Saturday, February 11, 2017

My First Lesson in Assertiveness

Having been an introvert, a shy and self-effacing person (I use 'having been,' hoping that I have now come out of the shells that were holding me!), I could seldom have been assertive, except when I had played tantrums with my parents in my childhood days! Life gave me a chance to learn a lesson in assertiveness, when i was 16.

When I joined an Engineering college, I, like all the freshmen, was subjected to ragging. Since our college was residential, all of us faced ragging in the hostel. However, the ragging in our college was mild and it didn't go beyond teasing us and subjecting us to verbal insults.The ragging got over in about a month and the seniors who had ragged us began to adopt a friendly attitude towards us.

It was at that time that I faced an unexpected encounter from a senior occupying the room next to mine. Our college, being a national institution, had students from all over the world. My neighbour, a second year student, was a North Indian and didn't understand Tamil. I will refer to him Ajay but it is not his name!

Ajay moved with a small circle of friends and did not even notice me or my roommates for long. One late evening, he summoned me and my roommate to his room. He and a friend of him subjected us to verbal insults by asking us some stupid questions and ridiculing our responses to them.

I was amused when he repeatedly asked us to fold our dhoti up to our knees. He  didn't know that folding a dhoti is a sign of stubbornness, hostility, confrontation and disrespect. He probably thought that he was humiliating us by asking us to fold our dhotis! I and my roommate were only too glad to do this. (In retrospect, I feel that physical posture might have contributed to a mental strength to resist him during the later part of the session!)

Ajay then asked me to go to our mess and get him some sweets. We had sweets that evening in our mess. Ajay was attached to another mess that would serve north Indian dishes, popularly called 'chappaaththi mess!' Perhaps, he heard that sweets were served in our mess. Some rich students had the habit of tipping some servers in the mess and getting some favors from them. But I didn't know about this at that time.

Ajay told me, "You go to your mess and tell server Swaminathan* that Ajay asked for sweets." It was past 9 p.m. The lights in the mess were off and the servers might have gone to bed, since they had to start their day early in the morning. I was reluctant to do what Ajay had asked me to do. I was afraid that if I approached Swaminathan and asked him to give sweets for Ajay, he would ridicule me. I couldn't even imagine bearing that kind of humiliation. But I had no courage to defy my senior either.

I walked up to the mess. The mess was visible from the hostel corridor and I knew that Ajay would be watching me. But I felt that since it was dark near the mess, Ajay couldn't see beyond the mess. I lingered for a few minutes outside the mess and then, without entering the mess, returned to the hostel. I told Ajay "Swaminathan says the sweets were exhausted."

Ajay was furious. He shouted at me saying "I know you didn't go to the mess. You are lying." He went on with his verbal insults. At one stage, he asked me what my father's salary was and then said "My pocket money is more than your father's salary." I decided to assert myself and said, "I will report this (ragging incident) to the principal."

He said "How dare you say this! Let me see how you will complain to the principal" and continued to talk in a menacing way. After sometime, he let us go.

The next morning, I was leaving for the morning class. We had morning classes from 7 am. Ajay was one of those people who had a habit of waking up late.  These people would skip most of the morning classes, unless the classes were handled by senior professors who were strict about attendance. As I was leaving my room, Ajay came out of his room. His face showed that he had just woken up from sleep.

He came to me and said,"Hey! Don't go to the principal" and went back to his room, probably to resume his sleep. I can never completely describe my feelings at that time. I felt extremely happy and more importantly immensely powerful. I discovered that I had the power to stand up to people and assert myself.

Of course, my threat was only a feeble attempt to extricate myself from Ajay's onslaught and I had no intention of going to the principal and reporting it. But this bravado from me generated unexpected results. This one incident has empowered me and boosted my self confidence so much so that whenever I feel weak or inadequate, I will remind myself of this incident to recharge myself.

* Name changed