Category Archives: Thoughts on India

Inspiration from two killer books on women, business and society

This year a lot of books have shaped my thinking and enlightened me. ‘Women’s issues’ are not actually just women’s issues of course, they are everybody’s issues. And I hugely respect men who take an interest and care. So here’s an interesting fact: I’d always cared about feminism but last year, a boy made me more aware of feminist issues, encouraged me to speak up more, to make my own decisions, to drive when he was in the car. And to him and other men who support women, I owe a huge thank you.

My interest caused me to have more conversations and to read more than just the occasional article in a magazine. It has been so rewarding. I share below my thoughts on and inspired by two of the best books I’ve read which are about women, business and society.  

1. ‘Business as unusual’ by Anita Roddick, Founder of The Body Shop

I love this woman so much and every time I read from this book I feel a sadness and loss at her premature death. She stands for everything I aspire to: commercial success with a strong moral conscience and an activist stance. Anita Roddick represents leadership at its best: leadership that is courageous and has the guts to speak against the status quo. 

Anita writes so honestly in this book, which is a real change to the bullshit vague ‘change’ and ‘hope’ waffles we read from too many business or political leaders so often. She describes how she set up The Body Shop, how she battled with shareholders, managers and advisers to keep human rights and environmental issues on the agenda for the Body Shop. Anita Roddick was against animal testing; for fair trade; a pacifist who campaigned against wars; and a feminist who saw talent in diversity. What I particularly love about the book is how candid she is about her industry and how she’s not trying to sell the Body Shop’s products in the book at all. In fact she says ‘I am not interested in just selling shampoo and soap. The simple fact is that I’d rather promote human rights than a bubble bath‘. 

Under Anita Roddick, The Body Shop campaigned hard on driling in the Niger Delta (they were the only company with the guts to stand up to Shell!); they helped Greenpeace and ‘Friends of the Earth’ campaigns and ran anti-war rallies, and had full-time human rights activists on their payroll. 

“I think the business community has tried to operate politics and commerce in completely separate arenas for far too long, believing that neither should interfere with the other. I disagree fundamentally – I’m for interference. As far as I’m concerned, political awareness and activism must be wove into the fabric of business. In a global world, there are no value-free or politically disentangled actions”

– Anita Roddick, p168, Business As Unusual

I could not agree more. Businesses run our world: they use most of the world’s resources in terms of water, energy, minerals, metals etc; they have huge buying power, and run huge ad campaigns to shape consumer behaviour. How any CEO can act as if only the bottom line is their business is beyond me, and yet that is still how most CEO compensation and commercial decisions work, with a few tack-ons and PR around other metrics to give the impression that something else matters. 

The other issue covered in this book is women’s self-esteem which is more closely related to The Body Shop’s products of course.   I first got interested in The Body Shop when I heard about it from my dad when he did his MBA several years ago. The Body Shop was one of his marketing class case studies. Most beauty businesses’ underlying marketing message to women is: ‘You’re ugly, you need all these products to make yourself look good, you better cover up your reality with all these make-ups and lotions’. The Body Shop’s message is ‘You’re beautiful, here’s some products that will help keep your skin and hair healthy, and well, everyone needs to wash’. Diving into the campaigns run by the Body Shop,  I’m so glad Anita Roddick walked the planet.  One of my favourite campaigns she mentions in her book is that of the Ruby doll – a woman that represents the way women’s bodies are meant to be.

The Body Shop's campaign to challenge beauty stereotypes through Ruby
The Body Shop’s campaign to challenge beauty stereotypes through Ruby

Here’s one thing you’ll be surprised to know: the makers of Barbie actually threatened to sue the Body Shop for the Ruby doll!! 

2. ‘Unspeakable things: sex, lies and revolution’ by Laurie Penny, journalist, feminist, activist and self-described ‘troublemaker’

Here’s a book as bold as its title. Laurie Penny is a legend, and I was so happy to find out recently that she’s moving to Harvard for a year too! (I am moving for 2 years for my MBA). She’s 27 and since a young age has been a loud voice for the subjugated in society. I read her column in the New Statesman and I always nod reading it. It’s like reading something you know to be true that is unsaid. Her book is exactly that – a brilliant polemic that you can read cover to cover in one sitting because it’s so absorbing.

