My very first job at 16 was an internship at a prestigious event management company in Mumbai. During my three-month tenure, I met but never spoke to the bigwigs of the company. So imagine my surprise when its co-founder said I had spunk.
He then went on to scan me from top to bottom and pointed me to a group of male colleagues saying “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore”. They all laughed. As did I. In my naïveté, I believed he was still referring to my talent. By the time I realised it was a sexual slur, I could do nothing but grimace and carry on.
Watching comedian Mallika Dua fake laugh her way out of a sexually-explicit comment thrown at her by Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar on Star Plus’ The Great Indian Laughter Challenge felt like watching an episode out of my own past. Dua, a ex-judge along with Kumar and comedian Zakir Khan, was impressed with a contestant’s performance. The show’s format allows a judge to ring a large bell to show their appreciation. When Dua reached for it, Kumar said “Aap bell bajaiye, main aapko bajata hoon”, which is a sexually explicit way of saying he’ll ‘bang’ her. Dua did what a lot of women have done before in her place. Laughed and went on to do her job.
We’ve seen this often at workplaces, haven’t we? The male boss who throws a punchline which covers sexist undertones with hahahas by the watercooler? Even in our homes, there’s the uncle whose WhatsApp joke format is set to sexism. We don’t quite know what to do with them sometimes. Most women are awkwardly stuck between biting down on a retort and laughing along.
Then there’s also the accusation of ‘you have no chill’ floating her way if a woman decides to cut a man off mid-laughter. When the leaked footage of Kumar’s comment found its way to the internet, Dua responded saying she was thoroughly uncomfortable with Kumar’s comment. Trolls and Kumar fans alike lashed at her, saying Kumar was joking and that she ‘can’t even take a joke’.
But the ‘you can’t take a joke’ act often proves to be the get-out-of-jail card for men guffawing at a woman’s expense. For 19-year-old Nidhi Shukla in Pune, this card often dangles with peer pressure. Her engineering coaching class teacher joked last week to the classroom, “What is even rarer than a holiday in a class of engineering students? A good-looking girl.” Everyone laughed. The teacher looked very pleased with himself but she herself couldn’t do much about it other than grin and bear it.
But what about when sexist jokes from men in authority is a repeating offence? Ruchi Mehta’s boss has the worst sense of humour. Think Jackie Shroff in King Uncle with an authority complex. Working at a multi-national company in Mumbai, the 32-year-old attends meetings with him. “One time, he knew I was on my period as I looked weak. During a meeting, my red lipstick stained my white shirt’s collar. So he laughed and said ‘haha today is your staining day’. I just stared at him in disbelief.”
Mehta doesn’t see a way of having a sit-down with her boss about this matter without his making it all about her lack of chill. But she has her small revenges. “I once added salt to his coffee and another time I spread a rumour that he has very smelly socks. It was so much fun to watch his colleagues cringe around him. He looked thoroughly confused,” she laughs. Meanwhile she just pretends she hasn’t heard his latest ‘awesome’ line.
Mehta isn’t alone. Take Sudha Reddy for example. At 52, you’d think she’d be treated with utter respect in the Chennai branch of the bank she works in. But even with her experience, she still has to listen to her branch manager badger her with sexist jokes in the company of sarkaari dudebros. At an office function earlier this year, the manager asked some women, including her, to clean up the dishes saying, “Madam’s work nobody can do like madam. Madam’s hands are great”. He may have believed he was giving me a compliment, Reddy says, shaking her head.
If shaking heads is mostly done by the women, then who tells the joke? Who laughs and who laughs along? It’s all indicative of the power structure. Paramita Chatterjee, a 43-year-old business development head of a Fortune 500 company in Mumbai, says that even for women in power, sexually explicit jokes are not off the table; it gets even more difficult to handle at the top. One assumes, like everyone else stuck in an office hierarchy, Chatterjee has had her share of grinning at bad/boring but not necessarily sexist PJs from her seniors. But Chatterjee tells a startling story about a joke from a man who was her junior in the organisational ladder.
She says, “At a dinner party, my division supervisor got slightly tipsy and raised a toast to me, saying, ‘Behind every successful man is a woman, but now men should be behind this successful woman and you know… do things’ thrusting his pelvis forward slightly and laughing.” Even more shocking than his statement was how everyone joined him in laughter. The memory of this incident embarrasses her today just as much as it did when it happened.
A joke in this context becomes just another form of bullying, a way of exerting control or even expressing hostility. Sometimes the man knows the woman can’t do much else than laugh. Men in power playing on this psychology are tickling nobody’s funny bones. What they do know that in the modern Indian workplace, no one wants to be seen as old-fashioned. As if modernity automatically means this kind of half-baked sexual permissiveness. And women sometimes buy into it, thinking that ‘taking’ (notice the verb) a joke well is the sign of a cool girl.
And this is what perhaps created the Akshay Kumar situation and its strange epilogue involving his wife, actor and writer Twinkle Khanna. Kumar’s fans argued that he had no ill intentions and he was just being himself but surely after you find you offended someone inadvertently, you’d apologise, right? But he didn’t.
Which brings us to the epilogue. On October 29, four days after the video surfaced and the drama was well underway, Khanna slytweeted at Dua. Twice. And Dua responded to it with anything but sleuth.
My first thought for Khanna’s tweet was: Any need? I wanted to send her that Gillian Flynn passage about the dangers of being a Cool Girl.
“Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.”
Then I remembered that Khanna had named herself Mrs Funnybones. Mrs Funnybones. And that was that.
Co-published with Firstpost