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What you can be

8th March. International Women’s Day. The right time for the Brunch team to give all our women readers a ten-point manifesto for action – and a lot of fun...
Hindustan Times | By Brunch team
UPDATED ON MAR 09, 2009 07:45 PM IST

8 March. International Women’s Day. The right time for the Brunch team to give all our women readers a ten-point manifesto for action – and a lot of fun...

It’s International Women’s Day today. And by the time you come across this piece you would have stumbled across more than one advertisement urging you to celebrate, be glad you are a woman and then kindly part with some hard earned cash for a bauble or outfit you may exhibit once before it disappears into the recesses of your wardrobe.

Oh we aren’t against pampering by the way. Don’t we urge you in that direction every week? But this year we thought why don’t women pamper themselves differently, feel good while doing it and have fun too?

We’ve drawn up a manifesto of the many things women can do to enrich their lives, the lives of those they love and even perfect strangers this year. Sponsor a girl child, pay attention to your health, jettison guilt, discover yourself and the world, manage your money are just some of them.

Why? Didn’t someone say, because you are worth it? You so are!

Shatter the glass ceiling
Laxmi Limbu Kaushal challenged the belief that women can’t be tea planters

She studied in Darjeeling and, every vacation, Laxmi Limbu Kaushal would visit her brother-in-law, a tea planter, stay with him and check out the fields, factory and tea making and tasting process. Which made her wonder. Why were there no female planters? Why was this something women never did? Because the tea industry is almost totally male dominated. Women are never seen as capable of handling large populations of labour, the arduous factory work, the strange timings and remote locations that make up the life of a planter.

“My father was a police officer and since my childhood, I had been trained not to see myself as a woman, but as a good human being, capable of facing any challenge,” says Laxmi. “I wondered why there were no women planters, and I decided I’d take up the challenge.”

Laxmi sounded out her brother-in-law, Prem Tamang, about the possibility of a job. He spoke to Brij Mohan, the proprietor of several tea gardens, who assured Laxmi that, suitably trained, there’d be a job for her. So she joined the Tea Management Institute and, for the next 10 years, spent her life in the field as a planter.

Initially, gaining the respect of the labour was tough. “There was considerable hostility among the male work force,” says Laxmi. “They were very reluctant to accept a woman as an assistant manager – and a 23-year-old at that. My biggest challenge was to get them to accept the change, which meant adhering to the tough timings of the daily ‘kaamjaari’ – which could mean all night factory duty, or early morning processing or field duty from 7 am, walking and biking in the hilly terrain in all weathers and conditions, something the men thought a woman could never do.”

Her colleagues were more supportive, but Laxmi still had to work harder than a man would to prove she could do what a man could. “It’s always there,” she says. “Women’s abilities, confidence and toughness have always been doubted, and every time those doubts must be cleared with determination and dedication. To break the barrier, you have to prove that it’s the work that matters, not the fact that a person is a man or woman.”

Laxmi now works with the Confederation of Indian Industries as its North Bengal head, but the 10 years she worked as a planter made her what she is, she says.

Be fit, take care of your health
Nisha Varma, fitness expert, believes women should exercise for themselves, not anyone else

Doctors reveal that most women tend to neglect themselves and their health because their first priority is always family and their health problems. So you may harass your partner or husband to see the doctor for a two-day-old cough but will ignore your own throbbing back pain for months.

“By nature, women are more loving and caring towards others, like their families. That is why their own health takes a backseat,” says Dr Ashutosh Shukla, who heads the department of medicine at Artemis Hospital, Gurgaon. You shouldn’t do this because if women have an attitude of getting regular health check ups, many diseases can be prevented, says the doctor.

Cervical cancer, that affects the neck of the uterus, is the commonest cause of cancer in women in India, unlike the West where breast cancer is the dominant cancer, says Dr Shukla. That is why women must visit a gynaecologist at least once a year because a pap smear conducted during this visit helps detect this cancer at an early stage.

Other annual health tests women must take include blood profile, cholesterol, sugar, counts, ECG, serum TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone), ECG, X-Ray and eye checks. The tests differ depending on your age. For example, women older than 40 should go for bone dentisometry tests and mammograms regularly but those who have a family history of breast cancer, should start at the age of 35, says Dr Shukla.

He is quick to add that health is not always about medicine. “It is very important for women to give importance to diet, exercise, getting adequate sleep etc.”

Fitness instructor Nisha Varma agrees, saying that women tend to neglect their health because that’s the last thing on their priority list. “Whenever they are unable to cope with stress in their life, the first thing they give up is their fitness schedule.”

