#inspiringwomen: She Never Lost Hope – Through Life’s Toughest Challenges

In a crisp saree, ramrod straight back, not a hair out of place and a graceful smile. That’s Ruby, easily the smartest lady in our office. Born and married into a defense family, she is a living example of the values of the armed forces – strength and integrity. Without these, perhaps, it would have been difficult for her to handle the challenges life threw her way.

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Youngest of seven siblings, Ruby was born in a post partition India, twelve years after her parents crossed the border from Pakistan. She tells me that her mother was in a petticoat and the youngest child stark naked when they arrived in India. Her family, along with other Hindu/ Sikh families, managed to survive because their Muslim friends safeguarded their houses and helped them escape when the time was right.

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Born in Lucknow and raised across the country, Ruby grew up as a happy go lucky girl, interested in sports and taking life as it came. Married in her 20s, she moved to Jabalpur with Harjinder, her husband. The couple was soon expecting their first baby and excitement was palpable in the air. Everyone wanted a girl as the family had all boys. Her mother in law got busy making frocks. And girl it was! On January 21, 1980, Prabhdeep was born.

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While her pregnancy was uneventful, Ruby’s labour was over a day long. In the labour room, it had been a busy night and the doctors had birthed 9-10 babies already. By the time Prabdeep (lovingly known as Chhotu) was born, both Ruby and the doctors were exhausted. When the baby finally pushed her way out, lights went out. In the ensuing confusion, combined with a weary team of doctors, they forgot to make the baby cry. THEY FORGOT! Medical profession is one such profession where a normal human error can have a huge cost. In this case, it cost Chhotu her first breath and consequently damaged her brain. Permanently. Irreversibly.

But Ruby didn’t know. Nor did the doctors.

What’s wrong with my baby?

As months passed, it became evident that all was not well. Chhotu wouldn’t cry. Pediatricians told them crying was important for her lung development. They asked Ruby to slap her and make her cry. She did. Chhotu cried. Sequence repeated. Endlessly.

But even now no one suspected brain damage despite the tell-tale signs. This was the 1980s and perhaps knowledge of brain injuries was limited. Not only limited, I would say there were prejudices as well as denial. When Chhotu was 11 months old, they had an army doctor couple as neighbors who had a same age girl. Sensing Chhotu was “not normal”, they wouldn’t let their girl play with her. This, coming from a doctor couple. When Ruby consulted another pediatrician, he refused to believe anything was wrong with Chhotu and instead referred Ruby to a psychiatrist. Apparently Ruby was “imagining things”!

But Ruby refused to believe them. She knew something was wrong. On her way from Jalandhar to Bhatinda, Ruby took Chhotu to Christian Medical College in Ludhiana where they had been referred by a friend. The intern who examined her there immediately suspected cerebral palsy and sent her to a physiotherapist.

Finally, Ruby had a diagnosis. And understood the reason why. But bigger and more important challenges lay ahead. Helping Chhotu develop. Become independent. Making her financially secure. A long journey lay ahead.

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The road ahead

I asked Ruby how she felt at that time. After all, a diagnosis such as this is not easy on any parent. I know. I am parent to a special needs child too. But she says they had no time to feel anything. Going from one day to the next, handling daily pressures, left them no time to grieve. Her husband took a posting in Delhi on compassionate grounds so that they could get her the best treatment from AIIMS. Husband and wife took turns to take care of Chhotu on a daily basis. Harjinder would come home by 1.30 and give Ruby a break. And soon a routine was established. It is commendable is how both of them took the entire responsibility of care-giving for Chhotu – feeding, bathing, changing and still do. They never relied on any outside help.

When Chhotu was four, they admitted her to a school. Lady Irwin college – home science, Child Development department ran nursery classes for children including those with special needs. The school was a blessing for them. Chhotu was taught basic etiquettes, painting, playing and there was a lot of integration with ‘normal’, neurotypical children. Chhotu thrived there, slept well, ate well and was happy. Ruby remembers the first day she dropped Chhotu at school. She wanted to go in with her, worried how she would react, away from her mom for the first time. Not allowed to go in, Ruby sat on the pavement outside the school for three hours, waiting for Chhotu to come out. She need not have worried, Chhotu was happy and had had a great day!

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A series of horrors

By the time Chhotu was six, she had outgrown the nursery school and her parents started looking at options. And then began a series of horrors. Chhotu was sent to a famous school for special needs children. Started by someone with a special needs child herself. The school had good facilities, but teachers lacked compassion. They seemed to focus on children who showed faster improvement. And sort of ignored those who lagged! Ruby recounts, “once when I went to pick Chhotu, the teacher told me she has been punished for not counting from 1 -10. And what was the punishment? She wasn’t allowed to eat her tiffin and the little child remained hungry from 6.30 a.m. till 1 p.m.” “I just couldn’t send Chhotu there anymore.”, says Ruby.

At another charity institution where Ruby sent Chhotu, she found out they were in the habit of hitting kids – Chhotu would come back with cane marks on her legs. And at yet another school, a Chinese Checkers peg that Chhotu stuffed up her nose went undiscovered for two days, till Ruby noticed her discomfort.

By this time, her parents also realized that while Chhotu was growing physically, development in other areas was slow. There was no speech till age 4 and even today at 39 years her speech is not very clear. Till age 7 she wore plastic panties and was still not fully toilet trained at 13. A bigger issue came when she hit puberty at 12 and had to be taught how to manage her periods. The last was perhaps the most difficult to manage. She had fibroids and would bleed heavily and more often. The doctor suggested hysterectomy. But Chhotu’s father would not hear of it. He took it as his personal task to help her manage. However, he had to give in when he realized that it was physically taking a huge toll on her. She would droop from the strain and pain of it. The family took a tough decision and decided to go for the operation. Chhotu took it in her stride and was up on her feet the day after the operation.

