Ladies First

EYE - March 11 - 2012

Stories of successful women

Almost all the "aha" thoughts I have had that helped me navigate through the self-inflicted pain of super-woman-itis, chip-on-the-shoulder gender bias, guilty motherhood, to be she-male or female dilemmas, came from women icons, celebrities, and regular people who were part of my life journey. Last week's Women's Day calls for sharing some of these stories.


I tagged along with a bunch of senior journalists, on the campaign trail during the last Bihar assembly elections. That's when I met Rabri Devi. As I watched her impassive face and her placid, "homely" demeanour, I asked her how she managed to do all this chief minister stuff with such little training. Her answer, which I will use as a title if ever I write a book on Indian women, went something like "samay samay par adjust karna padta hai, so kar lete hain." My takeaway? Hey nothing is such a big deal, least of all your multitasking life, just think of it as a little adjustment, and it will get done, without you getting hyper.


Over a decade ago, I attended a women's conference in Frankfurt, WEB (Women in European Business). Angela Merkel, the then leader of the opposition in Germany, was keynote speaker. At an informal tea break, I accidentally found myself next to her. While I vaguely remember my nervous, stammered comments about women needing to protest being offered positions because of tokenism, her comments stayed with me forever. She said that she started her political career in unified Germany, "in the middle", rather than at the bottom, because at the time, the party leadership wanted a woman and an East German, and she happened to be both. Her advice was, never mind why they want you, just get in there, and then do the job the way you want to. I later read on that "she was brought into government by Helmut Kohl after unification in 1990, as a token woman from the east." He called her "the girl" (das madchen).


I have never met Indira Gandhi, but have been fascinated by how, as a power woman, she didn't fit any mould, but created her own. She was frail, delicate-looking, but exuded strength, including with her purposeful stride, obviously made time to get her hair done, and seamlessly straddled being grandma and "the only man in the cabinet". She appeared totally comfortable with her gender. Ravi Prasad writes in his blog about how she knew that his father was a strict vegetarian, and suffered when he accompanied her abroad. At a European banquet, on discovering that the vegetable entrée which she had just been served was cooked in meat broth, she interrupted her conversation with the host prime minister, to whisper to the waiter that he should not be served the entrée but served fruit salad and yoghurt instead. While no man is likely to have done this, sadly, there won't be too many power women who would so confidently and naturally do such things, thus exuding even more power.


I was stressed out of my mind one day, telling Jyotiben, my doctor, how we needed to work so hard because we had to earn to make all these dreams we had for our daughter come true. She told me that she had read Amrita Pritam ask why her child should have the notional best of everything, the best of what someone else could give. A child should and would have the best of what his mother could give. In hindsight, that’s how all of us were raised, and life really is as simple as that.


My other favourite story deals with two professor friends — one a man who incredibly values clarity, and will not negotiate, no matter what the pressure or the circumstances; and the other, a woman, who sees the shades of grey and the frailty of the human being, and is always experimenting with new ways to save the day and reform the world. One day, he harangued her over a decision she took, as the chairperson of an activity. Halfway through, she just looked at him and said, “I know what your problem is. You think I should be in the kitchen making chapattis, not here, taking decisions.” The poor, unprepared man, who had meant no such thing, beat a hasty retreat. Wasn’t that unfair tactics, I asked her. She said the trouble with you is that whenever they beckon, you jump into their turf and start fighting on their terms. Why should you?

I suppose there is a point to it. Germaine Greer asks, why after so many years of being liberated, do women still starve themselves and squeeze their feet into extremely uncomfortable high heels, to fit into some notional idea of beauty. Who defined it?