Dear Tarun’s V*
A funny thing happened during the course of writing this letter. For starters, it wasn’t going to be addressed to you.
I was actually going to write a letter to the men in my life who had NOT sexually harassed or assaulted me. Truth be told, with so many men being called out, so many women coming out as victims of sexual harassment and so many incidents of gut-wrenching rape, I had genuinely begun to regard with gratitude the men who had not been beasts, who had shown me respect and treated me with dignity.
The man, for instance, who hadn’t taken advantage of my vulnerability when, as a down and out single parent, I had knocked on his door for a job.
The inebriated junior artists and roughneck unit hands who hadn’t lunged at me when I had found myself alone and vulnerable in a car with them on a deserted road in the middle of the night. I had accompanied my friend on a film shoot and had been inadvertently separated from her after pack up. Anything could have happened to me that night but nothing had. I had been gallantly escorted back to the safety of my friends and hotel room.
I wanted to thank those men and so many like them over the years who’d been kind, considerate collegiate, and supportive as employers, colleagues, peers and employees. The men who’d never stared at my chest when talking to me. The men who had been protective, decent and honourable when they needn’t have been. And, especially the men who’d shrugged pleasantly and walked away when I’d turned them down and never held it against my professional competence or me.
But that’s when the funny thing happened. The more I thought about writing that letter of gratitude... the more I began to remember other things that surprised me.
From the deep recesses of memory began to rise faces that I’d forgotten and feelings that I’d buried. I saw the faces of the men who HAD been the beasts. I saw the expression on the face of the aging professor, as he demanded a sexual favour from me, his 18-year-old student, before he evaluated my work.
Slowly like a mist, the long buried feelings of outrage, disgust, hurt and shame began to rise at this memory. I had not told anyone about this encounter or the subsequent consequences of my refusal. Like so many of us women growing up in the ‘70s, I had not had the words. We had believed that the shame was ours alone to bear. And once I reconnected with that memory, a ghostly procession of many more passed before me.
Men who had acted out of bad faith, who had betrayed trust and taken advantage of their position. I began to finally experience my own litany of shame, bead my own rosary of mortification.
Why hadn’t I called these men out? What had made me reluctant to speak up? And what was the use of outing them now, so many years later, firing from your shoulders, distracting from the real issues and titillating media frenzy?
Of those men, some are dead, others forgotten, most barely recalled and erased out of my memory through conditioning, cowardice and the lack of conviction. My sense of denial had been so complete that not only had I inured myself to unpleasant memories but it also now prompted me to believe that I ought to be grateful for what was mine by right — the right to be respected and treated with dignity regardless of what gender I was.
One of the results of your act of extraordinary courage is that women like me have begun to feel things that we’d been conditioned to keep at bay for so long — our genuine feelings of outrage, of anger and shame. We have begun to reclaim those feelings and attend to some old wounds that we didn’t even realise we were carrying.
Believe me, it feels strange. Believe me that some of us still cannot articulate what we feel. But we now find ourselves huddling with other women of our generation in groups of shock and shame.
“You too?” we say to each other, when we find the pauses in our everyday lives to dredge up those incidents of sexual harassment and assault that we have lived with and never spoken about till now. “Yes me too.” We look at each other with wonder. Who locked us into these cells of solitary confinement? Why did we not speak up before?
And so this letter to you to thank you. For doing what we could not do. For liberating us for from our awful silences and reconnecting us with our own feelings, not the least important of which is to know the difference between acknowledging the men who treat us right as opposed to being grateful to them.
And finally for giving us back the ownership of our bodies by writing “Your desire to apologise to XXXX only reeks of your own patriarchal notion that men own and possess female bodies” in your mail to Tarun.
Lastly, before I sign off, a word about addressing you as ‘Tarun’s V*’. Not knowing your name and going by common practice, it was supposed to read as ‘Tarun’s Victim’. But I now know what that’ V*’ stands for. It stands for ‘Tarun’s Victor’. May your tribe increase!
Yours sincerely etc
Malavika Sangghvi can be contacted at malavikasangghvi @hotmail.com
The writer believes in the art of letter writing.