It was my first job after a maternity break and I was super-eager to begin. I am a very confident person; experience brings it along, I suppose. So I didn’t think fitting in would be that difficult a job. My boss asked me if I would be comfortable working with a ‘younger’ team and having to answer to a person younger than me. What could possibly be the problem with that, I thought. Well, that was all the problem there was in that job,” says mom to two, Komal, 40.
Narrating her experience of five years ago, she says it was a hostile environment. “One day, my boss explicitly asked everyone their age and had a definite look of horror when I said 35. A titter went around the room where the youngest person was 22, and the oldest (among them), 28. Till then, age had only been a number in my head. But it changed. From then on, in every conversation, I was made to feel old. My ideas for content creation would get rejected because they were ‘so last generation’. My colleagues would leave for after-parties, completely forgetting to invite me. The person I was reporting to was outright rude. I had a verbal duel with her once about working with each other’s advantages, but she shot me down,” Komal still recoils at the horror. She resigned from her job but stated the reasons in black and white. “I don’t know if it was a stand to take, but I was feeling suffocated in there. I said to myself I would leave, but also make them realise why,” she says.
What makes us endure harassment? What makes us speak out? Should we risk speaking out? Should we brush it off? Is this harassment at all? Should we train our mind to not ignore it? A million questions have been buzzing silently in our heads ever since the #MeToo movement started in the country. With voices breaking out from corners we had half-expected to, and some unexpected ones as well, many people are yet to recover from the shock of women being so brazenly outspoken now.
Nanda Manjal, counsellor and yoga practitioner, says that speaking out itself is an act of bravery. “Standing up for yourself doesn’t come easy. We haven’t been taught this very basic trait, have we? Our childhood values are all about being kind to others, taking care of others, loving, nurturing, but what must we do in a hostile situation? No child is taught that. So we grow up clueless. Faced with a potentially harmful situation, we bungle up. Either we end up throwing away our chances, or we end up succumbing to the pressure,” she points out.
More often than not, it is the fear of being isolated from the crowd that keeps us from speaking up. As humans, the sense of belongingness is a very strong need. Baroda-based Rashmi’s father is a very experienced man who is a consultant with high net worth corporates. People seek him out for his analytical and problem-solving skills. Yet this 70-year-old is not able to stand up to his abusive son, Rashmi’s brother. “Time and again, my brother has said and done the worst things imaginable. All that my father needs to do is ask him to move out of the house. But he doesn’t. When my mother tries to discipline my brother, my dad steps in to calm her down. Likewise, when I say something.” The one time her father did stand up to his son, the latter straightened out for a few months. “I keep reminding my father about that incident and tell him that should be his stance forever, but either he is too scared of him, or too much in love with him.”
Maybe it is neither. Alienation from his family over abandoning a son could be a strong reason behind a senior, respectable, well-thinking man not standing up to his abusive son. Maybe he does not want to risk having a bad name for his family in the twilight years of his life and is hoping to sweep the skeletons under the carpet. What he, most certainly, has overlooked is the deep dark danger he is exposing himself and his family to.
On the flip side, the potential danger you expose yourself to when you call out someone can also be a deterrent for some, while it may spur others to take action. Noyanika recalls her recent experience. “I was travelling by bus and it was a particularly crowded one. A schoolgirl was trying to call the bus conductor for a ticket. When she finally did reach the conductor whose temper was high because of the crowd, he saw that she didn’t have change and went on to slap her and push her back. I yelled out at him as an instant reaction to the violence. How could he! I screamed out loud and paid for her as the girl burst out crying and jumped off the bus at the next stop. I warned him that I would complain, and I did. I missed college and filed a written complaint at the bus depot,” she says.
The bus was crowded. Not a single person came up to say a single word. It was the girl, alone, against the conductor. The worst was when Noyanika was called to the bus depot to meet the errant conductor. She went with her mother this time. “I was greeted there by this man wearing a thick gold chain. He was apparently the union guy and he wanted to ‘apologise’ for the conductor’s behaviour. It was quite scary, that meeting, but I put my point across in the simplest manner possible. The conductor apologised, and we left. I think that meeting was to only intimidate me,” she adds.
Obviously, getting intimidated was the last thing on her mind. That’s a habit that we need to consciously build into each other. Building a community of people who have you covered also encourages one to speak up. The important thing is for the oppressor to realise that this person will no longer remain a victim and there is a full chance of a backlash. Once that is clear, there is no equation of the oppressor and the oppressed. Remember, silence is not an option. Like Dr Martin Luther King Jr famously said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” And, may we add, our own as well.