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A profound lesson in respect

It happened five years ago when I had just passed out of engineering college. I was lucky enough to land a job in a big company just after my first or second interview. I worked for six months at their Gurugram office and then I got the opportunity to become a part of one of their huge projects. The project was with a French company, so three other new colleagues and I had to go to the Paris office of the company to lay the groundwork for the project.

All four of us were immensely excited and happy. We were going to Paris at the age of twenty-four! We were all born and brought up in small cities and had hardly travelled out of the four or five times in our lives — may be when someone’s father was approved the governmental LTC, or when there would be a marriage of some relative in a distant town or city, or when we would travel to tourist spots nearby. We imagined all sorts of things in our minds. Our family backgrounds were more or less the same; all of us were young and flinched at the mere idea of talking to attractive girls with our hearts thumping loudly whenever such opportunities arose — and we knew that in a couple of years, we would all end up getting married, then have children and eventually other social and family responsibilities.

But we were going to Paris, the most glamorous of all European cities! Acclaimed as the world’s most romantic city, where love is given the utmost importance, where culture, ideas, arts, literature, cuisine find their zenith, where everyone eats, drinks and gets into relationships as dictated purely by their hearts and where personal freedom has been given the basic, fundamental right status.

We kept on googling about what to do, which places to visit in Paris. Everyone’s desires had been ignited. Unfortunately, we had very little time as we had tons of work there. But on one issue we were all united — we had to have some experience of the female company in Paris. We had seen only these avatars of women till then — mothers, grandmothers, sisters, sister-in-law, etc. We had never had a real friendship with any girl in our lives till then; having a lover or a girlfriend was a distant fantasy that we had never realized nor had any hopes. In our social ambience, the girls or women who would wear modern clothes, have male friends and would go out with them, or the ones who would consume alcohol, smoke cigarettes were not considered good girls. High-class Karan Johar type people were not even properly understood by us and frankly beyond our reach.

But yes, our image regarding European or American women was radically different. There were ideas like openness, free life, the desire to fully live every pleasure in life with reference to them in our minds. And these ideas got hooked to our Paris trip without any impediment, hesitation, moral rethinking and self-analysis. Each one of us gave serious thought to how we could get these experiences and excitedly looked forward to planning the trip. We thought we could visit clubs, discos and a senior in the company suggested that we see the famous can-can dance show in Paris and also enjoy some strip-shows, which as per him was considered something ordinary in Paris, with no moral stigma attached. We heard him and felt shy and thrilled at the same time. The boldest amongst us, and the most stubborn as well, said that we could go to a professional girls club to fulfil our desires — but we all knew he said it only in the spur of the moment. We were not the kind to go together to a club like that; I think maybe if we had to, we could gamble and go there separately, alone. I did not know those colleagues very well, but I had no plans to buy those professional girl club services; it seemed like a very strange thing to even think about. My upbringing was not at all like that — so I never spoke to them about this again. On many topics regarding girls, most of what we talked about ended up like some utterly self-conscious tease, involving imagining ourselves timidly in possibilities we had ourselves created in our hearts and minds.

On this trip, almost everything happened to me anew, for the very first time in life. I left India for the first time; even the flight I took to Paris was the first flight of my life. Colleagues from the company had come to the airport to pick us up. We reached the hotel with them, which was close to the company office and one hour away from the Paris centre by metro. We rested for a night and started working from the next day onwards — and the workload was very high. Beginning in the morning, we had to work till ten in the night. The weekend was a holiday in theory but we were instructed from India that we shouldn’t leave anything pending — even if we had to work on Saturdays and Sundays; so on the first Saturday, we spent the whole day reading reports. We did not feel like leaving the hotel on Sunday but somehow dragged ourselves out and did a half-day city tour. Then we had another week full of work and on the second weekend, we decided that we would visit Paris for the whole two days.

So the next day we roamed in Paris all day and in the evening before we had to return to the hotel, we went to a cafe where the world-famous painter Picasso used to go to meet his friends and spend time with them. It was super crowded and they served us a chilled glass of water each, without asking for them, with our coffees, croissants and some delightful pastries — and we liked this style of theirs. We were half-joking about the chilled glasses of water when I caught the eyes of a girl who was looking at my colleagues and me and smiling. She was sitting alone and I don’t know how but for some instants we just kept looking at each other’s eyes and for me at least the rest of the world disappeared; and then without realizing I gestured her to the empty chair on our table. It was my good luck that she accepted the proposal and walking slowly, carrying her coffee and snacks plate, she came over to our table. We shook hands and greeted each other: that girl with blue eyes, blond hair and spotless white skin who looked like a doll were, Valerie.

