My eyes were drawn to the splash of bright colour on the white tiled floor — a wick in an earthen lamp surrounded by a traditional flower arrangement of marigold and gerbera. Women of different sizes and ages sat around on white mattresses piled with cushions. Indian wear seemed to be the dress code. The faculty — or as they are they called these days, resource persons — were a couple of comfortable looking women sporting ethnic Indian chic.
I was late for the introductory session and I stood hesitantly at the entrance clutching my leather case. I felt a little foolish in my black business suit and pumps, which I had donned for the occasion.
After all it was a workshop for ‘Women at work’ organised by one of the top B-schools in the country. I sighed inwardly: What have I let myself in for?
“Come in, come in, we’re all very informal here,” called out the older instructor. I kicked off my shoes and tried to emulate my fellow delegates, who were mostly sitting cross-legged. It was tough in those close-fitting trousers and we gave our introductions — looking into a mirror and speaking of the person in it, meaning ourselves. I kept thinking of the discomfort of my position.
The girls — there were a couple in their twenties — were giggly, talking about the woman in the mirror. One woman, dark and nice looking, shocked us when she said she couldn’t bear to look at her face. Everyone had a hard time, talking about themselves in the third person.
Then we were handed out sheets with ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ virtues outlining the human form.
We were asked to circle the points indicating our characters and to link them with a pencil, and lo, most of us turned out to be unformed beings. Wonderful exercise!
I was blasé about the entire gender emancipation thing. The subtext of the exercise ran grandly: ‘Release the potential within’. And all that hand holding and swapping of secrets made me suspicious. No one, but no one, tells the darkest stories, the thousand betrayals of being an Indian daughter, wife, and mother. The terms ‘resonance’ and ‘inner space’ — pseudo psychological tripe! The first day I returned home and narrated funny stories about the ‘sisterhood’. I agreed that it was a waste of time and went back the next day.
In the sessions that followed, we identified the inner voice that restricted us, drew our memories and our ghosts, burnt the devil within, enacted our role models and all the while told the story of our lives, bringing down barriers, drawing each other out, provoking and getting provoked, finding that we were all very different and so similar after all.
London-bred Rita, who was married into the dust and heat of Indian politics and ran a local language daily; Aditi, young entrepreneur from a background of old wealth who guarded her privacy obsessively; Pranati who was a project coordinator with an NGO and who supported a husband on dialysis; Jaya, who worked as a sales person with an amusement park and who had been abused in turns by her family and the man she loved; Sulekha, my favourite, seemingly commonplace, she was sharp as needles and had a killing sense of humour; Sneha, the oldest, a school teacher whose dreams had not been killed by years of ‘domestic tyranny’, and me, single mother, government servant and aspiring writer.
So many tales to tell, such a gulf in backgrounds and aspirations and public identities, yet strangely at the end of the twelve sessions of the workshop we were a close circle. Diversities did not matter; we had held a common thread of womanhood, spinning out one skein.
Each of us privileged or not so privileged, confident, hesitant, elegant or just plain down market, we were all looking for our niche, juggling our roles, trying to be everything to everybody, nursing our secret inner lives, keeping alive the person within.
(All names have been changed to protect identities.)