By this time, Ruby and Harjinder were sure their daughter needed greater support to become more independent and were unable to find it in Delhi. After much research they found out about Swayamkrushi based in Secunderabad, an institution for children and adults with special needs that aims to make them independent and become part of the mainstream society.

At age 14, Chhotu went to Swayamkrushi, to live away from her parents. Another tough decision was taken.

Today Chhotu is a happy young woman

Swayamkrushi was a blessing for Chhotu. She adjusted very well there and has made some very good friends. Today she is a happy and very loving person. Her smile is infectious and you cannot help but smile in her company. And like every young woman, she loves to dress up, shop and is interested in men!

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At Swayamkrushi she was trained to take care of herself. Soon after joining Chhotu became toilet trained. She was able to do small things for  herself. Now when she is at her house, she helps lay the table, put dirty dishes for washing and clothes in the washing machine. She also goes to a special school where she helps lay the table for children and gets to interact with them at a personal level.

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Ruby believes that peer learning, interaction and peer pressure helped Chhotu develop the most. And she has Swayamkrushi to thank for this. To see the work Swayamkrushi does, please see the coverage they received from NDTV, where Ruby also talks about the positive impact this institution had on their lives.

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Building a financially secure future for Chhotu

Early on, Ruby and Harjinder realized that it was important for Chhotu to be financially independent after they were gone. They were also clear that this couldn’t be done only on Harjinder’s income. So she started with small, temporary jobs. She was once selling cards made by special needs children at embassy when she was told about a temporary job at the World Bank. She approached them and got the position. She started with a two week job, which quickly became a month and soon she was filling in for anyone who was on leave. Slowly she got a 6 month tenure and then a one year and then another. By 1992, she had a full time job. And she never looked back after that.

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The hard work paid. They managed to build a house; move from a scooter to two cars and then to another house in Secunderabad. Ruby has also heavily insured herself in case of any eventuality and both Harjinder and she have prepared their wills. Chhotu is also a member of the national trust and two of her cousins (one from each side) are her guardians.

These days, Ruby is putting together a trust for Chhotu with 5 trustees – 2 cousins, a bank manager and a teacher from her school. This trust will ensure Chhotu has a regular income stream and funds available in case on unexpected needs.

Soldiered on like a true warrier – Hats Off

As Ruby and I spoke in length about her life, she revisited areas of her past buried deeply within her. She told me there was a second baby too. Chhotu was around six at the time and was very excited at the prospect of a little baby. Harjinder was posted at Kargil at the time. Her baby boy was born at 37 weeks with a punctured trachea that caused edema in his wind pipe. The child was kept on ventilation. His left cheek had a droop and he was unable to swallow. Even in this situation, the gynecologists and pediatricians were embroiled in a petty battle. Ruby’s gynecologist wanted to keep her in the hospital, but the pediatrician saw no need for it as she wasn’t feeding the baby. On the 10th day she was discharged.

That same evening when they came to see the baby, the incubator was empty. They went across to the pediatric ward to speak with the attending doctor, when they enquired about the baby – he said that the baby had passed away.  We wanted to know where the baby was – he said – “aur kahan hoga…. Mortuary mein” (“where else – in the mortuary”)………..

As she relives this horror, her tears flow for the first time. I am speechless. And at the same time in awe of this woman who has gone through so much, has weathered so much and still exudes so much positivity.

Her advice, “take each day as it comes, and let things happen at their own pace.”

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I hope you found Ruby’s story as inspiring as I did. Please do share – it may give courage to someone else who needs it. #thesewomendeserveit.

#inspiringwomen: “Breaking down was not an option: I had to carry on for my son”

It’s been four years, but the evening is still fresh in my mind. Arnav was home playing with Ayushman, when a neighbor came by and told me Ayushman’s father is seriously ill. Kapil rushed out to assist and I ran out a little later with emergency medication for a heart attack. Downstairs, I found Ayaan slumped in a wheelchair surrounded by neighbours. Surprisingly, the doctor not only refused the medicine but even the suggestion to take him to a reputable private hospital nearby. He just recommended we take him to the nearest local hospital. I didn’t know it was already too late to do anything for Ayaan.

Soon after, Kapil called me to the hospital. I was tasked with breaking the news to Antara, Ayaan’s wife. His cousin did not have the courage to do that. I didn’t think I had either.

I don’t know how a woman is supposed to respond to her husband’s untimely death. Will she cry? Scream? Collapse? Faint? I don’t know. Antara took the news without any reaction. Her first sentence was, “How will I tell Ayushman, He is so close to his father. He is only six”. From that day to now, I have never seen her cry. She has hidden her grief and tried to keep life as normal as possible for her son. This year Ayushman will turn 11.

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I asked Antara with trepidation if she would like to share her story with the world, not sure if she would be willing to share a loss as personal as this. But she took the challenge. As she has, these last four years. I worried if she will break down sharing her story. But she didn’t – just as these last four years.

Antara was born and brought up in Kolkata, had a happy, uneventful childhood. An only child, she preferred being on her own and had select but close friends. Her parents gave her the freedom to be – her mum wanted to work, but could not, so she always encouraged Antara to be independent, have a career. Her dad was busy with work and mom dominated all household decisions, like all Bengali households, she laughingly tells me. That open upbringing and a strong mother figure, made her into the strong woman she is today, not afraid to deal with life on her own terms. The foundation laid by her parents, is what has helped her get through the hard reality of life she faces every day.

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She met Ayaan while doing a two-year course in computer programming and coding. They became friends and were part of the same group. While Antara was reserved, Ayaan was her total opposite. Outspoken and friendly, Ayaan made friends easily.

They started dating only after both started their jobs. After finishing their studies, they kept in touch and slowly an unsaid bond developed. Antara says there was never really any proper proposal. They both grew into the relationship and neither had to formally ask the other. Ayaan moved to Delhi for work and Antara followed a year later, when they got married.

