Thursday, August 4, 2011

Office Tigress: The Cosmopolitan Indian Woman under the Sari

Stiletto heels click against the dust covered path. She checks her silver watch and turns to me. “We need to walk faster! It is 5! I must help Mama for dinner!” She begins to walk quickly, her grey pleated skirt swinging faster, and then she begins to jog. A young man in a navy blazer waves at her; she waves back and yells “I hope you complete the report!” he nods and she keeps running. The packed bus waits in front of her and she climbs on with the assistance of young women in pencil skirts and men in suits. The bus speeds forward, barely missing a street cow crossing the bustling Bangalore road. I watch Shravanthi pull out a compact mirror and eyeliner and draw a dot above her brow. The college day has come to a close. Tradition takes over by night fall.

India is the land of promise. With a population of more than 1.8 billion people (CIA World Fact Book 2011) and a growing educated middle class, India is one of the best countries for business. In fact, Samuel J. Palmisino, the CEO of IBM and 2011 Forbes Person of the Year (largest outsourcer to India) is quoted for saying that: “why would you invest in US companies when you can do it with India’s extraordinary talent for a fraction of the price?” (Youtube Technology, Innovation, and Deficit Reduction 2011). The CEO speaks the truth. With few governmental regulations, bright, agitated, and eager college graduates from illustrious institutions, and low cost of living, India makes the perfect country for outsourcing. According to research compiled by the esteemed Software Training Company RTTS, an estimated 47 billion dollars have been generated due to outsourcing and the IT boom in India (as of 2007), and it is estimated that an additional 1.3 million jobs will be transferred from US and UK to India and other eastern countries (RTTS 2010).

Since the late 1990’s India’s IT boom has attracted the attention of the first world. Cities such as Bangalore (the birthplace of the IT boom) and Hyderabad, once small cities, have become sprawling metropolises with skyscrapers and the richest industries claiming the best and brightest youth in India. Men and women who were once wearing saris and dhotis now carry brief cases and wear ties and suits. Western dress has become the uniform of the growing middle class. But India, not only the nation of potential affluence, is also a land of rich history, diversity, and culture. Traditionally, strict gender roles and conduct were followed by men and women regardless of religion, caste, creed, region, or ethnicity. “Working is a luxury” my mother says as she boils my father’s evening tea. “We were raised to be good wives. To be support.” But since the IT Boom, more and more women have attended business, computer, and management classes than ever before. According to a study in BusinessWeek, 42.6% of college students in India are women (BusinessWeek 2011). Hindustan Times reports that there has been a 70% increase of females attending college in India and 122% increase of women enrolling as engineering majors since the beginning of the Indian IT boom of 1998(Hindustan Times 2010). But college women face a culture clash: Western ambitions versus Eastern traditions. The conflicting ideals of these ‘worldviews’ have created an interesting identity of young Indian female students and professionals.

As globalization, according to anthropologists Emily A. Schultz and Robert H. Lavenda is the “reshaping of local conditions by powerful global forces on an ever-intensifying scale” (Lavenda and Shultz 2009: 358), young Indian middle class women have formed a dynamic and sometimes conflicted dual identity that is influenced by Western ideals in some environments but adheres to familial obligations of traditional engendered conduct. Whenever I visit my cousin sister Shravanthi in Bangalore, I realize that her position as an Indian woman is more complex that it seems. Like most college students in India, Shravanthi lives with her family. Shravanthi is twenty years old and is completing her final year of a B-Comm degree. This is the Indian equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in Business Management. She is an office tigress, a well-educated young Indian woman who is determined that one day she will work for an affluent American company after her education. On the prowl, Shravanthi like many female college students in India, prowls and strives for academic and professional success in a once male-dominated world. But she realizes that although she has the opportunity to compete and make her dreams a reality, she must also come to terms that her joint family also ascribes duties for her that she cannot ignore. This is a woman’s journey of cultural hybridity: dowries, dollars, and dating. Welcome to India. Watch your step. You never know who you will be walking into.

