From Gandhi to Modi- India sans Indian-ness

Some time back, I had requested Google da to educate me on “Indian character”. Promptly, I was led to several writings from which I learnt many despicable things about ourselves. For example, I was told that we are hypocritical, corrupt, spineless, status-conscious, crude, insensitive, superstitious and many such things which would make us a tough competitor for the coveted prize of the worst creatures on the face of this earth. This was no surprise as  over the years, I have got accustomed to listening to stories about Indian Standard Time, Indian crab-mentality, Indian duplicity, and the like.Needless to say, these attributes applied only to an “unidentifiable Indian” and people telling these stories were  exempted from them.

What did come as a surprise was a recent encounter with a group of young college students. I found a distinct shift in their perception of Indian character. While some of the stereotypes persisted, there was much more emphasis on other attributes like our intellectual acumen, resilience, diligence, adaptability etc. Also, I was pleasantly surprised to find a degree of patriotic fervour and pride, which had got eroded in the earlier generations.

All this was music to my ears and yet it left me with some unease. I could not resonate with what I sensed as their brand of nationalism. We did not discuss specific political figures, but the impression that I got was that Modi was much more likely to be their hero and role model than Gandhi. I mention these two people because both of them are inspirational figures and have come to symbolise two different kinds of nationalism. Normally, this difference is seen in terms of inclusivity vs. divisiveness;but I suspect it is much deeper than that.

Inclusivity and divisiveness represent only the tip of the iceberg. Even if Modi wished to be inclusive, chances are that he will end up being divisive. This was best illustrated by his “kutte ka pilla”(puppy dog) comment.Some time back, in responding to a question about communal violence, Modi had made a statement that one feels anguished even when a puppy dog meets with an accident. Giving him the benefit of doubt, he was perhaps trying to express universal compassion. However, it was such an insensitive way of doing it, that it created more backlash and divisive feelings than harmony and a sense of togetherness.

I suspect, divisiveness is a consequence of the hyper-masculine flavour of Modi’s brand of nationalism whereas inclusivity has something to do with Gandhi’s leaning towards an androgynous/ feminine variety. With Gandhi, you do not associate a broad chested muscular individual ready to take on and conquer the world. Instead what you associate is inner resilience, conviction and a quality of strength which is not in your face. With Gandhi, the emphasis is more on wholesomeness rather than on advancement- a wish for self-contained, self-governing, harmonious communities rather than smart cities and aspirations of becoming a monolithic super-power.

This shift from androgynous Gandhi to distinctly masculine Modi, is perhaps in keeping with the imperatives of the times that we live in. We can see it happening in virtually all spheres of our lives. Even women-centric cinema today is more likely to be of the “Gulab Gang” or “Mardani” variety. Thus it is no surprise that Gandhi is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the hectic and hyper-masculine world of today. While, it leaves me with some discomfort, I can also see its positive side.; particularly in view of the uneasy relationship between masculinity and Indian cultural identity.

The Indian cultural ideal is androgynous- the concept of Ardhnarishwar. Perhaps this is one of the major factors behind Gandhi’s strong emotive pull in Indian psyche. Many of our cherished values like peaceful co-existence, primacy of family/belonging system, looking at nature as a living entity, faith in cosmic benevolence etc. have a distinct feminine flavour. While attributes like valour, courage, youthful virility are valued, so are wisdom, innocence, sensitivity and compassion.

However, while the cultural ideal is androgynous, the ground reality has been quite different. Rather than pursuing and cherishing both the masculine and the feminine, we have ended up neglecting both. The end result is a fragile sense of masculinity and a disdain towards the feminine. The average Indian male is more likely to gloat over the fact he is born a “man” and hence entitled to certain privileges ,rather than actively invest in acquiring masculine qualities. Consequently, one often comes across a sense of smallness, insecurity and fragility amongst many Indian men, and a propensity to take offence in face of any perceived affront to their masculinity.  Some of the consequences of this uneasy relationship are a propensity to avoid direct confrontation, servility towards the powerful and oppression of the powerless. This is most evident in man-woman relationships where large part of violence against women stems from a fragile/insecure sense of masculinity rather than hyper-masculinity.

