Thursday, March 21, 2013

Tarzan and his mate, Jane

Today would have been my father’s 78th birthday. I am posting a poem written by him on a long-standing effort by him to get my mother to trade wearing sarees and chappals (slippers) for wearing salwar kameezes and shoes, when they traveled. My mother, who is most comfortable in the saree, would resist.

My changes and additions are only in formatting.

Tarzan and his mate, Jane

Sometime in 2003 the children decided that we should be treated to our Ruby Wedding Anniversary in great style. Gauri took the initiative and, through her contact, located an exciting location at a time-share spot on the Spanish Mediterranean coast. Her contact sent a picture of the said accommodation that awaited us at this place, and, in prankish jest, had it pictured as a dwelling on a tree-top – showing a ladder placed on the ground, denoting the sole access to the house. This sent my mind also equally whirling – leading us to accept the taunt by placing ourselves in reciprocating jest, aptly as Tarzan and Jane. This also gave me a chance to narrate Tarzan’s overtures to Jane to wean her away from being all too rigidly conservatively clad by suggestions of attiring oneself as occasion demanded.  

Time = Around 2003
Matron = married woman (usually middle-aged with grown-up children) who is staid and dignified
Willful = habitually disposed to disobedience and opposition
Thy Find = Wedding Day
Ruby Time = Ruby Wedding Jubilee (40 years)
Matador land = Spain
Distant mountain lands = Alpine resorts
Long trip in September = Visit to Copenhagen in 3 hops: 
(1) USA – Frankfurt 
(2) Frankfurt – Hamburg by train
(3) Hamburg – Copenhagen by Boat and Train which includes
(4) Ferry boat crossing Germany – Denmark across the Sound
Here, there, on deck = On the plane, on the train, on ferry boat deck
Flying Maharajah’s aides = Air India Hostesses
Concert Habit = Dress suitable only for Social Evenings

Doth not skintight bodice, a chimp suit, choke you all day?
'Tis amazing that this thou now taketh even to bed to lay;
Cast that off for mate’s sake, woman, and slip into airy gown,  
Wherefore cramp thyself further underneath our eiderdown?

My cloth hath clung to me over the years ever so well,
My good man, behold! Can't you see it clads me so swell?
Many that this land do trod, be seen they’ll in only such turnout,
As matron forsake this can I, and be one to such tradition flout?

Come summer we travel to Europe to distant mountain lands,
So, willful woman, stock thyself with attire that occasion demands;
See how you'll then leap with ease o’er brook and ditch alike,
In footwear stitched for rough ground and very tedious hike.  

As college lass on picnic trips, and many great outings thereafter, 
This garb oft survived misadventure, in fun and such loud laughter;
Thy inutile palaver pray cease, and watch how on shape so svelte,
Sits this vestment thou decrieth, gracefully sans pins or any belt.

Come September, the long trip that we planned goes at last afloat,
Which taketh us far – now by plane, then train, and again ferry boat.
Let Concert Habit be, stuff only rugged Wear in thy travel bag, oh Jane,   
Must you really parade in orient garb – here, there, then on deck again?
      This garb hath test of time withstood, and turned many admiring heads,
       At seaside, sports site, so too on flying Maharajah’s magnificent aides;
       Be quiet, and bug me no more, you thoughtless bully, you silly ape,
       Forsake I won’t my precious blouse and that ever-so-faithful drape!

This time next year to celebrate thy find, we will in sunny Matador land,
In a pretty hideout on the treetops amidst miles of glorious golden sand;
Splash by day and swing by night, from high branch with grasping strap,
Senora, shed at least for Ruby Time blooming blouse and awkward Wrap!

My father with his wife and daughter in sarees!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

An Open Letter to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in Response to 'Lean In'

Dear Sheryl Sandberg,

I am taking seriously the invitation you extend on page 173 of your book to continue the conversation you have begun with Lean In, on women and leadership.