You will not agree with all the things in her book. Or you will not agree with most of them at first – which was my reaction. I’m lucky enough to have worked in a white-collar job in a top-tier firm where women do have opportunities, and I do have women role models, and I have met amazing guys who really mentor and coach and care for your professional development. My life and opportunities are nowhere near perfect, but better than average. But Penny’s book is not just about London professionals. It’s about all women, and what she says rings true when you think about it deeper. And there have been plenty of incidents in my time too where I’ve felt less than equal. Reflect and you will unravel yourself and your social conditioning as you read this book. 

What I admire about Laurie is her guts – if you’ve watched an interview with Laurie you’ll know she’s not one to stay quiet or sugarcoat things. This type of person is so rare. She is one of the few women who I really look up to because she isn’t pursuing male approval or societal approval or constrained by vanity – and it’s really hard to overcome one’s subconscious desires and conditioning to pursue those things, to fit in, to be liked. She talks and writes real, unafraid and unwilling to please. 

In her book, she was brave enough to write publicly about her battle with anorexia; her rape and the backlash against her from threatened men who have nothing better to do but to hate feminists. Incidentally, many men who complain about feminists don’t even know what the word feminism means. ‘Feminist’ does NOT mean aggressive woman who is angry at men! As I mentioned in a previous blogpost (on the co-ownership mindset), feminism refers to the belief in equal rights and opportunities for men and women. So why men would respect women who believe women should have anything less than 100% rights is really odd to me. Do these men just like women with low self-esteem?! And what about those dumb women who claim to be ‘feminine’ rather than ‘feminist’ as if those are mutually exclusive (I’ve heard this statement said with pride so many times). Next time someone says it, I’ll be like ‘Please specify exactly which rights you believe men should have but women should not’.

My favourite chapter in Laurie’s book is about love in the neoliberal world. She describes what she terms LoveTM. LoveTM is the product we are sold every day in countless movies, books, advertisements. It is the fairytale romance ideal that all little girls are told to aspire to. LoveTM happens between rich heterosexual white couples in a monogamous relationship. This utopic ideal has no room for poor women, coloured women, fat women, ugly women, old women, single mothers, homosexuals, transsexuals, and anyone who deviates from this strict norm in other ways. The rest of us are all irrelevant side-stories according to LoveTM and our lives are regarded either sinful or worthless because we don’t look like Barbie dolls and aren’t in Barbie-Ken couples. The other interesting concept that Laurie Penny introduces is that of the ‘love object’ – love objectification is almost as bad as sex objectification for women. It reduces us to the supporting role for the hero. When what so many of us really want and should have every right to, no matter what we look like or what our sexuality is, is to be the hero, the main character, in our own stories. 

A running theme through Laurie Penny’s book is women’s self-esteem. One can argue that things are improving by pointing to a few examples like the ‘Like a Girl’ campaign by Always, or the Dove campaign featuring old women. But I believe Penny is still right in most of her bold assertions. True equality is still pretty rare and as a culture, we’re still geared to making most women feel inadequate. If we were to do an analysis of advertisements, what we’d see is women who do not represent real women in our diversity. Even the coloured women that have finally started featuring in some adverts as the token diversity model are not really representative of coloured women on the street. This is a worldwide problem: the women we see on screen and in ads look different from most of us consistently. 

My own view is making women feel inadequate is a way of selling products and that happy women buy less. I’ve been reflecting on this more and more as I pack up my life here in London to move to Boston and go through all the clutter I’ve accumulated over years. As women, some of us are constantly chasing that gap in our wardrobe, when what we should really be chasing is that gap in our self-esteem which can only come through meaningful actions, not meaningless purchases. 


