Every woman, who has slaved in the kitchen like her grandmother and great grandmother before her, nurturing her family with the hard labor of her cooking and care, day after day, year after ceaseless year needs to watch Jeo Baby’sThe Great Indian Kitchen. This film makes dry statistics leap out of the screen. A 2020 Gallup poll found that women still did a majority of household chores in the USA, which is supposed to be a bastion of gender equality.
If American women can’t get their partners to share in mundane chores at home, what chance do Indian women have in traditional settings?
The Great Indian Kitchen addresses the subtleties of gender inequality with a strong feminist message; but it’s less about flashy, strident feminist rebellion in short skirts, and more about the nuances of self-respect shredding and sweaty, grueling hours of labor being taken for granted, simply because you’re female.
The film is in Malayalam and I don’t speak the language, but that didn’t detract from the essence and great acting. It didn’t reduce the subtlety and realism of the emotions as a young Malayalee girl with a fierce independent streak, grapples with the reality of an arranged marriage into a conservative family.
Nimisha Sajayan plays the new bride. She is a typical middle-class girl in Kerala raised in a relatively liberal household. She blooms with happiness when her marriage is arranged to the young groom (Suraj Vengaramoodu.) Nimisha is attracted to this stranger who will be her husband. He is soft-spoken, as is the rest of his family, and Nimisha is eager to please her new in-laws in the way many Indian women are conditioned to.
She doesn’t mind the weight of household chores expected of her almost immediately. The movie creates a clever, visual impact, scene after scene, of a loaded, dripping kitchen sink, constant washing and cleaning up of messes that men in the family left behind, and of Nimisha sweating over a stove, making endless cups of tea for her husband and father-in-law.
In the beginning, Nimisha’s mother-in-law helps with the daily drudgery, but when she goes away to her daughter, the household burdens fall on Nimisha.
A major strength of the plot’s message is the lack of drama.
Nimishaisn’t abused – she is cajoled and shamed when she doesn’t live up to her in-law’s narrow, self-serving expectations. Her new husband takes her for granted and isn’t sensitive to her burden.
Innumerable Indian women will identify with the slow stoking of Nimisha’srage as she is manipulated and sometimes overtly humiliated in a way that is considered socially acceptable. In one scene, a cousin who is visiting her in-laws with his wife tells Nimishaoff for giving him black tea without cardamom or spices. He lectures her on the recipe, puts his wife down when she attempts a feeble defense of Nimisha’s tea-making skills and offers to have the men take over the kitchen for cooking duties that day.
Switch to scene two – the men have cooked and eaten but left dirty plates on the table for Nimishato clear. The kitchen is a disaster of dirty pots and spilled food, doubling the work for Nimisha. When she finally brings tea for the men and excuses herself to go clean the kitchen, the cousin laughs and says, “What work, we did the cooking today!” Scenes like these, of ordinary, everyday insensitivity with which female audiences will immediately identify, are the reason the Great Indian Kitchen has a four-star rating.
In a nod to the Indian Supreme Court’s 2018 decision to strike down the Sabarimala temple edict (which banned women of menstruating age on their premises), the film also takes on traditional superstitious rituals – like the banishment of women from the kitchen during their periods. Nimishahas to shut herself in a little room when she has her period and suffers the humiliation of being treated like a leper. As events pile up, and the grueling hamster wheel of daily household chores continues unabated, the movie speeds toward its climax.
The end is inevitable, and when it comes, there is shock and catharsis and a wise nodding of heads. The irony at the end is a perfect coda to Nimisha’s saga.
I had been waiting to watch Geeta Malik’s India Sweets and Spices ever since it buzzed in the news that the film was being shot in my hometown of Atlanta. It premiered at the Tribeca Festival in New York on June 12, and I had the opportunity to watch a film I had been eagerly waiting for.
The Story Of India Sweets And Spices
Alia Kapur, played by Sophia Ali, finishes her freshman year at UCLA and is back home in the wealthy suburbs of New Jersey to spend her summer. Her parents Sheila and Ranjit are an integral part of the lavish weekend parties hosted within their circle of friends. For one such party at her house, Alia visits the local Indian grocery store to get biscuits. She takes an instant liking to Varun (Rish Shah), the son of the shopkeeper. Alia invites him and his family to the party, much to the consternation of her mother who is class-conscious.