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Ayaan was an ambitious, hardworking young man. As Antara says, he was self-made – he got through most of his education on the back scholarships he earned. He wanted to make sure they had their own house before having a child. They both worked hard to achieve that goal and shifted into their new house, three months before their baby was born.

“Though he never mentioned, I think Ayaan was not very close to his mother. However, he really cherished the relationship he had with his father.” Perhaps to compensate for the fractured relationship, Ayaan loved his son to the hilt. No wish went unattended, Ayaan showered Ayushman with toys, gifts and most of all his time. The two developed a very close relationship and Antara feels that Ayushman is probably still not as close to her as he was to his father. The threesome loved holidaying and spent some cherished vacations together. But time was short.

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9th April 2014. Antara had a job interview and Ayaan offered to drive her to the venue. On the way back, he complained of a slight pain in the chest. Shrugging it off as a gastric issue, he came back home and took some medication. When he didn’t feel better till evening, they decided to go to a doctor and Ayaan went to change. Antara was in another room, when she heard a strange gurgle followed by a thud. She ran to the room and found Ayaan lying on the floor, unconscious. She screamed.

Too soon it was all over. He was declared ‘brought dead’ – and was no more a person. Ayaan had become a ‘body’. The hospital could not release ‘the body’ till a post mortem was done to find cause of death. A police report was required.

And in the middle of all this was Antara. Surrounded by women – mostly neighbours – no mother – no sister – no friend. No one she could lean on and cry with. So she just held everything in. Steeled herself to go through all the processes.

Antara had decided to take Ayushman for the cremation. A psychiatrist told her that it was important for Ayushman to understand his father was no more. We all collected at the Lodhi Road crematorium where we waited for Ayaan’s parents to arrive. They reached soon after we did, and I will not forget the cries of a woman who has lost a young son. Crazed by grief, she was in stark contrast to Antara’s composure. Two women who loved the same man, bound and separated by his death.

She broke down once again, when they laid her son on the ground. In her grief, she wanted Ayushman to touch and feel his father for one last time. The little child, not seven yet, froze with fear. Unable to comprehend what was going on around him, he wanted to run. I took him away with me, holding him, playing with him while the last rites were being completed.

Ayaan had been very popular and loved wherever he went. Many of his friends surrounded Antara and helped her with all the arrangements, the paperwork, the post mortem. But they all also had to get back to their own lives. One by one they left. And Antara was left alone to pick up the pieces of a life that once was.

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Kapil turned 40 last December. The exact same day Ayaan would have turned 40 too. I remember feeling that death had prowled our corridors that fateful day and took Ayaan finding him home. Even now I shudder at how close by death had been. I am once again reminded how important is each moment lived. And how lives can change in a minute. Here one minute and gone another.

I am reminded of Sheryl Sandberg, who lost her husband a month after Antara did. She wrote on her FB, “I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning.

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As we talk, I tell her how amazed I have been with her self-control. She says she doesn’t know where it came from. Even her mother says she had no idea how brave her daughter was. As far as Antara is concerned, she knew she had to be strong for her son. She did not show her grief, so her son could retain a sense of normality.

She remembers the evening of the cremation. When she came back home, it was empty. Silent. Her mum had not come yet and Ayushman was with us. She just sat down in the drawing room, soaking in the silence. The cacophony inside and the chaos outside needed to be silenced so she could think. But even then, she did not cry.

When her mum came, she allowed herself to grieve a little, but something still held her back. A close friend called from the U.S. and she was crying on the phone. Antara did not. Her friend told her she needed help and advised her to see a psychiatrist. Antara is glad she took her advice. The first time she really let go of her emotions was with the psychiatrist. Perhaps, it is easier to be vulnerable in front of a stranger.

Till almost a year ago, Antara would suddenly go blank, in the middle of things. But she has been getting better. For almost nine months after Ayaan was gone, she could not bring herself to go out and resume working. (I wonder how she even had the energy to get out from the bed every morning.) But life doesn’t give us so much time. There was a house to run, home loans, Ayushman’s fees to be paid. Some people even advised her to move Ayushman to a cheaper school, but Antara chose not to. She wanted things to run the same way.

With the help of her mum, who moved in with her, she restored normalcy to life. Four years down the line, life is not ideal, but they are happy. Ayushman is a cheerful young boy. They go out for vacations. They celebrate festivals. She goes out with her friends. She is living her life.

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Antara says she has matured as a person. She was very emotional earlier – could get upset at small things, now she learns to ignore such incidents. She was also a very carefree person, “I didn’t even buy a packet of milk – Ayaan would do all that.” Now of course she has the responsibility of running the whole house.

They have almost lost touch with Ayaan’s family, but she holds no grudges, “I don’t expect anything from anyone anymore. I just believe in carrying out my own responsibility.” “I have also learnt, that money is important. It may not be everything, but it is needed to live a life.” She worries about Ayushman, “What if something happens to me?”. She has heavily insured herself. But now she reads the small script carefully. Four years later, she is still submitting papers for Ayaan’s insurance claims.

Have you ever thought of remarrying, I ask. “No. I am content. I have already led a happy married life and I don’t feel the need.”

“And I miss him so much……………………………”

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Do share this if you think it can inspire someone.

#InspiringWomen: A Pioneer, An Entrepreneur – She Built Lives Not Only Institutions

Today is the international Women’s day and we will hear/ read stories of many exemplary women, high achievers in their respective fields. It is important to acknowledge the great work and achievements of these women. In a world that still does not offer equal opportunity or a level playing field to women, recognition of those who have crossed many barriers to reach where they are today is essential.

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However, to a common woman, the achiever’s story might well be a benchmark but perhaps not an example she would be able to follow easily. Most of us common people look at the people on top with longing but never assuming that we can reach those levels. This is where it becomes important to look at women around us – women who have faced issues similar to ours, fought the same battles, maybe even worse than ours and came out a winner. When we see them overcome the challenges life threw their way, we believe we can do that too. We can also achieve, overcome, overthrow, win. As I wrote a few months ago – I have been shaped by the women around me.