This uneasy relationship with masculinity is not very conducive to the notion of Ardhnarishwar. Pursuit of the androgynous ideal requires a recalibration of our relatedness with masculinity. To that extent if we are investing in developing a more secure and mature sense of masculinity, then it is good news. However, if in this process  we jettison the androgynous cultural ideal then we may end up having an India in which there is no place for Indian-ness. That will be great loss not just for us but for humanity at large. Personally, I can’t think of Indian-ness without the androgynous ideal. Also, I believe that  it is the greatest gift that India can give to a world which is fast becoming a captive of the hyper-masculine frenzy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond Peaceful Co-existence

In early 60’s Sahir Ludhianvi wrote one of my  favourite songs “tu hindu banega na musalmaan banega, insaan ki aulad hai insaan banega ( you will neither become a hindu nor a moslem, being a human offspring, you will become a human being). I loved it then and I love it now, but there is a difference. Somewhere along the line, the word “banega” (will become) got reconfigured as “rahega” (will remain). Let me explain- as an adolescent, I believed that sectoral identities based on region, religion, race etc. are an impediment to embracing humanness.Today, I think that embracing my hindu-ness or moslem-ness is a necessary first step to embracing  my human-ness. The problem arises when the hindu-ness or moslem-ness becomes a prison and I remain its captive. The emphasis has therefore shifted from denial/rejection of sectoral identity to  accepting it,valuing it  and transcending it in order to embrace a larger identity.

I often  come across people who are more comfortable being a “person” rather than being a “man” or a “woman”. Similarly I find many people who find it easier to identify with the notion of “global citizenship” rather than with their national, linguistic, racial, religious identity. There seems to be some anxiety/discomfort with acknowledging differences of any kind lest they become a source of discord and discrimination.  I recall several years back, I came across a hoarding which had been put up either by UNICEF or by some NGO working in the area of social harmony. It showed 5 or 6 infants of different ethnic backgrounds with their eyes closed. The caption read “Don’t open their eyes to the differences that they can not see”. It left me wondering as to how could negation or denial be seen as an effective way of dealing with difference.

The fear of combat and violence between different sectoral identities is very real  and hence “closing one’s eyes to the difference” becomes a tempting choice.However just because we choose to close our eyes,  the differences(and associated feelings)   do not disappear, in fact like all repressed phenomenon, they become even more virulent. The rise in religious fundamentalism and racial sensitivities, across the world, is a clear evidence that sectoral identities can not be denied or repressed.

The traditional Indian way of dealing with differences between sectoral identities has been through “segregation”.  The basic assumption being that if different identity groups can be kept separated from each other and their interaction regulated ,then they can co-exist peacefully.This is the basic rationale behind the rigid caste-system and the strong prohibitions in inter-community relations. Some time back Mani Ratnam had made a film called Bombay about communal tensions and violence. The film starts with life in a village where Hindus and Moslems live in harmony, amiability and good-will, but maintain the requisite prohibitions particularly in respect of inter-dinning and inter-marriage. However all hell breaks loose when a hindu boy and a moslem girl fall in love with each other. I think this was an excellent portrayal of peaceful co-existence through segregation and controlled interaction.

Dealing with differences through segregation can be witnessed in virtually all facets of life in India including corporate world. Fragmentation into silos(based on function, department, region, ethnicity etc.) has been a wide spread phenomenon in Indian organisations. By and large, these fragmented groups follow the policy of “non-interference” and “peaceful co-existence”. Thus difficulties in collaboration in India, are less due to “in-fighting” and more due to “indifference”. This is not to suggest that inter-group conflicts and rivalries are not present, but only that they are generally expressed through subtle sabotage and undercutting than a direct combat. At the manifest level, the relationships are marked by the principle of “live and let live”, and compromise/collusion play a huge role in conflict resolution.