I waited with great anticipation for your pre-ordered book to arrive at my doorstep on March 11th, and now that I have read it, I have much to say in response. My acquaintance with your philosophy of female empowerment began with your 2010 TED lecture. Like thousands of other women, listening to your talk kindled in me a general sense of self-empowerment. Your message of “sitting at the table” and “not leaving until you leave” hit home hard as things that I had clearly failed to do well enough in my own life. As a woman, as an emerging writer, and as someone who has straddled both sides of the fence, namely, the stay-at-home and “working woman” sides, I had many perspectives and angles that were begging to be fit into some philosophy. That your philosophy was an imperfect match I attributed to the fact that yours is mostly tailored to suit the woman in the corporate world. There were many contradictions and questions that I knew could not be addressed or clarified in a TED lecture or commencement speech. That is why I waited, truly eager to read what you had to say in the leisure and expanse of a book. I hope you will take my points of reaction to your book in the spirit of someone who wishes the same end-goals for women as you do, albeit from different pathways and perspectives.

As someone who has been “the only woman in the room” far too many times, it is natural that you have begun your efforts at bridging the gender gap in professional achievement by focusing on issues that you have grappled with yourself. Your spotlight on the issue of ambition and leadership roles fills a much-needed gap in the literature of women’s roles in management.  You make a compelling case for targeting the barriers of self-limiting behaviors and internalized stereotypes, because, as you say, “they are under our own control. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today. We can start this very moment.” You offer valuable advise on how to navigate the terrain of the corporate world which is seemingly a minefield for women. Why then has (initial) support for your book not been unanimous? I offer a few explanations and suggestions:

The statistics surrounding the ambition gap (as quoted in your book) are alarming and not easy to interpret. As you point out, there is scant evidence of the ambition gap when graduation rates are taken into account, as girls out-earn boys in degrees at the undergraduate level (57% of degrees are conferred to girls) and at the graduate level (60% conferred to girls.) However, as you also point out, the ambition gap is a gaping morass when one looks at women several years after graduation. Even among Harvard graduates, the percentage of women in full-time jobs ten years after graduation is around 60%, and for women who have two or more children, it’s less than 50%. The ambition gap is therefore a robust phenomenon that’s hard to ignore. But the reasons underlying this gap are not so transparent. One interpretation of these numbers, and the one you favor, is that a few years after taking educational measures that reflect a prior ambition, women give up on their aspirations and “opt out” of careers by succumbing to negative messages and internalized stereotypes. You treat the ambition gap as predominantly an internal issue, and the thesis of your book, as stated in the introduction, is, “We can re-ignite the revolution by internalizing the revolution.” Many have mistakenly interpreted this approach as an indication that you view women as primarily responsible for their lack of a greater presence in roles of leadership.

Another source of criticism for your philosophy stems from the idea that there are many factors that contribute to the notion of ambition.
An alternate interpretation of the dismaying statistics surrounding “opting out” and the ambition gap that must also be given voice is that ambitions may be muted and squashed as a result of inadequate support in the work and home environments. To use the jungle gym analogy, many women who climb onto the jungle gym are forced to jump off when children arrive because their spouses and work environments do not adequately support their new responsibilities. And it’s very difficult to hang on to the bars of the jungle gym while also holding onto a baby or two. Much of the dissent about your book revolves around this issue.

My contention about the ambition gap doesn’t concern your particular approach to remediation, but rather, concerns itself with questions about the studies that generated the alarming statistics in the first place. Were questions in the studies posed in a general manner that assumed the status quo of inadequate infrastructure and stereotypical gender-roles for women? Or, were the questions skillfully worded to tease out only the element of ambition? For example, consider the question: “If you had the requisite infrastructure and support in terms of childcare and other domestic responsibilities (a condition that the average man takes for granted), would you pursue roles of leadership and greater responsibility at work?” My guess is that if the questions in the studies controlled for variables in the environment that are known to put a damper on ambition, the ambition-gap between men and women would be significantly bridged. Thus, the question still remains: Are women truly less ambitious, and more fearful of risks than men are, or are the differences in ambition an artifact of being too aware of the stereotypical gender roles and sub-optimal conditions in which women are expected to sustain a career? Perhaps the best method to fueling ambition in women involves a multi-pronged approach where women are urged and taught to dream big, as your book most certainly does, but to also create a home and work environment where those dreams are sustainable.