It is seven in the morning. Shravanthi pulls on her tie as Latha the maid hands her a stainless steel cup of coffee. Shravanthi’s mother boils rice for breakfast in the kitchen while readjusting her sari as my uncle sits at the table, Times of India in one hand, coffee in another. “Today I have class at 9. But I am getting ready earlier because mom wanted me to bring some lentils from the bazaar”. Shravanthi gulps the coffee, waves to her father, and takes the scooter keys from the table. “I will be back!” she calls as she runs down the stairs. She is greeted by our grandfather who lives on the first floor of the bungalow. “Yakaada eltunavu?”our tata asks her. “Bazaar, tata” she responds in Telugu in a hushed voice as she lowers her eyes, a female custom of respect. Tata then asks Shravanthi to bring a jasmine garland for Nainama our grandmother for her daily prayers. He hands her a 1 rupee coin and Shravanthi tucks the money into her pocket. “Vastanu, Tata” she bows and he nods in agreement. We ride the scooter into the busy streets amongst rikshas (three wheeled taxis) carrying children in uniforms to classes, fancy sports cars driven by professional men in suits, and tea wallahs selling hot cups on bicycles. Shravanthi is not the only woman dressed in a skirt and tie. Next to us, two girls on a scooter race past, holding their skirts down as they navigate. When we arrive at the bazaar, we stop in front of a tall building surrounded by motor bikes and cars. “This building is full of call centers” Shravanthi said. Next to the entrance of the building, the lentil wallah sells split peas, lentils, and pulses. As Shravanthi haggles with the seller, I watch two women in suits buy a jasmine garland and tuck the parcel under their arm as they walk into the call center building. Perhaps the women will use the garland for a statue within the office. I ask Shravanthi and she nods. “Yes all offices have deities. Women still pray in the morning. Even if they have work”. We buy a garland as well and hurried home.

When we arrive, Nainama takes us to the prayer room and adorns the portrait of Sri Venkateshwara, the household god with the garland. “Deva, na pidlu chusko, aya. Munchi abaylu teesko na kutrulu ki, aya” she calls at the pictures as she bows repeatedly. Shravanthi blushes. Our grandmother had prayed that the Lord should bring Shravanthi a good husband to take care of her. As we run upstairs Shravanthi whispers “Shit. I wish she did not do that all the time. It might happen too soon.” Shravanthi hands the bag to her mother and goes to her room. “It is nice that Nainama prays for us. But I do not know if I want an arranged marriage” Shravanthi confides in me. She collects her things, it is time for class.

As we enter Shravanthi’s university, Dayan Sagar’s College, I understood why. While driving into the parking lot, I realize that every student, female and male, is wearing in western business attire and are intermingling. “Shravanthi!” a boy in black slacks greets her and gives her a hug. “Waqas!” she exclaims. (Hugging publically outside the confines of the college would be considered ‘lewd’ and ‘disturbing’ behavior). “This is my friend Waqas” Shravanthi introduces me. (Note that the mixing of a Hindu woman and Muslim man would be unheard of outside the university environment). We are later surrounded by a mix of Indian women and men who we are laughing and chattering loudly in English. They discuss class assignments and professors’ teaching styles. They gossip about other students and who was secretly dating who (dating is certainly taboo in Indian households). They debate as to which Linkin Park song is better. Some of the girls lean on boys and some boys watch girls in the corner of their eyes as the suited males argue about the Cricket World Cup and puff on cigarettes. But soon the bell rings and it is time for classes. In the classrooms, boys and girls sit next to each other. Shravanthi and I sit next to Waqas and Kumar. Students, Shravanthi once explained to me, are taught not only about economic models and how to understand the stock markets overseas, but also how business culture functions. Shravanthi told me how the professor spoke of efficiency and ‘monochronic time’. He often narrates the fascinating life stories of some of the strongest CEOs such as Indra K. Nooyi (CEO of Pepsi Co) and Irene Rosenfeld (CEO of Kraft Foods). Shravanthi is inspired by the strong women who run multinational corporations. She aspires to be that one day. She likes what she hears about business culture. “I have the ability to be better than anyone else because I am working at it. I like the idea of a meritocracy. It is free of corruption and unfair privileges some members might receive because of their gender or caste or religion. It seems like the more studying I do, the more I can achieve. It’s in my hands. I like that”. During class, the students compile information for a group project. I watch as boys in suits and girls in skirts debate on this best business plan for a theoretical insurance company. Shravanthi looks so at ease and empowered as she leads her group project. I watch her dynamic hand gestures and her nods as she listens to her classmates. I begin to understand why she loves what she studies: power from self-vigor.

