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“English Vinglish”- 31 October 2012

Written by Rita Aggarwal
Wednesday, 14 November 2012 14:21

‘English Vinglish’ is a very realistic tale of the average Indian woman. It is a tale of how the family has scant respect for the woman who runs the show. She is the woman about the house and everyone is dependent upon her, so much so that the daughter has to place a phone call to her mother in the US all the way from India to know where one of her books is! Quietly Mother tells her that the book is in the wardrobe and under the blue nightie. And still the girl has the audacity and arrogance to insult the Mother by telling her that she did not know English. Just for another foreign language! The mother is a talented woman and is also a small entrepreneur where she sells sweets and earns her own money but that goes unnoticed by her family. All they highlight is her disability to speak a language which is anyway imported. And, as the tale goes, the teenage daughter has learnt to disrespect the mother because her father disrespects her.

When the movie released, one woman called me to say that ‘English Vinglish’ is her very own tale -- of regular insults at home by husband and children. “Everybody has only one question: ‘You are at home, and what do you all the time?’ They don’t realise how much the woman of the house has to do to keep the heads, hearts and hearth doing well. I feel so insulted all the time. Therefore I say that ‘English Vinglish’ is my tale of insults -- day in and day out.” Another woman professor, a woman of substance, called the movie ‘a typical story of a Marwari woman’. That was something!
How true! In spite of the fact that the woman is the family’s only full scale multi-tasker, the family does not recognise her worth. And let alone recognising her worth, the woman of the house is handed down insults. More than half her energies, therefore, are wasted in fighting the near-hostile climes and times. Everybody uses her in every manner possible. She is wanted by everybody -- not for expressing affection, but for getting things done, not for love, but mostly for lust. Still she maintains her positivism and her desire to learn and her love and respect for her family! In spite of all the shit she is subjected to.
Whether this happens all over the world, or not, one does not know, but one knows very well that it happens in many, many Indian homes. There is no doubt that the average Indian woman does not get the respect she richly deserves. On the contrary, she gets ridicule and indifference (even hostility) at home which she builds with so much of love. She is the one who is taken for granted all the time.
‘English Vinglish’ is the tale of such women. But this is not just to praise the movie; this is to apprise the larger society of what is happening in its folds. This is to share with the people the agony of being an ordinary woman of the average Indian home. The movie certainly touches the sensitive chord of most women.
The question is not of insult per se. The question is about how we regard our women. And the question is why we do that.
This is so because our men-folk feel inferior to women in most matters. This is so because men cannot treat women their equal. They must deride the other to feel superior. And to hide their shortcomings, they brag and boast and bawl and bark. This is a severe indictment, no doubt, but the truth in it cannot be denied. As a psychologist, I realise that the average Indian male is becoming a victim of a silent inferiority complex. This is also in evidence when women fare better than he does in most fields wherever women, too, are party. There are many fields where women dominate in a twenty-to-one ratio -- teaching, for example. In most ranking examinations like 12th standard, for example, girls often outshine boys in garnering top positions. At university convocations, the number of girls bagging more medals is bigger than the number of boys.
And therefore many families play out ‘English Vinglish’-type tales in their homes, insulting Shashis’ in the house and showing growing indifference to their in-born talent. And, let me repeat (as I have done time and again) that a society that does not know how to respect its women cannot rise to sublime heights.
This is not a feminist’s insistence; this is evident from history.

“The multi-tasking home machine”- 17 October 2012

Written by Rita Aggarwal
Thursday, 25 October 2012 19:16

That’s a bad description of the lady of the house -- The multi-tasking home machine! But nothing fits better. For, the lady of the house is that kind of a machine capable of impossible-sounding multi-tasking. And because she works like a machine -- noiselessly for years on end, she is taken for granted by most others in the family, never mind a few kind words thrown in for some superficial comfort of the woman who slogs the day in and the day out to keep the family’s systems running smoothly all the time.

