In 1998, I joined St. John’s Medical college as a post graduate in the department of Community Medicine, Bengaluru. It was just nice to have got a post-graduate seat. Soon, however, it was time to decide on my thesis topic leading to an interaction with the Professor and Head of the department. His thoughts clearly were not so much on a thesis topic as much as on sex. Every conversation with him deviated quickly into some sexually laden monologues. This happened with most other women who were in the same department. Stories went around – he had raped a nun, women students came out crying from his room, the cloying inappropriateness of his comments. The other senior staff knew about it, but they seemed to have a dual life inbuilt into their systems. While they must have cringed and tut-tutted in their private conversations, in public they all felt, unanimously, the need to show a common face – a department face, an institutional face, a community face, a ‘professional’ face, a male face bringing groups together over and above anything else. Accusations of sexual misconduct are pushed under the carpet, complaints frowned upon and a concerted effort swings underway to show the complainant in the most dire of lights.
At a viva, he once asked me with a straight face “When women use the Intra-uterine contraceptive device and the thread hangs out from the vagina, does it interfere with their sexual pleasure?’ He wasn’t asking the question as a doctor or researcher. It was purely a question of a man in power abusing that position. Once he pointed to an image of a scooter and said “Hey doesn’t this look like the word SEX?’ and he went on to show on the image how each part actually looked like the alphabets of the word sex. He told one of my seniors “You are a beautiful face on a wasted body’.
My memory is filled with guilt – that I didn’t intervene, that I didn’t slap him, that I didn’t complain. What are women like us to do with guilt such as that? Where was ‘due process’ then and where is it now?
The sexually loaded language was just one of his predatory behaviours. He had this habit of creeping up behind women and putting his hands on whichever part of their body was exposed – their neck, shoulders, arms, waist and when the women jumped up, he would laugh excitedly like a naughty boy caught doing mischief. The effect of this lingers till today whenever I sit in a room working on my laptop with my back exposed – an unpleasant sensation of something nasty going to creep up behind me.
As a student, I remember this surgeon, who took about 12 of us students, mostly male, on rounds, stripped a young woman upto her waist, without any form of consent and proceeded to ‘palpate’ her breasts the entire 15 minutes that he was ‘teaching’ us. What is my memory of that? My memory is filled with guilt – that I didn’t intervene, that I didn’t slap him, that I didn’t complain. What are women like us to do with guilt such as that? Where was ‘due process’ then and where is it now?
At the age of 23, I complained about the Head of Department, Community medicine. I gave a written letter to the then dean Dr Mary Ollapally. I met her personally and waited while she read through the letter. Her response was “Be careful of him. He is vindictive’’. I wrote to the alumni group. I even wrote on the Facebook group of alumni from St. Johns located all over the world. Alumni who are placed in big institutions, academic spaces and hospitals in the US, UK and Australia wrote back saying “Due process should be followed”. Not one virtual eyebrow, even from those working in Western institutions, was raised about the absence of even a sexual harassment committee in St. Johns. I raised up the issue on a Facebook page with almost 1000 alumni doctors of St. Johns that women students and women patients were vulnerable and sexual harassment policies needed to be in place. This, in my opinion, was a demand for ‘due process’. Nothing happened.
Five months back, there was a reunion and this guy was there. He went on stage and said that he does life skill courses for girls from Jyothi Nivas. He made a statement that devastated me but seemed to affect no one else unduly. He said “Some of the girls are shy, so I have taken their Whatsapp numbers so that they can talk to me privately.” Imagine the nature of abuse that these girls are vulnerable to by predators such as him. Is there no collective responsibility from those of us, both men and women, who know about it, to do something about this?
Last month I was put on a Whatsapp group of department post graduates and students. This guy was on it and went on and on about women. When he made a comment about how boys look ‘nice, natural, simplistic, bright, upright and cheerful without any makeup’, I responded “Perverts like you would look even nicer behind bars’. I swiftly got taken off the group, with statements like it was an ‘adverse comment’ etc. One of the admin, who said that as a student he had also been taught about zero tolerance towards abuse and bias, took off that guy as well from the group. Of course he received quite a bit of reprimanding for removing an esteemed professor from the group.
So when people talk about due process, one can only laugh.
Recently, with the Raya Sarkar initiative the name of this guy is on the list. I hope some women students from Jyothi Nivas college, Bengaluru, will pick up the name and block him from their Whatsapp lists. I feel vindicated and I can move on and I thank this initiative, due process in this context be damned.