The complex design of modern day organisations is more like an intertwined web in which neat segregations are a virtual impossibility. In this design, the individual does not have the choice of belonging to a stable well bounded fragment. On the other hand, the individual has to belong to multiple groups and forge many relationships. It is therefore not surprising that most Indian organisation today are struggling to make the transition from a simple pyramid to a complex matrix structure.

Even at the macro social level, It is becoming increasingly clear that the choice of keeping the other at “an arm’s length” and hoping for peaceful co-existence is no longer feasible. Whether we like it or not, in an interdependent world, we are in each other’s  way. Add to this the factor of discrimination which is an inevitable fall out of segregation (as in the case of caste-system) and the conclusion is inescapable viz. the traditional Indian ways of dealing with differences through segregation have serious limitations in the present day world. Simultaneously, we can not eliminate differences through combat and violence. Closing our eyes to them and pretending that they do not exist is equally problematic, as argued earlier.

That leaves us with only one choice- learning to cherish differences rather than treating them as a threat. This is easier said than done. It is fashionable to extol the virtues of diversity, but the fears, anxieties and discomfort of dealing with “differences” are rarely acknowledged and addressed. Mostly they are denied by pretending that they do not exist OR the other is kept at an arm’s length in the spirit of “live and let live”. This approach is no longer feasible,but more importantly it does not allow the different fragmented groups to interact with each other, learn from each other, and enrich each other .If this is to happen then segregation and peaceful co-existence is not enough. It will require a more pro-active engagement- a greater willingness to experience each other, dialogue with each other and assimilation of each other.

A more proactive and intense engagement with the “other” will necessary be a bumpy ride. To expect it to be hassle free and smooth is to deny its very essence. It will necessarily be accompanied by some tension, chaos and conflict. Thus it can only regard peaceful co-existence as a basic value and not as an absolute operative principle. Peaceful co-existence can help in living with diversity, but cherishing diversity also requires valuing conflict and chaos.

 

 

 

Diversity & Inclusion – an endless journey

Most organisations today recognise the need for Diversity and Inclusion, particularly in the area of gender.Consequently many of them have set up D&I cells to ensure that it receives the necessary attention. Part of this awareness has become necessary due to external pressure (social/legal requirements, diktats from the corporate office etc.)  and part of it stems from a genuine appreciation of the benefits of D&I. However,  most organisations  find it difficult to translate this appreciation into action. The D&I agenda remains primarily a baby of the D&I cell and is rarely owned up by the rest of the organisation. Even when there is a strong commitment to it at the leadership level, it is not very easy to percolate it down.  l believe, this is so, because most of the present endeavours in this area are inadequate to deal with the real roadblocks. In my experience and understanding there are five major roadblocks to D&I and unless they are understood, appreciated and engaged with, it will be very difficult to pursue D&I in a meaningful way. These roadblocks are as follows-

  1. Glib Acceptance

A glib acceptance of D&I has done more harm than good. It has become “politically incorrect” to voice any doubts or reservations about D&I. The person who does so, runs the risk of being regarded as backward, rigid and not progressive. Hence most people find it prudent to keep their doubts and reservations to themselves and just make the “right noises”. The doubts and reservations are mostly discharged in the galleries and rarely expressed in open formal forums except through indirect passive resistance. Those who “dare “to voice their opposition are generally regarded as “problematic” and the anchors of D&I endeavour either “ignore” them or try to “manage” them.It is rarely recognised that they are in fact expressing “on behalf of” the larger community and can be extremely valuable resources, provided their doubts and concerns are acknowledged and addressed rather than being dismissed as “regressive”

I recall once a colleague and I were working with an organisation, wherein we were told that a particular individual was the major bottleneck in the pursuit of D&I agenda. As we worked with the person, we found that he was one of the few people in the system who had a clear and cogent understanding of what D&I entailed. Once his doubts and reservations were engaged with, he became one of the most committed supporters of the D&I agenda.