This hurts -- the taking for granted by almost everybody in the family, husband, children, in-laws, maids at home, neighbours, friends (and of course enemies, if any). It also hurts to see the lady of the house make some decent money, too, for the family, but has little control over its spending.
Some people may even argue that this stereotype is not universally available in our society today. This argument may sound correct on the surface. But deep down, things are not good enough to be described as GOOD. For, the average Indian woman -- whether a plain Jane housewife, or a smart female making decent money out of her profession or a job -- is yet to start getting her due respect in the average Indian home.
This is not an old record replayed; this is a reality which none can ignore or wish away.
For, the larger Indian society still takes the woman as a weakling, as someone who cannot rise independently, as someone who has to be following in men’s footsteps and not as someone who leaves her footprints behind.
True, Indian woman has made a great advance in the past fifty years. She is everywhere -- in every profession including the armed forces or exploration or police or medicine or sciences....! But is it also not true that even as she achieves success in every possible field, she also has to be a caretaker of the family, the cook, the accountant, the driver of kids to school and back, the record keeper, finder of husband’s handkerchiefs and neck-ties and socks in time. She also sits upright through the night when a child falls ill, pampers the husband when the fellow is supposedly down with headache, takes care of the mother-in-law’s breakfast and father-in-law’s blood pressure pill every morning, sells newspaper ‘raddi’ every month, takes the kids to tuition classes or music lessons and brings them back in time.....!
And yet, this multi-tasking superstar of the average family is taken for granted almost as a machine and not taken seriously and respected as a human being. And when a society keeps this standard of consideration for its women, then that society is not destined to prosper not materially but harmoniously. The present-day ills dogging our society today stem mostly from this neglect of the lady of the house.
What does one mean by word ‘neglect’? The answer is both, simple as well as complicated.
Simple, because ‘neglect’ means not giving her, her due respect in the scheme of things, and taking her for granted for anything and everything she does.
Complicated, because ‘neglect’ means, a range of indifferent responses, to the achievements of the average woman. It also includes denying her a freedom to make the right choices for herself in right time. This part involves not just the large-heartedness of the families -- men and women included -- but also the family’s fundamental belief in the prowess of the woman as an interdependent human being with her own niche in the scheme of things.
For, in our society, the lady of the house has been given the status of a multi-tasking machine! -- That is far from being respected as a human being.

What does 'rising' mean for women?- 3 October 2012

Written by Rita Aggarwal
Friday, 05 October 2012 17:43

The last edition of ‘Persona’ had asked a question: Does the average Indian woman try to know the story of three top women in banking sector -- Shikha Sharma, CEO and MD of Axis Bank; Chanda Kochhar, CEO and MD of ICICI Bank; and Naina Lal Kidwai, India Country Head of HSBC? And the answer was: If the average Indian woman tries to know the story, she will begin rising.

Let us discuss the word ‘rising’. What does it mean? What connotation does it have for present-day Indian woman? 
The answer to this big question is complex and big, and dares almost every definition that is available. Therefore, this ‘rising’ requires a detailed and in-depth consideration, not by thinkers but by average Indian woman. For, it is in seeking for the answer will the average Indian woman find a way up -- rising. 
Of course, this is not a new issue for women. For, many thinkers as well as others have contributed to the thought in quite a detailed manner. Yet, the word ‘rising’ needs a more serious consideration that it has got so far. The more serious does the average Indian woman become in seeking a clarification of the word, the better it will be for her. 
Does ‘rising’ mean making a lot of money?
Yes, and no. For, money is a very important factor in a woman’s rising, growth, and a meaningful assimilation in the larger world. We know for certain that the Indian woman has suffered mainly because she has remained hopelessly dependent upon the male of the species particularly in financial matters. So, there was a time when women’s liberation movement focussed on making the average woman economically independent. 
That was a very good move. For, in the decades to come, the Indian social scene underwent a massive sociological change that saw average Indian woman started becoming more and more financially liberated than ever before. 
Yet, despite all the good earning of money, the average woman did not get a sense of liberation. Why? That was so because mere making money did not mean much while discussing the issue of ‘rising’. On the contrary, many leaders of women’s liberation movement felt that mere money did not bring a sense of liberation to Indian women.
Then, what does ‘rising’ mean in a true sense? 
So, the next response was ‘education’. All the definitions of education, however, referred mainly to a narrow meaning of the word. Education was treated as a tool to liberation. In a way, that is true. Yet, the attempted definitions did not consider ‘education’ as a path towards spiritual liberation of the woman. On the contrary, some social thinkers even debunked education for education, for spiritual upliftment, for soul enhancement. 
Here we come to some sensible level of thought about ‘rising’! From this angle, ‘rising’ means an opportunity to rise above the mundane, a chance to refuse charity and accept challenges as personality-enhancers. 
But again, there were a few who misconstrued ‘opportunity’ as something offered to women by somebody else. Unfortunately, that negates the very fundamental idea of ‘rising’. For, the word ‘opportunity’ did not mean a facility given to women by somebody. For the average woman, ‘opportunity’ could not be given, but had to be snatched as part of her right to grow, rise. 
Many complex thoughts got joined in as the woman kept interpreting what ‘rising’ could mean. To simplify, we can make an attempt to redefine what ‘rising’ could actually mean for the average Indian woman.
‘Rising’ is rising above the mundane. ‘Rising’ is heaving oneself above the level fo mere subsistence, and coming to terms to a process called ‘living’. ‘Rising’ also means education for education per se, and not only as a tool to garnering whatever job. ‘Rising’ also means a freedom -- taken and not given by somebody, of course -- to decide whether one wanted to do a job for making two ends meet, or to use as an opportunity to snap the shackles of dependence. Another part of this freedom also meant an avenue to say ‘no’ to doing a job. 
But greatest part of ‘rising’ is an opportunity -- self-created, of course -- to be part of the larger world on one’s own terms, one’s own choices, one’s own freedom to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to something, planning one’s own life without getting dictated by someone else!!!
This is what ‘rising’ can be, and should be.