What we don’t realize is that exercise has many benefits. It keeps disease at bay, lowers stress and strengthens bones, says Nisha.

She says most women have external motivation for exercise like peer pressure or boyfriends. “They don’t exercise solely because of their health.” When you exercise for yourself, not for anyone else, you’ll be more motivated and more likely to stay on the plan because then exercise is a happily chosen activity, she says.

Feel attractive
Let’s first abandon that cliché that a woman must be colour coordinated, immaculately coiffed and perfectly accessorized in order to feel good. Yes, that may work for many of us. But we are also talking about feeling good even if it doesn’t look like you have stepped out of Vogue magazine.

The key is to be comfortable and confident about yourself, whether in your nightie or YSL because when you are happy within, it will show.

Model Nina Manuel firmly believes in this. “I have always felt that when you feel good from within you look good from outside. This belief has helped me grow as a person and endowed me with every ounce confidence and self esteem that I possess.” Deep Bhatia, senior product manager, Lancome, talks of the same thing. “Cosmetics will help enhance your looks or cover up flaws. But a woman doesn’t need make-up as a proof to her beauty. A woman can use something as basic as kajal and still look attractive.”

However, many women do tend to neglect the way they look, and no matter what they may say (“Oh I don’t care”), the truth is that they do care. There isn’t a woman in the world who won’t feel good about herself if she knows she’s looking good. And it takes so little to look and feel attractive: good hygiene, sensible skin and hair care, wearing clothes that suit you. But you must do all this on a daily basis. Otherwise it’s no good. Make it part of your life.

Discover the world

Leela Alvares, copywriter, travels as much as her finances let her, from Dubai to Africa

Like most of us, Leela Alvares prefers to see herself as a person of action rather than a person who says, ‘Oh, I wish I could do that’. Unlike most of us, she does her best to live up to her preferred self-image. Because long ago, when she was still in college, she made a decision. Whenever she found herself interested in something, she’d do it.

And she continues to do it. So far, the 34-year-old copywriter has travelled as widely as her finances will let her. She’s trekked, bungee jumped, run the half marathon twice, thrown up her job in Mumbai to move to Dubai as a single woman, snorkeled, white water rafted, taken a course in cartooning, ice skated, sung in a choir and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. And that’s only what she can remember offhand over a phone call from Dubai.

“I prefer adventurous activities because they are completely different from my day-to-day life,” says Leela who’s known to her friends as ‘Action Woman’. “You can take up a new hobby, and yes, that is different from your regular activities. But that’s different in a calm sort of way. Adventure involves a suspension of belief. It’s like a leap of faith.”

Leela took that leap of faith literally to a new height a couple of years ago, when she decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. She had the itch – and though she hadn’t the faintest idea how to scratch that itch, she went ahead anyway. “When I want to do something, I do it,” she says. “I don’t let other concerns come in the way. It had been three years since I’d trekked when I decided to climb Kilimanjaro. I had had no training in mountain climbing. I knew no one in Dubai who could guide me. But I did everything to make my dream come true.”

For Leela, life is not about making money or climbing the career ladder. It’s about living intensely and completely. “I wouldn’t like to be one-dimensional,” she says. “Trying something you’ve never done before gives you a sense of what you can do. It breaks down your mental barriers about yourself and once you’ve successfully done something new, the next time you try something new, you realise that all the excuses you make for yourself are just that – excuses.”

Read, read, read
And we don’t mean only film, fashion and women’s magazines – or, for that matter, only textbooks and the self-help genre.
“People don’t usually give fiction much respect, but only by reading about other lives in other situations do you get to experience other worlds,” says lawyer Shweta Jaisinghani. “Good fiction can truly be mind-opening.”

Good fiction doesn’t only open up other worlds for you. It can open you to other ideas – and make you think about possibilities that perhaps you didn’t know existed, adds Shweta. “When I read about other countries, situations, experiences, I get a sense of what I can do myself.” And it can give you a sense of gratitude. “When I read Manju Kapur’s Home, for instance, about a middle class girl in a patriarchal family, I was so grateful that my parents are so enlightened,” says Shweta. “There are times when I crib about my life, but these days when I do, I think about the heroine of Home who led such a cramped existence, and know at once that my life is so much better.”

Good non-fiction can open your mind just as much, says marketing executive Anuradha Kashyap. “I can’t explain why, but I’ve been fascinated by the Holocaust since I was a child. I’ve always wondered what it is about people that makes them behave in such a brutal manner. So I’ve read a lot about the Holocaust and I find so many parallels with the caste system, it’s scary. But I think I’m beginning to understand what makes people tick now.”

