I was twenty-five years old, when I was dispensed, without any ceremony, the responsibility of inducting, training on the job, and leading a team of 15 young men and a woman, all barely a couple of years younger than me. This was in an isolated, though all glass, twenty-four hour office, in my second year of joining the airline. There were passengers visiting our office all the time, but no one else from the organisation really walked into this office much, located in the building adjacent to the then Calcutta airport, to overview activities. Two of the men who were actually recruited for the airport side activities, on meeting me at the regional office, suddenly insisted upon the general and sales managers to join my team. Witness to their sudden keenness in change of department, I realised they thought I was going to be an easy boss, and this would be a continuation of their college days, what with the entire team joining us from St Xavier’s College – a premier institute.
As expected, when the group reported the next day, the lone woman was withdrawn, but the men thought party time had just begun. One wanted to prepare the job roster for me, and another the shift/timing roster, like one does try to help their teacher in school or college. I politely declined such help, as I was not going to run a college here, as this was business after all, for which I was solely going to be held responsible. On the first few days, the team went out for lunch break two at a time, and on all these days, one of them took almost an hour when half an hour was allotted, while others returned on time. After watching this trend, I summoned the man who came in late to my desk, in full view of all the rest. “Why are you late every day?” I asked firmly. He grinned, while I noticed everyone’s eyes on me, though looking indirectly, most of them breaking into sly smiles. I repeated myself firmly “Don’t you hear me, why are you late every day…don’t you know that lunch break is only half an hour?” He grinned again. I knew this was it, if I didn’t act now the team watching me was going to be out of my control for good. The lone lady looked down shamefacedly.
“Get out” I suddenly snapped. “Wipe the grin off your face and return”. He kept grinning and replied cheekily, while others smirked “But we were taught at the customer-service training to smile all the time.” I looked at him sharply, and more than real anger, just to get the team to respect me I firmly repeated, with a powerful tone. “You will not smile henceforth, if you want to work in this office. If you see me anywhere in the airport also, you will wipe the smile off your face instantly. Am I clear? You will never smile at me, do you get me?” His smile froze with the forcefully menacing tone of my voice and I noticed so did the rest of the teams. They never smirked at me again and we settled into a respectful working relationship, of course with some trivial trick or other constantly, that I more often than not tended to allow them the liberty. The lunch incident had established my credence with them, from their initial perception on seeing me before joining, as one of meekness.
In a year, in this office, due to a lady cleaner absenting herself often, then for over a week without information, I had replaced her with another young girl. In another week, the first one returned to beg and plead that I take her back. But I had given my word to keep the new girl, whose mother incidentally suffered from cancer and she needed the money, so I retained her. Suddenly late one morning four tall, bulky, ruffian looking men marched into our office pushing the glass door, almost shaking the glass walls alongside. They marched to my desk and resting their hands on my desk menacingly, one picking up the phone handset shoving into my hand said “Mai Bapp ke phone lagao” I looked at them shocked, and two of the young men from my team got up and stood beside me as the gangster men repeated in Bengali “Call your owners…How can you sack the cleaner, don’t you know she is a member of our union?”
I explained to the goons the circumstances, but they were adamant and said “we will not allow the new girl to work, in fact we won’t allow anyone to clean, and we will break the girl’s legs if we find her outside. As for you…you’re in a glass office, so think how easy it is for us to stone it down.” I just kept staring at them in horror, in fear, but looking calm and composed as another added from behind “we will not hesitate to use acid or a blade.” I was totally shaken, the pit of my stomach churning in fear, but this only made me very angry as I telephoned our general manager, who advised me to “take the old cleaner back” as he added “Are you mad, don’t you know what they are capable of doing?” But I had made up my mind that a unionised employee, one who could resort to such threats through goons could not be taken back, as she would really be a trouble maker.
“Sir, I will not take her back” I said firmly, “And how can you even consider it…Now knowing she is part of the airport union which is so aggressive?” Luckily I could stand my ground with the support of the HR and Airport managers, who I telephoned, even as these huge men marched out with a flourish, threatening to return shortly.
In an hour, I suddenly saw a group of over 150 men and women of the Trinamul Congress union, come in procession and sit filling the entire covered corridor outside our glass office, staring at us menacingly, even as a couple of men would come inside and threaten me in turns. I was scared, believe me…very scared indeed. I had vivid imaginations of how it would feel to have a blade slit my cheek, acid thrown on my face, and how would I live with the scar…or what if they slit my skirt or trouser with a blade as they threatened. Was standing up to these bullies worth it? But I had taken responsibility of the new young girl’s job now, and then the older previous girl would be a menace if we took her back. But worse still, would my team ever respect me again if I cowed down? I had just begun my career with the airline, where I had at the time planned to spend a very long time. I was also worried of my parents finding out and forcing me to quit the job. Also the general manger kept pressurising me to take the girl back in worrying about my safety. “You all are my responsibility, don’t you understand?” he screamed at me several times over the phone, along with various other threats. But I firmly replied each time “Sir, trust me on this. I’m in this good or bad.”
For the next three days my team and I walked in and out of our office, passing a group of about 100 to 200 people including a number of women, staring at us in the most menacing and disrespectful manner. Then getting sick of this intrusion to our lives and the office uncleaned for days, I suggested to my team “Guys, let’s clean the office ourselves. They cannot stop us, can they? In fact, you all just help me carry the bucket and broom etc. in, I will sweep and swab the floor, let’s see what they do to me.” I didn’t want my team to get a scope to complain, that I had asked them to sweep and swab the floor, thus wanted to do it myself. “You all clean the computers and the phones with Colin spray, in the meantime” I said. But they said in unison “No, how can we watch you cleaning…we will do it. You just supervise us.”
So all of us cleaned together, we swept and swabbed the floor with much flourish really enjoying ourselves, laughing and joking, showing off to the union watching us in shock, as we thoroughly cleaned the computer screens and telephones. In a while we saw the unionised group disperse and then the next day, as we were now used to their presence, awaited their coming. But they didn’t ever return and I got a new cleaner. I didn’t want to risk the young girl’s safety by taking her.
These experiences, followed by numerous others as this, I have been unluckily lucky to encounter in the organisations I worked for afterwards, left me with the confidence, than bullies never leave you alone until you look then in their eyes and deal with them. But over that, those watching you cowing down cannot respect you if you do so, how then can you have any impact on them thereafter? For too long, society has shrugged off bullying as a ‘rite of passage’ and by asking victims to simply ‘get over it.’ These attitudes need to change. Every day, students, workers, are bullied into silence and are afraid to speak up. Firstly let’s understand, that bullying is when someone repeatedly and on purpose, says or does mean and hurtful things to another person, who has a hard time defending. Let’s break this silence, let’s stand up and take small steps into – ending bullying. Let’s stand up for what is right even if we are standing alone.
Please watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAhlGeHTtaQ
This picture is a few months before/after the above incidents in 1996/97…exactly as the same location.