After class, I ask Shravanthi how she felt about class. “I love it. Business Management is my passion. I love leading people and I feel so independent. I want to make my dreams of working for an American company a reality. I really like my class because I feel that regardless of me being a woman, people will listen to what I have to say because of my intelligence. The competition is fierce. We earn our positions regardless of family background. This is a meritocracy and I like that because I am not placed in a position. People do not tell me what to do or when to do it. I do it because it is my job”. Shravanthi’s face turns grim. “But sometimes I wonder if my dream will come true. You and I and your sister are the only girls in the family. You and your sister live in America so you do not have the same obligations that I have”. I ask her to go on. “Nainama expects me to get married to a man from our caste and of our heritage. When I get married, it will be difficult to continue my education and get a job. It is different here, Priyanka. Look at my mom. She married when she was a teenager. It was an arranged marriage and she completed three degrees. But she has a duty to her husband, to her kids, and to her in-laws. She cooks for the joint family. One day, that could be me”. I realize that Shravanthi has more at stake than Waqas or Kumar in her class. Not only did she have to compete with her classmates, she has to compete with time and tradition. But although her future of education might halt, for now she has the freedom of a student and professional. Shravanthi turns to me as I think about what she had just said. “Enough of this heavy talk. Let us get coffee!”

- - -

Café Coffee Day is the most popular café franchise in India. Established in 1998 (the same year of the birth of the IT Boom), the chic, modern lounge is the Indian version of the American Starbucks. The décor is sleek, simplistic, and clean. White lounge sofas line the walls of the room. Unlike most restaurants, the cafes are standardly air conditioned. English is the lingua franca as boys and girls loosen their ties and sink into the swanky seats. Baristas effortlessly shake cream and freshly ground espresso beans and serve petite sandwiches. Although the concept and atmosphere may be a ‘Western’, the flavor of the café is discretely Indian. Indian pop rock plays softly, flat screen televisions along the walls display Bollywood dance scenes, and the sandwiches are flavored with Indian masala spices and seasonings. The hospitality is also an Indian phenomenon. Unlike American cafes in which the customer orders at a counter, baristas in India approach the seated Indian youth and cordially ask what services he could provide and grants every whim of the group. For example, if a group of youths want to watch the cricket game instead of the Bollywood clips, the host will change the channel. If individuals want to hear English songs instead of Indian rock, the manager will oblige. Groups of young men and women will sit for hours, long after the coffee glasses are empty. These cafes, like Indian classrooms and offices, are one of the only places in which men and women may speak with each other in public without the company of elders. But with the modern décor and lax atmosphere, Café Coffee day is sanctuary for love birds. It is one of the only safe locales for secretly dating couples. No wonder the mottos of the franchise is “a lot can happen over coffee”. For a couple hours a day, young professionals and students can live the Western experience of courting and dating, a concept that is taboo outside the confines of such a place. For a moment, young men and women can experience what Hollywood portrays as “love at first glance”.

