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Idea Wisps

From thoughts to things

That Long Silence

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“Aanchal mein hain doodh, aankhon mein hai paani. Aurat teri yahi kahaani.” (bosom filled with milk, eyes filled with tears. Woman this is your story!) This quote by the poet Madan Mohan Malviya was a standard line used in most Hindi debates in our school. I studied in an all girls school, a convent school where empowerment of girls and women was the common motto and yet the sacrificing woman was the ideal. This was in the 80’s when the sacrificing mother was a common trope across most Hindi movies. She was always contrasted with the rich, westernised, selfish heroine who either had to die or had to be tamed and put in a conservative saree and bindi by the last shot.

I was reminded of those days when I read “that Long Silence” by Shashi Deshpande.The novel, first published in 1988, is about Jaya, an upper middle-class housewife who is also a writer and her relationship with her husband Mohan, who is under interrogation for business malpractices when the novel begins. Yet what fascinated me in the novel were all these sacrificing, suffering women she portrays. A recurring quote in the novel by the protagonist Jaya’s aunt is that “a husband is like a sheltering tree,” and the fate the various women undergo when they lose that shelter. Jaya’s paternal grandmother spends her widowhood in an isolated room in the house where she sleeps on the bare floor and is obsessive about purity. She wears no jewellery, all her jewels are placed in a trunk and her head is tonsured. In no major culture around the world was a woman punished for losing her husband as Hindu women, especially of the upper caste, were for centuries and yet we considered this normal.

Jaya’s neighbour is also a widow but as a sign of the times, works as a teacher in a local school and doesn’t observe the same harsh rituals of an older generation. Yet she punishes herself with her obsessive fasts and the taunts of her mother-in-law with whom she still lives. She does this for the “happiness” of her daughter so that she has a “family” despite the fact that her mother-in-law despises and taunts her daughter every day for being dark skinned. Shashi Deshpande also chronicles the harsh life of the poor women who work for Jaya, women who are the family breadwinners working in the harshest circumstances and pay their no-good drunkard husbands protection money to call themselves married and to keep them safe from predators.

In the novel both Jaya and her husband Mohan, consider themselves victims. He, for finding less than legal methods to succeed because his family wants a better life never admitting that that’s what he wants too. Jaya for sacrificing her honest writing and taking care of the family to support his ambitions. Mohan thinks of himself as the ideal husband and father who treats his wife well unlike his own father who was abusive to his mother. Yet he cannot emotionally connect with his wife at all and cannot handle her emotional outbursts, he expects her to suffer in silence like his abused mother.

Later on, in the novel Jaya realises that a lot of what she feels she sacrificed because of her husband are things that she gave up on her own, while seeking the comfort of her own worm hole as she calls it. What the novel really highlights is that, where education and financial security may have changed for women, centuries of social conditioning haven’t changed the essential mindset of women silently sacrificing for the family.

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Three decades later, a similar theme is explored in Neeraj Ghaywan’s short movie “Juice.” Shefali Shah plays a regular housewife who slaves away in a hot kitchen making food for a party as her husband and friends enjoy the cool comfort of a cooler in the living room. As the men talk about the politics of the day while making sexist jokes, their wives are with Shefali’s character in the hot kitchen. I felt like I was watching a retro movie where a scene like that would be common in the 80s and 90s. I thought that today in most urban settings the genders would not be segregated in a party and yet when I read the comments about how common this situation was, I realised that I was living in my own bubble. The movie was released a few years back, but I caught it recently through a reaction channel “Our Stupid Reactions.” Watching it with the two American actors who were appalled by the casual sexism and misogyny depicted in the movie really brought the point home.

Shefali plays an educated woman who gives up her career for the sake of taking care of her children but regrets her decision as she advises a pregnant friend who is planning to quit her job. The movie further depicts how the social conditioning works as the young girl is expected to help with laying the plates for dinner while the young boys continue to play video games.

The movie ends with Shefali’s character switching off the gas, getting a glass of cold juice and sitting in the living room in front of the cooler with the other men while her husband stares at her, appalled at her audacity. Even in her defiance, she is silent.

Sacrifice is a core concept of Indian civilisation, the very saffron in our flag represents it. Yet it is problematic when one half of the population is conditioned to silently sacrifice themselves at the altar of families that dismiss them with contempt.

Things may be changing a bit as can be seen in a recent Facebook post doing the rounds:

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When Preparation meets Opportunity

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Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” The Roman poet Senecca said these words almost two thousand years ago. The relevance of these words was brought to light by many of the members of our TILT networking team as we met on a beautiful Sunday morning.

