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Sunil Sethi: Kiss'n'tell is now kiss'n'sue

Sunil Sethi  |  New Delhi 

Kiss’n’tell accounts emanating from publishers’ offices are usually about other people, not about themselves. Which alone could be the reason why the reading public beyond the bookish world is taking an undue interest in the soured romance between David Davidar, former CEO of Penguin International, and his junior Lisa Rundle in Toronto. This seemingly discreet liaison, conducted for three years via email, text messages and kisses in foreign hotels, against a background of tennis games, love poems and gifts of cream-filled cookies, would have gone the way of many such adulterous associations (they either fizzle out or result in a reordering of domestic arrangements) except for one fact. Kiss’n’tell has now become kiss’n’sue.

Lisa Rundle’s suits against Davidar (for sexual harassment) and Penguin (for loss of job) add up to more than $500,000; that’s excluding legal costs, for should she win in court, the damages could be way in excess. Not to speak of Davidar’s loss of personal reputation and derailment of a brilliant career. A case like this should help melt those heated rumours that circulate in offices and gossips bubbling at the water cooler.

Rundle’s cases are civil, not criminal complaints, so no one is likely to go to jail here. Sexual harassment is not rape, assault or abetment to suicide as are the recent examples of actor Shiney Ahuja and former Haryana DGP SPS Rathore. But their definition is under legal and social re-evaluation, which is why the Davidar-Rundle case has aroused avid interest in India.

In 1988, when Punjab IAS officer Rupan Deol Bajaj accused former state DGP KPS Gill of “outraging her modesty”, the term sexual harassment itself was relatively unknown and the outrage hinged on a single incident. Gill, a much-admired police officer who led the anti-terrorist operations in Punjab, had offensively patted Mrs Bajaj in an inebriated state at a dinner party full of her peers and seniors. The case dragged on for 18 years and went to the Supreme Court. Gill did not go to jail; his term was reduced to a probationary period of “good behaviour” and a fine of Rs 2 lakh. Finally, when the Supreme Court upheld Gill’s conviction, Mrs Bajaj recounted that she personally complained to Punjab’s Governor Siddharth Shankar Ray, a leading barrister of his time. Mr Ray advised her “to forget it in the national interest” and she described the humiliating years of the battle as “hell”.

Sexual politics in the workplace has changed radically since then. Davidar’s defence that his relationship with Rundle was “consensual”, “flirtatious” and “romantic” does not alter the inescapable fact that he was her boss. The court may face some uncomfortable questions: Is it proper for a company head to regard a junior female colleague as his “closest friend and confidante”, to invite her into his office to watch Roger Federer playing and, more important, to grant her a salary increase of $10,000 during a wage freeze?

Possibly the only way to cut costs and end this messy story would be to reach an out-of-court settlement, or else, the ensuing litigation could end up airing more dirty laundry. To prevent such outcomes and avoid unwelcome public attention, many Indian companies have activated HR departments to investigate sexual harassment complaints through internal committees. Should push come to shove, government institutions, including college campuses and armed forces, are obliged to follow guidelines laid down by a Supreme Court-empowered committee. Impartial outside observers are invited to be part of investigations, though one such participant told me that even if the accusation was serious and proved to be true, it was not easy to punish government servants. “How do you sack a sarkari employee?”

Who would have thought that the cloistered world of book publishing (where people are supposed to be poring over manuscripts and measuring their lives in coffee spoons) would send out a public warning to echo the old lyric: A kiss is not just a kiss... .

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First Published: Sat, June 26 2010. 00:58 IST