Women’s role

Rewrote this many times.  Interesting topic.

Why doesn’t Priyanka Gandhi reach for the national office that could be hers for the taking?

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is a magnificent campaigner. In terms of sheer charisma, she beats her brother hollow. She has that preternatural ability to gauge the pulse of the people. It is much more than empathy—every good spiritual guru has empathy. The currency of campaign politics, however, is connecting to a crowd and giving voice to their dreams. It is the ability to deliver the same feel-good factor to a crowd that empathy offers to an individual. This emotional connect combined with force of personality equals charisma. Indira Gandhi wasn’t born with it but she developed this quality. Her granddaughter has it in spades, and yet, she doesn’t use it nearly enough. What is Priyanka afraid of? Why doesn’t she reach for the national office that could be hers for the taking?

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says that women aren’t ambitious enough. They compromise before they need to. They opt to be dentists rather than surgeons because dentistry offers more work-life balance—this at age 20, before they’ve met their spouse. They put off their childhood dream of starting a school or a restaurant because they are busy helping their husband fulfil his dream—and holding the family together while he does. Women rein in their ambition because they believe success will come with costly sacrifices. Worst of all, many women don’t even try; they don’t “lean in”, as Sandberg says. They compromise from the get-go. Why?

 

Charismatic: If she chooses, Priyanka Gandhi could have a role model in Sarojini Naidu. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI

Charismatic: If she chooses, Priyanka Gandhi could have a role model in Sarojini Naidu. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI

 

Bangalore-based Sujata Keshavan, founder of Ray+Keshavan, one of India’s top design firms, believes that it may have to do with economics— and perhaps genetics. She talks about how difficult it was for her to persuade young women to continue to work after they got married. These weren’t women with constraints. They were talented and highly educated. They didn’t fit the conservative stereotype in which the in-laws forced them to resign from jobs to become homemakers. What’s more, they had supportive husbands and were not planning to have babies anytime soon. “Even so, if their husbands could support them financially, they chose to stop working,” says Keshavan. “This leads me to believe that women are wired to be homemakers, perhaps because of centuries of social conditioning that is now embedded in their psyche.” 

The fact that Keshavan believes this is particularly damning because her career is testimony to the fact that women aren’t “wired” this way. She founded Ray+Keshavan, ran it successfully and sold it to global brand company The Brand Union. Perhaps she is an anomaly. Or perhaps early financial exigencies forced her to work. So what’s the way forward? I ask her. What do we tell our daughters if we want them to be strong, successful career women? “Tell them to marry a poor man,” she says with a laugh, voicing exactly what I have been thinking.

After 50 years of feminism, it has come to this. Or has it? Are women the resilient gung-ho crusaders who have broken glass ceilings? Or are we escapist homemakers (and I do say this pejoratively in this context) who don’t have the courage to pursue our convictions—or our careers?

Human resources adviser and Mint columnist Hema Ravichandar disagrees with this analysis. “There are two types of women—those that take a job to find a life partner; and those who take a job to make a career of it,” she says. “Sujata’s take might hold true for the former but not for the latter. Of course, even those women who are not quitters may fall into the Mommy trap, or the transfer trap, or the H-4 visa trap, where they cannot work and have to compromise.”

I was raised by a mother who believed that women ought to be like “creepers” that hold the family tree together. I came of age at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, where strong successful women taught me the trenchant politics of feminism. I am married to a man who believes that nurture can trump nature; that women can trump the “wiring” that may cause them to be like creepers or homemakers. My personal belief is that we women have a fear—not of failure but of success. We are afraid to reach for the stars because we are worried about what it will cost us— and our families. We are biologically and psychologically more invested in our children. So we don’t reach; we don’t push forward because we are already calculating the costs, before we need to. When the going gets tough, we compromise and pull back.

Bharati Jacob, founder-partner of venture capital firm Seedfund, sees something similar in women entrepreneurs. “I often see women start businesses and the moment it starts to scale, and they think they need outside money, they rope in their husbands. Why don’t they have the confidence to do it on their own?” she asks. Put another way, why is Robert Vadra (Priyanka’s husband) involved in her campaign?