For this women’s day, I have decided to bring out the stories of everyday women, women like ourselves who have made the best of their circumstances. By being true to themselves they tell us we can do it too. They have overcome grief, physical hardship, disability, poverty and built institutions. They are us. We are them.

Like the Navratans (9 jewels), I have chosen nine women whose stories I would like to share over the next few weeks. Whether it is Anita, born in poverty and thrown out of her house or Tara, the only female doctor in small town Rewari of the 1950s or Joyce who lost her only child, each of them has the power to encourage us, to tell us that nothing is insurmountable.

As I spoke to each of them, a common pattern that emerged was their own mothers or fathers, that shaped them to who they have become. So let me also start with the story of my mother. I have not chosen her because she is my mother – but because she was part of the first wave of women entrepreneurs of the 1980s, who started out on their journeys, without any examples they could follow, without formal guidance but only their own skills, confidence and conviction.

So let me stop here and dive into Purnima’s life.

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“The person I am today, is in a large part influenced by how my mother brought me up. Even in 1960s, when women had limited power over their own lives, she wanted to make sure that I was educated and trained to be self dependent. I was given full choice in choosing my career and life partner”, says Purnima. A textile designer by profession, Purnima is one of the handful of women entrepreneurs that existed in the small city of Jaipur of 1980s. She established her own institute that went on to develop a formidable reputation. It is also probably not an exaggeration to say that she pioneered design as a serious career option for a generation of young women that had started to aspire for economic independence and challenging professions.

Soon after moving to Jaipur post marriage, she was approached by a lady wishing to start courses in textile designing for young women. Purnima accepted her offer to develop and conduct the course which soon became very popular. A few years later, however, due to differences with management she resigned from her job.

Given the newness of the design field and lack of quality teachers at the time, some of her students insisted, begged and cajoled her to open her own institution. Moved by their faith in her and their own passion to prove their abilities to the world, she opened the Institute of Designing (IoD) in 1984 out of her own house. The garage became a classroom, the driveway was laid with two large printing tables and the terrace a place where students gathered to discuss and debate. Without any financial backing and with only her own skill and experience, Purnima took a decision that changed the course of her life and the lives of many of her students. (and i guess mine too!)

Keep in mind that this is the Jaipur of late 1970s – early 80s. Like most Indian cities of that time, Jaipur also aspired to greater development and urbanization. Infrastructure was developing, new schools were opening and businesses were growing. The mindsets were however still conservative. Many girls from well off families were still not being educated and many of those that were sent to school, were married off as soon as possible. Girls getting professional education were even lesser and the motivation in a large part was to add to their “sarva gun sampanna” status and make them more eligible for marriage. (photo credit colourbox.com)

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The first batch consisted of 7-8 girls which soon grew to 20 plus and then crossed 100s. At its peak, the institute had more than 120 students, many more classrooms had come up on the terrace and classes were conducted in two shifts. The spare room had been converted to the front office.

As garment and fashion industry continued to grow in Jaipur and in India, more courses were added to cater to various needs. Textile designing and printing; fashion designing, garment technology and so on. As NIFT and NID became more popular, designing became a more credible option. Children with a creative flair could now opt for a career more in sync with their talents – instead of having to go for science or commerce. This not only led to a greater demand for the institute, it also ended up in introduction of foundation courses for students who wanted to prepare for NIFT and NID entrance exams.

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By 1990s the institute had developed a strong reputation, so much so that postmen only needed Institute of Designing written on the address to deliver mail. (one of our neighbors got a letter addressed “opposite IOD!!” Another time, when I told a new acquaintance my address, he exclaimed that I live in Purnima Varma’s street! The pride I felt telling him that I am actually her daughter is indescribable!). She even had a few international students to her credit – who came all the way from the U.S. and Japan, lived a year or two in Jaipur to learn the craft. Media also did its bit in recognising her achievements.

 

Purnima was very clear that her courses will not be constrained to theory. Well aware that she was creating a skilled workforce that has to go out in the world and work, she laid a huge emphasis on practical work and exposure to industry. Her students did everything from scratch, right from preparing their own dyes to stitching their own designs. They were also given many opportunities to interact with the industry, display their work at exhibitions and fashion shows. One of the exhibitions attracted such a large crowd that the management of Jawahar Kala Kendra (where the exhibition was held) mentioned that this was the first time ever an art exhibition had so many visitors.

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(photo: Maharani Padmini Devi admiring the artwork)

In 1989, Purnima conducted the first ever fashion show in Jaipur. This not only gave a chance to her students to showcase their work, it gave them important lessons in managing such events from scratch. As was practice, the entire event was created and managed by the students and teachers of the institute. The fashion show started with a closed theater in Jaipur and over the years moved on to the large open air theater with the audience going into thousands.

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As a child (later teen), the institute for me was a fascinating ground for growing up (more in a later blog). On a busy day, you could see students busy tying knots on their bandhni designs. On the terrace, a few others could be seen making their screens for printing – painstakingly hammering the fabric on the wooden frame; tracing the design on the fabric and blotting out portions with enamel colour. In another corner you could smell the strong fumes of melted wax where students were dyeing their batik cloths. Upstairs sewing machines hummed amid the chatter of students. During the days leading to fashion shows, there was palpable excitement in the air and music all around as amateur models practiced their catwalk and students busied themselves preparing their costumes.

Through the decades of 1980s, 90s and 2000s, Purnima was witness to the changing social landscape of Jaipur. Some of her earliest students were driven to classes by their drivers who stayed till class ended and took them away soon after. Later in late 1990s, more and more girls started coming on their scooties or kinetics. One year, she had three students from the same family – mother, daughter and daughter in law – all three wanted to explore their selves and become more than just their familial duties. Many of her students went on to take jobs and start their own enterprises. Many came to her under-confident and went out ready to take on the world. A student describes her experience – “When I came to ma’am, I was like Jassi (an underconfident character from a popular TV show) and today I am as confident of myself as I can be.”