Surprises are in store for Alia as one secret after another is unraveled, and she realizes that her parents have all along been putting up a facade. A plethora of emotions engulf her as she is angry, amazed, perplexed, and hurt at the same time.
Alia abhors the pretentious lifestyle of her parents. She wants to lead a life of authenticity and discard the superficiality which she says would make all of them so fake that they would not recognize themselves anymore. Will Alia succeed in confronting her parents with the truth and be able to carve her own identity?
A beautifully penned story addresses multiple themes
From feminism and patriarchy to class difference and infidelity, Malik ventures to fit in all. The character of Alia is crafted with incredible dexterity and towers high.
Alia is undoubtedly the mascot for feminism and equality. Right from the moment when she first appears wearing a t-shirt with the logo “Paratha rolls, not gender roles” (an echo of the 2018 Aurat March), she strikes you as the independent, free-minded youngster. While having a beer with her friend Rahul, she voices that the good thing about their generation is that they believe men and women are equal. That, she says, is progress. She beams with joy when she later learns about her mother’s leaning towards issues of women’s rights.
Is it not time for the shackles of patriarchy to be broken? Does a woman need to sacrifice her dreams in order to be a devoted wife and mother? Does any marriage that is on the rocks need to continue simply to create a good impression in front of society? These questions surface in the film.
Although the story is set on a serious premise, the film is tension-free. The witty dialogues that come in occasionally and the tongue-in-cheek humor temper it all.
The gossiping aunties, for instance, are referred to as “saree-wearing zombies”. When Alia expresses her concern that her mom might have to end up in a rehab center, her friend Neha calms her by saying, “Rehab is like a spa.” Then again, there is a scene in which Alia’s mother sarcastically asks her if she was doing charity by inviting Varun’s family, who do not belong to their class. Pat comes the reply from Alia, “Aunties without borders!” These lines sure ease the seriousness.
A brilliant choice of actors keeps the narrative alive
The film primarily belongs to Sophia Ali, and she charms with her amazing performance. She fits in perfectly in her role of a hip and casual youngster who’s impatient, restless, and full of vibrant energy.
It is a pleasure to see Manisha Koirala make her Hollywood debut with this film. As the sophisticated Sheila, she carries herself with true finesse. Adil Hussain, as always, is remarkable as Ranjit Kapur. Given the actor’s excellent track record, this comes as no surprise.
Deepti Gupta as Varun’s mother Bhairavi has a minor, yet, important role that contributes to the development of the plot. She does justice to her part and impresses.
The film incorporates tidbits from the director’s first-hand observations.
India Sweets and Spices is based on Geeta Malik’s own script “Dinner With Friends” which brought her the accolade of the Academy Nicholl Fellowship in screenwriting in 2016. At the core of the film are those extravagant parties where the action unfolds. There are ladies decked in fine jewelry and gorgeous sarees, men talking in loud voices, children in ethnic attire, gossip points, Bollywood music, and, of course, the wide display of mouth-watering delicacies.
Malik brings in these elements from her own experience as she narrates in an interview:“I did grow up going to these Indian dinner parties, being dragged to them”.
Thefilm brings the lives of Indian Americans to the fore. Geeta Malik does not show any cultural clashes that the characters face. Rather, she intelligently portrays them as identifying strongly with both Indian and American traditions and not having to choose between them. Therein lies the uniqueness of the film.
On the downside, I’d like to bring up an act without giving too many spoilers. There is a party scene towards the end which I feel is a little too stretched out and exaggerated with guests drying their dirty laundry. But I’d cut some slack and deduce that director Malik has perhaps incorporated the scene for comic relief and to hint at the immaturity adults are capable of.
Blending in with its name, India Sweets And Spices is great to watch with a treat of savory snacks. I sure did that by pairing up spicy samosas and gulab jamuns with a cup of masala chai. Or rather, I should make it sound hip and trendy by saying in the language of the new generation: I enjoyed the film with spiced tea, spicy sams, and g-jams!
Watch the film when you get a chance!
