The words jumped out at me from the screen, and I almost dropped my cell phone.
‘Yew Vivek Singh biggest sex maniac’.
Wtf? That was my immediate reaction. It was December last year, five months ago. I had no way of knowing this then, but thus began a nerve-wracking salvo of tweets, messages and deception that turned my life into a living hell.
You know my name now. It’s in the WhatsApp message that I just mentioned. I am 33, single and run my own event management company with twelve employees, in Mumbai. Still growing. It’s called SOL (stands for ‘Shout Out Loud’, by the way). We do live concerts, promote independent artists and organize comedy collectives as well. Not yet a household name by any stretch of the imagination. I mean, we’re not big like Wizcraft or Percept D Mark. But one day I’ll get there, or die trying. Yes, young and ambitious – that’s me all right!
It was a Tuesday morning at work, I remember, after our weekly meeting, when this first message appeared on my phone. That too to a WhatsApp group ID comprising friends and colleagues. Who was this, I wondered? It was an unknown number, of course. I tried to recall any weird prankster among my group and beyond…. anyone who was likely to do this; I couldn’t think of one. Had I pissed off someone, or provoked someone unnecessarily? Not as far as I could remember. ‘Sex maniac’? Me?
“Hey, Vivek, what’s going on? Who’s that?” remarked Shefali, my Senior Supervisor, who is part of that WhatsApp group. She had just read the message too.
“No idea, Fali. Some prankster, I guess,” I said with a smile, trying not to appear too concerned. But I realized by now at least twenty other members of the group must be reading the message and wondering. Shiv, the Artistic Director and Aishwarya, the Client Services Manager, were both looking at me quizzically. I ignored them.
The next day it popped up again, just when I had forgotten about that message. Same words, same bad spelling. I immediately blocked the number. After an hour, another message popped on my screen from a new number.
‘Vivek Singh fuks every girl thru events’.
I saw several colleagues looking at me funnily, with a mixture of concern and suspicion. I guessed why – they were all receiving the same message on their phones, being part of the group. This message appeared thrice during the course of the day. Needless to say, I blocked that number too. The next day I texted to the group, ironically a group I had set up in the first place, citing my concern –that there was some vicious prankster amongst us, or more likely outside the group, who was targeting me for no rhyme or reason.
I have a Twitter account too and several hundred followers. It comes with the territory. In my line of work, you end up knowing thousands of people. You can get a lot of business done on Twitter, which is what I use it for mainly. From that week onwards, I detected a pattern there. An anonymous handle would jump in suddenly and respond to my conversations, especially with women. ‘Vivek Singh have flirt with gals sex with gals’ was one that popped up while I was answering a student’s query. The number of these interventions started growing day by day. In a few days they had grown to fifty and rising. It was concerted sexual harassment. Many of them made serious accusations, even if comically misspelt.
I realized I had a problem on my hands. It was getting serious, obviously meant to do me harm. Each time I would report an anonymous account for abuse, Twitter would suspend it. Within minutes, a new anonymous handle would replace it. They were all variations of the word ‘Kalpana’.
Sometimes, ‘Kalpana’ would also target women who were having public conversations with me on Twitter. When a woman student asked me about failure at work, ‘Kalpana’ replied, ‘work hard in bed bich’. To a female journalist tweeting about breaking news, the handle asked, ‘is yew suking vivek singh ?’ There was no way I could control the deluge of tweets coming from seemingly everywhere.
However two days later, I received an unsigned email from ‘Kalpana Kalpana’ (the latest avatar of this vicious cyber stalker) apologising for the Twitter harassment. The sender’s email address was ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’. It was also marked to three of my women friends who had been targeted on Twitter. The email read:
dear vivek singh
Sorry 4 wat I have done on twitter in last few days with yew and all known people of yew. my hubby has got to know. I have to say sorry now and it will not be repeat again.
Forgive me. Yewr lover forever
The language and grammar used had stopped seeming comical to me quite a while ago. It was now creepy. It hinted at a deranged mind. How easy it is, I realized, for nearly anyone to turn into a dangerous stalker with complete anonymity and zero consequences! I despaired at the lack of protection and legal remedies available to any of us in this country of ours.
She had only just begun.
Several emails followed where people who appeared to be chatting with me on Twitter were targeted. Over time, some 50-60 people who knew me (possibly harvested from LinkedIn, Facebook and other platforms) were marked in such emails, typically with crude language, abuse, allegations and threats. In some emails to me, the stalker threatened harm to my parents who were living with me, describing their individual locations accurately.