The setting could not have been more perfect. Dappled sunlight streamed in through the canopy of trees, surrounding the dew soaked lush green lawns of the Centurion club. The surroundings enveloped us in a warm, fuzzy mood as we settled in to share the most challenging/interesting moments of our careers.

The dean of a prominent University spoke of the challenges she faced when she was first appointed as a Dean. The Heads of the various departments- highly qualified academics, were very skeptical of her ability. They were also dismissive of her as she was based out of a different city as them and they thought she did not understand the local industry and would not be able to help students with placements. What helped her to turn the tide towards her was her preparedness. She had an in-depth knowledge of local industry plus the hiring attributes sought by them from the students.

A senior program manager spoke about a time when he attended a meeting with his boss to explain the project status to top management. He assumed that as he was junior, nothing much would be expected of him in the meeting. Two minutes into the meeting, the senior Vice President turned towards him and told him to lead the presentation.  He was able to do a good job and gained a lot of recognition in his company. The incident taught him a life lesson of “always being prepared for any meeting.”

While hearing their stories, what struck us was the absolute backing of their bosses. This confidence enabled the two of them to shine. We heard from numerous others of the importance of backing your team as a leader, of not directly criticising or condemning them and using praise instead.

So, what does all this have to do with networking? We were after all the networking team focused on making contacts and converting them to life-long relationships. Before we reach out to others, we need to build our value first. People will automatically reach out to a person with a pleasing personality and a positive attitude, who can offer them valuable skills or knowledge.

As we broke our meeting for a sumptuous breakfast buffet which had everything from idlis to paaya, I reflected on what my own conception of networking had been some time back. I had once believed that it was all about fake smiles and card dropping at various “networking events.” Now I understand that it is about creating life-long relationships. It’s about realising your value and giving freely without any expectation.

So, are you prepared to build lasting relationships which will ultimately enrich you in every possible way? Do you listen to others when they are talking to you?  Do you empathise with them? Can you give something of value to others? Do you keep in regular touch with people whom you’ve met briefly? In other words, do you have the tools to influence and impact others. If you don’t, then acquire them or work on your existing skills to leverage them. As Abraham Lincoln said, “If I had nine hours to chop a tree, I would spend six hours sharpening the axe.”

 

Ode to the Queen of Hearts

Out of a pair of twins,
a girl survived
She was born with a rare gift …
a gift to deeply love everyone she met

“Networking Queen “they call her,
but she is truly the Queen of Hearts
binding us all in her magic,
showering us with love

I want to give more, she says.
There are so many people out there
who need a helping hand and there are
even more who want to help
I’ll build the world’s biggest network
to connect them all

She is a rare gem
in a world full of greed
A salute to a beautiful woman
who lives with so much grace

 

Breaking the Imagination Ceiling

shutterstock_737126383New Delhi, April 2000

“Sorry we can’t hire you. You are a woman,” said the interviewer

“Then why did you interview me for an hour? Why did you call me for the interview in the first place?” I yelled at the man and stormed out of the office.

I was in my early 20s. I had been working in an IT company for a year and a half. This was a new company which was going to provide dial-up internet services. The job involved handling network devices. His apprehension lay in the fact that all network downtimes happen at night, any sort of maintenance activity happens in the night. He didn’t want to deal with the additional “burden” of taking care of my safety and transport. He interviewed me just to satisfy his curiosity that a girl was actually applying for this job!

New Delhi April 2012

I was in a UK based project of a large IT company with 24×7 shifts. We had to consolidate and manage their entire IT infrastructure spread across the world. The data center of course had a large number of complex network devices which were managed by highly trained engineers. A large number of them were women. Women worked in all shifts. We sometimes even had all women night shifts!

It’s not that the organisation I worked in was partial towards women or was geared towards achieving female equality. The fact was that the industry changed. The IT boom in the 90s and 2000s fuelled the rush of girls to engineering. Many of them opted for networking or managing IT infrastructure instead of the “traditional” software track. As women entered the workplace, managers put them into morning shifts. Soon the men started protesting the permanent evening and night shifts and the “privilege” given to the girls! Pretty soon safety standards, transportation and gender neutral shifts were the norm across companies.

