Sunday, October 9, 2016

In Search of Lost Identity - A Response to Lion

Dev Patel (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) once again stars in a tale of transformation and miracles. He goes from a life of unmitigated poverty in central India to a privileged upper middle class existence in Australia, and then makes an incredulous return to his roots decades later. Lion is a film based on the book The Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley on the true story of his life. The arc of the story is simple, and the viewer is aware all along that Saroo Khan comes full circle, back to his dusty hometown in Khandwa, India, twenty-five years after his adoption.

Saroo is a childhood mispronunciation of “Sheru” (meaning lion). The movie begins with Saroo and his older brother Guddu stealing coal from a moving train, a foreshadowing of the pivotal role a train-ride has in the life of this lion cub. We get a glimpse of the harsh life the brothers lead, eking out a living through pilfering and odd jobs, interspersed by the warmth of their fraternal bond and the love of their mother, an illiterate laborer whose meager livelihood earned by carrying rocks in the sandy plains of Khandwa is supplemented by the proceeds of her enterprising sons. Saroo’s enthusiasm for helping makes him insist that he accompany his teenage brother on his night job. This ill-fated decision leads to him being stranded on a decommissioned train carrying him a thousand miles away from his hometown to India’s third largest city.

Saroo’s weeks in Kolkata are by themselves a harrowing tale of grit and survival. Forced to experience a range of hardships from scavenging for food to escaping the hold of predatory adults, 5-year old Saroo miraculously survives alone as a street child, eventually ending up in an orphanage. An inability to give specifics about where he is from keeps him from locating his mother and returning home even when genuine help is at hand. In 1987, he is adopted by a well-to-do Australian couple, and begins life in Hobart, Tasmania.

The movie is directed by Garth Davis, a TV and commercial director for whom this is a first feature length film, and a strong contender for his first Oscar. Nicole Kidman and David Wenham star as Saroo’s adoptive parents. The 5-year old Saroo, portrayed brilliantly by Sunny Pawar captures with equal skill the adoration Saroo has for his older brother, the anguish and desperation of finding himself alone on a runaway train, and the endurance of a street-savvy homeless child tempered by innocence. Although still a cub, Sunny Pawar is the true star of this film. The Lion, played by Dev Patel, enters the story after a gap of 20 years from where the cub leaves off. It is a role for which Patel underwent considerable preparation in accent and physique, and which he delivers with roaring success. In an artistic deviation from the appearance of the real Saroo Brierley, Patel sports a mane of shoulder-length wavy black hair that grows progressively more unkempt and disheveled as his obsession to find his hometown through Google Earth grows. In contrast, Kidman’s appearance as Saroo’s adoptive mother is fashioned after the real Su Brierley. The most poignant scene with Kidman is one where mother and son discuss the circumstances of their relationship, and Su Brierley reveals the true depth of her love for her children.

Sunny Pawer as Saroo

Lion is a tale of survival, loss, and yearning set in the backdrop of two worlds that could not be more different. It is a story about the power of memory in shaping our identities - images that are projected silently for decades provoking no action until years later when the time is right and the ally of technology willing. Old memories are unearthed by an accidental sense trigger which then unleash in Saroo the unrestrainable desire to find his mother and brother. This insuppressible urge is a testament to the idea that we are who we were. We are what we have been.

The Saroo Brierley story is an incredible tale of a search for lost identity. It illustrates the point that the existential verb “to be” is always used in the present tense when talking about one’s origins. We say “I am from India,” and not “I was from India” because you can never take back where you are from.

In 2013, twenty-six years after he was adopted, Saroo Brierley returns again to India, this time with his adoptive mother, Su Brierley, to meet Fatima Munshi. 

The story of Saroo Brierley is a life-affirming narrative playing out in the context of a harsh reality. As the movie website projects, there are over 80,000 children who go missing in India every year. The UN estimates that there are 150 million street children in the world today.

Lion is scheduled to be released by The Weinstein Company on November 25th 2016.