Things were beginning to escalate. A couple of days later, the same ID sent another email to me and a group of friends, including an acquaintance of mine named Alka, which read:
yew don’t respond.so do this.
Girls Alka charge money to sex vivek singh. vivek singh pay Alka 2000 night from two years. Vivek use girl dump them.yew vivek is most selfish man.never think beyond yewrself.yew deserve prostitute like Alka
Alka was furious.
A professional in her mid-30s, she worked at that time for an entertainment company. Her job demanded networking with known names from arts and culture. Hailing from Allahabad, she liked hobnobbing with the movers and shakers of the Mumbai entertainment industry. Some of the women marked by ‘Kalpana’ were journalists, and this could seriously harm Alka’s reputation in an industry where rumours earn the legitimacy of gossip columns overnight.
Alka Sharma and I barely knew each other. We had first met socially a few months ago. We had both been officially invited, separately, to watch some film’s premier show and had become acquainted then. But that was that. We had stayed in touch on social network. But she was not my type.
Why was this psycho targeting Alka along with me? Sure enough, I got a call from Alka that evening. “Vivek, what’s going on? What was that mail all about?” Her tone was icy.
“I’m so sorry, Alka”, I stuttered, “There is an online stalker harassing me. Now she’s including people I know. I’m so embarrassed about this!”
“But why me? Who can the stalker be? You must be having a suspect in mind.”
I did. Some years ago, a married couple from Delhi used to stalk me at entertainment events. I never found out why. Just a couple of crazies, I guess. They had stopped doing so after I’d sent them a legal notice. But now it seemed they were back in an online avatar, abusing the privilege of anonymity the internet offered. I told Alka of my suspicions.
A little mollified, Alka offered to help by reaching out to her contacts in Mumbai Police. “I know a SP who has a good reputation. I’ll check with him. But you know, they’re not so good at this cyber-crime stuff.”
“Never mind! I’ll take any help I can get, Alka.”
Two days later, Alka sent me screenshots of her conversations with this cop named Pramod Patankar, on WhatsApp. Patankar had confirmed it was the same Delhi-based couple who had sent the ‘Kalpana’ emails. According to him, they had used a proxy email server in Canada to hide their tracks. The Mumbai police had warned them on phone and in person, the SP told Alka. It seemed like they had got to the bottom of the mystery. It wouldn’t happen again.
An email, cc to me, the next day said:
Yew complain to police. my hubby me get call from police station. I am sorry to yew and vijay. Can’t able to whatsapp yew vijay as I am block. This wil never be repeat again ever. sorry for harass and bad words
In other words, ‘Kalpana Kalpana’ confirmed it was indeed the Delhi couple behind it all. The police had obviously visited the couple.
With this, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was finally over.
No, not really.
The mails resumed after a gap of two blissful days. The main demand from ‘Kalpana’ was for Alka to ‘return’ me to her. A bizarre demand because Alka and I were not seeing each other at all and never had! ‘Kalpana’ asked Alka to withdraw her police complaint against her and her husband. Actually Alka had never filed a formal complaint, but had been informally using Patankar’s help, she told me. Since the police had visited the couple, ‘Kalpana’ seemed to think a formal complaint had been filed.
All that Alka and I wanted was to make the emails stop. This cyber stalker was wreaking mayhem in our lives, with no fathomable motive. Being stalked is no fun, believe me. At best it ruins one’s peace of mind and causes emotional distress. At worst it can result in serious psychological trauma and long-term damage.
Far from stopping, the messages became more menacing and threatening. I started getting mails like… I will kill myself with poison, I will tell the cops yew tried to rape me.
I began to get messages on WhatsApp again from this maniac. They were now coming from American phone numbers. I would block one number, only to start getting them from another American number in a matter of minutes. I’m talking almost fifty messages a day! I’d take out my phone to check on WhatsApp, and there would be an endless number of messages from these random American numbers. Some messages just had my name typed out dozens of times; some others simply said Hi.
Alka would get similar WhatsApp messages, screenshots of which she would share with me. Neither of us would reply. One night, an exasperated Alka begged the anonymous sender, “Please stop texting me.” In response, she received a barrage of texts warning her to stay away from me, or there would be ‘consiquenses’.
“Why don’t you go to the police, Vivek?” Shefali asked me at work.
The women in my office had started receiving individual anonymous emails threatening them, asking them to stay away from me, advising them to quit. Telling them I was a dangerous man. Similar emails were also sent to many of my female friends and acquaintances.
I told Shefali that the police was already on to it. She didn’t seem reassured, but walked away quietly.