Unlike today, when education has become a money minting machine, at that time, an education provider was revered for the learning they imparted. Purnima established the institute to develop confident, mature women able to hold their own in a world, not balanced in their favour. Like a sapphire, she symbolizes honesty, purity and trust and those are the values on which she built her institute.

In her own words, “the best compliment I ever received was – ma’am aadmi banati hain (ma’am builds a person)”. Her life’s mantra – “Be true to yourself and have courage of conviction. Before becoming ‘somebody’, be a good person”.

So when I am in doubt, I think of this woman and tell myself, “if she could achieve all this, why can’t you solve your own little problem”.

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I hope you enjoyed reading this. Please leave your comment and share this story with your friends.

Mommy Travels: Central Asia – People, Food and Culture

I am sorry – I know I broke off quite abruptly on the last blog. But here I am, to continue my story of Central Asia. The region consists of the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. A quick rehash – last year I got the opportunity to work in Central Asia and since then have been to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Dushanbe (Tajikistan), Almaty (Kazakhstan) and Tashkent (Uzbekistan).

Each city is beautiful in its own way and so are its people. Whoever I met, strangers or not, were all very welcoming. In each of the country offices, I not only felt welcomed, it seemed as if I belonged. Colleagues went out of their way to show me around their cities on weekends, bringing their families with them. Total strangers, instead of just giving directions, decided to walk part of the way to my destination. In Samarkand, I unwittingly left my shopping behind and the hosts were kind enough to get it transported all the way back to my office in Tashkent. Though the shopping was inexpensive, getting it back was priceless!

Central Asian people come from diverse ethnicities and cultures. Being an arid and landlocked region, both agriculture and trade were difficult to develop and its earliest people were nomadic tribes that roamed the land. Over the centuries there was migration of Iranian people, of Turks and of Arabs. In the 13th and 14th centuries the Mongols took over a large part of Central Asia and a few centuries later Russia and China expanded into the region.

The modern day people of Central Asia reflect this diverse history. Sitting with two of my colleagues during my first visit to Bishkek, I was puzzling out the ethnic mix. I had noticed that people seemed to have east Asian features, European features and other mixes. The European features come from a mix of Russian or Tatar (Mongol) genes while the ethnic Kyrgyz looks more East Asian. My colleague with European looks is a mix of Russian, Tatar and Kyrgyz blood while she informed me that people with looks like mine are of Tajik or Uzbek origin. I was surprised, till more than once, locals started talking to me in Uzbek language when I responded to their As-Salaam-Alaikum with Wa-Alaikum-Salaam.

This greeting is more commonly heard in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. And a lot of Tajik and Uzbek words will sound familiar to an Indian. The counting sounds very similar to our ek(1), do(2), teen(3), bees(20), tees (30) as do many words – khareed (to buy), mahalla (colony) etc. This is not really surprising since Hindi and Urdu that are spoken in India are sister languages and Urdu has Persian, Turkic and Arabic influences. Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Turkmen are Turkic languages while Tajik is a Persian language. However, Russian is spoken widely and acts as a unifier for the region exactly like English does for India, a country that has 22 major languages and 720 dialects. Conversely, English is understood by few and spoken by even fewer people. For many official meetings, I had the help of interpreters and when on my own, I have had to depend on google translate or sign language!

Nevertheless, Hindi is probably a language that movie lovers in Central Asia may understand! A bell boy in Tashkent, on hearing that I am from India, asked me in broken Hindi – aapko hindi aati hai? (Do you know Hindi?) Surprised I asked him, how he knew Hindi and the answer of course was Bollywood! Bollywood is probably India’s biggest brand ambassador across the world. From South East Asia, to the USA and now to Central Asia, everyone seems to have seen and loved Bollywood movies! For me personally they have acted as ice breakers and conversation makers. A very serious discussion suddenly turned into a warm exchange when the official I was meeting decided to ask me about Mithun and Sholay!

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Moving on to food. Hmmm (silence…) Now what can a picky vegetarian who basically prefers Indian food above all, say about the food of a region that is primarily meat eating!!! Needless to say, that has been my biggest challenge! But let me try. The food is a confluence of the nomadic life (meat, dairy), Uzbeks and Turks (rice, breads, noodles, kebabs) and Persian (seasoning, vegetables and sweets).

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One of my most favourite has been the Central Asian non (naan). This naan is different from the Indian version of naan and is a round flatbread baked in a Tandyr (tandoor). It is almost sacred and people never leave any leftover bread and take it home instead. While it tastes great even if you have it just as is, it becomes even better if had with chakka. Chakka is much like hung curd or cream cheese. There is also a form of the Indian type of naan called lavash. There is another form of bread, where small pieces of dough are fried, it is slightly sweet and reminded me of shakar paras. It can also be compared to a doughnut.

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The plov (pulao) is famous across the region and there are apparently 200 varieties of it. It is Uzbekistan’s national dish and is featured on Tajikistan and Uzbekistan’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as listed by UNESCO. Traditionally cooked in animal fat (though commonly in vegetable fat), it consists of rice (of course), meat, onions, carrot and zeera (cumin) as the main spice. I got a chance to taste it and it was quite nice. The samsa is another famous dish – which I would have loved to try had it been vegetarian! It is similar to the Indian samosa (actually introduced to India by Central Asian traders in 13th-14th centuries), except that it is baked in an oven and not fried.

Another dish I really liked was a noodle soup called laghman. It is an Uighur dish that originated from West China and now can be found across the region. (Uighurs are a Turkic ethnicity who now primarily live in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region). The dish is basically made of hand pulled noodles cooked in meat stew – for me the restaurant kindly cooked it in vegetable stew – and it was one of the best vegetarian meals I had found in Central Asia by far.