Rashmi Bora Das is settled in the suburbs of Atlanta, GA. She has written for various platforms including Women’s Web to which she regularly contributes. You may visit her atwww.rashmiwrites.com
The first time I met this poet, producer and founder of South Asian poetry collective Matwaala was at a Desi poetry reading moderated by India Currents. It was a surreal moment for a South Asian American teenage girl who grew up on a diet of Mahabharata reruns and idolized authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. My love for South Asian literature always began and ended with the literature itself, but the poetry readings gave me the opportunity to witness the beauty of a thriving community built around this art form. And at the forefront of building this community is Indian-American poet Usha Akella.
The 2019 Creative Ambassador for the City of Austin, Usha uses her platform as a poet and as a storyteller to advocate for immigrant rights and gender equality. When I watched her read for the first time, I was struck by her refusal to mince words. In recent years, the so-called “third-wave feminist movement” is often asked to soften its message, simplify itself, and turn its head at the more implicit forms of misogyny that plague America today. In fact, I’ve often found myself reading and writing poetry wondering whether the forthrightness of my activism will offend, as though the realities of gender inequality need to be sugar-coated to be swallowed.
Usha Akella’s latest poetry book I Will Not Bear You Sons does none of that. This collection of poetry delivers the pain, purpose, and newfound power of marginalized women in their rawest forms. This book dances from the misogynistic expectations placed on South Asian housewives to China’s foot-binding tradition to sexual harassment experienced by working women. Beyond her activism, this book also weaves sharp-witted social commentaries with penetrating glimpses into post-pandemic life. True to her cuttingly honest writing style, in I Will Not Bear You Sons Usha Akella offers an outreached hand to women everywhere — as well as a confident middle finger to the patriarchal norms which silence them.
The book is broken into two sections — I and We.
While I offers autobiographical looks into Akella’s experiences as both a writer and Indian-American woman, We acts on her hopes for intersectional feminism, and tells the stories of marginalized women from other cultures and identities.
“Can women ever cease perceiving their ‘tragedy’ as ‘Mother’?”, Usha writes in Ants — a poem that is dedicated to her Amma but widens into a broader discussion about familial ties and patriarchal perceptions of motherhood.
What is interesting about this book is that Akella recognizes the collectivism buried in her individual narrative; she manages to use her personal experiences to connect with other women and uplift different communities. One of the most memorable poems in I Will Not Bear You Sons, in my opinion, is Women Speak — a matter-of-fact call for justice. Although nowhere does Akella talk about herself in this poem, it grows clear through her strong sense of voice that Women Speak is a command for every woman, Usha included.
Despite her support for intersectionality, however, Akella is also self-aware of the regional and socio-economic divisions which exist within the feminist movement.
From A Brahmin Niyogi Woman to a White Woman toys with the differences between Western and South Asian notions of freedom. “I didn’t dye my hair blue,” writes Akella. “I didn’t say fuck you!,” highlighting this divide with a discerning, humorous outlook on Western and Eastern stereotypes.
As a teenager somehow grappling with both realities, I thoroughly enjoyed her sense of humor, even in its darker moments (think: sardonically dismissive references to AIDS, homosexuality, and divorce). What does a feminist want? Akella’s poetry slyly peels back the layers to this question, while also revealing how internalized misogyny and generational judgment distort a possible answer.
The titular poem of the book, I Will Not Bear You Sons, undoubtedly shines through. In fact, my only critique of Akella’s book was the positioning of this poem, which manages to overshadow shorter, and perhaps underrated pieces like Storm and Harmony. It’s an interesting demise, where I Will Not Bear You Sons may be too good for where it is placed, and we see diluted successors to this poem rather than a powerful lineup.
The piece below, which has been included with Akella’s permission, chronicles Akella’s feelings of isolation and oppression within her own family. Personally, I was drawn to the poem’s strong sense of chronology, where Akella uses specific visual imagery to walk her readers through the most intimate parts of her life. The poem begins at the door, where the readers are introduced to this setting and Akella as a person. She then slowly moves the narrative into different parts of the house, her use of setting paralleling the poem itself — a journey within the innermost pieces of her psyche, which has been damaged by the patriarchy and now seeks to heal through poetry and group empowerment. The very phrase, I will not bear you sons, is unforgettable on its own, yet the way Akella repeats this line gives the poem a defiant and enduring heartbeat. It’s one of the longer poems in this collection, as Akella has plenty to say about the demands to birth a male child, a society which degrades and commodifies women, a history of misogyny which perpetuates this society like a terrible machine — this poem is a lot, and I found myself only getting angrier as the work unfolded. The range of emotion in this book is beautiful. Yet it is Akella’s unadulterated anger, which spreads like wildfire in this poem, that truly brings I Will Not Bear You Sons alive.