The onslaught of vicious messages continued attacking my colleagues and friends, from ever-changing American numbers. Each time, I would have to explain to the new round of victims that there was an ongoing police case in this matter, and it was unwise to reply to any of these messages. It was getting tiresome for all concerned. Some would smile and sympathise, but gradually the smiles I noticed were getting forced and the commiserations scarce with each passing day. Some of these women were young employees of my company, and they were visibly shaken. I would try to explain to them why they were receiving these offensive emails, but was unable to reassure them.
It was getting awkward with clients and colleagues. I was getting the feeling now that people were starting to believe this crap. As if there must be someone I’ve really messed around with, and that is why this person is taking revenge. The seeds of doubt had been firmly planted in their minds. My career and my life would soon be in ruins. I was losing my mind.
I decided to visit the cops myself. The next day I dropped in on the Mumbai Police Cyber Cell near Crawford Market. You know what police stations are like. This one was no different. Nobody gave a rat’s ass what my problem was, or how badly I was shaken. When this large, fat Senior Inspector of Police condescended to see me, I had been waiting for two hours in the shabby Waiting Room.
“It’s not a big deal to use VPNs,” SIP Choubey said, chewing a paan in a mouth constantly in search of a spittoon, “you can just Google it, Mr. Singh.”
“But one has to be an expert with computers, correct, Sir?”
“No, no, it is not rocket science!” the cop chuckled, pleased at his own joke.
“You mean anyone can pull off a big identity scam like this?”
“Why not? The emails and messages to you and your friends are being sent through a virtual private network, or VPN, which masks its user’s actual digital address. I can see that the sender is using fake American mobile numbers and VPNs to send obscene emails and WhatsApp messages. These can be easily bought online. He or she must be computer savvy, but no need to be an expert, you know. “
He got rid of me with a promise to look into it. Just as I was headed back to the office, my phone beeped again with a WhatsApp message:
yew gals don’t need 2 hang 2 his dik. vivek is mine.
Oh, well! I let out a sigh of despondence, as I waited for the traffic light to turn green. The nightmare was just not ending. But I feared my career was.
“You could talk to a lawyer and see what your options are, Vivek,” Shiv, my Artistic Director mentioned to me back at the office. He too had been getting these messages and looked fed up. He gave me the number of one he knew. “This guy deals with cyber-crime. Not many such lawyers around.”
Just before heading home that day, I called the number from my desk. The lawyer was patient and attentive. He listened to the entire story and then, with a sigh, said, “The Indian Information Technology Act does not have adequate remedies for victims in such cases as yours, Sir.”
“What do you mean?”
“Cyberstalking is not an offence under the IT Act,” Percy Arsiwala the lawyer told me, “Section 67 of the IT Act says a person sending obscene messages electronically could get at the most three years in jail, and may have to cough up a fine of at the most five lakhs. Men who stalk women in person or on the internet can be charged under section 354D of the IPC, but the same law does not apply if a woman stalks a man.”
“That’s right, Sir,” the lawyer’s chuckle was sympathetic, “the law doesn’t say anything if the stalker is a woman. It certainly sounds like she’s one. Just some free information for you since Shiv is a friend.” He hung up.
I sat there gloomily staring at the wall opposite. My business was failing. Clients were shying away. Who was this person, I wondered, who had all the time in the world, and the energy too, to harass me like this? I needed to get into the mind of this person. To understand her (him?); to anticipate the next move.
Arun Tyagi is a school friend of mine, and we have sort of remained in touch. You know, the annual school reunion and things like that. He is now a psychologist specialising in criminal behaviour, involved with the rehabilitation of criminals at various institutes and juvenile homes, even at the Arthur Road Jail. I made an appointment to visit him at his flat in Andheri.
He heard me out patiently and then said, “It’s like this, Vivek. Usually, women stalkers are very aggrieved. They have an inner rage they are unable to cope with. They usually miss subtle cues… that the other person is not interested… and it reveals a lack of sensitivity on their part. Have you dumped someone in the recent past?”
I tried to remember. No, there was nobody I could remember who could have felt slighted. I am normally a chivalrous guy, a bit old fashioned actually.
“Well, most probably this stalker knows you and wants you. In this stalker’s mind, she is picturing you as hers and hers only. She wants to have kids with you!
“Victimology is also important here,” he continued, “in her earlier history, this woman could have been a victim and later became an offender.” He went into greater detail about the characteristics of a stalker, but I tuned out after some time, my mind on only one aspect.
“How dangerous can a woman stalker be, Arun? Like in that Michael Douglas movie ‘Fatal Attraction’? You know, that Glenn Close character?” I asked.