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The dry fruits of the region are of course famous across the world and I have brought back loads every trip! Spices very similar to Indian. Fruits and vegetables bigger. I discovered a most awesome fruit not found in India – called Persimmon. Juicy and sweet, it can pass of easily as a tomato but tastes totally different.

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As with food and language, an Indian would identify with a lot of art and crafts in the region, especially Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Our Mughal architecture is of course influenced by Uzbekistan (Babar came from Samarkand) and a lot of designs and patterns seem no different from those found in India. A lot of the embroidery work is very to the work that comes from Kashmir. Stories too are similar. I did not know that the many stories I read about Mullah Nasruddin actually come from Uzbekistan.

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This is not surprising since most of us have read in history about the old Silk road and then about the origin of Babur. What I did not know was that the cultural mingling started much before that. Many Buddhist monuments have been found across Central Asia. Dushanbe is home to the largest Buddha statue in Central Asia and dates back to 5th century A.D. There is something very heartening in the fact that at the time Taliban was destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, Tajikistan was restoring the ancient Budhha to its lost glory.

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It is again past 1 a.m. and as I get ready to sleep I dream of a world that celebrates its similarities instead of exploiting its differences and where love takes precedence over hate. Amen.

Mommy Travels: Central Asia – So Near Yet So Far

Last year I got a wonderful opportunity to work on a Central Asian project covering the countries of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Needless to say, the wanderer in me was extremely excited at this opportunity – I had heard a lot about Central Asia but only through books or stories or maybe some history. The mum in me was a bit doubtful though, about leaving the kids for long stretches at a time. The family deliberated and we all decided to jump into this new adventure called Central Asia!

Central Asia held a special meaning for me being part of the erstwhile Soviet Union. I was in my primary years when the Soviet Union still existed and there was a lot of cultural exchange between our countries. I remember mobile vans stationed at schools or other places that sold children’s books from the USSR. My favourites were Russian folk tales. A large part of my early years was spent reading about Baba Yaga, Buddhimati (wise) Vasilisa and Prince Ivan. To me it felt like an opportunity to go to a land which had fascinated me most of my childhood! But a land that was too far from me.

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However, when I started booking my tickets I realized with shock how close some of these countries are! Almaty is a 3.5 hour flight from Delhi and direct flights to Bishkek and Dushanbe would be under 3 hours. Going to Tashkent from Delhi is probably just a little longer than going to Bombay! Each of these cities is beautiful and yet undiscovered by the Indian traveler. Though a very interesting subset of South Asians are very familiar with these countries. These are our medical students! On my first flight to Bishkek (via Almaty), I was surprised to notice a large no. of young Indian people. I was even more surprised when I realized that they were all also transiting to Bishkek! Upon enquiry, I found out that there are approximately 5,000 Indian students studying medicine in Bishkek alone! And they are such a high percentage of the total student population, that they get Diwali holidays as well! Anyway, I digress.

Central Asia remains unknown to most of the world even after more than 25 years of independence. Being part of the Soviet Union, Central Asia along with the other countries behind the iron curtain was hidden from the rest of the world. Even after the break up of the USSR, Central Asia remained under the shadow of Russia and being land locked and away from the Western Economic powers, did not receive much economic attention from the globalized world. Each of the five countries have followed their own path of economic and political transformation. Moving from centrally planned economies to being led by the market has not been easy and some countries are ahead of the others in this transformation.

Till date I have been to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Dushanbe (Tajikistan), Tashkent and Samarkand (Uzbekistan) and Almaty – only for a few hours (Kazakhstan). Each of these cities is beautiful in its own way and deserves a blog of its own. There is a lingering flavor of the USSR – in the buildings, in the city plans, in the systems that have survived through these years. But there is also a lot of newness as these countries strive to come out of their old identity. A lot of old buildings have been pulled down and beautiful new ones erected. (I simply loved the ones in Dushanbe) Many countries are resurrecting their old heroes – the statue of Ismoil Somoni was erected in 1999 in Dushanbe. Similarly a statue of Manas, another local hero was erected in Bishkek in 2011. These have come up in places that used to have statues of Lenin earlier.

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I have had some of the most fascinating and educating conversations with various people during my visits. I was keen to to understand what they feel about the break up of the USSR. The new generation seems to have embraced the new world order while many from the older generation are nostalgic about the Soviet era. They remember the ease of jobs and services and how the basic needs of the citizens were taken care of. For example, the education system or provision of other public services. The state provided free education, day care and a job upon turning into an adult. The state’s role has now contracted and it is no more the main employer or provider of other services such as health care etc. These jobs have been turned over to the private sector. However, markets are not necessarily fully evolved in all the countries and many individuals also talk about increasing corruption or lack of quality of public services.

Most young people clearly prefer the merit based system and the opportunity to work hard and rise high. When a colleague said that it was very hard for anyone to be poor during the Soviet reign – I immediately became dreamy eyed till she went on and said that there was very little incentive for people to work hard and a disincentive for the brighter people. It reminded me of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and how well it brings out the fallacies of the Marxian principle “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need”.

On the one hand, there was no need to work hard, on the other, there was hardly any incentive to either. There was no encouragement to enterprise – in fact it was illegal! (I feel like laughing since all we talk now is  about promoting entrepreneurship). You couldn’t run even the smallest shop – whatever one produced was for the state. Everything was centrally planned – down to what clothes people would wear! There used to be pattern makers at the national level who would decide about 30-40 patterns of shirts/ dresses/ pants etc., the kind of fabric and colour – and all Govt. factories would manufacture a certain number of each type of clothing! (Anyone from the fashion industry reading this!) Imagine every fifteenth person wearing identical clothes!

I found a slide online which elaborates on what I am saying (not sure of source so can’t give credit):

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It was even more surprising when during an official discussion, my colleagues mentioned that people traditionally do not have the habit to save. It sounded odd to me (since in India – everyone is busy saving – either in their bank accounts or under their pillow or inside tin boxes!). The reason was even more baffling. Since the state was supposed to provide for everyone, savings were actually frowned upon. You were probably a bourgeoisie if you decided to save some money!

