Life | Strong Silent Women

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Strong Silent Women
Text by Madhu Jain
Published: Volume 17, Issue 6, June, 2009

Madhu Jain obsesses that though power often lies in the hands of celebrities and the rich and powerful, it is sometimes found in the most unexpected of places

When I first heard that this issue was to pivot on the axis of power, I agonised over the twists and turns I could give the subject in this column. Power is an intoxicating, sexy and an infinitely variable subject –power and women even more so. It is also a subject that has been discussed ad infinitum from the beginning of time as we know it. Think the unfortunate Eve. Or, much before that, our primordial goddesses with lots up the sleeves of their multiple arms: pulverising demons and bewitching the gods, not to speak of coming to the help of mortals in distress, was all in a day’s work. (Sorry about that one: those beautiful arms were not clothed.)

Flexing political muscle
Closer home and in our times women have been flexing their political muscles even more purposefully. The media just went into overdrive projecting women (the political heavyweights that is) as goddesses who were going to shake the ground beneath the feet of political stalwarts. Several political pundits predicted that the triad of Jayalalita in the south, Mayawati in the north and Mamata Banerjee in the east would be something to reckon with after the elections. Woman power didn’t quite dazzle at the hustings this time, with the exception of our didi from West Bengal and, of course, Sonia Gandhi sitting still and strong at the centre. Jayalalita’s cape did not prove as invincible: she was brought down a peg or two from superwoman. Nor did Mayawati’s march hoist her to a taller pedestal.

Now, reams have been written on female political power. This millennium has also seen a deluge of newsprint about women shattering glass ceilings and making their way into the inner sanctums of the corporate world. There’s been a lot about stiletto toughies and gym-sculpted bodies exuding power from every pore – showing muscle in both boardrooms and bedrooms, even triumphing along the way over dominant mothers-in-law. Beauty has always been power. Health and lithe torsos represent the nouveau power. Michele’s (Obama) sleeveless arms with their impressive biceps seemed to have vowed the nation: it’s the way to go for women.

Backdoor power
But is all this real power? Most of our female politicos got there through the side or backdoors: opened wide for them by fathers, husbands, mentors. Few made it to the top on their own steam. Fortunately, a sizeable number of women have begun to make it to the top of corporate ladders by pulling their own weight. They also have to work twice as hard as men to get there, and stay there. Perhaps, better times are round the corner. Some of the gurus of the management world have now said that the future belongs to the right brainers: those with high EQ’s (emotional quotient) may be better suited to save the day.

The topic of woman power often comes tarted-up, wrapped in designer clichés. Celebrities have either grabbed (or been given) the aura of the gods. Beauty queens reign on other platforms as well, pontificating on all subjects under the sun. Sadly, our movies elevate women (with heels and padded shoulders) only to bring them down from their pedestal by the time the end credits roll. Remember the innumerable films in which the free-spirited, funky heroines in minis and ‘short hair’ metamorphose into docile, tea-and-halvah-making women after the hero finally ‘catches’ them and the mandap looms in the near-distance. There’s also been a drastic change in their wardrobe and coiffeur: salwar kameezes and saris replace the minis and pants and their short crops suddenly materialise into long pigtails or buns. Recent heroines haven’t fared much better: Bipasha Basu in Madhur Bhandarkar’s film Corporate is certainly brought down several pegs.

How was I to go beyond the clichés? In moments of such occupational crisis I usually turn to my savvy and wise friends. My good friend Rekha Khanna, a CEO and MD of a major French medical diagnostic company prodded me to look elsewhere. Beyond the chattering classes, to the proverbial, silently strong woman – the ‘everywoman’ who battles impossible odds and comes through with her dignity intact. Rekha’s eureka moment came courtesy her maid, the woman who came to clean for her when she lived in Mumbai.

Beyond cliche
The lady, a stunner with grey eyes, was so efficient that Rekha asked her to work full time for her. The bai’s refusal to do so stunned her. Her response: “You are nice to me but if I work for just you, you will become like a husband. You will try to control me. Today I work in three homes. I return to my own home, take a shower and go to sleep happy. I have educated my son and daughter.” Apparently, the bai had thrown out her drunkard husband who used to beat her and forcibly take her hard-earned money away from her.

What impressed my friend the most about her spirited maid was the fact that despite being illiterate she understood her rights. She was also refreshingly free of hypocrisy and talked candidly about her sexual life. Says Rekha: “She told me that if she wanted sex there were plenty of men around for that. She didn’t need a husband for it.” Might is not always right: it could also be the other way round – as in the spirited bai’s case.

The thing about power is that it should be worn lightly, gracefully. We all know about grace under pressure. Equally important is grace surviving the rapid ascension to power. That’s a tougher call.

Madhu Jain is an author and a journalist. She writes for several publications and is currently working on her second book. She also curates art shows.

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