There’s more to books than knowledge and learning (though that’s a very good reason to read). They’re great portable entertainment. They satisfy all sorts of curiosity. Good thrillers set your adrenalin pulsing, good science fiction sets your imagination free, romances whisk you away from your day-to-day dreariness, travel writing takes you places… There are good things to be said about all good books, but you’ll never find out unless you read.

Sponsor a girl child

Archana Patkar made a donation to an NGO to educate and care for a girl child

Archana Patkar is no stranger to the world of philanthropy. “I am the proprietor of a consulting firm, Junction Social, which works in large programmes conducted by the United Nations and the World Bank that focus on the underprivileged and particularly women,” explains the 45-year-old Mumbaikar.

However, despite working in the field of social development, Patkar realised last year that she wanted to directly involve herself in a personal act of giving. So, she decided to sponsor the education of a girl child, via

“It’s rare for me to see the direct impact of the work we carry out,” explains Archana. “Also, I travel a lot, so sponsoring the education of a girl child via made a lot of sense to me.”

She adds, “What I like about Giveindia is that they are transparent and give you the exact break-up of how much of your money goes to the recipient and how much is spent as administration costs.”

Patkar feels that although what she did was very little, it was still important, as the need to support the girl child in India is huge. “Very few of us realise that even when India was allegedly ‘Shining’, we ranked highest in lists documenting malnutrition amongst girl children,” she explains. “It’s not about the availability of food, rather it’s about the socio economic subordination of the girl child. Right from birth to death, from the poorest to the richest families, it is understood that women will stand one step behind a man and juggle the multiple responsibilities of mother, caregiver and frequently, breadwinner.”

Patkar adds that even though in recent years, salaries have increased and the popular assumption is that wealth has trickled down, it really hasn’t.

“The girl child is always the first to face denial in any situation, whether it’s nutrition, education or early marriage,” she asserts.

She also feels that people have lost touch with the spirit of giving. “I feel that we have become entirely too obsessed with the self,” says Archana. “In the past, our parents, once they had fulfilled their family’s immediate needs, would look wider and support needy members of the extended family and care for them. But these days, that spirit has been lost. We need to resurrect that spirit of giving out of our own culture.”

Get a degree
Dr Vijaya Patel didn’t let marriage and a baby stop her from studying medicine

She’s had a sleepless 18 hours, her patients coming up with one emergency after another. But Dr Vijaya Patil looks as though she could go on for another 18 hours. She is most inspiring in her thinking and her attitude to life. As she should be, considering how she lives her life.

When she married in the 1950s, she was just midway through her graduation. But she didn’t let running a home and raising a family stop her from doing what she wanted to do – medicine.

“My husband was also a doctor, and he felt very strongly that I must not put off my life,” says Dr Patil. “I was intelligent, I had the capacity for good work, so why shouldn’t I do what I wanted to do? And I was very committed myself. I’d always believed that I could do what I wanted to do – no excuses. So I did it.”

Women, says Dr Patil, are conditioned to think a certain way. For generations they’ve been told that as women, they must only take care of the home, the husband, the children and the cooking. “My mother-in-law also told me that since my husband was a doctor, there was no need for me to be a doctor too. But I didn’t let myself be stopped,” says Dr Patil.

But she didn’t go out of her way to antagonise anyone either. “If you go with the system, it works,” she says. “So while I studied medicine, I learned to cook. I saw to it that my husband was comfortable. I didn’t give anyone the chance to have regrets.” Conditioning makes women feel guilty about being women, believes Dr Patil. So they’re torn between their careers and their homes. She saw that happening when she was in college in the ’50s – and she still sees that happening now. “Films, serials… everything tells women their place is in the home. We need more people to be psychologically changed.”

Learn to fight
Neelam Katara fought to ensure that her son’s influential killers paid for their crime

Till the age of 50, Neelam Katara led a life any of us could have: she studied in a convent, went to college, married her friend of nine years, had two lovely children and started teaching.

She was content. She remembers telling a friend at 40 that there was nothing she hasn’t done and would be okay “if I was to die tomorrow.” But as she says later, God had other plans. Aged 50, after identifying a body that had been hacked and burnt as her elder son Nitish’s, Neelam started her mission to ensure her son’s killers were punished.

The labyrinth of the judicial system, the expense and the fact that prime accused Vikas Yadav was the son of influential UP politician D P Yadav meant many people urged her to forget about it.

Talking about what spurred her on, Neelam says: “Nitish’s body was in such a bad condition that I thought ‘no, this should not happen to anybody. No parent should have to see this.’”

