Where is the Bhartiya Purush?

Bhartiya Nari is a powerful symbol. It evokes/provokes both reverence and derision. To some people it symbolises all that is great and beautiful about our culture and to others it depicts our misogyny and hypocrisy whereby women are simultaneously deified and oppressed.The symbol represents all the virtues which are associated with a woman and hence an ideal  for every  Indian woman.  Interestingly, there is no male equivalent of this symbol.  I have not come across any term like  Bhartiya Purush in any discourse. Often,all wrong-doings by a woman are treated as a slur on Indian womanhood, whereas in case of men they are treated as personal failures/shortcomings and not in any way reflective of the collective  . Thus it seems that while we have a fairly clearly defined notion of what an ideal Indian woman ought to be, the culture seems to be relatively silent on what an ideal Indian man ought to be.

The obvious explanation for this discrepancy lies in the power/status difference between the two genders. In any system(family, work organisation, society at large) the code of conduct is more strictly enforced for those who are lower in the power hierarchy. People at higher levels, generally have more flexibility and leeway for transgressing boundaries. Their primary task being to ensure that people below them adhere to the prescribed norms by disciplining them.  A patriarchal social design creates power inequity between men and women. Hence it is not surprising that the demands for preserving the culture and its values is placed on women and men can act as the gatekeepers and monitors.

However, there may be another complication in the Indian context. In my understanding (which is also supported by insights gained from scholars like Ashish Nandy) Indian culture is essentially androgynous (integration of the masculine and feminine principle) If anything, it leans more towards the feminine side. Most of the cherished Indian values e.g. primacy of familial ties, peaceful co-existence, looking at nature as a living entity, treating guests as god, faith in cosmic benevolence, respect for wisdom and innocence and not an exclusive worship of youthful virility etc.,have a distinct feminine flavour. These values may not necessarily translate into actual behaviour but they do have a strong normative pull in the Indian Psyche.

On the other hand, the Indian social design is highly patriarchal and reinforces the superior status of men over women. This tension between the essence of the culture (tilt towards the feminine) and social design (tilt towards the masculine) is perhaps resolved through excessive codification for women and ambiguity in the notion of an ideal man.

Thus, while a woman is expected to be a good daughter, a good sister, a good wife, and a good mother; for men the injunctions go rarely beyond being an obedient son and a protector of family honour. Depictions of ideal husbands and ideal fathers are conspicuously absent from most Indian mythology and folklore.  There are many stories about a son sacrificing for the sake of father (e.g. Rama going into exile for 14 years to honour his father’s word, Puru sacrificing his youth for his father Yayati, Bhishma giving up his claim to throne and accepting a life of celibacy so that his father can marry) one hardly comes across similar sacrifices made by fathers. Similarly there are countless stories about a wife’s love and devotion towards a husband but hardly any the other way. It would seem that the underlying message is that while women must grow into multiple roles,men must remain stuck in their “son” role and thereby never truly embrace mature masculinity.

This leads to an uneasy relationship between Indian men and their masculinity. The cultural tilt towards femininity becomes more a source of shame and smallness rather than something to be celebrated. Often these feelings of shame and smallness are discharged through insensitive oppression of not just women but of anyone who is seen as lower in status hierarchy.

Centuries of external aggression and dominance have fuelled the feelings of inferiority even further and left us with a sense of not being sufficiently manly. Thus it is not surprising that the cultural tilt towards femininity becomes even more burdensome for Indian men and they often seek refuge in culturally alien forms of masculinity. What we need to recognise, accept and cherish is the reality that the only form of masculinity which will be meaningful for us will be of an androgynous variety i.e. which has a strong integration with the feminine principle. In recent history a powerful example of this was provided by Swami Vivekanand whose masculinity was accompanied by  strong compassion and service orientation.

In this sense, there ought to be no difference between our notions of an ideal Indian Woman and and an ideal Indian Man, because both are essentially a derivative of the androgynous construct of Ardhnarishwar. By over- codifying  the notion of Bhartiya Nari, we seem to have passed on the entire responsibility of preserving Bhartiyta (Indianness) on to the women. Is it any surprise that it has become a caricature and invites more derision and defiance than respect and inspiration. It is high time that Indian Men start embracing the values which they associate with the construct of Bhartiya Nari. This interestingly may be the only viable way for them to come to terms with their masculinity. The first step in this endeavour is perhaps to go beyond the limited definition of being an obedient son and a protector of family honour. The multiplicity of roles which they associate with an ideal Woman (daughter, sister, wife, mother) needs to come alive for themselves as well ,particularly in terms of their husband and father roles.