When I applied for Journalism and got in (I didn’t pursue it), I was among 3 women in a class of 20. Most journalists and editors were men. The panel which interviewed me consisted of 10 men and I was asked questions like “which is the place in India where women are the most beautiful?” A decade later my brother was one of the 3 men in a class of 20. A senior editor advised him to change fields, “it is too women dominated these days,” he said. What changed was Television news and Barkha Dutt. It is one of the few industries which provides 24×7 daycare for its employees.

It’s not always the glass ceiling that stops women in many fields, it is the “imagination ceiling.” “I can’t imagine a woman doing that!” is a phrase I’ve heard too many times in my life and from both men and women.

Yesterday I was at the awards night of The India Leadership ThinkTank (TILT). This is a leadership development programme started by the inimitable Ian Faria and his organisation Talk Temple. The mission is to make India #1. Women absolutely dominated the awards, whether it was the award for the “TILTian of the year” or the success stories of housewives turned entrepreneurs or women becoming executive directors in their organisations.

TILT is not a women only organisation nor does it have any reservations or special programmes for women. When TILT was formed a year ago, leaders of the five TILT teams, most of them men, mentored both men and women. For many women it was a first time opportunity to be mentored by senior professionals. As pointed out by Sheryl Sandberg in her book “Lean In,” women typically shy away from actively seeking out mentoring from their senior managers. With the individual mentoring, dynamic mind shifting educational sessions with Ian Faria, business networking sessions with Kavitha Garla and communication sessions with Sandhya Chandran, the women underwent an imagination shift. From “can I do it?” it became “I can do it.” The most common phrase I heard was “A year ago I couldn’t think I could…”

India has one of the lowest representations of women in the workplace in the world. Christine Lagarde, former head of the World Bank, has said that raising the participation of women in the workplace can boost the Indian economy by 27%. Changing the idea of a woman’s role in Indian society is the first step to increase that participation. Educating women and encouraging a large number of women to enter diverse fields will change the conditions under which women need to work. The first step is to break our “imagination ceiling” on what a woman can do.

Back to school

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A few days ago:

“Amma I don’t want to go to big school,” said my five year old daughter clutching my hand tightly as we headed towards the school gates. She had repeated these words all through the summer vacation.

Was I scarring her for life I wondered as we headed to the assembly hall for the  class I orientation program. All I remember from primary school was being small and terrified. I must have had some fun, I was smiling in all the class photos but the lasting memories are one of fear and dread.

As we sat down I could feel her snuggling towards me unwilling to make eye contact with the hundred odd kids and parents there. She had been so excited when we got her admission. She had been to the school many times for her big sister’s PTMs, functions etc and wanted to go with her to the “big school”.

Now as D-day arrived I could feel her getting tense and irritable. I could understand her fear. She had attended kindergarten in a small pre-school. She must be feeling intimidated by seeing the large school and hundreds of kids.

What were we doing?  Should we have put her in a smaller new agey touchy feely school? We had already paid the fees. Was money more important than her mental health? Was I putting too much pressure on her. I was wracked with guilt.

The formal program was over and we headed towards her classroom to meet the teacher. She reluctantly dragged along. She perked up a little when she saw the playground right in front of her classroom. Then down came the head as she saw the large classroom and kids and parents.

I pushed her to play on the slide as we waited for our turn to meet her teacher. She was returning back to her normal bubbly self when I called out to her to meet the teacher. I could feel the tension in her clenched hand as we sat down in front of the teacher. Some part of me relaxed as her teacher, dressed in a lovely blue saree, greeted us with a warm smile.

“What’s your name dear?” asked her teacher.

“Stu…” the words were choked inside my daughter’s mouth

The teacher asked her again.

“She is new to the school. She is feeling a little nervous,” I said.

“Oh come here,” she said and pulled my daughter towards her and clasped her in her arms. She soothed and cooled my daughter’s fears and I could see her relax visibly. A smile was starting to form!

 

Today at 5 AM:

“Amma is it morning? I don’t want to sleep. Can I go to school now?”

Would you scold your neighbour’s child?

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“Don’t run! Car!” My husband and I screamed as we ran behind our five year old daughter and her seven year old friend. We were inside our  apartment complex and they were running towards the parking area where many cars were heading in.

As we caught up with them and pulled them back we resisted the urge to yell and calmly told them to hold our hands and walk. It worked for two minutes when they again rushed towards the open lift.

We could relax only after we safely deposited the seven year old home. Of course, not before our five year old got a long lecture on safety and security.

Did we scold her friend? No. We thought we should just tell her parents and then dropped the idea. We barely knew them and we had no idea how they would take it.