Assimilation of anything which is accepted without adequate challenge can only be “skin deep” and hence it is not surprising that while a lot of lip service is paid to D&I, it is rarely pursued with the seriousness that it deserves. Thus anchors of D&I agenda, need to particularly guard against the sabotage which comes under the garb of “glib acceptance”

2. Urgent over Important

Managers have to constantly walk the tight rope between that which is urgent and that which is important. They  can scarcely ignore either. However the increasing emphasis on “quarter to quarter” deliverables, short term career goals, unwillingness to make long term commitments have tilted the scale significantly on side of the “urgent”.By its very nature the D&I agenda falls in the category of “important” and not “urgent”. It has no bearing on the immediate quarterly results but is crucial for the long term health, viability and success of the organisation. Thus often, the managers are required to transcend their “urgency preoccupations” in order to pursue D&I agenda. It is most clearly visible in situations of recruitment and placement, where the primary concern is to get someone who is immediately available and usable. In such a scenario D&I will necessarily be seen as an impediment.

Most organisations deal with this tension by creating a greater sense of urgency around the D&I agenda. This is done through mechanisms such as setting specific diversity targets, monitoring progress and sometimes making them an integral part of performance appraisal. While this helps in creating some urgency around D&I agenda, it also has a huge backlash of resentment. The larger issues of organisation policies  and culture which result in “urgent” taking precedence over “important”remain unexamined. In such a scenario,  pursuit of D&I agenda becomes a compulsion rather than an act of conviction and commitment.

3. Comfort with Similarity

While dealing with some one who is different from ourselves may be potentially exciting and beneficial, it requires us to move out of our comfort zone. Engaging with people who are “our own kind” is a lot easier. The discomfort in dealing with some one who does not belong to our reference group (in terms of gender, class, ethnic group, attitudes, values&beliefs, etc.) is generally dealt with either through-

  • Accentuating the difference and developing stereotypes(e.g. North Indians are brash, Women are emotional, social class equals sophistication etc.) OR
  • Becoming insensitive to the difference (e.g.what is true for me is also true for the other,  men and women are just the same, social background/ethnicity has no bearing on the individual,  etc)
  • Often, both these work hand in hand. This is most clearly visible in case of Gender relations. On one hand, women are resented for behaving in ways which are against the gender stereotypes (e.g. being aggressive, demanding, ambitious etc.) On the other hand it is expected that they would assert, network and work late hours just like their male colleagues.

Many organisations try to address these issues through training and development interventions for both men and women. However, most of these interventions rarely go beyond emphasising the need to transcend biases and prejudices inherited from a patriarchal social structure. The underlying fears, anxieties, excitements and discomforts of engaging with differences are rarely acknowledged let alone being addressed.

4.   Over crystallised notions  of Effectiveness

At a collective level, the discomfort of dealing with differences is managed through an over crystallised notion of an effective member/manager/leader. While there are obvious differences across functions, roles and levels; the broad pictures have a high degree of commonality. This broad picture is that of a suave, articulate,ambitious, self-assured person who is governed by objective rationality and who can maintain smooth interfaces in his/her dealings with others. People who don’t fit the mould (i.e. eccentric, socially awkward, introverted, sentimental, temperamental and volatile people) can at best be tolerated but are unlikely to go very far unless of course they are exceptionally gifted.

It is easy to see that this picture of effectiveness is heavily loaded in favour of people of a certain background. The upper middle-class, english educated, upper caste, urban male has a clear advantage over others. Even when the person concerned comes from a different background, he/she is socialised into this mould. Today many BPO’s in Bengaluru are having to recruit from small towns, but part of their induction includes converting them into Bangaloreans. Inclusion of more women in organisations has not led to any significant enhancement of femininity, on the contrary it has led to masculinisation of women.

Thus the assumption that greater representation of people from varying backgrounds will lead to diversity may not be totally valid. On the contrary, it is more likely to lead to converting a diverse set of people into an identical mould. Pursuit of D&I agenda will require going beyond the obvious tangible factors like gender, race, ethnicity etc. and paying attention to the frozen pictures of managerial effectiveness that we carry.