He hesitated a moment before nodding, “Could be. Women stalkers are not to be taken lightly. Both men and women can be vicious once their object of desire is unattainable. They are frustrated. And they never forget the object of their infatuation. They are sickos, Vivek! Be careful.”
On that ‘consoling’ note, I took his leave. I realized what I was up against – a diabolical psychopath capable of doing any kind of harm to me, my family or my friends. I tried hard to recall who I could have provoked to cause this kind of harassment, but could not think of anyone in recent memory.
There was a brief respite. Then a few days later – I remember it was a Sunday late afternoon – I got an email that read:
I am at Mumbai Alka. yew cant take my vivek away from me. yew will face for this price. yew are pregnant with vivek baby. I will kill yew and yewr baby. I coming.
I called up Alka immediately to enquire if she had received the mail as well. She had.
I called up R.P.Singh, the boss of the security company to whom we outsource the security for our events, and asked him to send his security personnel to Alka’s house in Malad immediately, after briefly apprising him of the situation. To my relief, RP without a fuss agreed to do so. RP’s force consisted of former soldiers and cops. Tough, trained guys. RP sent me the Team Leader’s contact number on WhatsApp. A Ramesh Chauhan. I sat at home and decided to wait. I wondered if the stalker would actually turn up. If she (he?) did, I prayed today would be her Day of Reckoning.
Forty five minutes after the first email, exactly at 6:30 pm, I received another email:
Alka I am down stair.come down. Me in yellow top black jeans
I called Ramesh. He confirmed he had reached the site. There were three more comprising his team. I told him to look out for a woman behaving suspiciously, possibly armed, in yellow top and black jeans.
Over the next hour or so, pithy, unsigned emails flowed, causing my phone to ping and light up every few minutes.
“Alka I waiting downstairs”
“Alka call vivek also to yew home.don’t even try call police.I am carry gun with me.I think I will kill yew.give vivek to me all this will not happen.”
“I know yew touch with vivek.tell vivek to come meet me”
“Alka I am outside yew house door ringing bell knocing door.why yew not opening door. scared? I will not let yew keep vivek”
I kept in touch with Ramesh with the occasional call. His team was looking for a woman prowling the area, wearing yellow and black. She could be armed and dangerous, they knew. Alka’s apartment was located on the eighth floor. The men spread out, keeping an eye on all entry and exit points of the building. They also alerted the security guards of the area.
The emails eventually petered out. Around midnight Ramesh called me and said it was perhaps time to leave. Feeling that the person by now must have left, I agreed that Ramesh could go home. Just then I got another email:
“I wil keep come to yewr house every night til yew meet me. I leave slip for yew. Read it. I am not leave mumbai til I meet yew”
A slip of paper? She hadn’t left yet.
My phone rang. It was Alka, confirming that a note had just been slipped through the front door. “MEET ME,” it said on a piece of paper from an Archies notepad, two hearts printed on the bottom right corner. She sent me the photo on WhatsApp.
I called Ramesh. His team hadn’t left yet. I quickly briefed him about the note and asked him to rush back. They did. One man stayed guard at the entrance of the building; two others climbed the stairs to the eighth floor, while Ramesh took the elevator to Alka’s flat. None of them found anyone exiting.
Ramesh called me to say that at Alka’s apartment, they spoke through the closed door. She sounded really scared; didn’t open the door to him. She told him she was making tea when she saw the note lying just inside the front door, shoved in through a crack.
I did not sleep much that night, wondering how the psychopath had given the security team the slip. It seemed inevitable that I would be her next target. Things would get even worse.
Early next morning my phone rang. It was RP. “Sir, please go to the site. Ramesh is back there. He has something to show you.” It sounded urgent. Instead of heading for office, I headed for Alka’s place instead, frazzled and frayed, cursing the day I was born.
On reaching her apartment, I found Ramesh and his team outside. Poorva Pandey. He looked puzzled and tense as he whispered to me, “Something isn’t right, Sir. I thought over it last night and decided to come back and check.”
“What do you mean?” I queried.
He explained how he had tried to slip the note through the same door himself, but the gap wasn’t wide enough for it. He had stood outside Alka’s door and tried to insert the same note through every crack of the door, in every possible way, but it just wouldn’t go through. He tried inserting it with a half-fold, the way Alka had given it to him. He tried inserting it without a fold. But no luck. He also noticed the note looked like it had just been written; the ink was fresh.
I rang the doorbell, my sleep deprived brain searching for answers. After a few seconds, Alka yanked open the door. Her yellow top and black jeans were rumpled and stained. Dark rings of insomnia encircled the mad glint in her eyes. “Andar nahin jaa rahaa na?” she asked me, staring straight into my eyes, and giggled.