Sheru Munshi Khan with Fatima Munshi

Mothers and Son

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Elegance of Caregiving

In 2011, Anne-Marie Slaughter gave up her position in the State Department in Washington DC as (the first female) Director of Policy Planning, (reporting directly to Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton), and returned home to her husband and sons in Princeton, NJ, to resume her former academic profession as tenured professor, where, prior to her appointment in Washington, she had been Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

Her decision, on the surface, was not particularly noteworthy. Her two-year leave of absence for public service was over, and staying on in Washington to pursue a political career would have meant giving up tenure at Princeton. Another professor who returned to academia, to teaching at Harvard after holding positions in public service is Larry Summers, former Secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton, and Director of the National Economic Council under the Obama Administration.

While Slaughter’s decision was unsurprising, the circumstances and forces behind making this decision to return home propelled Slaughter down a path of forced self-reflection, resulting in two note-worthy pieces of writing: The first, an article in the Atlantic Monthly in 2012 titled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All went viral and has the distinction of being the most read article in the history of the magazine.  The response to this article eventually led Slaughter to further reflect on the hard truths about priorities and the consequences of choosing them, which gave rise to the book Unfinished Business, published earlier this year.

Slaughter’s decision to move back to Princeton was a difficult one, and influenced by her desire to be around for her teenage sons whom she got to see only on weekends during her two years in Washington. Her choice ultimately was between family and the chance to further pursue an ambition - a political career in foreign policy. In her own words:
“This crisis had forced me to confront what was most important to me, rather than what I was conditioned to want. That realization led me to question the feminist narrative I grew up with and have always championed. I began to wonder why success as a woman, or indeed as a man, meant privileging career achievement above all else.” (Emphasis added.)

In the reactions of people around her, the decision she ultimately made was not as much of an issue as the reasons behind why she made such a decision:
To Slaughter herself, “deciding to choose family over career felt like heresy.” The reactions of people privy to her decision-making showed that “the problem was not that I had come back to the university per se, but that I had come back because of my kids.” Her status as a tenured professor at an Ivy League school took a dive all of a sudden, and depreciated only because she chose it on account of caregiving.

Unfinished Business is Slaughter’s manifesto on why “professional success is not the only measure of human happiness and achievement.” It upends mainstream views on female empowerment through professional achievement, and offers realistic alternatives down the path towards achieving equality. This essay is a response to Slaughter’s approach, as elaborated on in Unfinished Business:

Slaughter confronts the issue of gender equality by exposing the myths that we believe about career advancement. She calls these myths “half-truths” and addresses them separately as those about women, those concerning men, and those dealing with the workplace; she then furnishes the reader with the “whole truths” about those issues. 

One half-truth about women, for example, is the belief that if women were committed enough to their careers, they would be able to “have full-fledged careers just like men without giving up the joys of family life.” Feminist viewpoints that urge women to prioritize careers, and mantras like Lean-In subscribe heavily to this belief and perpetuate the idea that it is mostly a lack of aspiration that is holding women back. Slaughter exposes the false assumptions that underlie this and other myths:

Slaughter states that the assumption that women are distracted from their careers or abandon them because they lack the ambition for it is founded on the deeper assumption that these women could have flourishing careers if they only pursued them more earnestly. An extension of this assumption is that “if you are prepared to do whatever it takes to advance your career, including rarely seeing your children, then you can indeed have a career and a family too.” Slaughter further points out that many male CEOs and senior partners state that that is precisely the sacrifice they have had to make in their path to becoming leaders in their field – working extensive hours and sacrificing time with family. Slaughter shows, however, that women who desire to rise to the tops of their fields need to make those very sacrifices and then some:

Slaughter shows that typically, men who have devoted themselves to their careers have done so in the comfort of support from “wives or partners who have either been full-time or at least lead caregivers.” But a career-woman with aspirations of rising to the top typically does so with neither parent available for the children. Women who wish to prioritize their careers over everything else have an unfavorable environment because: “Relatively rare is the husband who agrees to stay home or be the lead parent so that his wife can advance her career.”
An additional burden that women face is the reality that they still shoulder the bulk of domestic responsibilities even when they hold a job outside the home. Thus, when the home environments and gender-based expectations on who bears the brunt of domestic work are so different for men and women, ambition, or the lack of it can hardly be held accountable for the differences in men’s and women’s rise in their careers.