I was not aware at that time that my world would change by three-sixty degrees as she sat down beside me. She did not talk much with my friends as she could not speak English well and they became a little more coy in front of her. Valerie was a confident woman, her personality was strong, attractive and her heart seemed to be transparent and generous — and she was ten years elder to all of us. But she and I got bound together in a natural, effortless and easy relationship from the outset, which was not too dependent on language — we could communicate between us without using much of it. Starting the time I met her, my communication with the Indian colleagues withered and then came to a complete halt… I spent the majority of the next two weeks in her company, till my last night in Paris.

Valerie knew from the beginning that I was on a very short visit to Paris and I was ten years younger to her — so whatever relationship we would be having was going to be a short one too. I grasped the hand of the woman who looked like a doll and in a way she became my instructor involving love relationships, uninitiated as I was in this turf. I spent the rest of my nights in Paris at her home instead of the hotel and her image of an independent, free woman got imprinted firmly in my mind as someone who had no fear of the society, rituals and what others would say. When I was not with her during those days, I would rather think that many like me were perhaps like toys for her, even though whenever I was in her company, I could feel all her attention only on me. The time for my illusion to end was coming soon.

When we had to return from Paris, we thought that we would have a nice dinner at some fancy, high-end French restaurant. I had not had any conversation with my friends about the kind of relationship I was having with Valerie and I could well imagine what they must have been thinking about us. I did not know what experiences they were having in Paris, but it seemed as if none of them had a friend of the other gender. They insisted and so I invited Valerie on the last dinner, perhaps they wanted to see us together. Valerie suggested the restaurant, it was a three Michelin-starred restaurant, but it’s my misfortune that I would not be able to tell you anything about the quality of food there.

The reason for that is as follows: Valerie sat on the chair across the table from me and she wore a backless dress. Her skin and face were glowing beautifully and she looked supremely elegant with golden earrings. We were tasting an excellent merlot wine before ordering food when a colleague of mine, who was sitting besides Valerie, got up to go to the washroom and getting behind Valerie, he gestured at her with a sign joining his thumb and index finger, as if to say she was number one sexy, then he winked at me and shook his waist forward and backward in a disgustingly obscene manner. I smiled at his antics and I also winked back at him. Only a moment had passed when Valerie got up, came towards me and angrily gave me a tight slap. And then she said in her broken English:

“All relationships need one thing and one thing only, first and foremost, and that is respect, even if it’s just a sexual relationship. My body is not a thing or object to be used and for your information, I never ever treated you like an object!” Saying this she turned away and left the restaurant. My cheek had reddened due to the slap and I felt it burning — but the shame and guilt I felt inside was much more intense — I could not stay there anymore, so I too went back to the hotel.

That slap kept me from sleeping the whole night; maybe the universe or some higher energy wanted to transmit a lesson to me through Valerie, and I began seeing everything so clearly that I still don’t know how would I ever thank her for this. I realized that the kind of society we are creating with the woman as an object to be used is a complete farce; I realized that even in a sex relationship respect and esteem is supremely important and terrible crimes like acid-attack and rapes happen because the women are considered to be inferior to men; I realized that at the human level there is no difference at all between a man and a woman, they both have same rights, they are both absolutely equal and till the moment of the slap I was not capable of seeing the women as they were in reality, but through a lens that was given to me by the society, my family and perhaps that was a lens I had never wanted to throw away; I realized that Valerie and the multitude of women, girls out there are way much intelligent, non-egoist, enormously better and exceptional knowing that perhaps the men they are with, or their fathers, grandfathers, husbands, brothers or sons are still seeing them using a fake, orthodox and rotten model, thinking about them as things or objects to be exploited or manipulated to keep control over them, to limit their flight by usually negating their emotions, feelings, words, expressions and desires.

In these five years, I have tried very hard to imbibe the lesson given by Valerie in my life. In doing this, I feel as if my heart has found its right place. I can understand the varieties and different kinds of people I meet in my life, I can accept them and I have found the correct direction to comprehend and approach my relationships. I have come to know that love is not dependent on sex but it’s beyond it and sex done without any kind of dignity to the partner is just a sham, a travesty and that this is applicable to both men and women alike.

Isn’t it time we do something about it, that we break this delusion and advance ahead together? We will only be respected when we learn how to respect others.

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