What can a door deliver?
The setting of this poem is innocuous—at the door,
A door is innocent of its exits and entrances,
What can a door deliver?
Hellos, bye-byes, blessings, Namaste, a peck on the cheek …
An open door can be the hole in a noose.
I had just celebrated his seventieth birthday,
decorating the house so, so, fit to welcome a God,
the saris draped on the ceiling, cascading rainbows
falling from the sky,
we wore our finery, our ornaments
as if the earth was liberated from every evil.
The food was laid out—kitchen-labor, labor of forgiveness,
I will not waste words on the menu
for I must speak of women, wombs and India.
A poem can glisten like a fresh wound.
In his speech he praised his wife,
his daughter, his sons, his grandchildren,
he omitted his daughters-in-law, and I
stilled my voice on the verge of bleeding red like a period,
and they ate and ate and danced and smiled and smirked,
and all was well with the world.
– Usha Akella in I Will Not Bear You Sons
Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar, as well as the Global Student Editor for the 2020 summer edition of Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay publication.
A recent comment over women wearing ripped jeans by an Indian politician has once more thrown open the misogynist mentality prevalent in our culture.
On March 18, my journalist friend Sid Shukla wrote a post on Facebook which read: The problem lies in your genes, not in my jeans. RIP #Ripped_Genes. This wasrightafter a storm broke out across the country over the ripped jeans comment made by Uttarakhand chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat, who wondered what values women wearing ripped jeans would pass on to their children. Following his insensitive comment, several women posted pictures of themselves wearing ripped jeans on Twitter and other social media platforms. Female politicians like Jaya Bachchan and Mahua Moitra also condemned the chief minister’s comments heavily.
Such careless and thoughtless remarks by politicians are not new in India where women are often blamed for inviting rape by their choice of dressing, conveniently forgetting the fact that children fall prey to pedophiles in this country.
Jeans have always been the bone of contention and in many homes, women are not allowed to wear them.
Early on in my life during high school, I have fought for the two Js in my life, jeans and journalism. My mother wanted to restrict my choice of clothing. She was dead against my wearing jeans, citing her conservative family members and their value systems. Seriously, I have never come across such bizarre logic in my entire life, the very fact that relatives can dictate the choice of a woman’s dress.
I was adamant and the day I first owned two pairs of jeans, I knew I had scored a point. Later during my college days, whenever I bought jeans, my mother made her sentiments clear.
Back in college, friend Devi Banerjee (name changed) admitted that wearing jeans was a big issue in her house, but her mother was supportive of her choice. Devi told me that some of her relatives nurtured the idea that only bad women wear jeans. Another college friend was never allowed to wear jeans, always arriving to classes in salwar kameez. While salwar kameez is never an issue, debarring a girl from wearing jeans because hips and thighs become pronounced is the most baseless argument I have ever heard. However, while Devi was content in Indian wear and I rebelled against my mum.
College days are long past. But to imagine that someone in 2021 can remark on how women in jeans can fail to impart the right sanskaar (value system) to children can take India back to the medieval ages and nullify all the achievements it has made till now.
With globalization, many things have become a part and parcel of the Indian culture or that of South Asia as a whole and jeans are one among many. To criticize women for wearing jeans or ripped jeans while letting go of men attired in the same outfit is shameful and deeply disturbing. It points to the fact that society always wants women to be the torchbearer of tradition even if these are regressive.
Jeans, which originated in America in the late 1800s, are often associated with western culture and value systems. It has a certain sex appeal and an association with rebellion. Hence, those indulging in moral policing think it should be shunned by women in conservative cultures. But ironically in our society, people feel proud of their sons settled in the US and it becomes a point of discussion. Even in the US, the culture pervades the thoughts of the Indian community. India Currents very own, Srishti Prabha spoke to me about her experience. She said, “When I first wore ripped jeans in middle school (my mom was pretty progressive and let me wear them), the parents of my Indian friends would comment on how I looked like a beggar or trying too hard…”
In the Bollywood movie, Lipstick Under My Burkha, one of the female characters out of the four portrayed in the film wears jeans under her burkha because of restrictions at home. While it may appear to be a trivial issue for many, for Rehana Abidi’s character, it is the first step towards independence.