5. Management Education

Strange as it may seem, the present frames of management education (both formal and informal) are not particularly conducive to D&I. These frame are designed for, and work well when applied to people who are more or less alike. In such scenarios what one needs are a set of principles which can be applied in a fair, rational and objective manner across the board. One only needs to ensure consistency and uniform application of these principles. Not surprisingly “firm and fair” has been a favourite expression of many managers.

Managing a diverse set of people is a different ball game. What works well in case of one person may be disastrous in case of another. Contextual sensitivity is crucial in handling diversity and for this managers need to move out of their comfort zone of consistency and and rely on their subjective wisdom. The present approaches in management education lay considerable emphasis on development of analytical skills and data based decision making. They do precious little to enhance the sensing, intuitive abilities and subjective wisdom which play a crucial role in dealing with a diverse set of people.

It is therefore not surprising that often the professionally educated managers have very little understanding of what D&I entails. They tend to hold a  naive belief that D&I  is simply a matter of being sufficiently “broad-minded” and “sincere” to treat people equitably irrespective of their class, race, gender and ethnic background. Thus while they demonstrate high degree of comfort in dealing with people of “diverse backgrounds”, they are completely at a loss when they have to deal with people who are not “their type” i.e. people who do not share their way of looking at things and/or people whose values,beliefs and priorities are different than their own .

In the ultimate analysis it is this naive belief (that D&I is simply a matter of being broad minded and equitable)  which is the biggest obstacle in the pursuit of D&I agenda. The reality is a lot more complex than that. D&I is a quality of individual and collective mind which recognises the toxicity inherent in excessive uniformity. It entails willingness to go beyond one’s comfort zone. It requires the ability to co-hold urgent with important, it entails respecting the “difference” between ourselves and the other without stereotyping, it requires re-examination of some of our frozen frames of effectiveness, but above all it requires us to invest in our “contextual- sensitivity” and subjective wisdom” rather than relying on “fixed rules” which can be applied uniformly and consistently.

The large complex organisations of today need general principles and rules which can be applied across the board irrespective of the context. To that extent, a certain degree of hegemony is inevitable. The difficulty arises when this hegemony becomes so oppressive that it leaves no space for individual sensing, subjectivity, discretion and wisdom. The co-holding of universal objective principles with contextual subjective wisdom is too large an issue to be addressed here. For the limited purpose of this piece, we only need to appreciate that meaningful engagement with D&I agenda, necessarily entails stepping out of the hegemony of the current management thinking.

In this sense, D&I is a never ending journey. If we do not understand the nature of this journey and the road blocks inherent in it, we run the risk of replacing one type of hegemony with another.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Sexually charged workplaces

Human beings in the present day world have to learn something which our ancestors did not need to, namely, how to share our work spaces with members of the other gender. On the face of it , this seems like simply a matter of overcoming our  socialised prejudices about gender roles, but the actual reality may be a lot more complex. Let us begin by  imagining the following scenario-

There is a group of 8 to 10 people sitting in the conference room of a multinational IT company. Their demeanour suggests that they are discussing some important issues around which there are strong opinions. In this group there are two attractive youngsters Abhishek and Madhabi. Both of them are participating in the discussion but every now and then, their eyes keep finding each other. They both seem to be aware that they are being noticed by the “other” and keep acknowledging it through their eyes and occasional smiles. Mr. Mehta who is the senior most member of the group has noticed these subtle exchanges between the two. Mr Mehta who is quite fond of Madhabi, keeps giving disapproving looks to both of them which remain largely unnoticed by the couple. At some stage in the discussion, Madhabi expresses an idea about which Abhishek has some reservations. However he does not want to offend Madhabi and puts forth his objection in a tentative and confused manner. Mr Mehta reacts sharply to him and says in a stern tone “I am unable to understand anything of what you are saying and fail to understand your objection to Madhabi’s excellent suggestion”. The rest of the group members silently look at each other and smile in a “knowing” manner- tacitly agreeing that it would be futile to discuss the issue any further.