Many critics have also pointed out that a top-down method will not spark a movement. I am of the same opinion. In an essay on feminism titled ‘The Problem with Women,’ I wrote: “Top-down solutions are capable only of  ‘trickle-down’ effects, and not capable of larger brush-stroke changes. For a solution to bring about meaningful changes within a single lifetime, it must begin with a broad base that is common to women of all ages, socio-economic, educational and ethnic backgrounds.” That the focus of your book is primarily on educated women in the corporate world is another reason why I think there is such a polarized response despite the fact that everyone with an opinion wants the same end results for women! The media has already identified a Sandberg camp and a Slaughter camp. While I do not wish to add to the growing commentary about these camps, I will state for the record that I, like Prof. Joan Williams, think that you are both right. I see the shortcomings of your philosophy in its scope and not in its content. In other words, if your philosophy could be extended to include all women, you are sure to ignite a movement. To that end, casting the idea of leadership as a way of life rather than a role is imperative. When we cast the idea of ‘leadership’ as a role or position that women should aspire to, we create certain corollaries that develop from that viewpoint: If you are not in a designated leadership role, you are automatically in the category of the less empowered. You are not in control of the wheel. A “worker bee” who is satisfied with her level in the corporate hierarchy is automatically considered a non-leader when external labels of leadership are applied. And when exclusionary criteria are applied to groups within a group, i.e. women in non-leadership positions within the larger cohort of “working women,” there comes about unnecessary divisions among an otherwise homogenous group.

On the other hand, if leadership is viewed as an attitude, a mindset, a philosophy, and a way of life, it doesn’t leave anybody out of its spectrum. And from anywhere on the spectrum, one could still aspire to external roles of leadership.

Part of my eagerness to read your book stemmed from the desire to learn about the theoretical bases of your philosophy. Why, in your opinion, is the female sex beleaguered (other than the fact that she internalizes stereotypes)? Do you subscribe to the Marxist origins of early feminist thought? Or, what, in your opinion, are the historical roots of female oppression? I was especially looking forward to seeing how your senior thesis at Harvard on the economic determinants of social behavior might have informed your current philosophy. I was particularly hopeful that you would address the question of how, when there is a significant wage-gap between partners (a topic closely related to your thesis), the lower-earning partner could “lean in” (without much financial leverage) if doing so meant scaling back for the higher-earning partner? While these issues were not directly addressed in the book, you hinted at your theoretical leanings in your discussion of the “mommy wars” and the phenomenon of many women rejecting the label of ‘feminist.’ I would like to present my own analysis of these two issues.

The phenomenon of the “gender wars” or what the media loves to call the “mommy wars” is a predictable outcome of the way in which we have framed the issue of female empowerment within a broader theoretical framework. While Prof. Joan Williams (as you quote in your book) attributes these conflicts to a clash of identities and a clash of social ideals, I attribute them to the way we perceive gainful employment within the larger theoretical framework of feminist theory. A detailed account of my explorations is delineated in my essay ‘Is Feminism Elegant?’ In that essay, I explore the shortcomings of dominant feminist thought from the viewpoint of the aesthetics of theory. But briefly: The dominant modus operandi of the feminist movement is gainful employment outside the home. This method has been cast as the unique and singularly powerful pathway to female emancipation. In addition, this technique of empowerment is viewed as a principle of empowerment, and not a parameter, or one expression of a higher principle. Thus, by solely viewing women’s work outside the home as a means of empowerment, we have gravely undermined the value of women’s work inside the home - and by extension, the value of the woman herself. Furthermore, because we view the presence of women in the workforce as a manifestation of a principle of feminist empowerment (and not a parameter), we view those who do not practise it, and do not enter the mainstream workforce as somehow not sipping from the cup of empowerment. They are viewed as ideologically indifferent to the general feminist agenda, or worse, ideologically under-developed! Therein lie the attitudes of superiority from the “working moms” and the counter-attacks of attempts to induce guilt by stay-at-home moms. These judgments are thus predictable products of our perception that gainful employment is the singular method of female empowerment. If however, both gainful employment and domestic work were on equal footing in the theoretical framework of feminist theory, the mommy wars would diminish. Thus, to remedy this, perceptions must be changed. We must learn to view all work undertaken by women, domestic and otherwise, as having monetary value.

