Over the last week, a range of allegations of sexual harassment have been levelled on social media against writer and journalist CP Surendran. Several women have accused him of making sexually coloured remarks and suggestive comments. Some women said that Surendran touched them inappropriately.
Scroll.in spoke to 11 women about their experience of sexual harassment by Surendran. These include his former colleagues from The Times of India where he worked from 2003 to 2006 and again in 2010-’13, at Open magazine where he worked 2008 to 2009, at DNA newspaper where he worked from 2013 to 2015, at Arré where he was creative director in 2015, and at Harper Collins Publishers India with whom he has published two novels and a book of poems.
A senior woman editor at a DNA supplement in Mumbai alleged that after several episodes of sexual harassment, when she declined to attend a panel discussion featuring Surendran at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2014, “he put his hand on my knee and said, ‘Do you want to keep your job?’” A few months later, when he harassed her again, the editor complained to the chief executive officer and the human resources department of DNA. She said the HR head flew down from Delhi to dissuade her from filing a formal complaint against Surendran.
Joanna Lobo, a young woman journalist at the newspaper, also complained about Surendran. She quit her job in March 2014 when her complaint went unheeded.
Namaah Kumar, a graphics designer at Arré, complained to the HR department in 2015 after she showed Surendran an illustration she had made of a scantily-clad woman and he compared it to her. “He took a peek and felt it was okay to say, ‘Looks like you.’”
In response to Scroll.in’s questions, Niyati Merchant, who handles partnerships, marketing and public relations at Arré, confirmed the organisation had received a complaint from Kumar late in 2015. “CP, who was a consultant with the organisation since June 2015, was informed unequivocally that such behaviour would not be acceptable at Arré, which is committed to creating a culture that is above all, respectful to women. Subsequently, Arré did not renew CP Surendran’s contract and he ceased working in any capacity with us from December 2015.”
Scroll.in has also written to Times of India, DNA, Open and Harper Collins asking whether complaints had been raised with them about Surendran and, if so, whether any action was taken. This story will be updated if they respond.
In an email to Scroll.in, Surendran denied making obscene comments or gestures. “I may have made what some people consider to be sexist comments,” he wrote. “I believe sexism is an intellectual and physical reality. I choose not to think in given categories.” He also called his accusers “a lynch mob at work”. His entire statement has been reproduced at the end of this article.
‘Making fun of rape victims’
Joanna Lobo worked at DNA for almost six years on its features team and worked with Surendran during her last eight months there. She said that Surendran would constantly make sexist and misogynistic comments. She recounted how while discussing the 2013 case in which journalist Tarun Tejpal was accused of rape, Surendran said that Tejpal could have used a hotel room instead of a public place with cameras. According to Lobo, he also said that the victim of the brutal Shakti Mills rape case in Mumbai, also in 2013, was at fault for going to a secluded place. “We used to say, ‘How can you say such things?’” she recalled. “But he would just pass it off as a joke.”
Roshni Nair who was a features writer and copy editor at DNA, said in a message to Scroll.in: “Any mention of a feminism-oriented pitch/idea, he would balk.”
Nair recounted that Surendran once patted her on the thigh during an edit meeting. “I don’t understand why he wasn’t sitting behind his desk back then and why he was sitting next to me,” she said. “But the one thing that is etched in my mind is the way he patted my thigh when someone said something and all of us in the cabin laughed.”
Shikha Kumar, who was at DNA at the same time and also worked on the features team like Lobo, remembered when Surendran commented on her attire. She had injured her knees and couldn’t wear pants because of thick bandages and had been wearing shorts to work. One day, after her injuries had healed and she had gone back to wearing pants, Kumar was late for an editorial meeting. “I was a little frazzled because I was late,” she said. “The meeting had already started and CP said something like, ‘Oh, you are not showing us your legs today.’ I missed it at the moment but a colleague told me later that this is what he had said. I felt very weird because I hadn’t done anything about it at the moment but I decided to just let it go.”
Lobo said that while Surendran never physically harassed her, he would pat other women colleagues or massage their shoulders either not noticing or ignoring their discomfort.
Lobo said that she complained about Surendran’s behaviour with the head of the features team and then raised the same concerns in a meeting with members of the internal complaints committee, which was led by the head of human resources.
“I mentioned the fact that I was uncomfortable being part of the meeting because I did not like a lot of what he said like making fun of rape victims,” she said. With permission from her colleagues, Lobo also told the committee how Surendran would touch them in ways that made them uncomfortable. However, before she could file a written complaint, Lobo found out that it got back to Surendran.
“He called the only male member of the team and asked him what problem I had with him,” she said. “That male colleague then asked me what I had done and whether I had filed a sexual harassment complaint against him and I said, ‘Yes, but that was confidential.’ Then I realised that the whole office knew because it became this little joke that if someone stands close to me I might file a sexual harassment case against them.”