Slaughter pays special attention to the question of why some women don’t lean-in or choose not to: Her answer to this question is that “plenty of women have leaned-in for all they’re worth but still run up against insuperable obstacles created by the combination of unpredictable life-circumstances and the rigid inflexibilities of our workplaces, the lack of a public infrastructure of care, and cultural attitudes that devalue them the minute they step out, or even just lean back from the workforce.”

Slaughter’s brand of feminism acknowledges many different obstacles to gender parity. 
And even within the realm of women’s ambitions, her tenets recognize a nuanced world with room for variation that allows for the ebbing and flowing of aspirations at different stages of one’s life.

In reflecting on her own circumstances, she acknowledges that she herself might have written something on the lines of Lean-In in her forties, when her children were young and when the kinds of problems she encountered were easily solved “by working harder or hiring people to help out.” However, a decade later, at the time of her dilemma where she found herself having to choose between a political career and spending more time with her sons, she gained “insight into the circumstances and choices facing the many women who have found that for whatever reason, leaning in simply isn’t an option.”

One notable area of variation that Slaughter recognizes concerns the aspirations of women who defer professional achievement for a few years as a personal choice. Where mainstream feminism views this choice as opting-out of a career, Slaughter lauds this choice of prioritizing caregiving as an essential component of a healthy community. She calls for a paradigm-shift in our notions of “success,” and suggests that “perhaps the problem is not with women, but with work.” (Emphasis in original) 

Slaughter believes that the locus of the problem is within the system – an “antiquated and broken” one, and offers ways to mend this system. She asks why working flexible hours or part-time or taking time off should take one off the leadership track rather than just slow down the path to promotions, and she answers: “Because the deep assumption in the American workplace is that the fast track is the only track. Up or out.”

Slaughter rejects this false dichotomy of “up or out,” and calls for a recognition of the track that allows for caregiving in its path. Slaughter also strongly dismisses the assumption that when women (or men) focus on caregiving at certain junctures in their lives, that is an indication of a lack of commitment to their careers. 

Slaughter rejects the idea of a career being “a race in which everyone starts at the same time and competes over the same period of time.” One of the many real-life examples she cites throughout the book is that of Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose career track record includes brief periods of being a full-time mom, working part-time after her second child, and beginning her first campaign for elected office well into her middle age, at sixty-two. 

She cautions that when we view careers through that narrow lens of a sprint from beginning to end with no room for variation, we leave behind those who have caregiving responsibilities or aren’t able to have a full-time caregiver at home, and as a result of that narrow mindset, we lose an enormous pool of talent: 
“We lose the distance runners, the athletes with the endurance, patience, fortitude and resilience to keep going over the long haul. We lose the runners who see a different path to the finish and are willing to take it, even if it is in unchartered territory. We lose the runners who have the temperament and perspective to allow them to see beyond the race.”

Slaughter views the problem of the so-called work-life balance as a concern that is not the sole purview of women. Instead, she reduces the entire problem of gender inequality to one issue - caregiving – something both men and women should be responsible for. She shows that as a rule, there is “the undervaluing of care, no matter who does it.” She exposes the reality that we tend to value people “who invest in themselves more than we value people who invest in others,” and she reminds us that in women’s fight for equality, we have “left caregiving behind, valuing it less and less as a meaningful and important human endeavor.”

To quote from my own writing that resonates with this position is an excerpt from my 2013 essay Is Feminism Elegant?

