Thhoda dhania dena Bhaiyya!

We, the 60s born are what I call the cusp generation, although unkinder people may end up calling us confused and a bit lost.

Born of hardworking, thrifty parents with limited means, we grew up in an environment of wearing hand me down clothes, safety pin augmented sandals, borrowed books and second class train rides to Naani’s home for summer vacations. In almost unseemly contrast we have spawned a generation of self-assured kids expecting and getting immediate gratification for whatever they want, three luxury cars at their disposal and unlimited access to the latest gizmo, to entertainment, and to the rest of the world through mandatory holidays in exotic foreign locales.

We appreciate and practice the values that our parents taught us (after all education and perseverance did get us where we have reached) and equally empathize with the sense of entitlement our children have, since not only does it make them super confident and assertive but it is also out of dint of the effort and caution that we put in, in the years when we were starting our careers and marriages. We deserve it we feel, and by proxy they deserve the indulgences too.

However, being objective and appreciating equally the virtues of both the worlds we straddle, also is fraught with its own set of dangers.

We invariably and frequently fall prey to moral dilemmas and angst ridden conflicts especially in consumption led decisions, the outward manifestation is arguments with our parents (why don’t you call for a taxi instead of getting onto a bus at your age ????) and children (do you really need a branded belt?), while in essence it is a conflict within ourselves. One side of which whispers prudence is a virtue, and the other which screams Carpe Diem, especially when entering that snazzy new mall or the Michelin starred restaurant!

Every day we struggle to make sense of all this and fumble our way through various shades of grey choices we have to make which no text book has ever prepared us for. All the stories and case studies were black and white examples of right or wrong and of obvious choices to be made between good and bad. No one really taught us to make the Scylla and Charybdis type of choices between two equally promising actions or two equally bad ones!

The manifestation of this mental muddle ends up in us being gloriously penny wise and pound foolish! So we don’t think twice about buying that expensive watch which could keep a small family in comfort for six months but we definitely will ensure that we bargain with the fruit seller, get the two rupee change back from the auto rickshaw driver and give only bed sheets to be ironed to the Dhobi! And woe betide the vegetable vendor if he doesn’t give us free dhania! Heavens will fall and the earth will quake!

As the world worries about rising inequality and non-inclusive growth levels where the rich are getting richer and the poorer progressively more so, can we at least do our tiny wee bit by ensuring we increase the dhobi’s income by giving him more clothes to iron and the driver by paying him overtime and for god’s sake let’s start paying for the ‘dhania’?

Reservations? Or not?

One question I keep getting asked more often than not is whether I am in favour of reservations for women on boards? It is a difficult question to respond to, because if I answer in the affirmative it seems as if I am pushing the feminist agenda at the cost of meritocracy, and if the answer is a no, then I am obviously ignoring the harsh reality of the invisibility cloak that lies over so many women who get passed over in favour of their male colleagues insofar as such club-like cliques are concerned!

So I end up giving a very wishy-washy answer accompanied by my patented ‘caught in the headlights’ Bambi look which while being cute certainly does not behove my image as an iron lady!

Perforce I have decided to take the bull by the horns and say unequivocally that till we correct the balance of power and till there are enough women in and outside boards, I am completely, utterly and totally in favour of reservations.

The end justifies the means and when the end is clearly such a luminous one that all but the most dim-witted idiot can see it, I see no reason to prevaricate any longer.

When I used to play hockey for my college (some of you may remember that hockey has been our national sport and thus quite popular even in the pre Chak de era) several of us were participating in trials to get into the state hockey team at one stage. And while a friend of mine only tried for the centre forward position which being more glamorous had far more contenders, I chose to try for the goal keeper’s slot which had limited appeal amongst the players. The idea was to play for the state and whatever made that happen was perfectly acceptable to me, but this logic did not resonate with my friend.

I played for Tamil Nadu for two years and she didn’t.

The moment we ensure that there are women represented at the top, automatically conversations around diversity will increase in the very place where they are not happening today – the board room. One woman on the board can have a multiplier effect just by having a feminine point of view at that critical table. More importantly visible role models will emerge to inspire younger women, which is one of the crucial factors that encourages women to keep climbing the slippery slopes of the corporate ladder.

To achieve this objective, if reservations are required temporarily, so be it, I say. “Exitus acta probat” Most definitively!

And by the way it will also go a long way in helping all our dear male colleagues too. Research has it that men become politer, come better dressed, and improve in etiquette and manners when there are women on their boards!