Managing the CEO

Performance Management at the CEO level is a tricky affair and most organisations do not handle it well. Invariably, the performance of the CEO is equated with the performance of the company which to an extent is understandable. What gets ignored is that the CEO is only one of the several factors affecting the overall performance and not its sole determinant. There are many other variables including the Owners/Board members themselves. However in their deliberations, one often gets the impression that almost everything can be attributed to the CEO particularly when it comes to diagnosing failures. In such situations it is very rare to find Owners/Board members who are willing to look at their own contribution to the failure except to the extent of having chosen the wrong CEO.

Some time back, I was witness to an “informal “chat amongst owners/board members of a company about their disappointment with the performance of the CEO. At some stage I asked them if they had tried to look at the situation from the CEO’s point of view. First my question was ignored and then I was told “we  gave him a long rope but he failed to deliver and whenever we try  to give him feed back, he becomes defensive and only offers lame excuses”. I could not explain to them that “giving feed-back” is not the same as “listening to some one” nor could I make them see that what they considered as “long rope” may not have been experienced as such by the CEO. When I tried to point out some of the genuine difficulties that he may be facing, I was told that ” he is the CEO and it is his job to solve these problems”

The experience left me with an uneasy feeling that perhaps they had no clue about what may have been going inside the CEO -his difficulties, dilemmas, vulnerabilities, self-doubts etc. The expectation seemed to be that he should have no such “angularities” and should not need any “emotional support”. So long as the performance parameters are clear, fair and mutually agreed upon, he must either “perform” or “perish”. Thus it is hardly surprising that all such situations create a stalemate and get settled only after the ties are severed. It is another matter that in many such situations, difficulties persist even after the CEO is replaced with a new incumbent, because the underlying issues are not addressed.

The difficulty of “listening” to some one who is lower than us in power/status hierarchy is fairly common in all spheres of life and at all levels. What makes it particularly problematic at the top level are the following factors-

  1. At lower levels it is generally easier to separate the parties concerned by shifting them to new positions. This is virtually impossible in case of a CEO except in case of conglomerates. Even here the people concerned remain more or less the same and the dynamics does not change appreciably.
  2. At lower levels, the individuals concerned have other people (friends, colleagues etc) to talk to. Such sharing is a cathartic release and also provides an opportunity for the individual to reflect upon his /her own stances/behaviour. This is virtually impossible in case of a CEO where any hint of trouble between Owners/Board and CEO can have disastrous consequences.
  3. At lower levels, there is a possibility of a third party intervention(HR, Mentor, other senior colleagues etc) In case of a CEO this third party can only be an external consultant who is likely to be (or at least perceived as ) an accomplice of the Owners/Board.
  4. Most importantly, in case of CEOs the people concerned on both sides have successful track records and are generally accustomed to being “listened to” rather than “listening themselves”. Consequently any difference of opinion between them becomes extremely difficult to handle. Also appearing self confident and being “on top of the situation” is almost a second nature to them. Hence displaying any doubts, confusions, vulnerabilities is a strict No-No. The end result is that what gets transacted is only the tip of the ice-berg and the real issues remain unaddressed.

None of these difficulties are unsurmountable. In fact, the answer is ridiculously simple-just to listen. This lack of listening is generally not deliberate and is often accompanied by a genuine desire to help and support. The only difficulty is that both sides remain entrenched in their respective beliefs and assumptions about the nature of the problem and what would constitute meaningful help and support. In absence of willingness/ability to review one’s own stances, no meaningful dialogue is possible.

In this sense, there is not much difference between what happens at the CEO level and what happens at other levels except that the consequences are a lot more disastrous at the top level.However in several other spheres of life (e.g. parent-child, social activists and their target groups etc.) the consequences can be equally disastrous. As the saying goes “helping without understanding is counter productive” but when it is also accompanied by differences in the relative power of the people concerned, it can become deadly.