One body, multiple owners: the co-ownership mindset in India

In early June this year, two teenage girls were raped and hanged to death when they were on the way to the bathroom in the fields. I’m appalled that cruel violent incidents happen again and again and again and nothing changes. My desire to understand what’s driving this perverse behaviour has led me to a lot of different concepts, theories and some broader issues, one of the most important of which is ownership.

How do modern western and Indian models of ownership differ? How do you know when you own something?

My definition of ownership is when you control the controllable aspects of the object, decide what happens with/to it and are the recognized authority by others in doing so. It’s my own definition (no pun intended, I own it). My argument is that ‘co-ownership’, which I define as the state where multiple people own the same object/entity/whatever, is pervasive in Indian culture and the cause of an incredible amount of unhappiness at best and extreme violence at worst.

I don’t have data on ownership, and indeed accessible data on abstract concepts like ‘values’ and ‘mindsets’ is hard to find (I’ve tried). But I have talked to many Indian women of different generations – from my age up to my grandmother’s age and reflected on my experiences. Here is ownership from some of the angles we have seen it.

Example 1: Parents own children, especially daughters
Many Indian parents have a sense of ownership over their sons and daughters. This comes out in various forms. One is that you often can’t make decisions fully independently about career or personal life.

A friend of mine got into an Ivy League business school recently and was contemplating whether to go or not. Her father told his friends and relatives that she had an offer but was thinking about it. Their reaction was “Well, what are you going to tell her to do?” They were shocked to hear him say “It’s her decision”.

Here quite simply is how decision-making compares in India versus the West in general, and especially for ‘traditional’ families:


The decisions we make together in the Indian model range from: what subjects you study in high school, anything you do romantically before marriage, who you marry, whether you can divorce or not if you’re unhappy, sometimes whether you have children or not.
So basically you’re not a sole owner of your mind, body or life. It’s a partnership, and some shareholders have more share than others. Many of us are controlling shareholders, but let’s not forget, many others have a significant majority.

This ownership can extend to the unborn child in a woman’s womb too. Harpreet Kaur’s case is particularly tragic. She was the daughter of Jagir Kaur – a member of the Golden Temple committee (Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee to be precise) – a key religious leader and figure. Her daughter, Harpreet, fell in love with a man who her mother did not approve of. Harpreet ran away with the man she wanted to marry. Jagir hired people to track her daughter down and kidnap her and bring her back. Harpreet was now pregnant. Jagir was furious that someone in her family was carrying a baby against her will and forced Harpreet to get an abortion. Not wanting to catch media attention, she didn’t want to take her daughter to a hospital and instead forced Harpreet into the hands of a quack in a village where she thought the abortion would be inconspicuous. It turned out not to be that inconspicuous when Harpreet died as a result of her forced abortion. Tragic. Jagir Kaur is free right now. Her daughter’s body was cremated straightaway without conducting a post mortem and the case had many twists. It’s an extreme case where the ownership dial was turned up so high that Jagir thought she had every right over her daughter and her daughter’s unborn child.

Example 2: The hindi word for husband ‘pati’ means ‘owner’ or ‘master’. You have a boss at home and the lower hand in major decisions.

For instance, Crorepati = owner of a crore (ten million)

Not so subtle, eh?

So the language makes it obvious. But the saddest thing is how this often plays out in reality in more subtle ways. As owners and masters, men make the big decisions. As a Mumbai-based friend pointed out, the striking thing about India is that upper or educated classes have very similar value systems in regards to the status of women. And worst of all, women hold women back and share these views. I know as I’ve met a few  women with master’s degrees who themselves treat women as commodities.

My friend gives the example of marriage logistics as a case of dominance. Two of her cousins got married a few years ago. “It is, in most cases, expected that a girl will leave her job, city and relocate to where the husband is after marriage. The option of finding a location which works for both people isn’t even considered. Even if this means the girl will be unemployed for a year or two in the new city, that’s ok. Both my cousins had to leave their job when they got married and moved to where the husband was. They both stayed unemployed for a year in the new city until they found their bearings again. Moving to a city which your husband knows but you don’t automatically gives him the upper hand in the relationship – as you are now unemployed, friendless, and unaware of things around you.”

