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Pin Drop Silence





Pin Drop Silence



My schoolteachers taught me that we had to observe pin drop silence inside classrooms. My family shushed me up in order to avoid discussing a discomforting topic or incident. So I grew up silently within closed doors, witnessing what I now recognise as domestic violence. It happened constantly but no one uttered a single word. People outside those doors had no idea about this unjust treatment. How could they? After all, the beautiful house was situated amidst idyllic surroundings and the family seemed ideal.

In my old job, I often wrote motivational quotes on my office whiteboard (where my nameplate was affixed) facing my seat. Whenever I was not at my seat, somebody erased them and wrote something disrespectful. I always suspected Hemant, a colleague of doing so in rancour since I had rejected his advances. Once I caught him red-handed trying to write something rude on my board. I muttered a riposte which he evaded. Later, I wrote “I don’t entertain juveniles” below the quote. I came back to my seat after taking a lecture and found that the word “don’t” had been erased. He was sitting callously with a student. I merely scribbled the word “don’t” again.

It made me think why I did not go to his seat and confront him. I asked my then co-worker, “Damini, does he not deserve an acrimonious treatment? Hemant is responsible for educating and sensitising students, most of whom are of an impressionable age. If a man cannot take responsibility for his actions which actually equate to workplace harassment, can he fulfil his professional obligations with a sense of responsibility?” “What made you not say that in his face? Why are you ranting against him to me?” “Wouldn’t it be too harsh? I can’t be blunt like you.” Shrugging her shoulders she said, “Well, had it been me I would have confronted him then and there. If you can’t be like me, you’ll face the repercussions.” Grimly I said, “Ah you’re right, which is why no one bullies you. By maintaining silence I am encouraging his misconduct which is worse.”

Why could I not break my silence? Was I a coward? By not taking responsibility for my inaction, could I truly fulfil my professional obligations? Or, was it because we, as women, have been taught to not question people? Is this the reason our voices have long been stifled, and still are? But Damini is different. I just wished I was more like her-fiery and confrontational. I wished I could crush the demure part of my personality.

The conflict avoider in me started wondering if his behaviour actually amounted to harassment. When he wrote on Tara’s whiteboard, she got amused. Maybe his acts were not disrespectful but merely cheeky. In Indian society, women who reject advances are presumed to be uptight. I could have sugar-coated my response like others do. Plain rebuffing may have provoked him to act in this manner.

It has been sixteen years since a male schoolteacher ‘flirted’ with me. It now amounts to a crime. A while back I saw him for the first time. I immediately shielded my face with my hair so that he will not recognise me. My acquaintance, Sharad, happened to notice my strange behaviour. He asked, “What happened Devyani? Is there anything about this man that I should know because he teaches my children? Please tell me.” He begged.

I began, “When I was twelve I did not know that his acts amounted to sexual harassment of a minor because no one spoke about it. No one at school or outside school spoke about any kind of emotional, psychological, mental, physical or sexual abuse. I learnt that silence was de rigeur for carving a place for myself in this society.” While narrating my story, tears fell down my cheeks. I realised that that was the first time that I had cried because as soon as the incident happened I tried to successfully erase those memories away by not thinking, reacting, or talking about them to anyone, including my mother, with whom I share a close relationship.

“He did not teach me. He coquettishly complimented me on my looks daily for an entire month until I started evading him. He tried taking my phone number and address. When I resisted, he asked others to fetch my number and address. He tried touching me. I wanted to learn French. He taught me ‘bisou’; meaning ‘kiss’. There was no internet then. My friend, Justine looked it up in the dictionary and told me. After that episode, I hid in the toilet and when Justine indicated that he had left, I ventured outside into the open. She protected me throughout his tenure at our school. As soon as he was buried in the grave meant for painful memories, we never discussed it.”

Sharad responded nonchalantly, “What is wrong in complimenting students playfully? Maybe he wanted your address so that he could surprise you by teaching you for free. Maybe he was being funny when he taught you ‘bisou’. You are overreacting.” “What about touching me?” “Forget it Devyani.” Maybe Sharad is right. I should forget it. Importing criminality into the teacher’s acts only strengthens this memory. Attributing it normality helps me erase it.

I never told my mother about any of these incidents. I have come a long way. I have become a women’s rights lawyer and identify myself as a feminist. Why did I not tell her? Maybe I am not ready to show my vulnerability and shed my veil of invincibility or maybe because I am the ray of light whom she looks up to, who comforts her and other women during the morbid periods of distress caused by men, who trample over them and treat them as their property.

Why does going down the memory lane, make me shiver and break into pieces? Maybe because it is the sordid labyrinth of shame that I face daily because I could not stand up for myself at some of those important moments. Or the trepidation I struggle with as I look into the mirror of shameful encounters and fear what awaits me next. Why so? Maybe because I needed and still need therapy, support and encouragement from all to talk about these murky episodes. But all I got is admonition.

With great difficulty, I said, “Last evening a guy followed me asking for my number. I said ‘no’. He pulled me towards himself, trying to kiss me. I kicked him and ran. He chased me. When did ‘no’ stop being ‘no’?” My friend, Sheila with anguish across her face, remarked, “Are you alright?” She protectively hugged me. Like a bolt from the blue, she reprimanded me, “What were you expecting while wearing a dress that shows your skin and figure? You are the one who is seeking attention.” “You are covered from head to toe but you get cat-called often.” She walked away.

