him back with me. I left in all my enthusiasm and the tremendous faith I had in all that I believed, caught an auto rickshaw and then reached the director’s house.
The male housekeeper ushered me into a darkish living room which I entered and stood in. Then the housekeeper urged me to go to the bedroom where he said that the director was waiting for me. I walked in unsuspectingly imagining that I would meet the director and his wife, but when I stepped into the room, I saw the director lounging on his bed with a towel wrapped around his waist, smiling at me and inviting me to come and sit next to him.
That is when it struck me what I had been set up for.
What made is worse is that the director asked me not to worry, as his wife was not in town. I abused the director, blew him up in disgust, and walked out with him chasing me to his door, begging me to wait till he got dressed so that he could accompany me to the editing room. I told him to lay off and ran towards the elevator that was virtually waiting for me to jump in, walked out of his building into the darkness, and sat in the first auto-rickshaw I could find; and requested the driver to take me to my house, which was a good 10 kilometres away from where I was. I never went back to that job again, neither did I resign, nor did I think it necessary to explain myself to anybody.
I also worked backstage in theatre during those days, to gain experience as well as earn an extra buck. I was young, driven by raging hormones and willing to expose myself to various experiences at the time because I was aware that there was a lot about life I needed to know if I wanted to express myself through my work later on. But there was one thing I was sure of, and it was that the experiences I would plunge myself into would be of my choice. I was educated, empowered and I was a woman in a modern world where nobody could force me to do anything against my will.
I was aware of my rights, and loaded with enough common sense to know that I could walk away from any situation which did not agree with me.
I was hugely attracted to an actor who was engaged to be married to his fiancé whom I did not know. He was also training to be a director and the chemistry we shared was electric. We had a short lived liaison before the guy went on with his plans, and I moved on, a bit hurt but aware that the choice was mine, therefore the little pain I felt, must be endured.
A few weeks later, my doorbell rang, and what I found when I opened the door was the actor’s best friend standing with a stupid, almost idiotic smile on his face, an expression on a face which I will or can never forget throughout my life.
It was quite late in the night and because I lived on my own I felt a bit odd that this guy, also an actor whom I was not too familiar with, should visit me. However, I let him in, and asked him if it was something urgent he needed to discuss. Within seconds the guy pounced on me and started to touch me. I pushed him away and told him to get out. I told him that I would call the cops and went to the window to shout to the security guard. The guy started weeping, and I stopped.
I was confused, so out of feelings of kindness towards him I asked him if he was alright. He begged my forgiveness and began to cry so profusely that I made him sit down and brought him a glass of water to drink. He was after all a friend, an actor I admired too, so I asked him if he was drunk, on substance or if he had smoked marijuana which could have induced in him the belief that he could do what he had done to me? The guy broke down once again and told me that he had great respect for me and that he had read me wrong. I then asked him what it was about me that had made him read me wrong and he told me that since I had consented to a liaison with his best friend while being in knowledge of his impending wedding, he had thought that I was ready and available for having fun. I burst out laughing although I was still angry and explained to this poor fellow, this struggling actor that my relationship with his best friend was because I was genuinely attracted to him, and of my choice. That the fact that I had decided to go through what I did, was a conscious decision made by me, and that it did not mean what he was allowing himself to think.
We continue to be friends till date, but it is funny when we meet every once in a long while.
Life went on and in a few years I became a famous producer of a top ranking series that I was also writing on television. Success led me to become the proprietor of a production house which was running 5 prime time shows at the same time. This was in the early and mid nineties and there were guys and girls working with me. I was protective of women in my organization and had made it clear to everyone who worked with me, that anything discriminatory or any bias by gender would not be tolerated. I was in love with my creative partner who was married to another woman and also the father of two children and helpless when it came to discerning between the morality of it and my love for him. Being open and never afraid of my actions, it was no secret.
When a complaint came from a young actor who was being auditioned for a role that the production manager who was in charge, had made it mandatory for her to sleep with him if she wanted the role, I confronted the production manager and warned him of dire consequences if another such instance occurred. I went public in the organization, which gave confidence to others to come up and speak if they were insulted in any such way. Soon a second complaint came and I asked the production manager to leave his job. He was vicious and told me to my face that a woman like me, who chose to openly liaise with a married man, had no right to morally judge anybody. I tried to explain to him the difference between consent and exploitation, but I still sense his anger with me when I meet him at times, although the situation I’m talking about happened over 15 years ago.
Sometime after, one of the girls working with us came and confided in me and told me that my partner, the married man I was in love with, had made a pass at her and tried to assault her sexually. I brought the house down. I acted on a two levels, out of an intense feeling of betrayal and out of my stand against exploitation. I confronted the man and made him come face to face with the girl concerned and the man refused to admit it and kept asking the girl to look into his eyes and say what she had told me. The girl refused to speak or look either him or me in our eyes. I gave up, walked away, got drunk with my friends that night, to wash off the multiple sins, and never had anything to do with the man thereafter. Within weeks, I brought my work to a point of closure; in any case burnt out after leading the creative processes for 5 soap operas for over three consecutive years, I walked away hurt and defeated. I never believed my partner although he tried on numerous occasions to convince me that he had not cheated on me. The fact that he was cheating on his wife haunted me and I believed that he could easily cheat on me too.