Another friend points out  “many women are genuinely happy doing this kind of thing because they always believed that this is what they were always meant to be doing…these women do not feel oppressed or limited in any way, because their ambitions never exceeded their circumstances.”

Example 3: The backlash against people who try and free women

One of my friends from Oxford, an Indian female lawyer, used to volunteer in a domestic abuse legal advice NGO in New Delhi. She still lives in New Delhi, working as a corporate lawyer, but had to give up working for the domestic abuse NGO. One of the reasons for her leaving was that a number of her co-workers had acid thrown on their faces by angry husbands. These husbands were angry that someone was trying to give their wives rights, and take away their right to beat them.

Example 4: Rampant ‘eve-teasing’ in public places

No woman is spared ‘eve-teasing’ in India which is a euphemism for sexual harassment. By ‘no woman’ I mean you can be of any caste, religion, wearing the most conservative clothing in the world, be very unattractive, of any nationality and you will get harassed if you spend enough time in most parts of India. This is very surprising news to many western women who’ve never experienced such a thing here. I’ll even define what kinds of incidents I’m talking about. If you’re on a bus, men will grope you, lean against you, sing a song in your ear, brush against you. On the street or in shopping malls, they’ll follow you. This is so common in any situation – to the extent that in the anti-rape protests that followed the brutal rape of a 23 year old student in New Delhi, men were using the opportunity provided by big female crowds to grope women!! I listened to my New Delhi friend about this issue of harassment on the streets. She told of how she was scared to get out of her car if there was bad driver who hit her car in the back or was obstructing her way. Because who knows what they might do to you if you stepped out? She said one of the core reasons why men in India behave the way they do in public is because they view women as public property. You wouldn’t call someone a trespasser for walking on their own lawn right? And you are everybody’s lawn.

It’s important to note that there is variation within in India in how women are treated – this is the case for anything obviously – big countries have variation, even cities have variation. Harassment is generally worse in the North, especially in Punjab and Haryana. Punjab also has some of the worst gender ratios in the country, with certain areas having a shocking 300 women per 1000 men (source: India dishonoured, a guardian short-read I highly recommend as a data-rich introduction to women in India). Aborting female foetuses and killing female babies after birth, for example, by putting them in a pot and then burying them in the ground, has led to these ratios.  Mumbai is felt to be safer than New Delhi. There are some matriarchal areas in Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. Cases of violence and assault are so under-reported, however, that it is hard to trust the data. Googling maps of violence yielded some counter-intuitive results, that Punjab was not as bad as Rajasthan etc. We have to take this data with a pinch of salt which is why I have written based more anecdotally for now – the very fact that women from upper middle-class families had so many examples to share points to how prevalent the lower status and co-ownership of women is.

Example 5: People owning each other’s hair

In this example, I show how ownership extends to men too –  a more general illustration of co-ownership.

In Sikhism, you’re not meant to cut your hair. To be clear, this point is illustrative about ownership, not religion (a topic I’ve been told to avoid by people who love me and don’t want me to die young). So one man I know had kept his hair and tied a turban for 40 or so years since his birth. He did not believe in this rule at all but did it to please his family and in particular his religious father. After his father passed away, he did what he had always wanted to do and cut his hair. The rest of his family were outraged and disowned him. I thought about it and on some level, what it seems to imply is that his family own his hair. People in some Sikh families own each other’s hair.


In a later blogpost, I want to look at what drives the mindset of ownership. I think it’s the view that women are physically and mentally inferior to men. By the way, no way do I believe this view is exclusively an Indian phenomenon (I’d be denying obvious evidence if I thought that). It’s just noticeably less prominent in Anglo-Saxon countries, whereas in India it’s the elephant in pretty much every room and is so in-your-face it is suffocating for people who believe in equality.

When I was in India a few months ago, we used to laugh and smile when our driver stopped to let the cows pass on the road. My Canadian friend, who saw a man slap a woman in New Delhi on the street, postulated half-jokingly what he had come to understand as the hierarchy in India: Man, Cow, Child, Woman.

