Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Who am I?

I have always thought, “I am middle class.” And growing up, I probably was.

Middle class meant the kind of family which was not deprived but you could not just have anything you wanted.

You went out for dinner on an extra-special day like your parents’ anniversary - to Delhi Darbar or Kailash Parbat. A movie in the theatre was a rare treat, as was ‘choco-bar’ and Simba wafers in the interval. ‘New clothes’ included the kind my mom stitched on an Usha sewing machine with a foot pedal. Her special forte was increasing the length of old dresses by adding a jhaalar (extra lace).

Today, we eat out just because we’re in the mall and ‘feel like it’, even though dinner is waiting at home. I can watch 3 films back to back, if I want to and spend more on popcorn than the ticket price. I can buy as many new clothes as I desire, whether ‘on sale’ or ‘fresh stock’.

So am I not ‘middle class’ anymore?

My uncles were not middle class, they were ‘business class’. They had a lot more money than my father, who was a government servant. Yet, I never thought of them as rich.

Our 12 member family lived in 3 rooms and a kitchen. Everyone slept on the floor, when guests came they slept on the verandah. The toilets had no water, let alone a flush. They had cash tucked away somewhere, I don’t know where. But they hardly cared about spending it.

Business class was different from middle class.

My parents drilled it into our brains early: “You have to study hard and make something of yourself.” In the scientists’ colony I grew up in, marks and ranks were discussed among aunties. Every year we exported a batch to IIT Bombay and another to America on full scholarship. We never thought of this as an ‘achievement’, it was just a normal.

Meanwhile my cousins joined BCom and joined the family business – often side by side. They married early, to girls with BA, and started a family within a year. They earned a lot of money and now their children want to do engineering and MBA. Move to a big city and take up a job.

Business class wants to be ‘middle class’ – hurray.

I had a friend in college who I thought of as ‘rich’. She had a car and driver, went swimming and holidayed abroad. Today, I can have all those things – and more.

If I am not ‘middle class’ – then who am I?

Because if thrift and hard work no longer defines me, that’s what I pass on to my daughter. Can I get her another new t-shirt (though she does not need it?). Should I prod her to study hard when I know that marks don’t really matter. Is an international school necessary, or was a regular school good enough?

Where do I set the boundaries, when in my heart I want her to have everything my money can buy?

And yet, I want her to ‘make something of herself’ – not stand on my shoulders. To be defined by who she is, not the handbag she carries. I want her to have lots of money and use it wisely. But also, to value all the things money can never buy.

I am ‘mix n match’ – a grand collage of values and ways of life.

I am the New Middle Class.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

'Bhaag Milkha Bhaag' - 4.5 stars

To make a film about a champion who narrowly lost the biggest race of his life is a monumental challenge. Nobody wants to watch a man put in his very best and yet fail, on a giant multiplex screen.

That is the genius of director Rakeysh Mehra and scriptwriter Prasoon Joshi. The film starts with the Rome Olympics – a race we know Milkha Singh lost. A fact we cannot change. Yet, ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ moves you, entertains and elevates you. You emerge from the theatre feeling good, feeling that winning is really really important but it’s not everything.

Rakeysh Mehra decided to make this film not just because Milkha Singh was an outstanding athelete. But because of his undying spirit.

“This boy, who came from a village and was an orphan at 11, actually witnessed the massacre of his family members, including his brothers and sisters. He picked a knife to survive at 11. He spent time in (Delhi’s) Tihar Jail before he joined the army. He wanted respect and to be a human being against all odds. That’s what a wonderful human being he is, and that’s what got me into the movie, not the records he made.”

And that’s what makes ‘Bhaag Milka Bhaag’ special. It’s the story of a man, not Superman. He is vulnerable and he is flawed, like us all. He did not have a ‘vision’ for himself – at the very start. He didn’t even know what he was capable of.

Why does a man run, anyway? When trials were being held, Jawan Milkha Singh ran for an extra glass of milk. When he went for the Brigade Games, he ran to earn a navy-blue ‘India’ blazer. After failing at the Melbourne Olympics, he ran to regain self-respect.

At the Rome Olympics, he ran carrying the hopes of all of India, on his slim shoulders. Perhaps that burden was too heavy. The film doesn’t go deep into this aspect except to allude to personal demons from the time of Partition.

A man can run into the future, or he can run from his past. ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ – just three words but two different meanings, depending which track or which field you are standing on.

