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BW Businessworld

Analysis: Wisdom In Hindsight

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This is a story of action first, thought later: be it Kartika's case at a micro level, or the company Teffer at a macro level. 

It begins with a poignant event: the premature birth of a second child. The mother stands outside the ICU watching the child and feeling the waves of guilt, violence and recrimination. She did not want the second child but was commandeered into it by family. She wanted to adopt a baby, but families in India have a way of hijacking decisions that is difficult to challenge. The Indian family is an imperceptible juggernaut that can overrun modernity through bribes, threat, guilt and cajoling till the most autonomous of women succumb.

The rest of the script is a series of discussions around the event. Each entrant provides a new angle, a new reflection and the script moves from the poignancy of personal drama to socio-drama, from action to a critical reflection.

Kartika, the mother-manager, feels guilt, anger and a sense of unfairness. She expresses her helplessness to the family and feels betrayed by her parents. Her sister Rajshree overplays the feminist point arguing "empowerment of a girl child means more than giving her an MBA". There is a little meditation on freedom here that one cannot ignore. Freedom is not just a text, or a set of rights. It is freedom in action,freedom of everyday-ness, of choosing responsibility. Education is a mere backdrop; it provides a context but hardly guarantees the scripts of freedom.

The sister argues that freedom cannot be sought in hybrid and hyphenation. That it cannot be derived by straddling traditions and lifestyles. Choosing not to have a second baby is not as easy as choosing your electives in class.

The debate continues at two levels: one within the context of the family, and the other within the workplace. Is gender diversity easy? Can professional women balance between the pressures of home and office within the labyrinthine of Indian culture where the family can practice a subtle blackmail and husbands a lethal form of helplessness? Men constitute the professional chorus. They understand technology but little of the pressures on a woman.

There is a sense that education empowers asymmetrically. Education seems to empower men and entrap the women in a web of contradictions. By creating an illusion of empowerment, it turns a woman into a tragic figure. The women are stuck betwixt and between tradition and modernity, family and career, motherhood and professional creativity. The modern world adds to her travails while the Indian male seems to be part of a culture where nothing seems to hurt or touch him.

The sociological arguments in the case are a ponderous meditation on gender diversity (GD) and whether conditions in India would allow it to work. Is the idea right in principle, requiring minor adjustments in male attitudes and organisational tinkering, or does it need a deeper rethink as GD moves across cultural context? Can GD be a successful travelling fact or does India militate against women being both wives and professionals?

Reflecting on Kartika's case, her colleague Amrita asks if culture, tradition, ancestry, history and the biographies produce different narratives? Does an Indian woman stand a chance when odds are stacked against her? When marriage itself is not a choice but a collective decision, when consumption and culture create a candyfloss romance, which disguises the despair in the aftermath, does it create the DNA of choicelessness?

Does the grammar of Indian culture allow for freedom and choice? More particularly, is freedom a part of the culture of individualism? Marriage becomes a labyrinth where a woman is running an obstacle race of husband and parents. Freedom comes only within conditions of friendship and reciprocity, while an Indian marriage has little of this. An Indian woman becomes a bonsai where her desire and choices are clipped incessantly. What is sad is that consumerism only adds an air of freedom. In reality it hides the fact that mobility and choice in malls does not extend to the reality of life choices.

It is also very clear that what enervates women's freedom is the pontification around it. What adds to the little tragedies is bad sociology. One has to confront the fact that if freedom is a state of mind and a state of society, one has to create the mindsets for it. Freedom needs socialisation, support and a confidence that comes with the support systems. One needs an ecology where freedom does not always have to be a heroic struggle ending in tragedy or guilt. Unfortunately, Teffer comes to this reflection only after it has given its nod to the gender diversity initiative (GDI). It is sad that it appears as an afterthought. There is little sense of how culture, constitution and organisation can blend to create real opportunities for women. Pop sociology threatens freedom as much as patriarchy.

The author is a social scientist, and teaches at Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology, Ahmedabad

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 16-07-2012)