‘Why did you let him shoot that?’: An Indian woman’s story of ‘revenge porn’

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Aradhana moved around the dimly lit kitchen, softly humming a song. Her melody was punctuated by the sound of a fallen saucepan and water droplets from a leaking tap. She was between sleep and wakefulness when her phone alarm rang again at 6.15 am. When she tried to swipe it off, someone spoke from the phone. “Hello?”

“Hello? Yes, Sulakshana? Yeah, I will be at the stop at 8…

Hello? Your voice is breaking up. Let’s talk in the cab…Okay. See you.”

It was still dark outside, but a patch of white light fell into the kitchen from a street lamp. The lights were usually turned off by 6 am, but in the dense winter fog, they were kept on longer for security reasons. Just a month ago, a young girl was molested across the street. Like Aradhana, the young woman was a call centre employee. Returning after a late night shift, she was assaulted at 2 am by two men on motorcycles. She left for her hometown, Kanpur, soon after.

Aradhana went back to bed with a cup of tea and began scrolling through her phone. There were missed calls from her colleagues at work, two from her mother in Chandauli, and one from her friend Anamika in Bengaluru, who was helping her apply for jobs so she could move out of Noida.

She usually returned phone calls in the cab on the way to work, but ever since her break up with Manish, Aradhana rarely wanted to speak to anyone. She wanted to be alone, conserve her energy, and protect her mind. She couldn’t be distracted by him any longer. She was now 27 years old, and had to think about the money needed for next month’s rent and buying her mother a health insurance policy.

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As soon as Aradhana got into the taxi she shared with her colleagues, Sulakshana whispered into her ear, “Why did you let him shoot all that stuff?”

“What? Who?” Aradhana was confused.

“Just keep quiet, and don’t react. Look at this.” Putting her phone on mute, Sulakshana opened a WhatsApp video sent by their colleague, Shashank.

Aradhana froze when she saw it. She hoped it was some kind of spam, but as she watched further, her heart sank. She nearly threw up at the sight of her naked body. “I thought I would die in that moment,” she recalls. “I walked out of the cab as soon as it stopped to pick up the next staffer. Sulakshana got down with me.”

They took an auto back to her house.

* * *

It had taken Manish a lot of convincing for Aradhana to agree to living together just six months into their relationship. “It will work out well financially, and we can spend more time together,” he had told her. “It will be good for us to know each other better.” All of this made sense to her. The only thing she was worried about was that it might upset her mother. But she was all grown up now, financially independent, and she knew that she alone was responsible for her decisions.

They moved into a one BHK apartment in Greater Noida, with makeshift furniture they purchased from the local scrap dealer. That evening, Manish came home with a bottle of wine. He lit candles, and it was a beautiful evening. They stayed up the whole night, and they couldn’t keep their hands off each other.

Manish had bought a new phone. They looked lovely in those pictures, their shiny, bright skin glowing in blissful intimacy. He came up with a plan. He propped the phone up on a selfie stick on top of a large mirror, and placed it right next to the mattress. The phone recorded a video.

When Manish made chai in the morning, they watched the clip in bed, wrapped up inside a quilt. “I felt so loved, I was high on it,” Aradhana says. Manish sent her the clip on her phone too. Every few weeks, he would bring it up and text, “Ready for Seasons 2, 3, 4?” Aradhana was initially uncertain, but over time she began to look forward to it. These were moments they shared, “that were unique to the both of us,” she says. Every time they had an argument, one of them would bring up a frame from the clip, and they’d soon kiss and make up.

Aradhana’s father was a primary school teacher in Chandauli. She was an only child, and when she was six, her father passed away. Her mother, who was only educated till Class 10, was given her husband’s job as a member of support staff in a government primary school.

Aradhana always had high ambitions, the type you see in TV ads: girl moves to a big city, gets a job, and takes her parents to a five star hotel. When she first moved to Noida two years ago, she found herself accommodation as a paying guest in someone’s home. She would scan newspapers every day for any place that could give her a job. “I was ready for whatever first came my way,” she says.