After six years that saw hundreds of court sittings, adjournments, setbacks and the death of her husband (who was suffering from motor neuron disease), a Delhi court pronounced Vikas and his cousin Vishal guilty and sentenced them to life imprisonment last year.

How did she not give up?
Initially I used to get frustrated at the slow pace of the trial. But then I decided this is the way it is going to be I had to accept it, she says.

This is her advice to all women: “If you believe in something, go ahead and don’t be afraid to fight for it. You need to be very sure because if you don’t believe in it in your heart of hearts, somewhere down the line you will step out.”

Manage your money
Rashida Savliwala has been handling her finances since 18

When she was 18, Mumbai resident Rashida Savliwala went to her father with a request – to let her handle her own money. Although she was still a student, her father agreed to let her use the proceeds of the account he had maintained for Rashida since childhood, which stood at around Rs 15,000.

“I invested that amount in stocks as I was interested in the markets,” recalls the 34-year-old. “So I began building up a portfolio. Over the years, I continued to buy stocks. I’ve only sold in times of emergencies, and even now, my portfolio is in good shape.”

Five years ago, Rashida, now a lawyer, realised that it wasn’t a great idea to only have a stock portfolio. She explains, “So, I put some money in fixed deposits and also invested in mutual funds.”

She’s also careful in other ways. “For example, I know roughly every month what my credit card bill is going to be, which ensures I don’t spend recklessly.” Rashida adds, “I think it’s important for every woman to be aware of what’s happening with her finances, even if she’s not investing her money directly. The most important thing is to save every month.”

Another goal to aim for, she says, is to buy property. “In 20 years, you’ll have a loan-free asset that you can rent to earn extra money.”

Do something for your parents
Anamika Khare, merchandiser, reserves Sundays for her parents

I f there is anyone many of us take for granted it is our parents. We may all find time for the husband or partner, kids, office and our own homes, but our parents are usually last on the list.

“It’s not that we don’t want to give them time but women in general are so occupied with their husbands, kids, in-laws, jobs or homes that they tend to ignore their parents. And though parents don’t mind, they do love it when they get attention,” says psychologist Neerja Vohra.

“Parents don’t really expect much. Even sitting with them and watching TV makes them happy,” says merchandiser Anamika Khare, who makes it a point to reserve a day exclusively for her parents. “I go out regularly with friends, especially on the weekends. On weekdays, my entire day goes at work. So Sundays are for my parents. We do anything, go out for lunch, meet family friends, entertain or just relax at home. But we make sure that we are together,” she says.

Ditto with HR executive Aparna Verma who knows her father likes watching films and mother loves an evening out. She makes it a point to take them out for a film or dinner over the weekend. “This way we spend quality time together and have a great evening out,” says Aparna.

There are many ways in which you can make your parents happy. Copywriter Neha Talwar and her four siblings wanted to ease the burden on their retired parents and decided to pool in to pay off their father’s outstanding home loan. They saved over six months and raised enough money to foreclose the loan. “We knew it had taken our parents a lot to raise the five of us. And now that both were retired we didn’t want them to stress about the loan. So we paid it off,” explains Neha.

So think of the many ways you can make your parents happy. Their smiles are worth it.

Jettison guilt: Get rid of baggage
Most women spend their lives with guilt a constant companion.

Am I doing the right thing? What will my parents / in-laws / neighbours think? Am I a bad wife / mother? are common thoughts. They feel guilty about not calling people enough, not spending enough time with loved ones, about wanting to neglect home and hearth in favour of curling up and completing a thriller, about eating too much, about shopping too much … you get the drift.

So for once in your life, just do it without the guilt. It can be something as inconsequential as lying in bed all day or a weekend trip with the girls. Just jettison the guilt.

“We women tend to give everything else priority over ourselves. That’s not good. We must do things that we enjoy doing. Be it going out, reading, listening to music or just sleeping,” says relationship expert Arti Saran.

Homemaker Madhur Mehra says she rediscovered herself after she got back to her first love: salsa. “I love to dance but gave up everything to accommodate family. But I got back to it and hey, am I glad?” she laughs.

For Thailand-born Meenu Mehra, getting married into a conservative Marwari home meant she had to give up her independence and modern lifestyle. “I didn’t regret it because I was marrying the man I loved. But after two years, I was yearning to do something that was ‘me’. So I convinced my family to allow me to return to Thailand for a month and learn Hot Yoga. They agreed. Now back in India, I have started teaching yoga and feel fulfilled that I am at least doing something that makes me happy,” she says.

So let go of all that guilt and learn to be yourself.

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