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This short story explores a reality for many women at work: sexual harassment at the workplace by your colleagues whom you expected to trust and respect.
As she stood drinking with her colleagues, Aradhya was getting even more attention than she had expected at their offsite venue. “Look how everyone is staring at you. You look stunning, Aradhya!” said Mihir, whistling and letting out a wolfhowl. Nitya, another colleague, elbowed Mihir. “Is it necessary to follow up a compliment with that road-side-romeo behavior?!” she asked irritably.
“Appreciation, baby. That’s what it’s called. And if Aradhya doesn’t mind, what’s your problem? Jealous are we?!” he guffawed and walked away with his drink as Nitya turned to face Aradhya.
“Why do you do that?”
“Do what?” Aradhya looked confused.
“Let people talk to you in that manner. Basically I end up looking like the bad guy.”
Aradhya shrugged. “Nitya, I just ignore them. Do you want me to pick up a fight every time a sexist remark is passed, or someone leches at me or checks me out inappropriately?”
Nitya charged on. “No. But say something sometime. You are senior enough in the system and you’ve spent so many years here.”
“I believe in doing my work and letting it speak for me. I don’t care about the idiots milling around. Now relax!” she hugged Nitya, pulling her towards the awards area.
As Nitya and some other colleagues went to the bar to fetch one final drink before the show began, Aradhya moved into one of the rows and sat down in an empty chair as her feet were already aching because of the heels she was wearing. “Stupid heels”, she cursed as Swami Gopalan slid into the empty seat next to her. She smiled. Swami was one of the VPs and had been a sort of mentor to her ever since she had joined the organization 4 years ago. Quiet, friendly, approachable, he was one of the popular ones from the upper echelons of the company. “Congratulations Aradhya!” he smiled warmly. Aradhya thanked him with equal warmth. “I see all the hard work, the late nights are paying off. You, in particular deserve the award, all on your own”, he told her while sipping his beer. “Not at all Swami. I just played a small part. But I’m glad for the appreciation anyway.” Loud music started playing as the beginning of the ceremony was announced and everyone turned to the stage.
“I’ll be back”, Aradhya screamed over the music to Nitya. “You’ll miss the award! Don’t go”, shouted Nitya. “Washroom! Be back in a jiffy”, Aradhya assured her friend and walked in the direction of the bathroom stalls.
“Come with me”, she heard someone shout into her ear. She instinctively moved away, only to see Swami smiling and pointing towards the rooms to their right, connected by the garden, where the senior management was put up. “Don’t worry. I’m fine”, Aradhya told him. “I insist!” he shouted and started walking towards the room before she could protest further. Despite not feeling entirely comfortable, she shrugged off her intuition and followed Swami into the hotel.
She had used the bathroom and was ready to leave. Swami somehow did not seem like he was in the mood to. He had pulled out two beers and they were on the table next to the large French window. “What a lovely night for you! Let’s celebrate.”
Trying to control her fight or flight instincts by now, Aradhya smiled and shook her head. “I really must be getting back now Swami. They’ll be waiting for me.” She turned around and he sprung out of his chair, joining her in the narrow neck of the room leading up to the door. As she reached for the door, he spun her around so her face was close to his. “I am so proud of you, little girl. So young, so promising.” He hugged her as she tried to squirm. Then he kissed her very close to her mouth, his hand brushing against her breast. She pushed him against the wall and stormed out. “I am so proud of you beta! So proud!” was all she could hear as she ran away, while incensed tears streaked her face.
Maybe I was dressed too provocatively.
Should I have been more aggressive? Did he think I wanted to be there?
Maybe I am reading too much into this.
Did I give him the wrong idea?
Have I have allowed this to happen to me by being too friendly?
Why did I walk in there in the first place?
Who will believe me over him?
“Aradhya!” She was shaken out of her reverie by Nitya. “What is up with you? Ever since the offsite, you’ve been acting strange and you’ve barely done any work. All ok?”
Aradhya wanted to scream, cry, throw something and hug Nitya all at once. It had been a few days since the offsite and back in office, everything that was familiar and felt like home was suffocating her. She couldn’t concentrate on work either.
While she was imprisoned in this confusion and conundrum, the man responsible was going about his usual business in office as if nothing had happened. He even cheerily wished Aradhya every morning. A confident, capable, happy person had transformed into a jittery, apprehensive bundle of nerves.
“He has been with us for 10 years Aradhya. His record is impeccable”, said the HR head, Nivedita Kumar, as Aradhya looked at her in disbelief. Her boss Kirti sat quietly, gazing at her hands. “Are those good enough reasons to not even investigate what I am saying?” she spat out, filled with anger. “We can…where are you going? Aradhya, wait!” Disgusted, she picked up her bag and cursed the moment she had decided to take anyone into confidence.
Aradhya had locked herself in the office bathroom, sure that no one would disturb her after office hours. She had cried out her entire reserve of tears and felt numb. With red eyes and an empty heart she walked to her desk for her bag but saw her boss sitting there.
“Leaving for the day Aradhya?”
“Can we talk?”
Aradhya snarled at her. “No one seemed interested when I wanted to, earlier. I have nothing more to say.”
“I don’t think so.” Kirti stood up and looked Aradhya right in the eyes. “Nivedita and the board members are waiting for us in the conference room. Swami is with them. I wrote to them. This should never have happened. And we are not about to let someone get away with this behavior. Not on our watch Aradhya. Specially not with you.”
Aradhya blinked through her shocked tears as her boss held her arm and gently guided her towards the conference room….
Note from the author: This is a reality for so many confident, amazing girls and women out there. When you are preyed upon by someone familiar, someone trusted, the betrayal and pain is confusing and more debilitating. Whether in schools, at home, or in offices, it is NOT okay for someone to touch you without your consent. It is NOT okay for you to feel any guilt whatsoever and it is definitely NOT okay for you to keep quiet about it. Speak up. It starts with you.
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