It is not about the glass ceiling, it is about the leaky pipeline

It falls upon us, as women leaders to be an example for the younger women. It’s important that they connect with the life of who they look up-to and push themselves to achieve more. It’s important that they see us-the women leaders of today as an inspiration rather than an aspiration. http://bit.ly/2v4RgRs

Are you a catch 28? Or a catch 30?

Not too long ago, a close friend’s daughter hit a dual milestone – a corner office in a high-brow consultancy, and the elusive 28th birthday.

I think you know where I’m going with this, but I’ll go there anyway. If you can, do bear with me.

So, this dear friend’s daughter (let’s call her B) happens to also be my godchild. And B is just the godchild I could’ve asked for – fierce, fiery, and full of life. Her mother is a doctor and a feminist. All resemblances are purely coincidental. I hosted a lavish dinner to celebrate B’s out-of-turn promotion; surrounded by sullen and highly pedigreed faces on the wrong side of 30. B happens to be the youngest person in her organization to have been given the distinguished title of Vice-President. Needless to say, many eyebrows were raised, many eyeballs rolled, and many jaws dropped. But B is B – too glam to give a damn. Most times, she’s a star and sometimes, she’s a superstar. So she did what she does best – gaily ignored the face contortions and gleamed with pride as she cosied into her new office.

So yes, dinner was had, toasts were raised, and we all left feeling pleasantly light in our heads and our hearts.

Three days hence, B had a meltdown. In hindsight, I guess I should’ve seen it coming.

B was in the ‘marriage market’ – and any single (or married) woman out there knows how brutal those can be. One after another eligible single man asked her different versions of the same questions; some brash, some carefully camouflaged, but all equally worrisome to her: “What time do you get back from work?”, “Would that change post marriage?”, “Would you still choose to work after having kids? And the innocuous sounding, but most dangerous of them all, “Are you an ambitious person?”

Never one to shy away from a tough question, this time B found herself in a precarious position. To marry, or not to marry? Corporate wife or homely mother? The underlined, tacit assumption was her eventual exit from the corporate ladder. B was stumped. And I? I was distressed. After all, B was not only my godchild, but also my protégé. While she had been encouraged throughout her life to assume that she could have it all, obviously the men around her had had a far more blinkered upbringing – that women could either be good wives or good colleagues but most certainly not both!

And heaven help the man who chose a working wife – He was doomed to a lifetime of cold sandwiches for dinner or a competitive , emasculating companion at home!

The sad truth is most men (yes even today) don’t want a wife, but a mother at home. Having been brought up in an environment where their mothers have stayed at home and taken care of every need of their “raja betas”, they obviously expect the same from their wives.

The tide will only turn when increasingly we see more and more sons of working mothers in the marriage market. Sons who have been brought up perforce to be independent and respectful of women’s equality! Yet another reason for all of us to continue working, don’t you think so ?

As for my B? She lifted her perfectly manicured middle finger to the bevy of eligible, regressive men, and shooed them away with her signature, easy charm. At work, she continues to kick their butts. But I know her, and I know it hasn’t been easy. My hope is, that someday, it will be.

Glass Ceiling – Broken or just Cracked?

Senator Clinton eloquently put it in her concession speech, “To all the little girls watching, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world.” But the fact still remains that she lost!

Increasingly other data points to this “one step forward two steps backward“ meandering march that the diversity agenda is charting everywhere!

1. In USA, according to a McKinsey report ‘Women at Workplace’, for every 100 women promoted past entry level positions, 130 men are promoted

2. This same report indicates that more women than men asked for a raise, 29% compared to 27%

3. Gender imbalance has existed even on music charts. Although, today it is at a significant low

4. Yet another report suggests that number of women on the Board of Indian companies has gone up. And, the percentage change in the figure is highest in India across APAC.

The glass ceiling – that elusive barrier that keeps women out of upper management, is obviously still very much there. It might be cracked but it still needs a few more blows to be completely shattered.

What can be done here? Start a revolution? Absolutely not right now. Hold onto those ‘belan’ and ‘morcha’ thoughts though. We need small wins, incremental changes. Through the 60s, 70s, 80s women have led movements using radical protest marches and legal action to drive out discrimination. But most of the barriers that persist today are deeply ingrained – not the kinds that a revolution could blast away. These barriers are more subtle, more nuanced and therefore that much more dangerous – and they start young.

I loved BBC’s poignant expression of how kids view differences between each other – if you haven’t seen it yet, stop right where you are click here: We could all learn from these kids.

The adult in you will see the obvious and striking differences – different ethnicities, different levels of able-bodiedness, accents, gender. However the biggest differences the children see between themselves are whether or not they like tomato sauce or lettuce, or who talks more or less and who has “squirrels in his roof and who doesnt” !!!!