Another interesting aspect was the attitude towards religion. The Soviet Union followed a policy of state atheism which basically discourages all religion. It is different from secularism where the state is officially neutral in religious matters. In simpler terms, the Soviet Government told its people to practice religion within the confines of their houses and that nothing of religious nature was to be done publicly. There were of course mosques and churches, but fewer and far between. Coming from India, where we celebrate everything together, on the streets, this seemed to me fascinating, bizarre, peaceful and bland all at the same time! Central Asia is a traditionally Islamic region and twenty eight years later, the attitude of people towards religion continues to be muted, though some countries are more religious than others. However, most of the Governments continue to discourage overt religious activity.

OK, I have just realised that it is pretty late at night (1.53 a.m.) and this is becoming a very long piece. I still haven’t got a chance to talk about the people, their food or culture, but if I start doing that now, this blog will become interminably long and probably not end. So however abrupt this end may seem, I must publish it and sleep. I hope you have enjoyed peeking into Central Asia. I will definitely be back with more. And do think about taking your next holiday in one of the Central Asian countries. I promise you will not be disappointed.

So for now dobroy nochi. That’s good night in Russian.

 

 

 

 

The Days Go Slowly, The Years Fly By – yes, 2019 is already here

A very close friend used to say this. The days go slowly and the years fly by. So true. It is amazing how every single year, as we approach December, we start to wonder how quickly that year passed, exactly like the ones before this one. Even my eight year old seems to have now become mindful of the passage of time – this time he exclaimed how short 2018 seemed to be. It is one of the blessings of very early childhood when we have no sense of time. After that, life just seems to rush by.

A new year is a time to reflect on the past and look forward to the future. To be honest though – I wasn’t really into much reflecting, till a year or so ago. Either it is old age catching up or just that these last few years have been so densely packed with incidents and emotions that reflection comes naturally.

I had welcomed 2018 with a hope. Having had two difficult years, I was hoping 2018 would be better. But if only wishes were horses…. No sooner had we stepped into 2018, I lost my dad. My being succumbed to the depth of its emotions, and even I was taken by surprise at the extent of my grief. However, I am slowly healing, we all are.

This year can perhaps best be described as my painstaking journey from the depths of despondency to tentative optimism. While I am yet to fully emerge in the sunlight, I can see the first specks of light beyond the dark tunnel I found myself in. A huge help in finding the way has been my writing. I started to blog at the beginning of 2018.

This was a huge step since I am a very private person – and sometimes even find it difficult to acknowledge my own feelings. The decision to blog, and to continue doing that was a significant U turn. So I wasn’t surprised when my sister said somewhat complainingly that I was more comfortable sharing my feelings with the world than her! (But sweetheart you know how much I love you!) Or when a new colleague told me that she didn’t know much about me, except of course my deepest feelings! I guess I have always been better at writing my feelings instead of saying them!

Blogging helped me in more ways than I had imagined. I had started my blog to share our experiences raising Anvay – to give hope and strength to some and in turn hear back from others in a similar situation. However, I soon realized I had much more to share, and how much I loved writing. In a way writing grounded me, provided me with an anchor that I held in the darkest of my moments.

It also introduced me to a different world – of writers. I met new people, attended some writing workshops, made new friends. I am a novice in this field – and it really made a refreshing difference to meet such talented people from a world very different from my own.

Along this road I also discovered Momspresso – a platform that allowed me to share my blogs with many more people. I was able to reach lakhs of readers and the momspresso editorial team was very kind in choosing me as one of their top bloggers of the year and giving me an opportunity to read my blog live to their members. The love and encouragement I received was truly motivating.

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And all of you, every single one of you have been important for this journey. There are so many of you who have read each of my blogs, took the time to comment or share. This encouragement matters the world to me. I have been humbled when some of what I felt rang true for you too – several people responded to my blogs about my father – how they shared my pain of losing a parent. A lot of you responded to my blogs on Anvay – some of you shared similar stories – stories of hope, many of you sent prayers. Just knowing that so many of you are with us and care for us was more than enough to give me the energy to continue moving.

While in writing I found an anchor, my work has always been my mainstay, my foundation. Towards the second half of this year, I got the opportunity to work in Central Asian countries. While it was an exciting opportunity, it also meant significant amount of travel. We thought over it and decided that we will manage. Armed with extra support from my mum and spouse and 2 full time helps, the family took the significant decision to take up this challenge. And before I could realise, I was travelling 10-12 days a month. The experience was exhilarating and very very enriching. (more about it in future blogs) It also meant that I did not have much time to dwell on anything besides managing work and family and played a huge role in stabilizing my emotions.

On the whole, 2018 has been a harbinger of change. There have been big shifts and small changes; a big loss and a certain level of triumph over emotions. My blogs perhaps tell the story of the entire year very well and it is only fitting to try and summarise the year through them. The twins are two now and Abeer has reached the next level of brattiness (don’t think that’s a real word – but fits)! Anvay is progressing well and his naughty little personality has started to shine through! His smile makes our day and now we are hoping that he starts to at least stand by the end of 2019! I am more or less at peace with his condition and understanding life much better through this lens. We continue our experiments with our first born – and this year Arnav seems to have become more mature and quite a geek – likes to read anything to do with geography or science – including biology and quantum physics! (he has informed us that the male body’s main purpose is fertilization – though he is still not sure how fertilization actually occurs.). Time to plan his 9th birthday – likely theme is science, no surprises there.

My pregnant tummy hasn’t gone anywhere (obviously, since I have done absolutely nothing about it) – and I am wondering maybe tummy tuck is my redemption? My soulmate however happily lives through the THICK and thin – and maybe secretly happier that I am more like his shape now!! Well that aside, the maid situation has improved and just before I started to travel, I managed to get two good domestic helps – and the sense of peace that brings is more than perhaps meditation could!