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who authored The First Sex: The Natural Talents of WomenAnd How They are Changing the World, disagrees that women entrepreneurs cop out. Rather, she says, “Tomorrow belongs to women.” Women’s natural talents: networking, people skills, connecting, nurturing and “web-thinking” are more suited to this information age. Women will start businesses, she says, and get ahead in the fields of medicine, education and philanthropy. With fascinating anecdotes and hard science, Fisher links the part of the brain that will help women fly—quite literally (Fisher is an identical twin, and her twin sister is a hot-air balloon pilot).

That said, even Fisher admits that women will not break into the top levels because they are more willing to strive for work-life balance. That doesn’t matter, she says. There will be a few men at the top, a tonne of women in the middle, and a lot of men at the bottom—construction workers “too drunk to zip up their pants”, as she says.

What women need are role models who shifted the paradigm; who played the game, not by men’s rules but by their own. Sarojini Naidu stands out as a shining example of this paradigm shift. She wasn’t born to dynastic power. Yet, she navigated her way through the male-dominated Congress party and held her own with style and substance.

Priyanka seems like a woman who is trying hard to strike this masculine-feminine balance. Should she decide to take the plunge into full-time politics, she has a role model in her mother. Should she choose to ignore the salacious Jawaharlal Nehru-Padmaja Naidu link, she might also be well-served by studying the style of this “Nightingale of India”, and imbuing it with a charisma that is all her own.

Shoba Narayan is neither creeper nor career woman. Like all women, she tries to be both, and therein, perhaps, lies the problem.

Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com


Profile of Sabyasachi

His style icons are strong, self-confident people who don’t need his clothes to enhance their identity

The Good life | Shoba Narayan

Clad in a khadi kurta-pyjama and Ferragamo flats, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, 37, is having lunch at the ITC Sonar, Kolkata. It is 4pm. We are at the coffee shop. He orders lal maas. I have already eaten. I order jhalmuri.

“You can’t have muri (puffed rice) in a five-star hotel,” protests Mukherjee, who calls himself a “street food and puchka (panipuri) connoisseur”. He dismisses the famous man near the Park Hotel as selling “Marwadi puchka with snow peas and chana in it”. The bestpuchkas, he says, are in south Kolkata, near his parents’ home. But then, every Kolkatan I know says the best puchkas are near where they live.

Muses: Sabyasachi with actors Rani Mukerji (left) and Vidya Balan. (Photographs by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

Muses: Sabyasachi with actors Rani Mukerji (left) and Vidya Balan. (Photographs by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

Mukherjee is also a “biryani freak” and will only buy it at Rahmania or Nizam’s for their “sinfully greasy biryanis”. Fish, he says, has to be eaten at home. He tastes myjhalmuri and finds, to his surprise, that it is “fantastic”. I bite into gravel while chewing. Perhaps, the hotel buys the dish from the street and sells it to its patrons. We order two more portions.

Started with a Rs. 20,000 loan he took from his sister, Payal, in 2002, Sabyasachi, the label, has grown into a behemoth, employing over 600 craftspeople, 32 assistants, including one from Harvard, and revenue topping Rs. 52 crore in 2011. Part of the reason is Mukherjee’s talent, but a bigger reason is his shrewd business acumen that allows him to spin fantasies out of this City of Joy.

“I am not India’s most talented or creative designer. But I am India’s most influential and powerful commercial designer,” he says matter-of-factly. There is context, of course. I asked him to rate himself. The man doesn’t go around making such pronouncements. Yet his smugness is galling.

A Sabyasachi lehenga ensemble with his signature border.

A Sabyasachi lehenga ensemble with his signature border.

I stare at him from across the table. With his long, wavy hair, Cheshire cat smile, and well-argued opinions, Mukherjee is hardly the angst-ridden, self-destructive designer along the lines of John Galliano or Alexander McQueen. Though perfectly courteous, he doesn’t pander or charm. He doesn’t seek to be liked and, frankly, is a bit too “sorted” for me. But after two days in his company, I end up with grudging respect for his fashion sensibilities. I like his reverence for textiles, his love of artisanal craftsmanship, his pride in being Indian, and the fact that he knows his mind and isn’t afraid to speak it. He slams the Hermès sari, waxes eloquent about the Dabu mud-resist hand-block print techniques of Rajasthan, and bemoans the fact that Indians don’t embrace native handmade traditions with the fervour that they do foreign brands.