A couple of years later, the boyfriend of the girl concerned who was no longer in relationship with her anymore, confessed to me that he was gay, out of the closet now, and the girl who had then been his girl friend, had lied to me and it was he, who was in love with my partner, and he who had made a pass at him. Bizarre as it may sound, when refuted, he had told his girlfriend that my partner assaulted him and together they feared that I would never believe the story; so his girlfriend had taken it upon herself to punish my partner. However convoluted it may sound, this is true and I went to my partner and asked for his forgiveness. Life had moved on for both of us by then, but we worked on some more projects together, remained platonically related through them, before we finally called it a day a few years ago.
I used to love my whiskey, and I smoke, so on numerous occasions I have encountered many Indian men propositioning to me on the grounds of their (sic!) belief that a woman who is single and who drinks alcohol and smokes, is available. One particular experience in a drunken state in my mid thirties left me scarred and it took years to heal. But I never made a complaint, much against the wishes of all my friends and family, because somewhere at the back of my mind, I knew I had been complicit to the act because I had flirted outrageously with the man in question on many occasions. The only reason I believe that he was wrong is because he acted when I was vulnerable, and also hurt me physically, but I still don’t think it made a case.
There are so many stories, incidents encountered by me and/or my friends, colleagues and juniors over the years. I don’t think there is a single Indian woman in the work place or at home, who hasn’t faced harassment of some sort or the other, but my reason for going over my past 25 years of my life spent in a volatile industry where stakes are as high as raging hormones, is that I neither condone such behaviour by men, nor condemn it. This is just the way our society is, and this is just the value system it delivers to all men and women in India.
Punishment without alterations made to the basic fabric that binds our societies and cultures together, makes no sense to me. When boys grow up to become men believing that they are superior to women, what can be expected from them? When the very women who must stand by their sisters put their sons before their daughters and cover up for the misdeeds of their brothers and husbands, how can the woman marginalized at her place of work find justice? In a country where a sister, a mother, a wife or a keep, sacrificing for her man is sacred, society will take a long time to cross over to a place where women can feel liberated and free.
While, as an activist, a writer and a feminist, I reach out to every helpless woman I encounter who suffers discrimination, those not helpless like me, I empathize with.
I believe that I am the citizen, the state as well as the very justice system that my country offers to millions of women like me. I may be consumed by the narrative of Tehelka Gate like any other normal human being, but I don’t think that a state machinery falling apart, and barely able to provide platforms of justice to thousands of hapless men and women in my country along with a huge media barely being able to address real issues due to lack of time, sponsorship and space, should occupy themselves endlessly across a whole week with a case where the man as well as the woman concerned are both educated, empowered, adult and have taken decisions, stands and offered apologies over something that transpired between them at the much talked about annual Think Fest and before private conversations between the two of them and their institution leaked out to the public at large.
I believe that the man should be shamed and his act should be condemned if what is alleged is proven true, but the discourse should be about the vulnerability of women in the work place, especially those more disempowered than us, the labour, domestic help and junior professionals, and I don’t think that the issue should go so over the top that it is criminalized and then sensationalized and politicized to the extent that this one has been. Both the young girl and the accused who allegedly tried to sexually liaise with a woman his daughters age, are capable of settling the matter, parting ways, or forgiving and forgetting for all I care, but I do not believe that the state, the country and the media of the nation should be so obsessed with it just because the man in question is a celebrity and stood on the same high moral ground that his institution stood for.
We are a privileged lot, and I salute the courage of the young girl and admire her to have exercised her right to bring her truth out in public. Further than that, I think that the rest is nothing more than a filthy politics between famous people and their detractors, and the voyeuristic tendencies of a nation starved for entertainment of the lewd kind, masturbating endlessly over the detailed versions of the two concerned. Thank heavens that there is no CCTV footage to corroborate the truth, because if it were there, semen would flow on the streets where repressed people lust in the dark and conservative corners hunting for ways to express their sexual desires.
Let the cameras along with our gaze shift to those dark and narrow lanes where people are dying of hunger and where acute poverty dominates the images of contemporary times. Let us think for those dreading the impending cold of the winters without shelters available for them to protect themselves. Let us weed out corruption from almost all our systems that stink of murk and cost the exchequer the livelihood of millions. Let us focus on building roads and sensitizing the very highly educated architects and engineers who build structures and edifices for public consumption with the hard earned money of the tax payer, without a thought for the aged and the disabled, for how would they take a wheelchair upon a pavement, and how they could take the metro from one part of my city to another without an escalator to help them to get to it. Let the feminists, activists, lawyers, journalists, image consultants and socialites talk about the millions of children abused, exploited and trafficked with the same zeal as they pontificate about middle and upper middle class morality.
After that is done then let us redefine morality for ourselves too.