I joined St. Xavier’s University as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English on August 9, 2021, almost a year after returning to India at the end of my PhD. I did my BA in English from St. Xavier’s College (SXC), Kolkata followed by MA in English from Jadavpur University. After having obtained a full scholarship from the European Union on a program specializing in medieval and modern literature, I left India in 2015. After successfully defending my doctoral thesis during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, I returned to India.
The months following my return were difficult. People were getting sick, loved ones were lost and most academic institutions had hiring freezes in place. After a few months of struggle, I managed to get a contract position as a visiting lecturer in one of the private universities in Kolkata. It wasn’t a lucrative position and didn’t exactly utilize the skills I had to offer, but it was something I had to do to gain much-needed work experience. Around May 2021, I got a job offer from a university in Hyderabad. Even though it was a full-time position, it required relocation, a prospect that was problematic not only given the calamity unleashed by the Delta variant, but also because of my father’s ongoing health issues. .
This was around the time when St. Xavier’s University Kolkata (SXUK) advertised a full-time Assistant Professor of English position. I applied at the end of June. Shortly after, I had an interview, and three days after the interview, I was officially offered the job.
It seemed like a no-brainer to take it. After all, I could stay in Kolkata, close to my parents, which would make it easier to pick up. It also felt like a financially responsible choice – I was offered a slightly higher salary than Hyderabad University, and given the reasonable cost of living in Kolkata, I would be able to rack up some much needed savings .
I joined SXUK in August and quickly adapted to the rigors of full-time teaching. I was thrilled to finally be assigned texts that I enjoyed teaching and that matched my areas of specialization and research interests. The students were sincere and insightful, and the class discussions were lively and immensely engaging.
This idyllic educational journey was, however, to come to an abrupt end soon and in a way that looks even more like a bizarre nightmare.
I was summoned to the university by telephone on October 7 under the pretext of a meeting with the vice-chancellor. The meeting – about which nothing was told to me over the phone – turned out to be a modern re-enactment of a witch trial where I was interrogated and then shamed in my private Instagram photos. These photos – of which a cleverly curated selection had been printed – were said to be the basis of a complaint sent to the university by the father of an undergraduate freshman. The complaint, which lamented my lack of propriety and the ostensibly sexually inflammatory nature of my images, denigrated my right to bodily autonomy and reduced my personality to a mere sexual receptacle upon which the voyeuristic slander of heteropatriarchal morality was liberally poured. If the nature of the complaint seems absurd, the university’s actions truly defy belief.
Not only was I morally watched and harassed for over an hour because of images I shared privately with a select group of people, but I was also forced to tender my resignation. The fact that five women enthusiastically participated in it was particularly insulting and traumatic. I was told that my refusal to voluntarily resign would be punished by filing a criminal complaint against me for posting “objectionable” photographs.
Shame, horror, revulsion – I felt every emotion with agonizing intensity. For several days after this episode, I was nauseous, unable to eat properly, visited by night terrors. The stress was so unbearable that it damaged my immunity and I contracted Covid-19 for the second time. It was especially devastating to see the toll this had on my parents, especially my father who started fainting. In the aftermath of the incident, his ailments worsened, leading him to contract Covid in January 2022 (during which he was hospitalized at HDU for 21 days) and subsequently to develop severe heart failure.
I write these things not to arouse sympathy. I write them to illustrate that the arbitrary decisions taken by the authorities leave behind very real and irreversible human losses. To everyone who asked me why I didn’t wait for them to see me, I ask: can you put yourself in my place? Can you work in a place where absolutely no protocol is followed, where the highest official has orchestrated and presided over a kangaroo court and then descended to issue open threats, where not a single colleague has come out into the open and took a united stand? Do you think after more than a year of returning to India and struggling to find a job, it was easy for me to turn down a full-time position? I was driven to financial ruin because of this. The immediate fallout was losing the entire security deposit I had paid for an apartment I had rented for an eleven month lease. The longer term consequences included having to scrape the bottom of my savings to cover legal costs and not being able to contribute financially when my father was hospitalized twice within a few months.
My life has been like a relentless nightmare for the past ten months. However, through it all, there was one thing that remained unchanged – the burning, raging sense of wrongdoing and the all-consuming desire to seek justice. At no point in this whole ordeal did I ever question myself and my truth. While I fully respect the personal opinion, even going so far as to argue that the Complainant has the right (however misplaced) to disapprove of the way someone conducts himself in his personal life, I have the unwavering belief that morality subjective cannot supersede the laws of the land. As an Indian citizen and as an adult, I have certain inalienable rights that cannot be stolen from me – the right to wear what I want and the right to visually document that and share it with the world are part of my constitutional freedoms.
However, I have to say that even in my wildest dreams, I hadn’t anticipated the amount of media traction this story would receive. It has been overwhelming and humbling in equal measure to see the outpouring of support. In what has often been a long, lonely and thankless battle, the avalanche of (mostly) positive reinforcement has reinforced my desire to keep fighting. I am leading this fight to recover my autonomy, my rights and my dignity. I believe my work should speak for me rather than the clothes I choose to wear. Although the infamous “swimwear” images hijacked the narrative, it didn’t matter if I was wearing a bathing suit or a sari. The clothes are not accompanied by moral labels and say nothing about the value of the person wearing them. Above all, I fight to reclaim my bodily and feminist agency and to ensure that what happened to me never happens to anyone else. I would have liked to be a model example, but I will settle for being a cautionary tale for now.
The author is an assistant professor at a university in the NCR. His name is withheld at his request.