The video ends with a message, ‘When it comes to difference, children see things differently’.

Every child’s response is a strong reminder that discrimination is an evil bred in our society, and not something we are born with.

How did we even get here? What happened between childhood and adulthood?

As kids, we have an impressionable mind and start learning at as little as two years. Girls and boys start playing with kitchen sets to imitate their mothers, or toy cars to imitate their fathers. But soon enough, the boys get reprimanded – “go play ball outside”and girls are asked to sit indoors like dutiful Hindu cows, to “dream of their own pantry”. And foul, antediluvian prejudices get reinforced with pretty, fuchsia (read: blue for boys) coloured packaging to generate sayings like ‘like mother like daughter, like father like son’. What a shame.

The truth is that we’re all hard-wired to some form of gender discrimination at a very early age. We need to revisit that time in our lives when we first began to believe the bullshit that boys don’t cry and must be tall, and girls wear pretty frocks and must be fair. The one in distress is always the damsel, and the rescuer is always the knight. My personal favorite is when my son at age 6 told me he would grow up and marry someone exactly like me except with long hair! I was quite flummoxed with this outdated notion of beauty that he had, till I realized all the ads on TV for any beauty product invariably showed long lustrous haired models, accentuating repeatedly the preconception that long hair is a sign of beauty if not a joy forever!

Indeed if all parents had believed that playing sports ( and that too, god forbid, in shorts ! ) would ensure their daughters became dark/never got married/were perceived as women of loose morals/wouldn’t know how to cook and so on, we wouldn’t be raising a toast to our womens’ cricket team reaching the finals today!!

So to all the ladies out there who wear the pants and the frocks – raise a toast to yourself. And try to remember that while you may have been the damsel, you’re also your own knight!

Only dead fish go with the flow!

The recent Wonder Woman movie is a rage, both at the box office, and critic ratings. It has, in fact, gone on to become DC’s highest grossing movie. Kudos Gal Gadot! What struck me the most about the movie is the fact that Diana returns, finally, to a home, satisfied in knowing the truth of who she is.

And the key word here is satisfied ! How many of us are truly content with who we are?  Being comfortable in your own skin, ironically, is very uncomfortable. And, unfortunately women end up having the maximum amount of self doubt. The mind of a woman dressing up for work, for college, or even for a morning run, is less potpourri, more pandemonium. Can I carry off this shade of lipstick? Does the back of my blouse seem low? Is a sleeveless top appropriate for class? Will the shorts ride up during the run? If Wonder Woman questioned her outfit this much, she’d be fighting crime in a Teletubby suit!

And, this is just the tip of the iceberg. If we compiled all the doubts women have about themselves into a book, we’d have a new record for the ‘lengthiest book written in history’.

While I have nothing against being self doubting Thomasinas, since self doubt is very good for the soul and makes all of us better (and more humble) human beings; in the corporate world, being tentative is a strict no–no. As a consequence of this, women often assume that it’s outrageous to ask for a raise, double promotion, scholarship or volunteer for the challenging assignment or the next role. And we hesitate to ask for support from family, friends – because God forbid, ‘meri wajah se kisiko taklif hogi’ (I will be a cause of worry for someone close). All this ends up holding us back, and we end up boxing ourselves in a tight corner all of our own making!

Tentativeness gets seen as not only a lack of confidence but also as an inability to raise the bar, to accept challenges at work and deliver desired results!

To be fair – there have been some stray glimmers of hope in recent times. Not enough to make a revolution happen, but enough to get me excited. Increasingly around me I see for example, so many single women who are leading life on their own terms. They have CHOSEN not to get married not because they didn’t have opportunities but because they preferred either a solitary, self dependent life-style , or had selected a satisfying career which gave them complete fulfilment or they chose to focus on other pursuits beyond the normal ‘college-marriage -2.5 kids’ routine. One of our highest performing sales heads is a single woman from a fairly traditional background who starts her day by saying “hum jahan se khade hotein hain line wahin se shuru hoti hai” She has worked in the most difficult of markets, with extremely challenging clients in highly stressful environments and delivered stellar results. Some of the markets which she regularly visits have starkly retrograde views on women and there she goes with a  song and a whistle on her lips,confidently and nonchalantly!

However to convert these aberrations into a fast paced change, women need to fight their inner demons and become their own versions of Wonder Woman. The world deserves to see you in your full glory. The one who is comfortable in her own skin, will kick the s#!t out of biases, claim what is rightfully hers and enjoy a big piece of the cake – with both hands!