This is a fairly common place occurrence and could be happening in several places right at this moment. What is interesting about it is that it so commonplace that its significance eludes us. We are likely to see it as “par for the course” and think nothing about it. Just like the members of the group described above, we recognise that what is visible is only the “tip of the iceberg” and the “real issues” lie elsewhere; but also believe that the prudent approach is to ignore them. This is the prevalent approach of most organisation towards issues of Sexual dynamics unless of course they manifest themselves as cases of sexual harassment.

Whenever Men and Women come together in any space, some sexual energy is triggered. It is not always overt and may not even be experienced by the people concerned as having anything to do with Sexuality. Often it manifests itself in a subtle manner like heightened self-consciousness, preoccupation with how one is being received, subtle competitiveness with members of one’s own gender, shifts in language/body postures etc. Even without our realising, we also convey messages about our Gender Ideology. For example, when a woman sitting in a group generally speaks in soft tones and keeps her gaze down, she  communicates a strong adherence to prescribed gender roles. On the other hand when a woman talks in loud voice, uses rough language and looks other people in the eye, she communicates her indifference/defiance of prevalent gender roles. These “unstated statements” invariably generate strong  feeling responses in others including attraction, repulsion, anger and hostility or tenderness and protective instinct.

Simply put, when Men and Women share a space, there is plenty which is happening below the surface.  In most systems, unless this dynamics manifests itself through blatant violations like sexual harassment, it is pushed under the carpet. Even in cases of Sexual harassment, the general preference is to overlook minor aberrations and subtle indicators. Thus till the proverbial “shit” hits the ceiling, we tend to ignore  it or dismiss it as not very significant. Needless to say, just because we close our eyes to it, it does not go away. It continues to operate below the surface and impacts the ambience of the work space as illustrated in the scenario described above, and/or finds release in unbridled sexual encounters.

In some ways this tendency to ignore or pushing under the carpet is not unique to sexual dynamics of. In most work systems almost all human dynamics  is treated in a similar fashion. The general belief being that work systems must be governed by “rationality” and the “emotional” side is the “private affair “of the individual and must be dealt by him/her alone.  However there are some factors which make the dynamics of Sexual tension very distinct from other forms of human dynamics. These are as follows-

  1. The primal energy associated with sexuality triggers a much higher levels of emotional intensities and passion than what may occur in other forms of human dynamics.
  2. The sexual urges are particularly prone to being suppressed/repressed, and hence it is very difficult for the individual to acknowledge them or own them up. In the scenario described earlier, it is quite likely that Mr. Mehta may have no clue about the link between his  sexual jealousy and his need to “put down Abhishek”.
  3. The social embarrassment makes it extremely difficult to bring these issues into the open and generally there is strong collective collusion to remain silent and pretend as though nothing is happening.
  4. Most importantly, as a species we have developed very little capability of sharing a work space with members of the other gender. In large part of human history, men and women have worked and often also lived in segregated spaces. In Indian joint family system, there was very little interaction between Men and Women . Even between husband and wife, the interaction was confined to the privacy of their bedroom, if they had one. Their work spaces were clearly demarcated with virtually no interference/involvement of the other. The domains of their leisure activities were also separate, and hence they had very little opportunity to learn how to manage the Sexual tension which is an inevitable part of any Man-Woman relationship.                                                                                                                                                                                     Admittedly, with changes in social design, child rearing practices, co-educational institutions and reconfiguration of gender roles, we are getting some experience of sharing a space with each other, but the codings received through a long evolutionary history can not be thrown away just like that. Further,there are many conflicting messages which the individual imbibes through these different sources,which creates considerable confusion around gender roles and relations. Thus while on one hand there is a celebration of ambition and need for achievement in women, on the other hand popular T.V. serials continue to project them as infrastructure/martyrs whose only concern is the well-being of their family. It is therefore not surprising that this confusion is played out in work spaces where both Men and Women carry conflicting expectations both of themselves and the “other”.