“In airports, sometimes I will see African women dressed in their traditional garb—turbans and robes. I know that they will be travelling first-class because they have that confidence,” he says. “Why can’t we Indians take pride in our native clothes?”

When his sister got married, Mukherjee bought her saris from every region of India. His favourites are the weaves from Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Bengal, and the south. He has little use for socialites in their bandage dresses. “A Queenie Dhody will never influence fashion the way a Vidya Balan, Rani Mukerji or a Sonia Gandhi can,” he dismisses—somewhat self-servingly, given that these particular celebrities (the first two anyway) wear his saris.

His style icons are strong, self-confident people who don’t need his clothes to enhance their identity: Frida Kahlo, Mira Nair, Deepti Naval,Mallika Sarabhai, the dancer Shobana, Sonal Mansingh, Rekha, Gulzar, Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru, and get this—Usha Uthup.

He describes Uthup attending one of his food festivals, wearing a Kanjeevaram sari and Adidas sneakers. “She had glued pieces from her old Kanjeevaram blouses on her sneakers. She could only wear sneakers these days, she said, and wanted them to match her saris. That, I thought, was true innovation,” says Mukherjee. “They looked likeManish Arora shoes but I don’t think she had heard of Manish. She is a true original.” As for the socialites who throng his stores: “They are of no consequence to me. I don’t care if they buy my clothes. I don’t make it for them.”

You sound like a businessman, I accuse. He doesn’t budge. “I am first and foremost a businessman and only then a designer,” he says. Providing a livelihood for his artisans gives him satisfaction and keeps him up at night. When the right time comes, he says he will hire a designer to take over his role and do other things: Design hotels, public spaces; make movies; music; do art projects—all the things that his brutal schedule doesn’t allow him to do. “Sabya has been saying this for years,” says a fashion designer friend of mine.

Mostly, he works. He is at his workshop in Kolkata from 9am-10pm every day, except when he travels. He doesn’t like to socialize—he thinks compliments “mess up your mind”. He relaxes by sleeping; likes to live in isolation, and ploughs all his money back into his business. He rents a one-bedroom apartment that has a large terrace and bathroom to indulge in the two things he likes to do: take long baths and gaze at the stars. “There is so much give and take in my business that I like to relax in isolation,” he says.

His family is intimately involved in the business. His beautiful sister, Payal, is the “bedrock”, says an assistant. His father, a chemical engineer, manages the finances, and his mother, an artist, has been asked to step aside and “take rest”. Mukherjee confesses that he still keeps his splurges on shoes from his dad, and accountant. “I mean, dad knows that his son earns a lot of money but I don’t want him to think that we have changed as people. So I tell my sister that when we do some indulgent shopping, it’s nicer for him not to know. I don’t want him to think he has raised two monsters who have completely lost the plot.”

What about romance, I ask? Are you gay? “Yes,” he says in the tone that we say, “Duh,” this destiny’s child. He is not in a hurry to find a soulmate. That will happen, he says confidently.

We talk style. He likes Dries Van NotenStella McCartneyMarc Jacobsand Coco Chanel: all designers who’ve never pandered to fashion editors. He dismisses Sonam Kapoor as a model and clothes horse rather than a style icon, unlike, say, Zeenat Aman. “What today’s celebrities don’t realize is that you need to be consistent to be an icon. You cannot do sari one day, pants the next and a dress on the third. If you look at style icons, you’ll see that they all have a very consistent style—Audrey Hepburn in her Givenchys; Mrs Kennedy in her sheath dresses or even Madonna in her crucifix and underwear.”

I make a mental note to wear the same style of clothes consistently. But what—sari or sheath dress? That’s the question.

After two days in his company, I go from disdain to dislike to grudging respect to wanting to be liked. I want this man’s respect. Who is your ideal customer, I ask. “The woman who doesn’t need Sabyasachi the brand but understands Sabyasachi the product,” he replies. “Secretly every designer in the world hankers for that kind of customer.”

These days, Shoba Narayan walks up to strangers everywhere and compliments them on their woven saris. Someday she will wear India’s weaves on a regular basis. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com