An editor at DNA confirmed that “the entire features team” informally complained about Surendran’s conduct. The internal complaints committee asked Lobo, who had spoken on behalf of the team, to file a written complaint. “Before she could do that, word leaked to CP. Joanna became an object of ridicule,” this person said.
This was enabled by “the old boys network” in the organisation, said the editor. “These men have known each other for long and keep each others’ back.” While the newspaper had set up an internal complaints committee, its members lacked training. “It was formed purely to comply with the law post the Tejpal episode.”
Eventually, Lobo quit the organisation.
‘Consider it as a joke yaar’
A woman journalist who was a senior editor at a publication of DNA recalled that when Surendran joined the newspaper headquartered in Mumbai, “women journalists from Delhi called and warned us that his name is CP but his nickname is creepy.”
This editor headed another team in the newspaper. She did not report to Surendran but had a cabin next to his. She remembers a work conversation during which Surendran stepped back, looked her up from head and toe, and said, “You are looking good today.” She ignored his comment and continued the conversation.
She made every effort to keep distance from him. Despite that, she recalled, when she stepped out of her cabin once, he touched her inappropriately. “I was wearing a sleeveless dress,” she said. “He ran his hand over my upper arm, from shoulder to elbow. In the newsroom, in front of everyone, as if it was a completely normal thing to do.”
On another occasion, he walked into her cabin and asked her about a pile of books on her desk. She told him if was free to have them. “Are they porn?” he asked. “Only then would I be interested.” She told him off. “What makes you think I would have porn in my office? Will the paper be reviewing porn?”
In January 2014, the editor was at a lunch table alone at the Jaipur Literature Festival, when Surendran came and sat next to her. “He asked me to come and attend his panel. I told him I cannot, that I had committed to attending another panel,” she recalled. “He put his hand on my knee and said, ‘Do you want to keep your job?’”
A few months later, he came into her office, her jacket was lying on a chair. She asked him to sit on another chair. But he ignored her. “He sat down on my jacket and said yaar let me at least lie on your jacket,” she recalled. “I lost it. I complained to the CEO and the HR department. That evening he called me for hours, I didn’t answer. Then he sent a text message, apologising: ‘Consider it as a joke yaar. I am sorry’. I still have the messages.”
What followed stumped her. The head of the Human Resources Department from Delhi flew to Mumbai to plead with her not to file a complaint against Surendran. “I said ok, but I want an apology. I don’t want to ever interact with him. I want my cabin to be transferred to the other side of the newsroom. All that was done. He was warned by HR to behave himself and conduct himself professionally with women in the office.”
Surendran was asked to leave several months later. The editor is certain his departure had nothing to do with her complaint.
“I wasn’t reporting to him,” she said. “I knew the CEO, the owners. Yet this is how he behaved with me. I shudder to think what he did to the young women who worked with him.”
Shikha Kumar said that Surendran’s comments and behaviour were often explained away. “It was expected behaviour of him because he was apparently just this politically incorrect person and these things were just supposed to fly because of the kind of person he is. We were supposed to let it pass even though it made people around him feel uncomfortable.”
‘Old fashioned sexism’
A woman journalist in her mid-30s, who worked the Times of India at the same time Surendran was there but on a different team, said: “He was consistently the most sexist man present at any TOI edit meeting, saying things that he thought were ‘provocative’ but were actually old-fashioned sexism. The senior editors sniggered in a ‘CP will be CP’ way, but the rare woman in the edit meeting and the few feminist men there would bristle. He leered at a lot of women including me and said sleazy things passed off as intellectualism.”
Yet another account about Surendran comes from Prema Govindan at Harper Collins India who edited one of his books. While discussing marketing plans for his book, Govindan’s work came up and Surendran initially praised her. “He said that I had edited it very well and that I wielded the whip while working with him,” she said. “Till there it was ok. But then he said, ‘She wielded the whip and I can still imagine her in those tight tights.’”
Govindan made an informal complaint about Surendran’s remarks and did not work with him after that incident.
‘He would frequently bring up sex’
Two journalists who used to work at Arré in Mumbai have also described their experiences working with Surendran. “I had the misfortune of working with CP Surendran at Arré,” said Namaah Kumar, an graphic designer and illustrator. “The moment he joined I remembered that a male friend had told me about his proclivity for inappropriate behavior. The first time he said something to me, it was with regard to a story I had commissioned on the dark web. The conversation soon turned to whether I buy leather and other kinky stuff, to ‘you look like someone who might.’”
Aditi Saxton, who was the text content editor at Arré at the time, said: “At morning editorial meetings, he would frequently bring up sex and make remarks about his assumptions on people’s sexuality. With explicit gestures, he would indicate the shapes of women’s bodies he preferred. His very short fuse made the environment even more hostile since he would often blow up if we weren’t receptive to his views.”