It certainly seems the case sometimes. The father of the teenage girl hanging from the mango tree had gone to the police station to find out what had happened to his missing girl. At first they said she would be ‘returned’ after 2 hours by the guys that had kidnapped her. He said he would not have registered a report if she had come back because ‘boys borrow girls all the time’ in that region, referring to ‘upper caste’ boys and men from families with power and clout. When you combine being a woman and being ‘low caste’, you are really owned big time.

She, sadly, did not come back. Hers and many others died in cruel circumstances, with little change in attitudes following their deaths. Let’s at least do their memories justice  the best way we can. Quite often these days, women fear describing themselves as ‘feminist’ for being seen as aggressive. Feminism is defined as ‘the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities’ (Merriam Webster dictionary). I can’t understand why anyone would not be feminist! Women from all cultures,  let’s reclaim ourselves – we own ourselves, no one else does.

With special thanks to my family and friends, particularly Nupur Joshi who exchanged many emails with me on this topic sharing her examples and thoughts, and is an epic source of encouragement.


Jodhpur: the city built around caste, and the vision and sacrifice of one great man

Jodhpur is famous for being the blue city and the old city indeed is a cool blue. The city is also designed around caste. There are five main caste groups, which sub-divide into sub-categories and many sub-sub-categories. The five main groups are the Brahmins (Priests and academics), the Kshatriyas (Warriors), the Vaisyas (Merchants), the Sudras (Unskilled workers), The Dalits (Untouchables). Each of the ‘top’ four castes lived and probably still do live in the city in an area sectioned for them. The city is encased by a wall as many ancient cities are. The untouchables lived outside the city’s walls, coming into the city only to do ‘lowly work’, for example, as toilet-cleaners. They were not allowed to sleep inside the city and had to take off their shoes and put them on their head whenever they passed the door of a Brahmin or warrior household.

As we stood in one of the high courtyards at the majestic Mehrangarh fort, our guide pointed to the Brahmin quarter “There is one exception. In the middle of the Brahmin quarter is the house of an untouchable”.

The King of Jodhpur consulted a holy seer on what he should do to protect the wealth in his treasure house. The Holy seer (must have been a sinister soul) said that he should bury someone alive under the treasure house and only then would his treasure be safe. The King gathered the city people and asked them ‘Who amongst you will do this for me?’ One untouchable man stepped forward. He said he would if the King fulfilled his three conditions.

The three conditions were 1) that his family would get a house in the Brahmin quarter and be allowed to live there without disturbance; 2) that they would not have to put their shoes on their heads when they pass the house of Brahmin or warrior; 3) that the Royal family would provide them some income every month.

The King agreed and the man was buried alive under the treasure house. To this day, his 150 descendants get 3000 rupees (equivalent of £30 or $50) from the royal family every month and some live in that house.

 I could not believe the cruelty of the seer and the King. It’s a pervasive idea in human history everywhere that to gain something, something must be lost. This is not untrue when you think about working hard to get results, but this type of horrific loss for an uncertain gain from a holy spirit is different. I cannot fully imagine what must have gone through the buried man’s mind as he lay in his grave alive, knowing he was going to slowly suffocate to death. Did he regret it? Had he brought poison for himself? Did he meditate? Did he pray?

Whatever he did, he made a huge sacrifice for his family. He was intelligent and visionary in his conditions.  He made a statement about how awful life was for the lower castes and how that type of life is not acceptable to anyone – the human spirit cannot be broken even if all you’re taught from birth is that you are worthless. We’re all human. We all deserve the same. They should make a temple in his name, in the name of the unsung understated Saint of Jodhpur, a temple for equality.

Jodhpur, the blue city in Rajasthan, India
Jodhpur, the blue city in Rajasthan, India
The majestic Mehrangarh fort, Jodhpur, Rajasthan. I just wish there wasn't some poor guy buried under it. Cruelty taints beauty a bit for me.
The majestic Mehrangarh fort, Jodhpur, Rajasthan. I just wish there wasn’t some poor guy buried under it. Cruelty taints beauty a bit for me.