One day, she went for a walk in interview at a call centre. She waited for her turn the whole day. That’s when she met Manish.

* * *

A year after they moved in together, Aradhana was promoted to team leader. Manish was still a call centre executive. “Manish was very happy for me initially but soon enough started feeling threatened,” she recalls. “His friends would tease him. They would say, ‘Taken permission from the boss before stepping out for a smoke?’”

They had started their careers together but Aradhana got two promotions in two years, while Manish was still struggling to get good ratings at the company. “I was earning more and appreciated more. This got to him, I guess.”

Manish began using her debit card for his own expenses: shopping, buying gifts for his family, paying for rounds of beer for his friends. Aradhana initially tolerated this, but soon enough began getting angry with Manish’s behaviour. “He would party with his friends with my money and wouldn’t even invite me or tell me about it. I would find out about it through my office colleagues days later. It was insulting.”

Manish also started hitting her. The first time was when she questioned him about one of the parties. The next time was when he forgot the house keys while Aradhana had gone shopping, and was locked outside the flat. Over the next six months, the violence increased. “He would hit me for just about anything – for overcooked daal or for speaking on the phone for too long.”

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That’s when Aradhana decided to break up. It didn’t go down well with Manish.

“He blamed my promotion for my decision. He said it is because of this arrogance that me and my mum were destined to live alone as single women,” she says. The next day, he moved out of the house.

* * *

Now Aradhana’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Most of her colleagues had seen the video. She kept calling Manish, but he didn’t answer his phone. He was not in office that day. Even Sulakshana tried, but it didn’t help.

Aradhana called her mother to check whether she knew about the video. She didn’t. The last two missed calls had been to tell her about a cousin’s wedding. “That relieved me,” she says.

She rang Shashank, her colleague who had sent Sulakshana the video. He told her that Manish had sent it on WhatsAapp to everyone in office with the message, “How to get the Chandu bitch laid: Season 1.” He said that Manish had also uploaded the video online.

“Sulakshana asked me not to go online but I couldn’t stop. I looked for the video. It was freshly uploaded, just two days back. And it had more than 2,000 views. It was there on ten websites and there was a smaller YouTube version as well. I didn’t know how to reach the websites to ask them to pull them down.”

Aradhana cried hysterically. “My entire life came crashing down in front of my eyes. I thought of jumping into the naala next to my house. Sulakshana calmed me down. She asked me to go step by step to resolve this.”

Sulakshana called up their boss to get her advice. “We were fortunate that our boss was a woman. She offered to come to my house in the evening and talk about it.”

A gamut of thoughts were running through Aradhana’s mind: We had rented the apartment telling the landlord we are married. Will they call me a slut? What will my uncles back home who were opposed to my coming to Delhi say? What about my mother who always defended my decisions? How will I face my office colleagues? Will I still be allowed to continue my job?

“I had never in my dreams thought that Manish would do such a thing. How could he have so much bitterness for someone he claimed to love? So much animosity? So much hatred? That too when he very well knew that it was a big deal for me to live with him, to even be in a relationship with him.”

Aradhana kept calling Manish, and after a while, he switched off his phone. She and Sulakshana went over to Manish’s friends’ house, where he had been staying for the past three months. The door was locked. The neighbours said they hadn’t seen anyone come or go for a few days.

They headed back home. By the afternoon, her boss, Ankita, arrived. Ankita had worked in the organisation for eight years and was a programme manager. She was in her mid-30s, extremely sensitive and efficient. Aradhana says, “I was hardly able to tell her what had happened. I was so ashamed of myself. She consoled me and told me that there is no reason I should feel ashamed for trusting the person [that] I loved. That acted as a corkstopper for all my exploding emotions. Honestly, my job mattered the most to me.”

