Legacy for our daughters

Vinaya Patil
Sunday, 20 August 2017

As we continue to deal with a gender-biased world, ex-chairperson of Thermax, Anu Aga and Commissioner of Police — Pune City, Rashmi Shukla, share their stories, while urging young girls to be stronger and just be themselves

Women may be leading in many spheres of life, but it doesn’t come easy to them. It’s the fight through the crowds, against unequal opportunities, stereotypes, and even going against their families. The struggle for equality goes on even in year 2017 and success is way tougher as opposed to the other gender. The Women Writers’ Fest, organised by She The People, a digital storytelling platform, on August 18 at Teatro Bond ­— an art and fashion theatre, aimed at addressing some of these by highlighting the role of women and getting exemplary women onto the podium.

Anu Aga, the woman who got Thermax, an energy and environment engineering business, where it is today despite all odds, and Rashmi Shukla, Commissioner of Police, Pune City, both shared their distinct experiences on the occasion.

‘Learn to take care of yourself’

“When people asked me what I wanted to do in life, the only answer I could think of was, ‘I want to get married and procreate’, because that is the legacy my parents had given me,” says Aga, who was always told that ideal girls were supposed to get married at a certain age, have kids, and “look after the family”.

“I was fed the legacy of gender bias,” says the 75-year-old Aga dressed in a smart green saree. “Every time I rejected a suitor, I was asked if I was waiting to marry the Prince of England,” she jokes about how she was mocked for wanting a choice regarding her marriage. But she soon happened to find an “absolutely amazing” person whom she got married to, and credits all her success to.

“Don’t be restricted by cultural messages. Listen to them, but do what makes you happy,” she tells young girls. It was her husband, fortunately for her, who made her a career woman. “I had my share of chilling and doing nothing for a few years in Pune. But my husband soon began asking me why I wasn’t working, and there I began — initially part-time, but soon working until late in the night. When others around you are working full-time, you can’t be the only one working part-time, just because your husband’s leading the company,” she narrates.

When asked about how she struck the work-life balance, Aga laughs, before saying, “In India, most of us have around us our in-laws, children, and maids; get the most of each of these. We have to constantly struggle between our work and families, at every stage of life. So this is the only way we can do it.” Ask for help when needed — be it at home or work, says the septuagenarian, proudly and comfortably sporting her signature salt and pepper short hair.

When Aga was asked to take over Thermax after she lost her husband, she wasn’t ready for it at all. “Don’t do this to me,” I told them. “I was missing my husband and knew nothing in the business. I was merely working in the HR department of the company. But they wouldn’t budge. Thermax was doing very badly then. Our share prices had hit an all-time low. But fortunately I found good people. Again, I asked them for help and slowly learnt it all,” she recalls.

Through the years, the one thing Aga didn’t do was bringing up her children in a gender-biased manner. “My son at one point got very interested in jewellery. I did not tell him that it was a ‘girly’ thing. He lost interest in it in a matter of days,” she tells us. A girl doesn’t become “cheap” if she has had three boyfriends, and a boy “no more macho” if he has had multiple relationships. “I never told my daughter to ‘save’ her virginity for her husband. I think the importance attached to virginity is stupid. Just take wise decisions in life; doesn’t mean I am encouraging everyone to go lose it, but stop being so hypocritical about it,” exclaims the lady.

The one thing that she tells girls is to never use the gender argument unnecessarily. “Please do not misuse the laws that are meant to protect you. You simply cannot do that. Learn to take care of yourself, and escalate matters only when necessary,” she insists. “Introspection is important. Learn to deal with your imperfections too,” she says, adding, “No success at the cost of your family is worth it. This is not mathematics, so each one must figure out his/her own course.”

Lastly, “Don’t ever feel guilty for juggling between your family and work. My kids always told me I was a better mother while I was working, and I believed I was a better person when I worked versus my boring self simply sitting at home,” she concludes to a loud applause.

‘Your message must be loud and clear’

“I was brought up in a gender-neutral world,” says Shukla about her upbringing by her paternal grandmother in Allahabad. Having wrapped up a meeting with presidents of Pune’s Ganpati pandals, the police commissioner draws attention the moment she enters the venue dressed in a crisp navy blue kurta.

Despite belonging to a traditional family set-up, her grandmother never gave her a conservative patriarchal legacy, she says. A Class X educated woman of that era, her grandmother had more than pampered Shukla. “My grandfather was a freedom fighter. So he was either in jail or outside rallying and protesting. But never at home,” she smiles, adding, “So it was daadi who single-handedly brought me up and never expressed any shock when I said I wanted to join the police force.”

Wanting to be an IPS officer was not the most common thing for girls of her community back then. “But support came from within my home,” she tells us, but things weren’t always hunky dory. “My grandmother once asked me if I was okay with marrying this guy whose family had approached us. He was serving in the Reserve Police Force (RPF). He had already rejected the idea of meeting me before marriage, so I said no to the meeting too. And that was it. I got married to my now husband”, and her challenge of juggling between her independent self and the expectations of being a daughter-in-law began.

“I never fought with my in-laws but ensured that my point was put across always. I was once asked to eat from the same plate that my husband had finished eating from. I said a clear no. The demand was never raised again,” she narrates, urging young girls to be clear about their ideas and choices.

“Simply changing how you dress and look doesn’t change anything. Just because I do not wear the toe-ring or bangles doesn’t mean my values are not in place. At the same time, just because I wear modern clothes doesn’t mean I am a broad-minded person,” she believes, pointing at transparency of thoughts being of utmost importance.

“Stop beating around the bush if a boy approaches you. If you know that he is not the right kind, just say a clear no. You need to handle your own troubles. Your family, friends and the police are all there to help you, but not until you stand up for yourself first,” she insists.

The mother of a 23-year-old daughter, and a teenaged son says that she has always given this kind of upbringing to both her kids, and encourages her daughter too to handle things on her own.

On being asked who her role models are, she promptly says that her grandmother has been the sole inspiration of her life. “The way she handled her work and family itself was an example. Similarly, I don’t like to do too much talking. I let my work speak,” she concludes as she rushes to handle a thousand more things for the day.

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