The aversion to logic: No crocodiles in this part of the Ganges, and why we should all be scared

The old city: Varanasi

I really did not like Varanasi or Benares as my facebook statuses made clear. I was disappointed partly because of my expectations. One of our tour guides in Rajasthan said that there is no place quite like it and we’d love it there – people get so immersed in the spiritualism they never want to leave. I wanted to leave as soon as I got there.

Varanasi symbolises lack of logic in my eyes. The Ganges river is polluted with dead bodies (humans, cows, others), sewage, whatever they use to wash clothes with, cow dung, plastic litter. You name it, it’s probably in there in the murky waters of this poor abused river.

You have to watch your step on the 100 or so ghats of Varanasi – these are stone steps down to the river for those of you who don’t know what a ‘ghat’ is.  There is cow dung, saliva, paan stains and a strong smell of urine in areas. Local people chew on betel leaves (‘paan’) which release a red pigment which they spit out. There are paan stains all over the streets in Varanasi. So first thing that struck me was how people treat and allow others to treat the city they consider holy. If I considered a place holy, I wouldn’t pollute in it. Is that logic or just my opinion? It’s hard to tell sometimes.

The great thing about my trip to India was that I was not in a bubble. I was travelling with locals, talking to tour guides, drivers, rickshaw –wallahs, boatmen, hotel staff and vendors. I got to observe what life is like for the vast majority.

 I spoke to two of our boatmen on hour-long boat rides on the Ganges. Curious and to make conversation I asked them ‘Are there crocodiles in this part of the river?’

The first one said ‘No’ and then he continued ‘…because Lord Shiva enacted a curse on this part of the river that any crocodile that enters it will become blind in both eyes. That’s why you find crocodiles downstream but not in this part of the river’. I was entertained at first. I turned to my fellow tourist, translated into English and added ‘This guy has really drunk the Varanasi cool-aid’.

Boatman 1 took us past Manikarnika Ghat, where cremations happen 24-7. Five hundred dead bodies are burnt there daily. He said that if the Ghat did not get a body one day it would be the end of the world

Why does the irrationality of these seemingly harmless beliefs matter? Because it shows argumentation that is not based on logic or science or anything that we can prove. We could try to disprove these views by putting a crocodile in the river which I honestly think some scientific organisation in the world should do to challenge these long-held and never-tested beliefs. Because if people use such arguments for explaining why crocodiles are not in the river, they can and will use arguments of similar quality to justify why women should not be treated equal to men; why young people are stupider than older people; why their traditions are better than progressive practices. The scariest part for me is that it is impossible to have a discussion with people who bring in unproven mystical explanations to support their assertions. 

His second assertion also triggered an interesting thought experiment for me. What if one day for some reason there was no body at Manikarnika Ghat? (this will not happen, but what if?). My hypothesis is that the people of Varanasi would murder someone to burn, because in their eyes they are saving the world.

I was hoping that this boatman happened to be one who was particularly religious/<insert correct word that doesn’t offend you here> and did not reflect most people’s views. Three days later when I asked boatman 2 the same question, I got the same response with unwavering conviction. Boatman 2 further went on to tell me about ‘Dhobhi Ghat’ (Washerman’s ghat) where washermen wash clothes. He said that because the washermen pray to the Goddess Kali, she blessed that Ghat so that the clothes will always remain clean there whilst washing them at any other Ghat and putting them out to dry would make them dirty. Do we believe the neighbouring ghat makes clothes dirty? The one right next door? Really??

Sunrise in Varanasi, around 6.30am from the boat

From far away, the city is picturesque. The sun, too far away for humans to reach and pollute, is beautiful.

But close up, Varanasi is a mad-hatters tea party. True enlightenment is when people see the truth – good or bad and accept it as the truth. Like accept that the river is no longer clean, try to restore it and stop brushing their teeth and bathing in toxic waters. There are too many unenlightened people in Varanasi for my liking.