Like many others, I too reject the labels ‘feminist’ and ‘feminism.’ My objections are on linguistic grounds. A full exploration of my viewpoint can be found on my blogpost ‘The Feminine Mistake.’ In brief, I reject those labels because they have (negative) connotations of being the “other.” As someone who belongs to the group that makes up half the human population, I deeply object to being classified as the other.

In conclusion, I’d like to offer some unsolicited advise: If you hope to ignite a grass-roots movement with your book and with, you must broaden your message to include ways in which a woman without a job outside the home can assume leadership roles within her domestic precinct. When I heard you say, in one of your speeches, that women need to “sit at the table,” my immediate reaction was to broaden your message to apply to all women: A woman needs to sit at the head of the family dining table, especially if she is the primary domestic worker. Then, when I read your book and saw that you ended chapter eight ‘Make your Partner a Real Partner’ with “We need more men to sit at the table…… the kitchen table,” I thought to myself: Damn - She beat me to the dining table analogy!

Finally, while many in the media are getting dizzy pointing fingers at your standpoint on female empowerment and supposed lack of experience with female oppression, I want to commend you for beginning a conversation and bringing about awareness regarding the intangible barriers that women succumb to in their professional lives. As you are someone in a position of great influence, I hope that you will eventually broaden your message of self-empowerment to target the intangible barriers that suppress the voices of women in their homes and daily lives.

Nandini Ramakrishna

Monday, March 4, 2013

On the Death of my Father - Part II

Keeping vigil by a dying parent’s bed-side is a bittersweet reversal of roles. But unlike a sleeping child who is left alone in slumber, my father didn’t spend a single solitary moment in the hospital. There was a round-the-clock companion to my father throughout his hospital stays, a mission shared mostly among my brothers and Sundar, and supplemented by others in the family. 

In the weeks and days before my father’s demise, he had begun to show signs of imminent death. He had significantly lost his appetite. He had great difficulty swallowing… In the months following his diagnosis, my father would have read all there is to read about lung cancer and the course it takes. He may have recognized the signs in himself. Or perhaps my father consciously avoided reading about the inevitable end in order to maintain a positive outlook throughout his illness.

My father’s prognosis turned bleak when his breathing functions continued to decline despite efforts to rejuvenate a collapsed lung. A final scan revealed increased tumor growth that explained his deterioration. Already, as a result of inadequate oxygen and the build-up of carbon dioxide in his body, he was in a fluctuating state of drowsiness and wakefulness, of which the latter would become fewer and far between. When my brother had asked him, during one period of awareness, if he was ready to depart this world, my father had answered "Yes." Eventually, unconsiousness would take over. His blood pressure would decrease. His pulse would weaken. His heart would stop.

After the nursing staff had medically confirmed my father’s death, they, along with Sundar and my brothers prepared the body. His nostrils were occluded with cotton balls; gauze was wrapped under his jaws and over his head to prevent movement of the joints before rigor mortis set in. My father was changed out of the hospital gown into his own clothes. A “body bag” was brought, in which my father’s body would be transported on a gurney out of the hospital to the hearse. While adjustments were being made and procedure was being followed, what was left physically of my father was referred to as “the body” and “it.” The transition from referring to my unconscious father as “him” to referring to his bodily remains as “it” was immediate and natural. Yet, when they had put my father’s body into the body bag, my brother quickly instructed the nursing staff to not zip it up the whole way. To leave the face exposed. And just in case they hadn’t heard him the first time, he repeated his request. One of the nurses responded that when they transport the body out of the room and into the hospital halls, they are required to zip up the bag completely. My brother acknowledged that as a given, and reiterated that in the room the face must not be enclosed. He might as well have taken the words out of my mouth. Even while the mind easily accepted (as seen in the shift in our choice of pronoun), that the sleeping image of our father was no longer our father, the idea of covering the face of the body, as if it might hamper his breathing, was unpalatable. We hold on even as we let go.

In Song of the Flower XXIII, Khalil Gibran writes of the flower: “I am the last gift of the living to the dead.” In reality, though, this gift is as much for the benefit of the living, as it is a final tribute to the dead. The last images I have of my father’s physical remains were strangely beautiful.