 

Quite clearly, in the days to come the need for men and women to share their work spaces is likely to increase greatly. Consequently, healthy and effective engagement with Sexual dynamics is likely to have a significant impact both for the individual as also for the total system. Unfortunately most of the prevalent approaches in the area of gender diversity/dynamics either side-step the issue of sexual dynamics or treat it as an illegitimate intruder into work space. Their essential position being that in the sphere of work space , Gender is (or at least should be) irrelevant. All that matters is the skills and competencies that the person brings to the table  and whether it is a Man or a Woman is of no consequences. The emphasis is on treating one self and others as People rather than as Men and Women. This stance is neither feasible nor very healthy because it leads to further repression/suppression of sexual urges and/or their indiscriminate discharge.  After all, work spaces are formed, nourished and fostered by communities of Men and Women and not by de-sexualised robots of skills and competencies.  Undoubtedly  Men and Women are not just sexual objects. Equally they have a gender/sexual identity which is an integral part of them and will necessarily manifests itself in their interaction with each other.

Thus we have no real choice other than to learn how to share our work spaces with members of the other gender without de-sexualising either ourselves or the other person.What this entails is a significant reconfiguration of our gender/sexual identities. Hitherto these have evolved in the context of certain bifurcation of socio-economic roles of the two genders. These bifurcations are fast losing their relevance, but our gender/sexual identities are still caught with them. A typical example of this is the difficulty which many Men experience when their advance are turned down by a Woman who is lower to them in power  and status hierarchy.While some high profile cases of this nature may attract considerable attention, it is generally overlooked that it is a fairly common occurrence.  Mere moral indignation about such occurrences does not take us very far. What this require of us is serious work with ourselves-particularly around the question as to what does it mean to be a Man or a Woman in today’s world where traditional bifurcation of social roles are no longer applicable?

Do share your insights about Sexual dynamics  as you have experienced it  in the work spaces that you are/have been a part of.

 

 

 

 

“Madam Sir”!!

Jai-Gangaajal
Priyanka Chopra in Jai Gangaajal – a poster from the film

 

Saw “Jai Gangajal”,.It is a typical Prakash Jha film and the structure of the plot is almost the same as the earlier film Gangajal- A brave and honest cop in a small town, taking on the combined might of corrupt feudalistic politicians and economic interests with collusion of the law and order machinery.  She moves forward by triggering off forces of vigilante justice and negotiating his/her way through this mess to finally establish that Law must prevail for both the oppressors and the victims. The main difference is that in this case, the protagonist is a woman who is addressed by her subordinates and also many others as “Madam Sir” I do not know whether or not it is a prevalent practice in at least some parts of the country but that is not very important. What stayed with me is the symbolic significance of this oxymoron.

At one level, it is nothing more than a somewhat cute but silly way of the people concerned to come to terms with a situation that they may not be accustomed to. However, it also tells us how strong is the hold of “gender roles” in our psyche and how deep our entrenchments are. The simplest explanation of this oxymoron is that the two words are signifying two completely different things. While ‘Madam’ acknowledges her gender, ‘Sir’ on the other hand is an affirmation of her status and authority. By obvious implication, ‘Sir” is seen as having a strong co-relation with power and authority as compared to “Madam”. If this be so, then it is a strong statement about our difficulty in associating power and authority with the female gender.

There is another factor which makes the issue more complex  – the nature of the profession itself. Had the protagonist been a politician or a bureaucrat or a corporate executive perhaps an expression like “Madam Ji” may have sufficed. Here we are talking of a profession which is largely regarded as masculine. There is a strong link between the picture of an “ideal police officer” that we carry in our mind with qualities that we associate with masculinity. Thus, in many languages, words like courage, valour etc are often used interchangeably with manliness.  At one time people described Indira Gandhi as the only man in the cabinet, and this was meant as a complement and as a sign of her effectiveness. Similarly expressions like “hathon mein choodiyan pehnan” (wearing bangles in ones wrist) are regarded as symbols of cowardice. The term “Namard”(Impotent)  signifies  lack of courage in a man and inability to stand up for what is right. In this context, the term “Madam Sir” can be interpreted as a “Woman who is showing all the qualities associated with masculinity”