“If the presence of women in the workforce is perceived as the result of following a principle of empowerment (as opposed to a parameter), those who do not practice it, and do not enter the mainstream workforce are viewed as somehow not sipping from the cup of empowerment. They are viewed as ideologically indifferent to the general feminist agenda, or worse, ideologically underdeveloped! 
By solely viewing women’s work outside the home as gainful employment, we have gravely undermined the value of women’s work inside the home, and by extension, the value of the woman herself. So how do we revise our perception? We ought to view women’s work, domestic or otherwise, as having monetary value.”

Slaughter further promotes caregiving as a worthy alternative and supplement to competition, and calls for dismantling the latter’s “aura of mystery and power.” She questions our tendency to automatically view as role models those who have made a lot of money or risen to positions of power in their fields, and urges us to use other attributes as our compass of admiration.

She asks: “What about their values? How do they treat other people? What was the cost to their families – the people who brought them into the world, people they married, people they were responsible for bringing into the world? How can that part of the story not be relevant to who they are and how we should think about them?” 

These questions should be the obvious ones to ask when gauging the success of a person, but our notions of success are so narrowly defined and so driven by monetary outcomes that we have lost sight of what truly matters, and we need reminding. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that multiple books by public personae are urging us to re-examine our values:

In addition to Slaughter’s own thoughts on values, she quotes from conservative political commentator and NYT Op-Ed columnist David Brook’s recent book, The Road to Character, where Brooks, who describes himself as someone “paid to be a narcissistic blowhard” embarks on a mission to “save (his) own soul.” Brooks distinguishes between “résumé virtues” (traits valued professionally that lead to bigger paychecks and outward success) and “eulogy virtues” (praiseworthy character traits that are mentioned when the person isn’t around to hear it.) 
Slaughter quoting Brooks on eulogy virtues: “They’re “the ones that exist at the core of your being – whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you’ve formed.” They’re the ones, in the end, that matter the most.”

Slaughter’s case for caregiving passes the “test of elegance” as described in my essay Is Feminism Elegant? 
An elegant theory is one that explains the maximum evidence with minimum effort. It employs the fewest principles or rules while doing so. Elegant theories have high explanatory power, but at the same time are parsimonious

By using one simple but over-arching principle of caregiving as the cornerstone of gender equality, Slaughter unites the cause of women of all socio-economic levels in one parsimonious leap. In terms of applicability, caregiving is pertinent not only to women of all socio-economic levels, but to men as well. Because caregiving is also needed for the elderly, it applies to everyone - those who have children, as well as those who don’t. Slaughter’s keystone of caregiving is thus the elegant and much-needed unifying force of gender parity. 

Slaughter recommends building an “infrastructure of care” that includes affordable childcare and eldercare of high quality, a right to part-time work, flexibility in the workplace, and higher wages and training for paid caregivers, to name just a few.  What remains to be seen is how this business will be finished. What will be the specific policy changes and laws that would elevate the status of caregiving - of domestic workers, professional caregivers and of housewives - while at the same time making caregiving an affordable option for women who wish to prioritize their careers? 

In her effort to get to the roots of gender inequality, Slaughter takes things we already know about men, women, the workplace, gender expectations, our notions about masculinity, what we view as threats to masculinity, our judgments about work habits, and so much more, and she weaves together a composite that allows us to see the false assumptions that many of our beliefs on gender equality are founded on. Unfinished Business is a book that belongs on the bookshelf of every woman and man on the threshold of a career, navigating a career, or reflecting on a past career. It should be read by women leaning-in and by women staying-put, by men who care about gender equality and by men who are afraid that stepping out of antiquated gender-roles might threaten their masculine identity. It’s a book the requires re-reading to fully absorb the scope of Slaughter’s analysis: broad strokes that capture the realities of multiple cohorts of women, and intricate strokes that zoom in on individual words we use – working-mother, opting-out, Mr. Mom - euphemisms that betray our double standards, and the subtle cultural messages we send out that perpetuate the cycle of gender inequality.

To end with a slogan that Slaughter developed to exemplify her case for caregiving:

“If family comes first, work does not come second. Life comes together.”