Book Box: The Double Lives of Working Women
Pick up these three books as gifts for working women and men. And meet Kavitha Murali, writer of the popular ‘Girl at Work’ newsletter.
It’s 10 years ago and I am sitting on the floor of a bookstore, reading a book.
I work part-time, on a mommy track, write parenting features, run a book club and teach children maths and literature.
When I meet my business school batchmates, many on mommy tracks, we talk wistfully of our days in full-time jobs. As for the few women with both kids and high-powered careers — how do they manage these double lives?
And now here is a book that explains precisely how to do the double life, how to articulate your needs, and how to compromise — and it floors me, quite literally!
Cut to today — 10 years later, I am back in the same bookstore and looking at the book in question — Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. It’s still a best-seller, a trendsetter for so many books that have been written since, on women and work. From memoirs like Becoming and My Life in Full to Unfinished Business and New Girl on the Job, these are the perfect presents for women and men at work.
I choose three books — for my three girls, each one now grown to be a woman in the workforce.
Book 1 of 3: Lessons for my eldest girl
Elizabeth Zott is a brilliant research chemist at an all-male research facility. She has a few dazzling moments of recognition; and these are important — this is how fulfilling life could be if the patriarchy didn’t pigeonhole you, the novel seems to say. But of course, this is too good to be true because the fictional story of Elizabeth Zott in the 1960s is the real-life story of so many women in tech today.
Zott declines to live the double life, she neither says nor seems to do what is expected of her. She ends up paying for this and the novel takes us through the twists and turns of her life, with wit and verve, through unforgettable characters like Elizabeth herself, daughter Mad (short for Madeleine) and Six Thirty, their literary dog.
Lessons in Chemistry will intrigue my eldest, a price consultant, a fiercely independent girl who fought institutional bias, to create a girl's football team, in an uber-conservative engineering college, where girls needed special permission to go running on the college fields. She will find lots in common with this chemist who didn’t play ball.
Book 2 of 3: Korean divers for my middle girl
Two young girls train as deep sea divers on an island off the coast of Korea. They are part of the community of haenyeos or women divers. They use no breathing equipment. Instead, they hold their breath and ‘free dive’ to harvest food abalone, octopus, oysters, squid, and so on for their families. Meanwhile, the men stay at home and take care of the children. I loved the book for its historical detail, its strong sense of the sea, and the rituals and rules that govern the life and dives of the haenyeos.
The world of these divers on Jeju island, off the coast of Korea, somehow reminds me of my middle girl. She loves the sea and scuba-diving and she loves her job as a health care consultant in Bengaluru. Is there any way to reconcile these double lives — consulting and diving, she sometimes wonders. And how do you keep your career going and have families too? The Island of Sea Women does exactly that, but with a cost.
Book 3 of 3: A Room for my youngest girl
This essay was written almost 100 years ago and it’s still so relevant. It should be obvious really, that a woman needs a space of her own to work successfully and to be creative. And yet we constantly forget this — as we thrust ‘multi-tasking’ onto every woman, giving her no choice in the matter, and then proceed to praise her for it. It’s an essay I wish I’d read when I was starting my work-life, I think it would have changed the way I saw myself. And for this reason, I gift A Room of One’s Own to my youngest, who makes model buildings and writes screenplays, and who will start work as a researcher this July.
Finally, meet Kavitha Murali. This IIM Bengaluru alumna and writer of the popular Girl at Work newsletter, tells us why she loves Scarlett O’Hara, and why she finds Enid Blyton and Salman Rushdie inspiring for her own writing. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.
Tell us about your childhood reading.
My mother was a voracious reader, having devoured the likes of Papillon in vernacular translations as a young girl and took it on as her life goal to make a reader out of me. A goal that backfired eventually on her as I emptied the coffers month after month on my first love, refusing to borrow from libraries, rather, wanting to own all of them forever.
Single child as I am, I found my escape in books, carrying one with me wherever I went, from doctors’ appointments to temple visits, spending summer and winter holidays between Landmark, Nungambakkam and the evergreen Madras Book fair in Chennai, where I was born and brought up.
When you look back on your reading, have there been phases?
I grew up believing that fiction is the only truth. In my adolescence and early 20s, you wouldn’t have caught me dead with anything but fiction. All non-fiction felt like self-help, what with how to win the life game selling dime a dozen on the street corners of Mumbai. In my 30s, I have found a new love for non-fiction, the story-telling kind. Investigative journalism paved the way for geopolitical commentary eventually leading towards biographies.
How did Girl at Work begin?
To be honest, Girl At Work (GAW) didn’t come to me overnight, a sudden inspiration when I wasn’t looking. I am no Newton or Archimedes after all. It was a slow build-up, as I mulled over the ever-changing corporate landscapes and the very few avenues available for career women to chart their journeys, let alone contemplate them. And then, GAW started morphing into a space not just to share experiences but also to analyse potential actions. How to ask for things? How to make our presence felt?
Tell us about some Girl at Work issues that have had the most responses.
A cup of tea, please is my most popular post to date, and I truly wish it wasn’t so, because that post really shows all things wrong with our workplaces. An interview with a senior leader and new mother Pregnancy and the workplace is another popular post.
Which writers have had the most influence on your writing?
A writer I adored as a child is Enid Blyton. The ease with which Blyton employs language to bring moors and highlands, midnight feasts and tuck-boxes to life, has always stayed with me. I even used to have a blogspot called blyton, when I first started writing.
Also, Salman Rushdie — it’s his philosophies about writing that I love the most, like building stories out of familiar scenes. In the middle of Midnight’s Children, for instance, could be the description of a house and a sister all too familiar, Rushdie’s own. It makes his writing more authentic. Another thing is how he makes up words as he goes, interspersing Hindi with English, elongating a word here, truncating one there, with raw confidence.
Would love to hear what was the first feminist book you read. How old were you and how did you discover it?
I wasn’t old enough to know if it was a feminist book, and I don’t think anyone would call it a feminist book, for ‘girlie’ is the genre it gets slotted under, often. Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind left a lasting impression in my mind, about bravery and standing up, thinking fast and acting even faster in the face of adversity. Some would call her selfish, but Scarlett to me was the early embodiment of how a woman can push the limits within the contours society defines for her, to get her way and keep going, no matter the whispers and shouts, curses and admonishments.
What are some of your personal favourites in feminist writing?
Invisible Women is top of the list. And honestly, it isn’t even feminist writing, it’s just an essential piece of work every urban planner and office manager and car manufacturer should read to know what’s fundamentally wrong with our world and what needs to change to make it more equitable.
All of Chimamanda Adichie’s are favourites, Dear Ijeawale, particularly so, for the ease with which Adichie lays out the essential manifestos for all girls of this world, without being patronising or prescriptive.
A book I read a few years back and one I often think back about Reading Lolita in Tehran makes it to this list, for very many reasons. Set in Tehran, it tracks the real stories of a professor and her students, as they read books that shouldn’t be read there, Lolita primary among them. Something about the courage it takes them to sneak around amidst the policing all around them, for the sake of literature, is touching and out-of-the-world, real-life story though it is.
And lastly, what books are you currently reading?
Currently, Stephen Fry’s Heroes is running on audible while Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus has got opened on the Kindle, Natalie Hayne’s Stone Blind (about Medusa) closely following suit. Chip War is open on hard copy, because why miss out on the touch and feel of a book while I can still have it?
With this, it’s a wrap for this week. Next week, I bring you a book conversation with the fabulous Angela Saini who smashes stereotypes around women, going back to bonobos and 13 million BCE!
Until then, Happy Reading.
Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed are personal