The problem

To inspire compels a sense of supreme confidence, commitment, belief, and the strength to change course in an effort to correct. Inspiration grows from a rooted repository of knowledge and experience. It energizes the mind and lubricates it to break through the confines of comfortable and established structures and barriers by generating, teasing and playing with untested, untried ideas. Unusual initiatives are born in that nurturing space. A common fear of the unknown is challenged, every so often, by men and women who have been inspired by either a person, or an idea, or even a dream, to break loose, tread fresh ground, not knowing what is in store for them. Invariably those ‘experiments’ become the steeping stones that move a large, passive and unquestioning community, into unfamiliar zones, introducing them to new genres, to change and grow in mind and spirit. Example and evidence shows that many of those who ‘dropped out’ of the ‘system’ were able to explore and create, unhindered and have stood apart amongst the majority, as inventors and pioneers.


Mothers nurture their offspring. Women silently navigate the unknown and clear the hurdles on untrodden paths for those they love. The female, in all living species, fiercely protects its young, sacrificing all that is required to nurture and conserve. Women are the repository of history and culture. They steer the course adjusting and adapting, forging consensus as they move to pass the baton, through generations, ensuring a continuity of the fundamental values and ethos that layer and fertilize the base for inspired change. 


Growing up, I for one, was inspired, influenced and sustained by women who had broken the cordon of conservatism and had stepped out into a landscape that had not been traversed by individual, independent women to follow a course that disrupted the status quo. They were women who strode their domains as equal partners with their male peers. There was no discrimination or strident anti-gender rhetoric that I heard while growing up. Respect and partnerships were what I saw. I was privileged, and realized very quickly that my experience was rare and rarified. I was growing up in the early years of Independent India, at a time when the fledgling state was trying to find her feet in the larger world, and where women who had fought for India’s freedom were then partners in laying the foundation for a modern nation state. 

But equally, embedded deep in the social and cultural reality of India, and in fact across countries of the world, nations both wealthy and poor, the horrors of the abject discrimination against women, across the board and at every level, was overwhelming. Women, the creators, mothers of humankind, repository of values, ethics, faith and resilience, remain second class citizens. It makes no sense at all, but it is the reigning truth. Untenable and unacceptable, women across the planet continue to relentlessly fight for their natural, human rights that are denied to them by family, community, and society, defying statutory equality, fraternity and protection laws wherever they exist. Frankly, the reality is farcical.


It is inevitably the diffident, the dependant, the insecure and unrooted, who wield the whip and walk the talk in an arrogant and uncompromising manner. The stronger person in the equation absorbs the humiliation and with a profound resilience, continues to do what is required for her family unit and beyond. It is that commitment which defines strength. Brawn is mere physical dominance, a sterile structure sans the essential humane ingredients of compassion, respect, tolerance and the acceptance of difference and diversity. Whether in the so-called developed world, or in the aspiring ‘third world’, women are discriminated against and exploited. Whether veiled for cultural reasons or scantily clad, the two extremities, women are treated as lesser beings. All of this is a taken, an infliction on womankind. Therefore, the strident rhetoric of the western world about the status of women in the eastern hemisphere being unacceptable, rings false because women everywhere, in varying manner, shape and form, are treated as unequal entities.

Enough of the endless chatter. We need to start at home within the family unit and in play schools onwards. We need to create storybooks using whatever available tools, to speak of human truths and philosophies. To instill an ethic that embodies respect, equality and fraternity, in the wider expanse of vibrant and energetic diversity celebrating stark differences, will require a mindset overhaul and reboot. It has to start with the 0 to 7 age group to have an impact ten years thereon. Primary schools are the nurturing ground for basic values to take root. That is where the attempt to change and reinvent has to begin. The privileged upper echelons of social orders worldwide are threatened by simple but essential interventions that could help equalize to the extent possible. It would upset their fundamentals of unquestioned assertion and dominance. That attitude is no different from the first world exploitation of other economically weaker countries that have over centuries misused vulnerabilities, in the garb of aid, help and assistance for gain. 


Men are personally dominated and influenced by women through their lives. First by their mothers, thereafter by their wives and sometimes mistresses, all of whom mould and manipulate them within the dark confines of privacy. This truth must make men feel dependant, prompting them to use aggression and arrogance as a weapon to suppress and hide their inadequacies, to propel them forward in the larger public domain. The inherent and deep-seated competitive spirit needs to equalize. Agreement rather than demand needs to kick in. Layers of this kind of protective dominance, petrified in the DNA of the male species over centuries, will need a new technology and perspective, a new faith and ritual, to shatter it from its roots. It will have to be a joint venture – male and female.


Economic independence is one element that helps establish gender equality, which is what men have consciously stalled and blocked.  It is appalling that we continue to ‘reserve’ jobs and positions for women, indulging in ‘dole’ for the mothers of ‘mankind’. The assertion and establishment of equality can only be secured if men and women together lead the movement forward as partners, in a concerted attempt to ensure a radical overhaul of the mindset. Of course there will be many uneasy rides en route into the future but the process of making a difference will take precedence over formulae, reservations and suchlike, all determined and sometimes mandated through policies that remain on paper.


Everything I have said here has been repeated, ad nauseam, almost like a familiar chorus through time and age. It is not a new notion, a fresh demand or a protest, but in fact a litany that has taken on the semblance of becoming a lullaby. Let those singing, sing. It is that reality which needs to shift gears, reverse and start from scratch, changing the narrative for the  0 to 7, and help redefine the basic human values of equality, fraternity and partnership. It must begin at the beginning to move towards becoming the norm.


I was privileged to be nurtured from my very early years by women, women who loved me, cared for me, taught me how to connect, observe, learn, communicate, share, stand my ground, work to win, to endure pain and overcome humiliation and develop a resilience to deal with failure, to lift myself out of the quagmire and move on again, to deal with the tribulations of life and living. Pupul Jayakar was one such ‘guru’ as was Padmaja Naidu, Kamaladevi ji, Shanta Gandhi, Uma Anand, Sonali Rossellini, and, needless to say, my mother and hers. They watched over me as I tried to swim out into an unknown sea. Then there were those who made a lasting impact, from a distance. Women I felt I knew well despite having met them on occasion like Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa. My male counterparts, my many colleagues and friends, were not ‘trained’ in the same way, with the same inputs.


I was fortunate to have extraordinary mentors, both men and women, who made me understand and experience the multiple pieces that come together to make India the great jigsaw puzzle that it is. I was taught to observe everything the eye could catch while driving, walking, browsing and when staring out into the nowhere of a wilderness. I was taught to look, see and think at the same time; to hear and listen, engage and never fear not knowing something because that ‘not knowing’ compelled learning. The roots were in rural India and travelling by road across the country, stopping at villages and wandering around small towns meeting and speaking with the local residents, gave me a sense of the richness of the larger swathe of the complex social tapestry. That was my real and tangible schooling. And, women were always at the helm – working in the fields, at home, in the community, at their professions, building enterprises and more, but treated by this patriarchal society as second class citizens.


This issue of Seminar salutes a few of the infinite number of women, who followed their heart and head, broke the cordon that may have tried to contain them, and delivered on their dream. Hard work, encountering huge odds, each one of them raised the bar, walked the talk standing out in the crowd, deaf to all the negatives. They strode the different domains with passion and grit, traversed the lows with a determination to overcome, and then scale new heights. True to themselves they are equal to their male counterparts as ‘creators’ but the primary ‘keepers’ of our past and present, for the future.