- - -

Shravanthi and I meet a group of ten young adults- both female and male. The boys loosen their ties as the girls unbutton their collars, exposing their necks. The barista approaches our table. “What may I offer you, madam?” he said in formal English, pen and paper in hand. “She and I will have a double shot mocha frappe” Shravanthi answers. As we wait for our coffee, Pavan, one of the young men asks me about America. “It must be a damn paradise, huh? You can date and meet boys whenever you would like. Do you have a boyfriend?” I laugh. Pavan goes on: “Here we cannot date, but we bring the girls we fancy to the café. Here at least we can be with the girls we secretly love and flirt with them,” I watch him wink at a thin girl with hooded eyes across from him. She giggles and bites her lower lip. The order arrives and Pavan trades seats with Shravanthi so that he can sit with his ‘girlfriend’. Shravanthi, Waqas, and I continue the discussion about dating: “India is getting modern” Waqas said while sipping his cup. “We have brand name clothes” he points to his Dolce and Gabbana belt. “We have fancy cars like Mercedes. More and more women are getting educated. The literacy rate is going up. The cities are getting bigger and bigger, but we fucking youth still have expectations from our families. It is damn hard. Love marriage, although romanticized in Bollywood films, is not at all a reality. I must marry a Muslim girl even if I like a Hindu. Its bloody hell”. Waqas stares longingly at a girl across the table. Shravanthi pipes in: “Yes and we Hindus have so many damn restrictions of who we can marry. He must be of our caste and our Hindu horoscopes must be aligned in the stars, and everyone in the joint family must approve: grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, older cousins, mother, father, and my brother. That is a long list of people we must satisfy”.

- - -

Back home, Shravanthi and I help our mothers chop vegetables for dinner. I ask Kavita aunty (Shravanthi’s mother and my mother’s sister-in-law) and my mom why they did not complete their education or get a job. “Times were different when we married in the early 80’s. We did not have a choice. We knew we were going to get married regardless. At that time, the office was for men. We were raised to be good wives. But it was not too bad. Our husbands were the breadwinners and they bought us things. See this ring? Your father bought this for me on our anniversary. He pays for everything: travel to India, medicines for my father back in my village, and for your education. I had many offers for marriage but your father showed the most potential. He was a doctor with a job across the sea in the United States. He is what we call a good catch (note that hypergamy or ‘marrying up’ was and still is the goal of Indian matrimony because for women it is traditionally their only form of income)” my mother said it in such a matter-of-fact way that I am stunned. Education, my alma mater, I cannot imagine growing up without college and neither can Shravanthi. Shravanthi was placed into an advanced primary school system, one of the best in Bangalore. From childhood, she had been competing with students- male and female alike in hopes of becoming a corporate superstar. “We are house wives and we live our dreams through you” Kavita aunty adds. “But you know, you are still Indian and eventually have obligations to fulfill. Perhaps through working you may support your family, but when you come home you will have to unzip your pencil skirt and tie on your sari. You will have to heat evening tea”. Shravanthi dutifully continues to slice tomatoes, each one as precise of the last cut. I imagine she seethes inside, her mother’s words burning her.

- - -

There are exceptions, of course, the societal standards. Shravanthi and I share a mutual aunt (who moved from India to New Jersey with her husband and son) She, unlike our mothers, continued her education and was granted permission by her husband (my father’s youngest brother) to work at an IT firm. Unlike most marriages, the union between my uncle and my aunt was a love marriage. Although usually taboo, the couple was of the same caste and their horoscopes aligned so the union was as sound as an arranged one. When she used to live in India, she lived on the first floor with her husband and her father-in-law and mother-in-law. Shravanthi and I recall how she would prayer with her mother-in-law and cook for my grandparents. Then, in her suit, she would go to work and return in the evening. When she came home, she changed into traditional Indian attire and cooked dinner for her in-laws and made sure they were comfortable. Our aunt, although had a corporate job, had to take on a different identity in the home and adhere to the female role of housekeeping and hospitality for her husband and in-laws. This is a model that Shravanthi might one day follow.

