I remember it well. Not the details – it was 1986 after all – but I remember how in a few weeks I went from being a journalist with a professional past to a mere pretty little thing that came from England. Growing up in the UK, my first job was in BBC Radio Leeds reporting on local issues, followed by shorter stints in the World Service and Radio 4 in London over nearly six years. I then went to retrace my roots back in India. An outsider in the small circles of Delhi, in my search for a job I was game to the male gaze in all its seedy glory. My first Indian lesson became how a near 30-year-old could be reduced so quickly to embarrassment, humiliation and a complete crisis in her professional identity.
It is true that Vinod Dua wasn’t the only one playing a role in my life lesson, nor was he necessarily the worst. There were others too, dangling their jobs in front of me just so long as I appeared to accept the terms. Vinod promised me a job on Newsline, about to be given the green signal by Doordarshan. Did I meet him once or twice, I don’t remember. Certainly there was no formal interview. Did he suggest we meet and discuss the conditions? I remember driving that late afternoon, along Aurobindo Marg by INA market, his left arm around my shoulder, his right on the steering wheel, his singing romantic Hindi songs. I remember taking his arm off my shoulder and saying, “I think this belongs to you.” He wondered why I was being so coy, after all “English girls had a reputation.” I remember laughing and thinking how inane that was.
Coffee, or was it a drink, all on the pretext that we were discussing the details of my new job. Our conversation rambled on. He said our relationship would be open. “Relationship?” I asked. “Our professional relationship,” he said “would be open in every way, not exclude anything.” His was a meandering style, the small secretive smile on his lips, and goodness knows I was so naïve. It took me some time to understand that “our separate rooms” when traveling could also become a double when Vinod wished it to be. Did he imply this or explicitly state it on my pushing him to clarify, again I don’t remember. The fury, the embarrassment at not being taken seriously, the sense that this was somehow my failing, I do remember. Finally, as he dropped me off at home, I got out, told him to fuck off and take his job with him. Later I would wish I had been more combative, understood more quickly where it was leading, less hopeful at the start.
Culture of entitlement
I told friends about him, and about others: the 70-year-old wanting to take me sailing, the then creative director at Hindustan Thompson Associates who loved making lewd jokes to the girls, enjoyed their discomfort, but couldn’t take my return quips. His determined sidelining of me led to my finally resigning the job. I could fill pages on this subject, but why bother when most women’s experiences differ only in detail.
So why am I singling out Vinod Dua? I’m not, but he has singled himself out, or you might say he’s been hoisted by his own petard. For years, many of my friends have known my story and have continued to work with him, even socialize with him. I accepted that he was on “our side”, of the liberal, the left, and that some things have to be overlooked for the sake of a larger cause. But now, not only is the MeToo campaign puncturing holes in the perspective of he’s “creative”, “left” or just “a nice guy”, but also, Vinod Dua’s righteous indignation at filmmaker’s Nishtha Jain’s accusations, like MJ Akbar’s and others’, is too much to stomach.
The fact is, this way of being – male and on the lookout – rarely conflicted until now with being good sons, fathers and husbands. This way of blind-siding is a skill learnt in a culture steeped in hierarchy, power and the abuse of it; women, joining the professional world in larger numbers, were just the latest victims. Vinod Dua might say he has no recollection of what happened in 1986 and I would believe him, with the caveat that then this way of being had perhaps become routine for him.
Not surprisingly, the knee-jerk reactions are denial, the threat of legal action, and so on. What would be the real surprise is if the Vinod Duas and the MJ Akbars of the world hung their heads and embarked on a little soul searching. Many of us would be proud to trade our past humiliations with a genuine self-reflection and remorse. It takes courage to acknowledge that a culture of entitlement and privilege can make one lose one’s way. The reputations of many men have remained unsullied for decades because of our silence. They owe it to us now to show themselves worthy of the reprieve.
Sunita Thakur is a journalist and documentary filmmaker who has worked for the BBC both full time and freelance for three decades.
Vinod Dua responds:
“I do not know the lady in question at all, as far as I can recollect. Of course, I deny the allegation. As you may be aware, The Wire has constituted a committee to look into the other allegation, you refer to. In the circumstances, I do not consider it appropriate to say much more at this stage. There does, however, appear to be an effort to target my program Jan Gan Man ki Baat on The Wire, which has, for the last more than one-and-a-half years, confronted the hightest and the mightiest in the land.”