Posted on Oct 13, 2018

Names have been changed for family protection – By Samita Nandy

I left abusive environments to pursue an education and embark on my path to earning a PhD in fame. My goal? To honour my mother, who was forbidden from becoming a Bollywood film actress and stage dancer on the grounds of sexism, and to overcome the harassment I continually faced in my own life. After receiving my PhD, I went on to launch the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies (CMCS), which includes educating and empowering women to take creative and financial control in the post-Weinstein era of Hollywood.

Today CMCS serves thousands of members, giving women the power and understanding they previously lacked. It’s become clear that most women have faced their share abuse and exclusion, and that together we can overcome the challenges we’ve experienced. But things weren’t always this simple for me. Long before I found my voice, I faced a great deal of inequality as a woman – starting in my own family.

On February 5, 2018 – a year after my father took his last breath – I called my uncle Sailab Nandy. I was nervous about the call. Dark memories washed over me each time I thought about my father’s eldest brother Mahesh Nandy, who lived with Sailab.

Despite my grandfather’s wishes, Mahesh – as the firstborn son in British India – believed he was exclusively entitled to the family’s multimillion-dollar inheritance. He acquired my uncle Sailab’s assets through coercive practices and fraudulent signatures, with the aim of funding his drug-addicted, school-drop-out sons. One of them, Souvik Nandy, demanded that I masturbate him.

I was nine years old at the time.

Yes, #MeToo.

When Mahesh answered my call, I found myself at a loss for words. My sense of defeat was fuelled by the lack of evidence surrounding the situation – that, and the challenge of admitting to the sexual harassment permeating our modern family. We had predetermined narratives of love, and sexual harassment didn’t reflect those ideals.

“It’s Samita. Is Uncle Sailab there?”

“He’s out for a few minutes. How are you doing?”

“Well, it’s the anniversary of my dad crossing over,” I swallowed.

“Yes, yes,” he replied, his pitch moving from high to low. Then he chuckled. “You know, I always thought your dad would have lived way longer than us, but he took his own life.”

“What are you talking about?” I stammered. “My dad was the most hardworking, positive person I knew!”

“He was depressed! Why else would he have buried himself in work? Look at the rest of us, enjoying our retired lives.”

Before I could share how my father and I loved our café times, cooking at home and traveling together, he overtook my words – just like his son overtook me when he forced my hand on his penis.

“Look, when your father was little, he had typhoid and memory loss. A part of his brain was damaged. You understand, Samita? Damaged!”

“He was a very hardworking person,” I retorted, my heart sinking deep in my chest. He was still employed while being diagnosed with lungs cancer and passed within three weeks of the diagnosis.

“And what about your hard work – your name and fame, as I see on Facebook?”

“I’m working in New York but wish to spend time where my dad wanted to settle – at your home near Calcutta. I also want to extend my work in Mumbai. Perhaps I can fly from your home, as Uncle always suggested?”

“With the name and fame you have in New York, you should be happy where you are,” he said.

Well aware of my international phone bill, I told him I needed to hang up but promised to call back later.

And yet the call did not cut off when I said goodbye. In the background I overheard faint voices – the voices of two men who assumed I was no longer there.

“Sailab, listen,” chuckled Mahesh. “Samita is a problem. She doesn’t know what she wants at this age!”

Hot tears rolled down my cheeks as he spoke of my dad’s only child on the anniversary of his death. I wanted to disconnect the phone, but I needed to hear the truth – no matter how much it hurt to listen.

“Those Western people are obsessed with the material, you know?” said Sailab, breaking my trust then and there.

“Look, she may come in a couple of months,” my eldest uncle continued. “We’ll make her sit down and explain that her fantasy won’t work. She can visit, but she cannot stay.”

My common-law partner saw me shaking. I still heard my uncles’ voices over the phone, but I was no longer listening to their conversation. I had heard everything I needed to hear.

“I am a problem?” I cried, turning to my partner. “His sons dropped out of school – they were on drugs, they were perverted and abusive – but I am the spoilt kid? My father failed to raise me – that too, on his death anniversary? Despite my education, despite my trying to please them, this is what they tell me?”