Ankita told her that a similar case had come up in the company two years ago. She said Aradhana was not the first woman to go through this, and that she should hold herself together and learn to deal with it.

Ankita called up the company lawyer, who asked them to be present at a specific police station in Noida in an hour. “I just didn’t want to go down that road but Ankita was adamant. She said to get up and face it.”

* * *

Two of Aradhana’s women colleagues were waiting at the police station. “Honestly, I didn’t expect them because I didn’t even know them very well. I couldn’t look them in the eyes, but they came and patted my shoulder.”

A woman constable asked what the matter was. Sulakshana told her briefly: “Her video has been leaked on the internet.”

“Hmm. Is it her or her face?” the constable asked.

“Her,” Ankita replied with a straight face.

“Why?”

“What do you mean why? That is how it is.” Ankita did not pander to the implications of the question. Sulakshana and the other two women stood up and faced the constable.

“Why do you girls get into this? Don’t you have brains?”

Aradhana’s case is what is commonly labelled “revenge porn”, a misnomer for the non-consensual distribution of sexual imagery or videos. There is no conclusive data on the number of such crimes in India, especially because they often go unreported. The National Crime Records Bureau data suggests that between 2012 and 2014 there was a 104 per cent rise in the “transmission of obscene content in electronic form”. Most cases like Aradhana’s are filed under this category.

The Station House Officer was accompanied by the company lawyer. “I wanted to bury myself somewhere,” Aradhana says. “On two occasions, I had had heated arguments with the lawyer on some HR issues. And here he was. As old as my father.”

The SHO asked for Manish’s picture and phone number, and said to Aradhana: “Never do this, whether you are married or unmarried, ever again. Don’t you read the newspaper? Don’t you know how it is being misused every single day?” Aradhana and the others were expecting a long moral lecture that did not follow. The lawyer asked them to leave and assured action.

Ankita made Aradhana promise that she would come to office the next day.

“I was up the whole night. I kept messaging him but there was no response. I kept checking the websites two or three times every hour. The comments under the video were making me cringe and hate myself. It was nice to have Sulakshana over that night or I would have definitely committed suicide.”

The next day, a few Hindi newspapers reported the case without disclosing her name or place of work. “That shook my confidence a bit,” she says.

At work, Ankita moved Aradhana to the night shift on a different project. “The HR manager called me to give me a long lecture on how I should have thought about my family’s honour. I didn’t want to argue. I could listen to anything to be able to keep my job. I couldn’t afford to live without any source of income, that too after the loss of my dignity.”

* * *

Three months have passed. Aradhana has never called or texted Manish since that day.

Manish returned to work, but Ankita advised Aradhana against making a complaint. “She said that the company neither has a sexual harassment committee nor will it be wise to go down that route, since the senior bosses may not understand the situation very well and that may harm me.”

Manish was laid off within a month on grounds of non-performance.

Out of the ten websites the video was posted on, the police have managed to get only three to remove the clip. It still exists on the others. “I don’t know if my colleagues who received the clip circulated it further. If the police couldn’t do much, it is beyond my control too. I had to understand that.”

Aradhana’s mother has been living with her for the past month, which has helped Aradhana make a pragmatic decision – to block the incident from her mind. “There is no choice,” she says. “I check the sites less, maybe three times a week. In the beginning, it was becoming an obsession, three or four times a day.”

Aradhana has been reading articles about revenge porn online. She knows there are lawyers working on revenge porn cases in India, but for now, she wants some distance from the whole thing. “Maybe one day, when I am more financially secure and successful, I will become vocal about it. But right now its too early. I need some space. I have decided to concentrate on fixing my life rather than wasting it on teaching that man a lesson.”

Aradhana has found a new job in Hyderabad, and is moving at the end of this month.

*Names changed

Neha Dixit is an independent journalist who writes on politics, gender and social justice in South Asia. She tweets @nehadixit123

This article first appeared on Deep Dives.

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