“These wonderful women”- 19 September 2012

Written by Rita Aggarwal
Friday, 05 October 2012 17:37

The threesome formed one of the most fantastic pictures of Indian womanhood in recent times. It told a great story of the capabilities of the Indian woman. And the picture showed three of India’s top women in the banking sector -- Shikha Sharma, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Axis Bank; Chanda Kochhar, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of ICICI Bank; and Naina Lal Kidwai, HSBC India Country Head. They were snapped sitting together at a meet of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industries (FICCI). Draped elegantly in sarees, wearing only a basic make-up but a big smile of success, all three sat together perhaps listening to a speech. And they made a picture-perfect of the role models modern Indian woman would want to for herself: successful, supremely confident, and ready for more challenges.

No woman would want to erase this image from her mind. For, Shikha Sharma, Chanda Kochhar, and Naina Lal Kidwai are symbols of successful foray of women into the tough world of banking and finance, a field dominated so overwhelmingly so far by men, an area that needs not only toughness but also a polished roughness -- to deal with numbers and the people who play money games with aplomb. So, when the three women made their arduous way up the ladder, they were looked at eagerly by the world. Will they succeed? Will they fail? Will they totter about? Or, will they roar their way to the top?
Such questions arose and fell with clock-like regularity. But as the world searched for answers, the three women did not bother about answering the questions; they were too engrossed in their quest for more and higher achievements.
From the distance, the quest looked wonderful. But what swirled around the three women was the rough and tough high tide of the finance world- a no-nonsense environment from whose dictionary word ‘mercy’ had long been erased altogether. There was no mercy for any one -- men or women. So, what was so special about Shikha Sharma or Chanda Kochhar, or Naina Lal Kidwai?  When they were daring the cut-and-dried world of finance ruled by men, they did not evoke sympathy or pity; they evoked stiff competition, and they bore the brunt of the race with challenge, with a smile on the face.
But this is not their eulogy; this is a statement of their harsh reality. This is something which Indian women in general must know. The Indian women also must know that all these three leading names of Indian banking did not have to forget their feminine qualities to succeed in what was billed to be a masculine world. To their respective jobs, from the bottom of the ladder to the top rung of today, they brought certain endearing femininity, some humane considerations in greater degree, some ruthlessness, as well, needed to make hard decisions and tough choices.
But even as Shikha Sharma, Chanda Kochhar, and Naina Lal Kidwai did all this, they did not carry pretences or airs. All they did was to carry themselves with dignity, with certainty of winners’ personalities, with stars in the eyes, but feet planted firmly on the ground of reality.
‘Oh, this is too high an order, too tall a talk’, some may say. But when one looks at the dynamism of the three women, one realises the quiet strength they must have build in themselves from childhood to the present-day. Can we afford to ignore this process as we look at the product? Not in the least. For, the three women stand for something very special -- a sense of mission, too. And to carry that sense of mission lightly on the shoulders is no mean a task.
Of course, India has seen many, many successful women, -- Kiran Shaw-Majumdar, Shobhana Bhartia, Kiran Bedi, to name a few of my favourites  -- in varied fields, in seemingly daunting situations, in palpably damning conditions. And all of them have a more or less common story to narrate -- of focused passion, of hard work, of persistence, of patience, of ability to rise above the mundane and go for the skies, of willing to leave the safe perch of the home and fly into the dangerous zone of human endurance in hostile conditions.
Does the average Indian woman try to know this - their - story? She must make a sincere attempt to know. For, the moment she starts the journey of knowing ‘what’ and ‘how’ and ‘why’ and ‘where’ of that story, she will start rising.
One waits for that great moment.

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