Saxton remembers a conversation between Surendran and a senior executive of the company, in which they discussed the anatomy of a senior woman journalist who had just left after meeting them. “The executive said something like ‘I wouldn’t touch that with a barge pole’ and CP said ‘I wouldn’t touch that with…’ pointing to his crotch. The most upsetting part of this conversation, which was about how she used to be hot and is not hot now, was that I was expected to participate in it.”
Saxton said that Surendran would frequently touch young women colleagues and “put his hand on shoulders, arms, knees in that paternalistic manner that made us cringe”.
One of Surendran’s remarks in particular made Namaah Kumar complain to the HR department. “I was working on an illustration of a scantily-clad woman in leather for a piece on BDSM. He took a peek and felt it was okay to say, ‘Looks like you.’ Get this, this was an illustration of a faceless woman.”
Namaah Kumar said that she raised the complaint with HR because she was not aware of an internal complaints committee at the company. She suspects that Surendran was told about her complaint because he started giving her “the silent treatment” after that.
“I was illustrating his pieces, but couldn’t discuss them with him,” she said. “I was commissioning pieces and had to get them vetted by him but he refused to acknowledge my presence.”
‘Calling me sexually inexperienced’
Journalist Sohini Chattopadhyay was a sub-editor at Open magazine when Surendran was deputy editor and worked directly under him. She described Surendran harassing her at a lawn party. “CP was already high when he joined the knot I was standing around in, and patted me proprietarily, quite high on my arm, while saying something,” she said. “It gave me a scare but I wasn’t sure if he had touched me there by mistake because he had had a few to drink. I left that knot of people and CP called out after me, calling me naive, silly, words to that effect. I don’t remember verbatim, it was 10 years ago. He then proceeded to chase me around the lawn as I tried to throw him off in vain, joining others knots of people, calling me sexually inexperienced, clumsy, a prude. I felt stunned with shame.”
Chattopadhyay said that since Surendran was a noted poet in English in India, a published novelist and a “boss-type editor” of several years’ standing, no one wanted to seem uncool or provincial in front of him. Conversations in the office would dissolve into talk of who looked good, who dressed well, who was hot. “It felt like a violation, but it happened all the time, to others and me that I didn’t know what to say,” she said. “How can I complain about something that happens every day?”
Outside the office
Journalist Anushree Majumdar wrote on Facebook about when she first met Surendran in December 2008 at a literary event in Jaipur. She accepted his invitation to take a walk when he suddenly came very close to her and used a pick-up line on her in the middle of a normal conversation. Majumdar goes on to describe how later in the evening she returned to her hotel room and found out that Surendran’s room was next to hers with a shared terrace space where she bumped into him again. He suggested that they move into his room. When she declined, he massaged her neck and shoulders despite her protests. “He said he thought we could keep each other company tonight, and I said I’d like to sleep in my room by myself,” she wrote. “By now, he’s asked me to sleep with him, in ways small and obvious, about three times. Each time, I have refused. He doesn’t seem to get it.”
Speaking to Scroll.in, Majumdar explained why she did not walk away from the terrace. “At no point did I want him to think that he could get into bed with me,” she said. “But I didn’t want him to think that he had got to me or show any sign of distress or weakness.”
Journalist and author Nilanjana Roy tweeted out that she was once at a party where Surendran, who was “obviously drunk” leaned on her. “I felt a moment’s unease and discomfort because he was too close and his hands were on me, but I pushed him off and thought no more of it.” Roy said that she did not form a positive impression of Surendran because she found that he repeatedly interrupted women and was dismissive of them.
‘Lynch mob at work’
When at least six women had made their allegations public, Scroll.in asked Surendran if he would like to respond. He said the following in an email:
“I may have made what some people consider to be sexist comments. I believe sexism is an intellectual and physical reality. I choose not to think in given categories. This may be construed as arrogance. I may have put an arm around a woman at a party, never at work. That act of familiarity may have caused offense, which I regret, but I have never meant to give grief. I have not made obscene comments or gestures. I have not played with ‘breast shaped’ balls as alleged. I have not massaged unwilling necks and said my door is open, as alleged. Drunk, I have not chased women across gardens as alleged. I have no gender or political loyalties. I have paid a price for this all my life. I often rub people of both genders the wrong way with my often ill considered views. You have picked six women (who knows there could be more who took offense) from across 30 years, and have made a map of me as a deviant. The majoritarianism that liberals deplore in political discourse is what is at stake here. This is the lynch mob at work. I am being shamed in a Scarlet Letter-meets-The Crucible social media-produced movie. I have no power to stop this. The Me Too movement needs victims to feed and fatten itself. I won’t be the last.”
Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said, on the basis of Surendran’s LinkedIn profile, that he worked at Open magazine from 2010 to 2012.