Shravanthi already has offers for her hand in marriage. Shravanthi counts the proposals on her fingers and estimates the monetary value of each man after dinner. “Let’s see! There is a doctor, a business man, a lawyer, and a software engineer. But the best of the lot is an Australian university educated business man from a wealthy family who is worth a couple million! Cool huh?” she sighs and falls onto her pillow. “But I am not sure if I want that. What if he is an asshole? What if I cannot meet my friends anymore and cannot work? It depends if he gives me permission. But fuck him, yah? I should do what I want. Besides with my degree I can make so much money and live on my own. Of course when mom and dad get old I want to take care of them. They will live with me, and I do not mind living at home and cooking for them. But you have it lucky. Sometimes I dream of going to the United States and completing my Master’s Degree. Then I will have a wonderful job and maybe be a manager and I can decide when and how I can work. In America, I can date who I want. I will have my independence” I understand the friction she feels. How can she balance her cosmopolitan and Western influenced attitude while possibly managing an Indian home? Traditionally a patrilineal family dynamic, it is custom for Indian wives to move into the house of her husband’s family. She, through marriage, becomes the kin of her husband’s lineage and not of her blood family. Women for the most part do not live by themselves. My mother often explains: “women are like diamonds. They must be guarded by the family”.

But how does a young woman like Shravanthi who feels she does not need to be ‘guarded’ cope with a previous generation’s notion of female duties? Shravanthi, however, does want to manage a home even if a husband is in it or not. She does want to look after he parents. This Indian obligation is one she does not fight. It is not only her duty, but she wants to provide for her parents. Thus even though she still assumes a dual identity- Western in certain spheres and Indian at the home- it is an identity she sometimes sees not as an engendered duty but as a young woman who cares for her parents. “I love my family dearly. And if I must act a certain way eventually, so be it. But I need to understand who I am then what others expect from me”- a ‘Western’ notion in a not so ‘Western’ world. We lie down together, and sigh as Britney Spears’ “Not a girl not yet a woman” softly croons from the cassette player and a cow moos under our window. Not yet a ladki, not yet an aunty, indeed. We laugh until we cannot not laugh anymore.

- - -

India’s economy continues to boom. As more corporate and IT jobs are available, men and women will compete regardless of societal obligations. More and more office tigresses are generated every year through cutthroat college programs and prowl the office corridors, hunting for the best positions and paychecks. Perhaps it is their inner drive and ambition to prove themselves as the best candidates for business positions; more is at stake. According to news articles published in the past year, college women in almost every major city of India have received high scores than their male counterparts on national college exams: in Patna, the top 4 highest achieved scores were earned by women (Times of India Mobile 2011), in Ludiana, the top 2 highest achieved scores were earned by women (Times of India Pratim 2011), in Bangalore, the highest achieved score was earned by a woman (One India News 2011), and 75% of top admissions at the illustrious Hindu College of Delhi were female candidates (Times of India 2011), to name a few examples. These women, although living a dual life of Western etiquette in certain spheres as well as the engendered conduct ascribed by Indian families and society, are able to achieve distinctions despite personal-contextual friction.

- - -

It is eight on a Friday night and Shravanthi and I are behind the roaring of her scooter. The hem of her posh cocktail dress lifts around her knees as I hold on to her waist. We speed past a lorry truck, ‘OK GO HAVE A NICE DAY’ is painted across the back of the clunky vehicle and we honk and wave. We are on our way to a house party of one of her classmates. I lean forward as she shouts above the humming: “Perhaps I will marry, perhaps I will not. Fuck it. Who knows? I don’t care now. But now I can’t wait to graduate and compete for my chance to be among the female working elite. I not only want to do this for myself, but I want to prove to my parents, grandparents, and even people outside my family that I can do anything with my ambition. But fuck this heavy discussion, yah? It’s time to freak out! Drink a few beers! Let’s live to our fullest before my fat husband knocks down the door! ” we howl and cuss as old women in saris watch us behind their Mercedes window. Did I see a tinge of longing in their eyes? Let them watch. We take on Bangalore, even if it is Shravanthi’s last night on the prowl.

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