As a parting note, I would like to share this very moving speech from Theodore Roosevelt, titled ‘The Man in the Arena’. Tip – feel free to read it as ‘The Woman in the Arena’.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the (wo)man who points out how the strong (wo)man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the (wo)man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends (her)himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if (s)he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that (her) his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Plan B

Nobody seems to have a Plan B in their lives these days. And certainly not the younger generation for sure!

While traveling to school, we used to be given extra money for auto fare in case the bus didn’t come, and back up money to be hidden in an inner pocket just in case we lost the auto fare, and the telephone number to be used in the eventuality that both the bus didn’t come and the money got lost; and finally just to be safe the address of a distant cousin who stayed near the school in case all the above plans failed! So forget having just Plan B; at the drop of the proverbial hat, we had Plans C, D and E ready!

In stark contrast when young son and heir was zipping his way up and down the US in his undergraduate days; a country which at last count was 11645 miles and several time zones away from home, I was horrified to discover that he was traversing aforesaid miles/zones with just a credit card in his pocket and an attitude of complete insouciance. When I tried to explain the need to carry some cash in one pocket and some back-up in the bag and the telephone number of the aunt in Brussels, I was told that I was being unnecessarily hysterical and paranoid!

Reaching the airport just in time to board the flight, not checking 7 times whether the restaurant has indeed booked the table in our name, expecting the cook to be there on time and therefore making plans for the hour immediately after he finishes cooking is a very common part of the narrative of our children’s lives.

And maybe they are justified in their thinking.

When we were growing up it was in the milieu of an economically un-awakened and inefficient socialist environment. The new television, bought with such excitement, inevitably had something rattling inside it and did not work, the heel fell off your sandal after the first day of wearing it, the telephone needed to be dialed several times to get the connection through (though that still hasn’t changed courtesy Airtel and Vodafone), the Fiat car always stopped embarrassingly at the signal and one had to get out to push it right in front of the smirking neighbors and no one ever reached anywhere on time. Not the electrician, nor the carpenter and certainly not your cousin from Ludhiana! The philosophy clearly was- if it can stop working, it will! So you always kept extra ice in your neighbor’s fridge, 2 water buckets filled up as back up and dedicated a whole day’s leave to wait for the plumber on the 50% probability that he would turn up while valiantly reading DIY manuals as Plan B! Contingency plans for every eventuality were always in place, including back up hand written acetates for the slide presentation.

Life is certainly far more efficient now and increasingly requires fewer standbys. And maybe one of the key catalysts has been the new, young consumer pushing and expecting everyone around her including her service providers to be more proficient. An ultimatum we did not drive because of the low benchmarks we had set for ourselves and those around us?

Apurva

 

Of old friends and cozy blankies

I had occasion to go for a dear friend’s son’s wedding recently. Yes! The decade of attending children’s weddings has well and truly begun!

As we spent the three days in fun and frolic (in a sedate manner let me hasten to add, given the decade I am referring to) it was almost as if I saw the last 25 years of my corporate life go past in a series of bioscopic pictures. Click: That’s my first chief and manager, looking far more diminutive than the larger than life person in my memory. Click: And there’s the obnoxious client turned good friend circa 1992. Click: OMG is that middle aged gentleman an erstwhile boyfriend? I can’t be that old! Click: Oh look – Descending to envelop me in a warm, perfumed hug is my husband’s ex boss’s wife who had decided long ago that she was my boss by association as well.

In those three days, I met up with so many people who had been part of some pattern in the tapestry of the last many years that it was quite overwhelming. Some people had remained close friends and some had condensed to passing acquaintanceship after an intense bout of interaction in a joint task. Then there were some I had lost touch with, though seeing them tickled a half-forgotten memory surprising me with the intensity of its recall.

The moments reminded me of the warm reassuring feeling you get when you have that childhood blanket wrapped around you or your favorite old pillow all squished into your unique shape next to you. All of us a bit run down and slightly worn now, but supremely comfortable with each another. No one felt the need to posture or hide that wrinkle or wipe the smudge. Because after all what can you hide from buddies who were part of those long bygone days when we still hadn’t yet learnt to hide the psychological freight of insecurity behind a façade, who had seen our zits at close quarters and watched us make our clumsy way through a new experience every day.

It was exhilarating, surprisingly emotive and equally comforting all at the same time! So here’s to old friends and older blankies! May they continue adding to the coziness all of us need sometimes in our lives.

Why Men Stretch the Truth!