In the film Milkha’s coach says to him, “A sportsman’s life is about discipline and tapasya.” That’s equally true of the efforts put in by Farhan Akhtar in this film. He plays Milkha Singh to perfection, right down to running stance. To get that athletic body language, the actor trained with sprint coach Melwin Crasto and physical trainer Samir Jaura on the racetracks at St Stanislaus High School in Bandra for 13 months.

“When I decided I would do this role, I promised him that I would do whatever it takes for this role.”

It’s a whole bunch of people working in this spirit, that make the film what it is. I must mention the child actor Jabtej Singh who is outstanding as the young Milkha Singh. And the rousing ‘Zinda hai toh’ sung by Siddharth Mahadevan, which is completely in sync with the spirit of the film.

Critics are saying the movie is too long, has unnecessary songs and too many cinematic liberties. But I don’t agree. A work of art is not meant to be ‘perfect’. If it’s powerful, it carries you beyond the logical mind into a parallel universe. And lingers on afterward.

‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ gets 4.5 star from me, for doing just that.

The bonus is that it will inspire a few kids out there to dream big and run the race of life with more vigour and confidence.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Leaning in at the IIMs

This column was originally published in Businessworld, dt Jul 1-15, 2013

It's Time for Women to Dream Big

The Economic Times reports: Data from the five IIMs at Calcutta, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Lucknow and Indore shows that the institutes are set to welcome a record number of women in the 2013-15 batch. With the exception of IIM Ahmedabad, which has acceptances from 80 women, the other four will all have more than a hundred women each on their rolls.

The question is - what happens next? Will these women make a significant impact on corporate India - at top management and in leadership roles?

My somewhat cynical answer is: 'unlikely'. Unless we address this issue as a whole.

To create female leaders you need to address the supply side, which is what the IIMs are doing. But that is just step one. To keep the supply moving through the corporate pipeline is the bigger challenge. We can't ignore that and expect women to simply 'figure it out' on their own.

I belong to the class of 1993 at IIM Ahmedabad, which had a record number of women. We were 30 girls in a class of 180 ( double the previous year). Twenty years later just about 50% of us are in full-time jobs.

The issue is not lack of competence but the choices we made.

When I interviewed Sangeeta Patni for my book 'Follow Every Rainbow', she summed it up beautifully.

"A woman is a womb plus a man. There's no difference in terms of ability, or what she can achieve. But a woman needs to know how to take care of her need to nurture and raise a baby. This is the place many women falter in their careers."

You are expected to navigate this issue 'naturally'.

Natural is to feel exhausted and guilty and give up.

What we need is to sensitise female students about the road ahead, and the turns it is known to take. So that they can navigate the twisting path of career + family. Instead of getting knocked off the road itself.

You can have your kids early and jump back into a career, make a success of it. I have friends who have done that.

You can have your kids late, when you have 'brand value' in an organisation.
That works too.

You can take a break, or not take a break.
Rely on your mother. Or your mother-in-law.
Find a good maid. Or a great creche.
There are many many many ways to do it.

The most important thing is you must believe it's possible. And that it's important. And work towards 'keeping my career' with the same intensity as you had when 'getting into IIM'.

Three concrete suggestions to IIMs:
1) Hold a series of talks by women (preferably own alumni) who are in leadership roles today. Let them candidly share 'how I did it'. Some of them will even take on the role of a mentor.

When a young woman has just had a baby and is almost quitting/feeling hopeless, the moral and practical support of someone who's 'been there, done that' can make all the difference.

2) Also sensitise the male students. Many of them will marry their own batchmates or other qualified women. But then they slip back into 'caveman' mode and focus on their own careers.

The most progressive, educated couples never actually sit down and talk about this issue. Or think of out of the box solutions. It is understood that if children are to be raised, women will occupy the backseat in the family car.

3) Make 'Lean In' by Sheryl Sandberg compulsory reading for both men and women. And all professors too. All the above points are raised and tackled beautifully in the book.

Women must be more confident, more assertive and dream big dreams.
This has to start right from bschool and never stop.

As Sheryl Sandberg says in the book: "A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes."

That should be the outcome of more women in IIMs, in IITs, in IAS, in primary schools and colleges, in every walk of life.

To see this happen in my own lifetime, is a cherished dream. And fond hope.

Also read my previous blog on this subject: Lipstick Jungle

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