By Nisha Susan
Perhaps you’ve studied Chaucer in college. I didn’t. I knew he was a poet from medieval England and called the Father of English Literature and really that was about it. This week I read for the first time that Chaucer scholars everywhere now have to take in the implications of a legal document from 1380 by a young woman called Cecily Chaumpaigne releasing Chaucer from charges of rape. I didn’t feel any sense of deep personal betrayal, the way I would have if I’d found out that George Michael was a horrible man, for instance. But I was fascinated to see that almost the entire screen of results if you google Chaucer and rape are defences of the man.
Here is Wikipedia, for instance, inserting earnest feels where there should be bald and unsatisfying description. “He was mentioned in law papers of 4 May 1380, involved in the raptus of Cecilia Chaumpaigne. What raptus means is unclear, but the incident seems to have been resolved quickly and did not leave a stain on Chaucer’s reputation.” Here is a sample from a blog dedicated to Chaucer. “It also seems unlikely that a man of Chaucer’s character would commit a crime of sexual violence. Chaucer’s contemporaries recognised his sympathy for women (Gavin Douglas described him as ‘evir […] all womanis frend’), and he is still held as a man before his time by many modern critics.”
Six hundred years later most people don’t want to deal with the fact that Angrezi Ke Daddy may have been a baddie. So is it surprising how MJ Akbar and other men accused by multiple women of sexual harassment or assault are being rehabilitated at the speed of light? They are all the beneficiaries of ‘himpathy’ a kakka-sounding but super useful word that seems to have been coined by American writer Kate Manne to describe ‘the inappropriate and disproportionate sympathy powerful men often enjoy in cases of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, homicide and other misogynistic behaviour.’
On Wednesday, a portion of the newspaper-reading public woke to an opinion piece in the Hindustan Times by MJ Akbar who recently stepped down from his position as Minister of State for External Affairs under massive public pressure. He has been accused by 16 women journalists of sexual harassment and assault. Seventeen other women have asked the courts to take in their testimonies while evaluating Akbar’s defamation suit against Priya Ramani, the first journalist to name him.
Akbar’s appearance in Hindustan Times has triggered a wave of worry and a wave of glee. Is #MeToo over, asks the genuinely concerned and the concern trolls.
Opinion pieces are meant to offer you perspective. The first thing that Akbar’s does is provide an answer for all the folks who have been so concerned for the precious reputations of men accused of harassment and assault? Oh my god, what about his reputation? The answer seems to be that wonderful Hindi word, ghanta. I know that it may mean other things but let us pretend it only means bell. For whom does the ghanta toll? Nobody. They get op-eds. They get jobs. They get congratulated warmly for winning awards like Nawazuddin Siddiqui, despite actor Niharika Singh’s crystal-clear accusations against him. I saw a man kicked out of a Bengaluru organisation for incredibly gross behaviour, tweet a week later about his new project — happy as you please. Bishops are garlanded. I hear that men who are still being investigated by internal complaints committees are telling their friends and acquaintances that it’s all a conspiracy, sometimes against them, sometimes against the BJP, sometimes by the BJP.
What about the other question that concerned citizens have? ‘Is a man accused of sexual assault to be ostracised forever?’ May I briefly point out that Akbar resigned from his post on 17 October. On 28 November he had a byline in a newspaper that all of Delhi reads. Would that other people’s careers looked a hundredth as good as his ‘exile’.
But sure, if you have done time for your crime you should be allowed to move on with life. If there was a legal process that kicked in to examine the crimes committed or where the crime can’t be prosecuted the accused repented, sought forgiveness that would be a different thing. Instead powerful men all over the world grab the law as their next weapon of choice against complainants. So actor Arjun Sarja files a case of cyber crime against Sruthi Hariharan. Akbar files a case of defamation against Priya Ramani. RK Pachauri wants his reputation of being litigious to be as widespread as dandruff. Witnesses die when bishops are accused. Rajalakshmi was beheaded. This week, an American newspaper had a story about billionaire Jeffrey Epstein who was accused of exploiting dozens of underage girls. His lawyers managed to get him a deal where he pleaded guilty and only had to serve 13 months in a local jail, during which time he could work out of his own office for 12 hours, six days a week.
Meanwhile, women are roundly scolded for not following due process. Actor Parvathi doesn’t get offered any work anymore in Kerala. Chinmayi Sripada has been shunted out of the Tamil film industry by just the most shady tactics. This whole storm started with Tanushree Dutta talking about how she was shunted out for attempting to follow due process.
Most of all, we should learn from Akbar’s op-ed that men will be appointed, hired, rehired and rehabilitated where no one needs them. Where women could have done the job happily, competently and without assaulting anyone. Men accused get rehabilitated on the basis of himpathy. Because can anyone really argue that the world needed one more article praising Arun Jaitley? And then that we needed one specifically written by MJ Akbar? No, the fine balance of the male world has been ruined by a man being made accountable. That fine balance can only be restored on the shoulders of another man who has not been made accountable. Daddy to Daddy network.
Akbar’s article extolling the smartness of Jaitley begins, “Success, as the saying goes, has a thousand fathers and failure languishes as an orphan.” Dude. Come On. Himpathy ki bhi hadd hoti hai.