Come Home to The Patriarchy

Hi. My name is Divya, and I’m an ex-employee of The High Spirits Cafe. I worked there for nearly 3 years, from September 2010 (then aged 20 yrs old) until July 2013. During my tenure, I acted as PA to the co-owner (then aged 30 yrs old), and worked as their PR girl, social media manager, front desk hostess, and artist/events manager, among other professional duties. I was a “regular” at High before I started working there — which is why I landed the job in the first place. Just like many of you, I too saw it as my ‘safe place’ and ‘home’. In fact, I spent more time at High than I did at my own house.

(TRIGGER WARNING: abuse, harassment)

I hadn’t given the concept of “feminism” much thought until about a year before, at University; but I wasn’t very outspoken about it. I did know though, that anyone — of any gender — touching my body without my explicit consent, was wrong. I don’t even remember the first time it happened at work, but I do remember the consequences that came from complaining.

I complained about being groped and bullied by my boss to his spouse, and so he (my boss) then poured a pint of beer on my head during my shift, and told me that if I went home to change, or ever brought this up to her (his spouse) again, I would lose my job. I took a break to go and cry in the parking lot, and came back to my desk. I felt like I had something to prove — that I was stronger than this, that I could outlast their bet (in conversation, someone bet I wouldn’t last a month), and I was determined to prove them wrong. I was young and naive. So I stayed.

Another afternoon at work, on the sofas that used to line the interior bar of High Spirits, I told my boss I would complain to his wife again if he went on fat-shaming me, so he came at me — pinching and tickling my ‘fat’ stomach until I was backed into a corner, sobbing on the floor. There was another girl present, but she didn’t interfere.

This was only the beginning. Groping (butt and boob), body-shaming, slut-shaming, pinching, bullying, intense verbal and emotional abuse were part of the daily routine. I was called ugly, fat, and disgusting, on a regular basis. If I got upset, I was called ‘weak’, belittled in front of other people, and told that this was all ‘for my own good’ — so that I could ‘toughen up’. He said it was because he cared about me. No amount of protests on my part — saying NO, STOP, or fighting back, made any amount of difference. I repeatedly tried bringing it up to his spouse, and mutual friends, but their responses were always the same: ‘you’re just over-reacting’, he ‘didn’t mean it’, he’s ‘a good person, don’t worry’ and worst of all — ‘he’s harmless’.

This was compounded by the fact that he (my boss) also called me his ‘little sister’ (and in return I considered him an older brother), and frequently insinuated himself into my private life under the guise of being ‘protective’. Any resistance on my part was then countered with the sibling excuse; any manipulation or bullying was followed by ‘you’re like a little sister’. It was confusing, to say the least. To be clear, I’ve grown up in the company of male friends, acquaintances, and relatives — and none of them (especially the latter) had ever violated my personal space in this manner, before. Those that did, would face retaliation in the form of my fists, or an adult in authority.

It was especially confusing when other women (particularly, ones I looked up to) told me it wasn’t a big deal, that this was just ‘joking around’ — and so I conditioned myself to accept this behaviour as the norm. The voice in my head that said it was wrong got pushed further and further into the back of my mind, finally silenced to no more than a whisper.

When your friends and peers are constantly normalising a pattern of behaviour you disagree with, you start to feel a little crazy. In order to fit in, you compromise by internalising your feelings, squashing them deep down into a never ending abyss.

It takes a toll on you, and the price is your mental health. My fear of losing everything I had worked so hard for, overtook my common sense. Instead of quitting, I would take small breaks to go and cry in the bathroom, in the parking lot, or at home. I constantly felt like I had something to prove — that I was tough, and I could bear all this and more; but on the inside, I hurt. I didn’t want to be seen as ‘weak’, so I became “one of the guys” and did my best to fit in.

I still felt protective of women I would encounter going through the same (verbal and physical) harassment, but I felt helpless — and would only end up making excuses for it. We’d console each other in the bathroom, swap stories, and laugh it off. It was so normalised that we’d even joke about it with my boss. “Haha, if this were the USA we’d have sued you by now for a large settlement!”, knowing full well that this would never successfully happen in India. It’s all we could do, at the time.