To distract myself, I started watching a hit Bollywood movie. The girl turns down the boy’s advances, he catches hold of her arm and promises that he’s not going to give up on ‘them’. He pursues her everywhere; until he hears a ‘yes’. She falls in love with him. Did my ‘no’ mean that I was playing hard-to-get? My attacker, nay lover, was merely acting like others. Is this love?

Throughout my life whenever I tried to speak about the miasma of unhappiness that enveloped me, I was told by family and friends that this injustice was my undoing. “Devyani, life as a voluptuous woman in India implies that you have to dress carefully. You don’t follow our advice which is why bad stuff happens.” It was instilled in me that I was responsible for all these acts. This is why I stopped confiding in anyone. I felt ashamed of my body. I envied girls who had small breasts. But, didn’t ‘bad stuff’ happen to them?

And therapy? I knew the stigma surrounding it. I heard people whispering in the neighbourhood, “Has Riya become psychotic? I hear she’s visiting a psychiatrist.”

Upon reflection, I find myself to be timid. I am indeed responsible for my unhappiness because I never acted against aggressors nor did I question people who questioned my conduct as I was narrating actions amounting to abuse. If I wanted therapy and encouragement, I could go out and get it. I was merely afraid of living with labels unlike Riya. I was no different from my family, friends and teachers. I was shushing myself.

When Mummy asks me how my day was I disguise my sadness at the horrors of the day by wearing a smile so that I can avoid talking about the fear and shame that drown me. Many women silently suffer violence every day which is why nobody pays heed to it. Maybe it is solely me who identifies these acts as violence. Others may compare it to ugly acne which surfaces constantly despite treatment. I don’t know which definition is better.

Who taught us to suffer in silence? Did we promise ourselves that we will not break this eerie silence because we too form this unequal society? I wish women seek and carve a space to breathe, cry, scream, shout, express themselves and question others rather than wait for society to give them this space. If I cannot claim my space, speak for my rights, who is going to speak up for me? If women don’t talk about injustice, how will children learn about it?

One day I found ‘sin’ written on my whiteboard. I clicked a photograph of it and sent a picture on the office Whatsapp group. I wrote, “I caught my colleague vandalising my whiteboard last week and he evaded my comments. Clearly, the comments didn’t work. I have the option of calling him out on this group but I can’t stoop so low. People, including students, visit my seat. I sensitise students on gender rights. What will they think of me when they see these diatribes on my whiteboard? Everyone, including me, needs to be treated with dignity. Please respect each other’s privacy and liberty and cooperate in building a respectful workplace.” I heard people finding it amusing and giggling. A few words of support poured in. People occupying higher offices did not comment nor reached out to support me. But then my life hadn’t exactly been a Cinderella story. I was just happy that I fought for myself.

I could see Hemant evading me. Meanwhile, I wrote on my whiteboard, “I am one of the storms raring to break this silence.” Nobody messed with it.

At 28, I was a bit different. I narrated this incident to my family. They were quite proud of me. However, they still tell me to avoid dresses. I calmly reply, “My body belongs to me. People’s comments or cat-calls can’t have a bearing on my fashion choices.”

Looking back, I don’t think I was a 12 year old coward. Since a teacher had abused me, I had started having trust issues. My instincts told me something wrong was happening to me but I did not know whom to tell because I didn’t know anyone who would find it wrong too. Boys in my class who had witnessed this incident didn’t find it wrong. I thought, “Maybe others will perceive it similarly too.” But today I’m used to being the outlier, a ranting outlier who has finally succeeded.

I don’t call myself a hero for facing my harasser daily after defeating him. He and I did not talk earlier, we did not talk after I posted the message on the Whatsapp group and never will. I never expected an apology nor did I get one.

Initially when Hemant bullied me I wished I could be like Damini. I don’t wish that anymore. I am just me-the girl who refuses to be slut-shamed by her family and friends, raises her voice when pursuit becomes harassment, confronts people in her own way and refuses to be shushed.



Devyani Tewari




Ms Devyani Tewari works as an Assistant Professor of Legal Practice at Jindal Global Law School, Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India. She is a PhD candidate at University of Victoria, Canada. She has published articles on gender and disability in Huffington Post. Following are the links to some of her articles:

Where Marriage is Synonymous with Inequality: Available at:http://m.huffingtonpost.in/devyani-tewari/where-marriage-is-synonymous-with-inequality/

• Do We Build Our Ships To Wreck?: Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.in/devyani-tewari/did-i-build-this-ship-to-_b_7684582.html

• Ira Singhal And The Disabilities Of The Government, Society: Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.in/devyani-tewari/disabled-vision_b_7750384.html?utm_hp_ref=india

• Epilepsy and What Afflicts The Law, Society: Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.in/devyani-tewari/epilepsy-and-what-afflict_b_6945080.html?utm_hp_ref=india

• Being ‘Normal’: Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.in/devyani-tewari/being-normal_b_6837236.html.

• When Right Becomes A Privilege: Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.in/devyani-tewari/when-right-becomes-a-priv_b_6522078.html?utm_hp_ref=india .






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1 Comments

  1. Amazing how this journal manages to locate the most interesting articles and art. While I am not a full fledged member of feminism (it has its excesses) I respect you putting out your voice and I believe vocalizing a woman's opinion is necessary for self respect if not a step towards changing one's environment.

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