I couldn’t help but think back to my childhood. If I had behaved like that any adult would have scolded me loudly, complained to my parents and the whole neighbourhood would have lectured me.

In our quest to get more privacy, put more space between our neighbours and avoid the oppressive scrutiny of our small towns and villages are we also losing our common humanity?

We have a reluctance to engage with others, comfortable in our own silos and are only critical on social media. We refuse to call out bad behaviour and then we wonder why no one protests when girls are being molested or officials openly extort bribes. We don’t want to get involved, it’s too much trouble.

We cant blame this on westernisation. If anything western society is the opposite. They expect high standards of behaviour in public (Donald Trump excepted). I have seen elderly ladies in Germany scold teenagers for crossing the road when the pedestrian signal is red even when the road was absolutely empty. I remember returning at midnight from the beer festival in Germany in the local Metro train with most fellow passengers absolutely sloshed. My friend pointed out that we couldn’t do this in India. Standing next to a drunk man in public transportation in India is “asking for trouble.” Yet there not one man used his drunkenness as an excuse to paw women around him. Not because they are morally superior but because they know that no one would tolerate their behaviour and they would face the consequences.

Every year the Pew Research Centre puts out a report on High Trust and low Trust countries. High Trust countries generally have less crime and corruption. India has traditionally been a high trust society where people generally believe and trust their neighbours or their community unlike the middle east or Latin America. Our challenge has been to expand that trust to the larger nation.

In our rush towards digitizing everything for more transparency maybe we can pause and reflect on how much we engage with our society and how willing we are to stick our heads out and not tolerate bad behaviour.

Nation is God

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“Oh I am not religious, I am spiritual. I think there must be a great force, you know scientists are discovering new forces everyday,” says the man who five minutes ago was praying “Oh God! Let me get this job. I will offer 101 coconuts.” It’s no longer cool to be seen defending faith in God but faith in the nation?

The same man has no problem declaring that he is a nationalist and he is doing “desh seva” while standing in a queue for hours  withdrawing his own money. The dwindling number of vegetable and fruit vendors around him, the crashing economy, workers losing jobs, factories closing and giving “forced vacations” disturb him but he is convinced everything is for the greater good. The nation will come out stronger. How can he believe or say anything else? He doesn’t want to be called “anti national”.

“God is dead” declared Nietzsche. The German philosopher said this in the 19th century when he observed the declining power of the church in Europe. Nation states and republics which derived their legitimacy from the people replaced monarchies with their “divine right to rule.” However people’s desire for an identity to replace their religious ones soon gave birth to mass movements like communism, Nazism, socialism or to minor movements like Libertarianisim, which stressed individual rights over the group.

Religious right wing movements whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Jewish rose up to combat communism. Islamism, backed by the petro dollars of the despotic monarchs of the middle east succeeded. The rest could not gain much support as politicians did not have much use for “divine right to rule”. Soon these movements became Nationalistic movements. In India the RSS-BJP gained power when they changed their agenda to “nation building” from “temple building.” The Christian right wing in the US supports a man like Donald Trump as he declares himself to be nationalistic. The only successful struggle against Salafism/Islamism in the middle east are by the Kurds fighting for Kurdistan.

Pickpockets, “Eve-teasers” (i.e. molesters) are rarely roughed up or arrested in our movie theatres but not standing up for the National Anthem has got many people thrashed and arrested.

Blasphemy laws are “so barbaric” but sedition laws? “Oh they are required. How can you criticise the nation? Think of the soldiers on our borders.” Can we pause for a moment to think what our soldiers are defending? Imaginary lines on the earth or our collective identity of shared values?

We are all proud of our glorious past of mathematical genius and scientific discovery. All that vanished when our beliefs became rigid, our society hardened on fixed caste lines. Discovery vanished when enquiry was punished. Religions  became stifling when the priests started rigidly regulating every aspect of our lives and moved far away from the simple life lessons and teachings of the original texts. Let’s hope blind nationalism which goes beyond the spirit of our constitution does not create a nation we may have to flee from one day.

How do you kill off a character who doesn’t want to die?

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I started a mystery novel thinking it will be a quickie. I had all the required ingredients- a victim, a couple of suspects, an amateur detective, the perfect setting. I wrote a few chapters and made a detailed outline  based on the story. So far so good.