The term “Madam- Sir” can also be seen as an integration of the feminine and masculine principles. The portrayal of the protagonist does incorporate the qualities normally associated with the two genders. The soft, gracious and dignified way in which she holds her own ground in relating to her “patron” is indicative of her approach in dealing with both explicit and implicit oppression. However the most interesting element in this context was the contrast with one of the other main characters-  the Circle Inspector (called Circuit Babu) B.N.Singh-the totally masculine but corrupt police officer who had been helping the Bablu/Dablu duo in their political/economic misdeeds. Singh eventually turns the corner and joins the fight against Bablu/Dablu, but the trigger for this change is the betrayal from them and the disrespect shown towards his uniform. In fact “Wardi Par hath nahi lagana chahiye tha” (Don’t show disrespect to the uniform) is a sentiment which he expresses more than once. I think, Jha missed an opportunity by not contrasting the preoccupation with concern for “Wardi Pe Hath” (disrespect from others) with “Wardi Pe Daag” ( sanctity of the uniform).

Nonetheless, the two different ways one can look at “honour” is of significance. The masculine way where the concern is with extra-spective lens (how one is seen and treated by others) and the feminine way where the concern is with the introspective lens (maintaining one’s sanctity in one’s own eyes) Sadly, like in all other spheres of life, it is only the masculine way which is focused upon by most of us including women.

In its own way “Madam-Sir” says a lot about the times we are living in. On one hand, the traditional bifurcation of socio-economic roles associated with the two genders are fast disappearing and we find women who are playing roles associated with men (e.g.police force) and to a lesser extent men playing roles associated with women (e.g. house-keeping, child-care etc.). Simultaneously the gender roles configured in our minds are still determined by the social arrangements of an earlier era. . The expression “Madam-Sir” is only the tip of the ice-berg. Beneath lies a complex world of power inequities, gender roles and relationship between the masculine/feminine principles which are part of every human being irrespective of his/her gender. While to some extent the issues of inequality are being recognised and dealt with , all other issues are either ignored or treated as “problems” to be taken care off.

The issue of the co-holding of the masculine and feminine aspects is almost totally ignored. Hence while the world is becoming a little less patriarchal (with slightly reduced difference between the relative status and power of the two genders) , it is simultaneously becoming more Patri-centric i.e. governed by masculine principles.Femininity is seen as a weakness with which even women do not want to identify. While, many of them may proclaim as how they value their femininity, scratch the surface and you will find that this “valuing” is of “Women with balls” variety.

The issue of frozen gender roles is relatively easier to see, but it is often denied in oneself and projected on others like we do with all such uncomfortable phenomenon. Thus it is not uncommon to find people who claim that while they themselves are free of all such biases and prejudices, most other people are not and hence they are forced to compromise. On the other hand, there are people who believe that these “frozen gender roles” are how things ought to be and in the name of women’s liberation we are playing havoc with the existing social order. There are also people who own up these frozen roles, feel guilty and ashamed about them and work hard towards getting rid of them. Personally, I have not been able to resonate with any of these and have found them counter-productive. The more I deny them or the more I project them on to others or the more I try to fight them, the more virulent they become.

I am a product of a patriarchal heritage. While the family I grew up in was reasonably liberal and progressive for its time, the basic codings that I received about gender roles were essentially based upon patriarchy e.g. associating the role of a provider/protector with male gender and associating the role of an ambience builder with the female gender. Rationally, I know that these codings are no longer relevant in the present day world, but these codings have an emotive force which I can not deny. In fact, the more I repress/suppress this force, the more I push it into my psychic under-belly and the more lethal it becomes. I would like to say a gentle and gracious good bye to these codings but it is not easy. So far I have only been able to convince them that they have already over-stayed and taken them to the threshold. I do not intend to push them out of the door. Instead, I will patiently wait for them to leave of their own accord.

I would like to hear your experiences with gender roles and dynamics between masculine/feminine principles both within your self and the larger context.