It took a toll on my mental, physical, and emotional health. I felt isolated, depressed, and my self-esteem was the size of a breadcrumb. Though eventually I quit my job in 2013, it took me a couple of years (and moving to another city) to fully understand what I had been through. I still blame myself for a lot of it. For keeping quiet, for making excuses, for normalising the abuse because it was by people I knew personally — people I trusted. Only after a couple more years of un-learning the damage, and slowly re-building my confidence, did I start to feel like a real person again.

The last time I met my ex-boss was for a courtesy ‘meeting’ in 2015 — the purpose of which I realised later was just so he could showboat in front of a group of young girls. He tried to belittle me, but I defended myself verbally. When I got up to leave, he gabbed my waist from behind and did a few vigorous thrusts with his pelvis into my buttocks, saying “oh that’s the most action I’ve gotten in six months” (his wife has just birthed a son a few weeks earlier). I felt so violated and dirty afterwards, that I went home and cried.

My visits to High stopped almost completely — save once or twice when I’ve compromised and attended an event on behalf of a close friend. I avoided it like the plague, because every visit would trigger my anxiety and depression. Some of my friends who were still regulars, couldn’t understand why I refused to socialise there.

There are countless instances I could narrate to you, but the point remains the same — it is a toxic environment where women are objectified and everyone is conditioned to accept abuse and sexism as the norm. It’s wrong.

I’m not speaking for all women — clearly there are a number of you who haven’t had the same experiences as some of us (I’m relieved for you), but that doesn’t invalidate what the rest of us have gone through at one point or another. Sure, my boss and my co-workers always made sure I got home safely. But if a person (figuratively) is protecting you from a creepy guy with one arm, but grabbing your boob with the other — that still doesn’t make it okay.

To the women who have spoken up in defense of High Spirits — I hear you. I know why you’re defending it. I used to feel that way too..

Until the drunk guy who jumped me from behind and bit me on my face (in front of witnesses) after the first edition of ‘High Fashionistas’, was allowed to return as a customer the next day (because he was a friend/big spender).

Until I was forced to keep approaching a group of ex-pat men for the ‘Firang Privilege’ card (yes that was actually a thing) even though I complained to my boss that they were asking me lewd questions.

Until the creepy guy who used to send me ‘I love you’ text messages was declared innocent, and not kicked out (he would text me from a work number that he wouldn’t bring to High, so they could never ‘prove’ it was him).

Why didn’t I speak up earlier? There was no Internal Complaints Committee, or Prevention of Sexual Harassment Committee (which I later learned is required by Law). No ‘sensitivity training’. No sexual harassment seminars. Nobody who would take this seriously.

Using terms like ‘abuse’ and ‘harassment’ were hard to put to this behaviour because it came from someone known. A friend. A person I considered extended family. It took me so long to finally look back and understand this for what it was. I was mentally and emotionally broken. I had confided in my closest friends, but we knew that coming forth would precipitate severe backlash (against me) in a small city like Poona. Who else would believe me? I was a long-term employee, I seemed ‘happy’, we were as close as family, and I had defended him to everyone I knew. These conversations have taken place behind closed doors for ages, whispered like secrets because nobody wanted to take on a venue like High Spirits.

What do I have to gain from this? Literally nothing, except my somewhat diminished sense of dignity. I’ve had some of the best and worst times in my life at High. I didn’t even want to speak out publicly (or else I wouldn’t have waited this long), but certain circumstances have forced my hand. By doing this, my personal safety and privacy are at risk, as are my family’s. I certainly don’t need the attention — I choose to live my life under the radar, and hardly ever socialise. The only reason I am doing this, is to support these women (and some men) who have so bravely come forward with their stories. I do not want anything, except to dismantle this sub-culture of narcissistic abuse, bullying, misogyny, and victim-blaming. It has to stop.

BTW, Sheena is a force of nature — she is a champion to those of us who could not find a voice to speak out, and she does not deserve any of the trash that has been thrown her way.

Thank you for listening.

UPDATE (16–01–2018): Speaking Out: In Retrospect..