Except … The more I got into the details of the “victim’s” life the less I wanted her to to be the one. The more I wrote about her, the stronger her character became, to the point that I was dreaming about her asking me questions, “Why are you killing me? Who will take care of my children after I die? And why now? Right when I had the biggest break in my career?”

I didn’t have any answers to these questions. Victims are not the point of the crime novel. The thrill is in the puzzle- unravelling the various threads, unknotting the different twists till you reach the grand denouement.

I tried to analyze the situation. Why did I feel like this? Was this character too much like me? Did killing her mean killing myself in some way? (Of course I did ask myself the obvious question many of you are thinking- have I gone completely mad? Do I have some chemical locha in my brain like Munnabhai?)

No she was nothing like me. Maya Balakrishnan worked in the IT service industry like I had but with a key difference- she loved her job and she was going places. She was barely 30 and had been selected to be the Delivery head of a large project based out of the US.

A tough, tenacious woman who rarely showed her soft side to anyone. A woman who had grown up feeling stupid compared to her IIT, IIM educated brother and ugly compared to her swan like cousin Priya. She had vowed to be more successful in life than the two of them.

A woman betrayed by all the men in her life. Un-domestic but fiercely protective of her children.

No she was nothing like me. She was the kind of woman I could admire from far and yet I was rooting for her in a perverse way much to the detriment of my novel. I abandoned it and started a new one…

Four chapters into the new one, there she was again…”Hey what about me? Why did you abandon me?” I couldn’t go on. In despair I reread all the books on writing I had.

“You don’t know the story till you write the first draft?” says Professor Stephen Koch in his textbook: “Modern Library Writer’s Workshop.” I never understood that. I had always started by having a story in my mind and then planning the chapters, scenes and then writing it down. Many successful writers like Stephen King scorn such methods. He compares the writing process to an archaeological dig where you keep writing and the fossil of the story reveals itself.

So now what? The story I had in mind was not the story. This was Maya’s story and she was telling it to me. So I couldn’t kill her off and I have to write what she is telling me. What it is I am still discovering… I’ll keep you posted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why do successful women pretend to be Unambitious?

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“I was voted as the most outstanding student of my class in 10th standard by my teachers and headmistress. I consider this the biggest achievement of my life.”

These are not the words of a schoolgirl. These were the words spoken by a powerful woman chief minister who was also the most successful actresses of her generation.

Over the past few days I have all been reading articles on Amma (the late Dr. J Jayalalitha ) especially excerpts from her biography by Vaasanthi (Amma-Jayalalitha’s journey from Movie Star to Political Queen);and watching her few television interviews. Two of the most memorable ones are the nasty BBC interview with Karan Thapar and the cosy one with Simi Garewal.

She was a young girl who was groomed by her actress mother since childhood to be a leading lady; a young woman who was mentored by a powerful man to become a leading actress and to become a powerful  politician. That would be the story any successful actor turned powerful politician would say. On the other hand she says, I was so innocent, I wanted to study, my mother pushed me into films, my mother died, I was all alone so I needed someone in my life. I had to survive so I decided to be the best. Would someone with no ambition or interest achieve all that she had?

Many would say that she was from a generation of women who had to struggle very hard in a man’s world, she was expected to be docile and not show any ambition but have things changed all that much today?

If you read the interviews of any young actress (with a few exceptions) over the past couple of decades you hear a very familiar script- oh I was never interested in movies, I was a tomboy, I never wore lipstick, my mother/aunt/friend pushed me to take my photos, they sent it to some agent, I was just lucky to be chosen. Every interview sounds like a cut-paste PR job. No actor is ever made to mouth these lines. Only after the actresses have been successful and are past their prime do you hear the real stories of ambition, hard work, struggle etc.

Toward the end of the BBC interview Karan Thapar asks her that she is very ruthless and she replies that “people like you have made me so”. A remarkably frank answer to a question that would not be asked of a male politician.In Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s must-read book “Lean In” she quotes a Columbia Business School study which says success and like-ability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women. So young girls instinctively feel the need to please everyone, while growing up they learn not to sound too ambitious. It is only when they are older that they start to assert themselves and then they are caricatured.

I hope as parents and teachers we can encourage our children’s burning ambitions and guide them before their frustrations get the better of them. I still remember a comment one of my colleagues made when he was agreeing to an arranged marriage to a girl he had not met. “What’s the point? Shaadi se pehle toh sab ladkiyan theek hi hoti hai. Uske baad hi toh who jwalamukhi ban jati hai!” (All girls are very sweet before marriage, after that they become raging volcanoes!).

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