In Konkana Sensharma’s directorial debut Death in the Gunj, which released earlier this year, when a character says, “Ask your friend to pick someone his size," it strikes a chord. 

Throughout the perceptively dealt thriller, the quiet, sensitive protagonist is laughed at, made fun of, sent for errands and taken for granted till the film reaches its tragic denouement. 

In the field of education, this phenomenon of one student being targeted is quite a common scenario. The targeting could be something as inoffensive as his/her “funny sounding" name, or the “major crime" of him/her being a nerd. 

It often begins with good-natured teasing, before turning ugly when this teasing becomes consistent, incessant and far from innocuous.

Traditionally, boys have been more prone to displaying this behaviour, and more aggressively. But some girls resort to a less overt form of bullying: pointedly ignoring or sidelining a person, thereby creating a wedge amongst students in a class. Both these phenomena are frequently depicted on film and TV, often as a cliche of school life.

Bullies are often seen as a popular type—smarter, better looking, with a kind of personality that people tend to look up to. They have quite a fan following. People generally rally around them to be a part of the “popular" crowd. Sometimes, the motive for this admiration is as simple as self-preservation. 

Nandini Nagaraj, an educationist for 24 years, decodes what a bully is. “The emotional quotients of these bullies are low. The bully feels his or her identity being established and ego satiated more and more as the victim of the bullying surrenders and looks increasingly helpless. They operate from a sense of ‘might is right’, and the victim's fear always makes one feel more powerful." 

“They don’t look at it from the point of the receiver, and many a time, they are not even aware that they are bullies. They feel that they are actually engaging in a simple form of teasing or heckling which most adolescents engage in."

Is bullying and being bullied predominantly an adolescent phenomenon?

“No, it begins at a much younger age," says a mother who did not want to be identified to protect her young daughter, who had been traumatized in her school. “I didn’t believe her when she baulked at going to school. I thought she was playing up. Being a working mother living in a joint family, I had too much on my plate to pander to what I thought were her tantrums." 

“It took a near nervous breakdown for me to understand and accept the enormity of the situation. The well-meaning head of the school dismissed the incident and tried to force a sense of normality on the already devastated child. It took a change of school and tremendous support for the child for her to overcome (her trauma)."

Daniel Gottlieb, in his book Letters to Sam, talks about bullying in one of the letters he wrote to his recently-born grandson (the book is an anthology of several of these tender, moving letters). Gottlieb writes that, in his opinion, people who feel good about themselves and their lives don’t try to dominate other people the way bullies do.

Each one of us has an inherent tendency for meanness and we love to pick on people who are weaker than us, physically or otherwise. For example, if we happen to be in a position of authority, there is a tendency to pick on someone we can take advantage of by virtue of our power.

A stronger sibling ensures that the others toe the line. A stronger spouse rules the roost. The child more often than not is forced to accept the diktats of the authoritative parent. The employee has to listen to the boss if he/she has to retain his/her position. The waiter at the hotel is often treated shabbily, and of course, there is often no limit to taking a maid or driver for granted. 

All of us, at some point in our lives, have had our own proverbial punching bag to make us feel good and all-powerful. There is a bully, therefore, in all of us.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is evidence of the atavistic impulses that lurk within us all; the experiment famously showed that, with a little nudge, we could all become tyrants.

But isn’t bullying something that happens in school. Don’t bullies outgrow their habits as they grow up? 

On the contrary, this report by HelpAge India points out that parents who are retired and in turn dependent on their children, are sometimes subjected to abuse. Many are bullied to part with their property, or to live life by rules as laid down by their grown-up progeny. 

Ali Khwaja, a counsellor, life coach and chairman of Banjara Academy, a counselling centre in Bengaluru, says, “There are some children who purposely act mean or hurtful to others, try to put them down, even when there is no specific reason. This trend continues in adult life, particularly at work places and personal lives. They are basically cowards and insecure people who are trying to become popular, gain control or show off." 

Bullying transcends age, gender, educational background and race. Even workplaces have people who have honed this to the point of great finesse. 

According to Nagaraj, “Bullying is more of a reaction than an action. It’s an outburst or release of suppressed emotions through abusive means, by an insecure person seeking attention and pleasure using the wrong methodology."

This tendency is not so hard to spot. Take roads for instance: the belligerence that many drivers display makes survival a matter of luck. You have “speed bullies", who force slower drivers to the shoulder of the road. 

Then we have bullying at the workplace. According to a senior manager at a retail chain, who spoke on condition of anonymity, “One common ways to harass an employee is by not sanctioning leave till the last minute or not at all. This issue is so common that many employees resort to unauthorized leave. As per law, an employee cannot be stopped from taking his/her eligible leave but many bosses use this as a bullying tool." 

He adds, “Another Indian phenomenon is this great pride in the aspect of ‘late sitting’. The employees who understand this psyche of the boss send emails at unearthly hours, earning themselves some brownie points. But it has such a negative impact on hard-working individuals who have the sense to complete their work during office hours."

Allotting work at the last minute, not giving complete or the required information for finishing a task, are all different kinds of harassment that occur quite frequently at a workplace. 

Both Khwaja and Nagaraj agree that bullies are people who have one or more of the following issues. They may be facing academic pressure. They may have pent-up anger which they try to vent on soft targets. They may also be unloved at home, and have low self-esteem. Few will ever admit to these problems. 

Can a bully be stopped from being a bully?

According to Khawja, “It needs to be done tactfully by asking them leading questions and listening to their points of view and then gently exploring with them if there are better ways of getting cooperation from others rather than browbeating them. The word ‘bully’ should not be used in the conversation. It is definitely difficult, but not impossible. 

“The focus should be to make him understand that he may not only get more cooperation but he will also have more amicable relationships if he uses tactics other than pressurizing or bullying. A good counsellor can nudge him to try being nice to others and practically observing whether there is a positive change." 

Parents need to accept that today’s tease will become tomorrow’s bully and that they could intimidate their own parents and other loved ones into submission. A great service to the child would be to identify the problem, accept it and treat the situation promptly.

What prevents a victim from reaching out and seeking help? “Being bullied carries with it a sense of shame, inadequacy and self-blame for becoming a victim. There is a feeling that sharing with someone in authority or even a friend will lead to their ridiculing the person or looking down at him," says Khwaja.

Gottlieb wrote that parents need to be all the more careful when they realize that their child is being bullied. They should be able to act for their child rather than for themselves. They need to gain the trust of their child and handle the bullies wisely. 

Building up your self-worth so that you are neither a bully nor get bullied, then, is the way to happiness.

Chandrika R. Krishnan is a freelance writer and a freelance behavioural skills facilitator with around 130-odd articles, poems and short stories to her credit. She also conducts a storytelling and reading club for underprivileged children. Read more of her work here