 

2018 has been a kaleidoscope of events and my biggest take away probably is that when you have your family and friends rooting for you, supporting you, you can overcome anything. I have an immensely supportive family starting with my husband and mum (and dad), always standing rock solid behind me. As also are my mother and father in law – ready to step in whenever required and a very loving extended family – both from Kapil’s and my sides. A supportive workplace and colleagues are my added blessings. And with all of you added to my family now – world is a happier place! Love and hugs to all of you. So a happy me welcomes 2019 and looks forward to it! 

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The Multitasking Woman – You call her Durga …. But is that what she wants…?

… Maybe not. Maybe she will thank you for the appreciation, but chances are that she would prefer you give her a hand, and help free some of hers.

Who is she? She is the ‘modern’ woman, aka multitasker, superwoman, supermom etc. etc. While all these tags appreciate her abilities, she needs more than that. Today’s woman has shown the ability to manage both her house and her work very well (even just managing the house requires multitasking). We have all been reading about how these superwomen are able to multitask – that’s great, but really is that the place the woman wants be in? Is it really that easy? I for one, come under a lot of pressure reading about this super efficient woman – it is almost as if we (the women) are born with this “multitasker program” which can get switched on as and when required. And that it is almost expected for us to juggle everything.

But what about the men? It seems they have begged off this ability to multitask and majority of the dual workload of home and office falls on women. There are articles about how women are better at multitasking than men, who are able to do better when focusing on one thing. Men seem to have been very conveniently let off the hook! Frankly I don’t care if they are good or not. They might as well try and I am sure they will get there! As we all know – practice makes a man perfect!

Men across the world seem to be afflicted by this ‘inability to multitask’, along with the social conditioning that housework is a woman’s job. It is so common in India, to see a woman come back from work and start cooking for everyone, while the husband is more likely to come home and relax. She will also be getting up early to probably cook lunch and breakfast for everyone and likely get the kids ready too. And I have even heard cases where, while the woman wants to hire house help, the in laws or husband would not want an outsider to do these chores! But this is not just in India. In the U.S. a woman laments that since her husband lost her job two years ago, she has been working double shifts to support the house. However, he insists that the baby be put in daycare (which is very expensive), refusing to take care of her at home. In a Central Asian household, a woman returns from work, only to find the house in a mess. When she asks her retired husband, why he couldn’t have cleaned the house, he retorts saying that it is her job. These examples could go on. And across the globe.

I know that more and more men are trying to come up to speed. Many men are taking part in child rearing and helping with chores around the house. But I am not sure if the number of those men is enough, neither am I sure that the amount of work they are putting in is enough. Many men that I know would say that they ‘help’ around the house. The key word is ‘help’. You ‘help’ when it is someone else’s work – implying that the man still believes that it is his wife’s job and he is being a good Samaritan by ‘helping’ her. Perhaps it is fine when the wife is stay and home and takes on primary responsibility of the house – however, when both are working, it is essential that men come out of the ‘helping mode’ and start taking ownership.

Let me dwell a little bit on the help vs ownership model. Think of a project team – there is a manager/ team lead and there are team members. It is the ‘responsibility’ of the manager to plan for the project, divide roles and responsibilities and get the team to execute the project. The team members are ‘supporting or helping’ the manager in that sense. The manager’s primary role is to coordinate and will be doing fewer or probably none of the tasks. What happens with women is that they end up becoming the manager as well as the prime executor with minimal or no outside support. Those of you who would have led a project would appreciate the difficulty of both managing and executing a project. The woman is taking both the mental and physical load of managing the household.

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Mental load is best described by a French comic artist Emma. She has brilliantly illustrated this in the comic “You should have asked“. I recommend everyone reads it. When a man expects his partner to ask him to do things, he is viewing her as the manager of their household chores.

A little quiz below to see where you/ your husband figure in sharing the household work:

  • Who cooks? Who decides what is to be cooked? Who buys the groceries and vegetables and who makes the list? Who manages household help? Who gets heart attacks when the household help takes unannounced leave for 3 days?
  • Baby is crying. Who picks her up? Who cleans the baby and changes soiled diapers? Who makes sure there are enough diapers and wipes at home? Who washes the nappies? Who hangs them and folds them and ensures there is a supply of dry nappies at home at all times?
  • Who drops the kid to school/ bus stand? Who picks him up? Who makes sure the uniform is washed and ironed? Who checks his classwork and ensures that homework is done? Who helps with corrections? Who helps with class projects and crafts? Who remembers the date of submission of these class projects? Who is part of the parent WhatsApp group? Who writes diary notes to the teachers and who attends the parent teacher meeting especially if it is on a working day?
  • Who arranges play dates/ summer holiday classes? Who buys birthday presents for kid’s friends? Who picks out party clothes? Who buys clothes for kids?
  • Who makes sure that the medicine cabinet is well stocked? Who makes sure everyone is taking their daily medications? Who is managing the vaccination chart of babies? Who takes them to the doctor? Who knows what is to be given for cold vs cough vs fever? Who takes leave when the kids are sick?
  • Who cleans the refrigerator/ the washing machine/ the dish washer? Who knows when the soap/ shampoo/ toothpaste are finishing? Who gets the dry cleaning done?

If the answers show an unbalanced picture, better to do something now than later. Perhaps the best thing would be to sit down and divide not only chores but areas of responsibility. For example, “I take care of the kids’ homework and you make sure all extra curriculars are taken care of.” “I ensure that plants are watered and you make sure that the ceiling fans are regularly cleaned” etc etc. And then once the work is divided, DO NOT SUPERVISE what is not your responsibility. Women need to let go. Some couples have tried it and here are some examples and here as well.

It is not so difficult if we really put our minds to it. (I hope so!)

So dear men, please start being a part of your household. If you are a lounger, please start with being a helper and then slowly rise up the ranks (like you did in your organisation) to become a co manager. The end result will make you happier than your year end bonus does.