As we rode in the hearse to the crematorium, I happened to sit at my father’s feet. As a child I had had an unexplainable fascination for the protruding veins on my father’s feet. If I wasn’t on his lap, playing with his warm hands, I was at his feet – trying to displace or squash these veins, and then watch them quickly resume their shape. To my 5-yr old self, this was an activity that was hugely entertaining.

When I saw my father for the first time in the hospital two days earlier, I had noticed how swollen his feet were, and how the edematous flesh had swallowed up the protruding veins. The rest of him was, in contrast, shrunken and thinner than he had ever been. I remember him remarking about my own weight when he had visited me in the US the previous year. The day before my parents were to leave Phoenix on their way back to India, I was weighing their suitcases by holding them while standing on the scale. I subtracted my weight from the joint weight of suitcase and self. On hearing me speak my calculations out aloud, my father interrupted from the next room: “Wait a minute. There must be some mistake. How could that be your weight when it’s just a little less than mine?” I told him that I’m a lot heavier than I look. Hopefully that’s true. In retrospect, it was he who was a lot sicker than he looked or felt.

At the crematorium, the priest undertook the last set of rites performed on the body of the departed before we proceeded to the crematory, the room containing the furnace where my father’s body would be consigned to flames in the electric kiln. I imagined my father inquiring, some time in the recent past, while attending somebody’s funeral, particulars about the electric furnace – a relatively new possession of the funeral industry in India. He would surely have inquired about the temperatures inside, the method of ash collection and other particulars.

The final image I have of my father’s physical presence, as his body made its way on a moving trolley into the furnace of the crematorium, is a multi-colored arrangement of garlands and flowers in the shape of a sleeping man with only his face visible. Placed over the flowers were ten diyas – little clay lamps that were lit with burning camphor – whose dancing orange flames symbolized the funeral pyre of earlier days.
It occurs to me that some rituals do serve useful purposes. Holden Caulfield was wrong when he said: “Who wants flowers when you're dead?  Nobody.” I most certainly do.

A famous quote from Remembrance of Things Past reads:
People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life, which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive.  It is as though they were traveling abroad.

Although Proust intended this to refer to death in general, it applies well to the way in which someone views the death of a loved one in another country. In his observation, Proust inadvertently carries the immigrant experience.

I have lived outside of my hometown for 18 years now. In these years, my father did not have a daily presence in my life. Now in death, he doesn’t cause, for me, the experience of a daily absence – as he most surely does for my mother and brothers. My consciousness of his permanent absence would come in sudden bursts of recognition - they would come on unawares, greeting me each time as if it were a new revelation. I would sometimes react as if it were indeed a new announcement, until my memory, always a few steps behind, would remind me, that I’ve been though those same emotions before.

When my grandfather, an octogenarian, passed away under peaceful circumstances, in his home, surrounded by family, I reacted to the news of his death in ways that I knew were clearly incongruent to the situation. But I couldn’t help it. There was an unbridgeable disconnect between my rational mind and my emotions - and I had no control over the latter. On my last trip to India, I asked a friend what drove her family’s decision to return to India after having spent many years abroad, as immigrants. She recounted an episode, similar to mine, where she couldn’t help reacting with excessive emotion to the death of a relative. Right then, she said, she had decided she couldn’t subject herself to that experience again.

Spurred by the experience of my own lack of control over my emotions regarding my grandfather’s death in 1998, I wrote a poem called ‘Telescopic Grief.’

Telescopic Grief

They did not cry to mourn his passing on,
Or ask aloud: Why should he now be gone?
They celebrated that he had lived, instead,
And rejoiced that it was he, their common thread.
I knew that he had lived well past his prime,
I knew that even for dying there is a time.
Still, my sense of loss, excessive and profuse
Was a sentence disproportionate to the crime.

For telescopic grief takes its own slow course,
Un-propelled and unguided by the healing force
Of bearing witness to Death’s Aftermath:
Cremation. Obsequies. Solemnities.
It’s a feather flitting down a zig-zag path,
It stays afloat or is carried by the breeze
Of nostalgic gusts that linger in persistence
As dues that absence pays – the price of distance.

The topic of grieving in absentia, or telescopic grief, as I call it, is an area much in need of reporting and research. That I did not have to deal with telescopic grief with my father’s passing is a blessing of immense proportion.