We were driving into Chennai from Bangalore for a wedding last weekend, and the journey which was supposed to take around 5 hours, took 7 hours instead. This was because dear husband does not believe in maps, GPS, Google or in signposts. He tells me he relies on his inner compass, much like the homing instinct which birds use to get back to their nesting grounds. Well, all I can say is that we would be seeing Siberian cranes anywhere else but in Siberia, if their instinct was anything like my husband’s!

So naturally we nearly reached Cochin before we figured out that we had overshot the Chennai turn off by at least 100 miles and then we had to back track all the way. To make matters worse, we had his bosom buddy travelling with us, and both of them insisted on recounting sordid tales of their youth, getting nostalgic on old songs, and reminiscing about some PYTS they had both known throughout the long journey. The intensity of the discussions would peak at the crucial juncture when we had to take a vital life-or-death type of call on where to turn at the roundabout and because they were so involved in their conversation, invariably we would end up missing the correct turning!

Since I am such a good wife publicly, I could only seethe within but not without. And thus I spent most of the journey having very detailed and exhaustive mental conversations with my husband, on all the garden paths he had led us up, both real and figuratively, in the last two decades because of this pathological dislike of asking for directions!

As time started flying faster than the miles to Chennai, and we inched inexorably past my lunch time which everyone knows is sacrosanct, my temper started rising in conjunction with the drop in my sugar levels. Slightly belligerently therefore, I asked the buddy how far away we were from our destination. He promptly responded, “6 minutes”. I immediately cheered up at the proximity of being fed and quietly packed away the salvos, which I could in any case use some other day!

Half an hour passed and we still hadn’t reached. A couple more queries elicited “Almost there” from the buddy perplexing me further. Now if dear husband had given me these answers, I would surely have figured out that there was something fishy in the fair city of Chennai! But the buddy wouldn’t fib to me, now would he?

But apparently, dear buddy’s antenna had honed into the pent up feelings swirling dervish-like in the car (no doubt having experienced much the same whilst travelling with his own wife) and to defuse the tension and save his friend’s skin had made our destination appear closer than it actually was!

The ease with which the ‘6 mins’ rolled off his tongue continues to amaze me even now and I realize that this stretching of the truth, to put it elegantly, seems to be a special knack that men have. For example, just recently a colleague was wisely explaining to me that he chooses to announce that he is off on an official trip, only a couple of days prior to the trip, rather than when it gets planned a month earlier, so as to limit the recriminations from his wife who currently is taking care of a small baby at home!

On deep introspection, I have come to realize that this is an essential part of the survival kit that men need to be born with in order to deal with women, and between you and me, I sort of understand! Maybe! What do you think?

Foster Baby

Winston -Tinku flew off yesterday and once again I felt the pangs of being an empty nester!

For the last few months, I have watched with great interest a pair of hawks diligently building a nest just outside my window, then laying an egg, sitting patiently over it for several weeks taking turns to keep it warm, till one fine day a little baby hawk emerged from it.

I christened him Tinku but according to my son he looked quite rakish (see that spiked tuft of hair on his head giving him a dashing look ?) and thus he became Winston – Tinku.

Little Winston Tinku

Little Winston Tinku

Over the last months it has been quite a delightful experience watching him grow at such close quarters, with only a window pane separating us. I have seen him change from a shivering little helpless chick, requiring a parent’s body to even keep him warm, to a fat waddling baby, perpetually hungry, waiting eagerly for the return of his parents ,trembling with excitement as he greedily devoured whatever tasty morsels they got for him.

I have watched him as he has slowly grown into a teenager strutting around the parental nest , admiring his beautiful wings and the lovely speckled markings on his body, testing out the strength in his wings, waiting to finally fly off into the wide open sky beckoning him to take part in the adventure of life. Over a period of time I saw him grow increasingly impatient and also bored with his forced stationary status, one day lolling about in the nest looking petulant , on another day eagerly staring up at the sky waiting to take off.

Till finally one day he did.

Teenage Indolence

Teenage Indolence

And while their baby was growing up , I also saw the patience his parents showed in first building that nest on the ledge , making sure it was robust enough to handle any gusts of wind, and then sitting on the egg day after day, week after week till it hatched. I also saw the effort they took in searching far and wide for food by turn while the other parent ferociously guarded the baby. And finally I saw the courage they showed in leaving him alone, for longer and longer periods each time as they learnt to let him go.

Ready to fly

Ready to fly

But what got me truly thinking is the calm acceptance both parent hawks showed in taking equal responsibility in hunting and nurturing; equally participating in building the nest, hatching the egg and feeding the baby! No gender biases or ‘You- caregiver, Me-hunter’ issues there!

Now I only wish human beings would take a leaf out of a hawk’s life …

(Pictures by Avinash Nair )

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