My voice trembled, and I buried my face in my partner’s chest. No matter how educated a woman might be, some will still see to it that she feels powerless. I remember my father telling me this unfortunate truth in Toronto, where I was born.  He was like my mother – a very gentle, self-made, and free-spirited individual, encouraging higher education for women – even if that meant taking me far away from their male-headed family that also once silenced my mother.

So this was not the first time a woman had been silenced or excluded in my family. My mother’s youngest sister was kicked in her pregnant belly by her husband Ananda Dutta. Ironically, he was still put in charge of finalizing weddings in our family, despite the tensions in his marriage. In 2015, he verbally abused my aunt – and me and my father, for that matter – when we were asked to share the reasons for our plant-based lifestyle. When we gave him the facts, he yelled and falsified research; he once ran a chicken farm on his terrace and claimed he knew everything as a result.

I then blurted out my imperfect feminist practice: “I do not keep men like you in my social circle.”

Yes, I found my voice in the face of my uncle’s harassment. However, the exclusion of men like this does not resolve the issue of gender inequality.

“See how your father’s family is treating me now!” he yelled at his wife. The use of ‘father’ in this context conjured up images of handing over daughters to strange men, reinforcing patriarchal narratives designed to maintain an imagined sense of male entitlement. Within a few days, my uncle made his wife and son cut all communication with my father and me, in an attempt to silence us.

What can women do when they are muted for being individualistic and shamed by those that they trust in the modern world? How can they succeed despite this kind of abuse?

When I went to Australia in 2006, it was not to pursue a Ph.D. I’d fallen in love with a man I met online, Iven Taylor, who comforted me after I lost my mother due to breast cancer. He flew to Canada to meet my father and embraced me after meeting on the dating site Lavalife. I became a part of the Taylor family in Australia – and Ian was very kind at first. As time went on, however, he began to swear at me and said that I was “silly,” “stupid” or an “idiot” for any and every mundane reason day or night. He even threatened me to leave after I found emails and computer files detailing the various women with whom he’d slept in my absence.

I planned on keeping contact numbers of taxi and police for protection. I felt punched hard in the eye after each verbal abuse but had no evidence of the intimidation.

And yet no woman needs to be perfect for justice to be served. The only evidence I had were those 22 computer files that I could not reveal from his property.

“Why do you want to be with me, Samita?” Ian asked in the kitchen after I confronted him. “You are way up here –” he raised one arm above his head “–and I am way down here.”

He once proposed to me in that same kitchen. Many people believe they need to be happily married with a suburban house, a car, a good job, and children. I was in a culture that legitimized, naturalized and prioritized institutionalized heterosexual monogamous marriage. But if a relationship is carried out in fear and under pressure, and there is a lack of individualized choice, it is not rooted in love. The relationship is then anchored in patriarchy regardless of ethnic culture. I was stunned to find that the abusive traits I ascribed to cultural norms in India overlapped with domestic violence I witnessed in Australia. In both places, I came to realize one does not need to fight for acceptance – we each have the power to believe in ourselves and move forward with our lives, even when we cannot confront.

In fear of losing my voice for good, I decided to leave the relationship. Instead of becoming Mrs. Taylor, I worked my way towards becoming Dr Nandy. I earned my Ph.D. in fame, founded the CMCS and now take pride in helping other women find a voice in the post-Weinstein era.

‘Find a voice’ – that’s the key phrase here.

We stand strong together, but has it been easy?

Obviously not.

Yet in my life, I managed to change gears and turn adversity into my version of success. Success is what life can become, no matter how imperfect it is – not what it should be.

Along the way, I had regrets for being passive – like my parents, I escaped and forgave without confronting during exact times of exclusion. At the same time, I had moments of finding my voice while letting go of betrayals. The time apart from abusive men has helped me to create a platform for celebrity research, so others like me can better understand how to move forward and thrive in the midst of the #MeToo Movement.

I trust that’s what my parents wished for me when they were alive. And I trust that’s what other women will find as well.

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