I love wearing jeans and often remember how hard I fought to have them in my wardrobe. If jeans have to be indeed shunned, avoid it because it uses a lot of water to be manufactured and not due to stupid morality issues advanced by regressive minds…
Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a freelance journalist based in Delhi.
Desi Talk – A column that works on embracing our brown background and unique identity using Coach Yashu’s helpful tips. Find her talking to IC Editor, Srishti Prabha on Instagram LIVE Tuesdays at 6pm PDT/ 9pm EDT!
Being a Desi woman can be hard…
I often hear of the specific struggles my Desi clients face in their communities.
My mentor used to say, “things in the dark always come to light”, and my hope is, through this article, that women will feel empowered enough to break down generational curses of antiquated traditions that are not working for them in this day and age.
One of the most brutal and painful, yet extremely common issues I have confronted is one of Eurocentric beauty standards in the Desi community. Being a woman who has been forced into this conversation at home for her entire life, I’m just eager to dive into this one!
From complaints of being too fat, too dark in complexion, too short, having small boobs, and even having short hair – I have heard it all.
Who said beauty was limited to these features? More importantly, who has control of said inherited genetic traits?
The worst part is society, family, even friends, at times.
I remember my relatives would set me up for arranged marriages with men larger than me, mainly so that I would not be rejected.
I once had a family bargain for me. They said, “Since your daughter is not good-looking, make sure she has a doctorate so we can show her off that way.”
I have heard Desi women being told: just look nice until you get married, and then it doesn’t matter how you look. There are matchmakers that say things like “She is dark. I have the perfect dark-colored boy for her.”
All these dialogues need to stop. We need to change the narrative about beauty in our South Asian households and encourage our communities to embrace all bodies and all forms of beauty. It was this that pushed me to address stereotypes and motivated me to become one of the first few Indian American Plussize Models in the world.
This topic can be toxic, especially when it comes from other women.
I have heard many families refer to the marriage of their daughter as an escape. “We have raised you all this time, once we hand you over to a man, then we can finally rest.”
Starting from the age of being “legal”, a typical desi woman enters the age of marriage talk. Growing up, my eldest female cousin did not really know how to cook and clean. My relatives used to say, “If we don’t send you to your in-laws’ house without proper training you, they won’t blame you. They will blame us for sending an inadequate woman to that household.”
It used to blow my mind. In what way was she inadequate?
She is educated. She is beautiful. She is so sweet and caring. Yet, she is inadequate.
And now, with women being so educated, independent, and self-sufficient, marriage has become a competitive sport! Parents are trying to get their daughters liked by “qualified” men.
I would often hear: “We are the girl’s side, we have to go along with their demands” or “You are the girl, just adjust.” Women don’t get to choose, they are the ones being chosen.
Oh, you thought dowry was an old practice? Well, you’re wrong.
Prospective in-laws and parents parade their gold and silver jewelry and discuss how big the dessert table was in their respective daughters’ weddings.
Once you’re married, the nature of the pressure changes to childbirth and motherhood. Many South Asian women are forced into having children, one after the other, because that is what their husbands and in-laws want.
Career Choices – For Women
In one narrative, it all boils down to how your work affects your husband and your child-rearing capabilities.
In another narrative, Desi women are discouraged by their husbands or families from accepting promotions and higher positions to avoid ego clashes with their counterparts.
I worked with a Desi woman studying to be a surgeon. All throughout her medical school and residency, her family members would question her parents, “Why are you allowing her to do surgery? That is very difficult. Tell her to do something more women-friendly” or “How will she manage a family if she picks such a difficult career path? She has to take care of her husband and children and also patients?”
How is a woman’s personal choice for a career dependent on her future husband and unborn children?
This places the burden of children and running a household on the woman.
“What does women’s empowerment mean to you?”
This was a question I was asked and it is one that I ask others.
Empowerment is a two-way support network. Women supporting those around them while receiving genuine support from the others in their life. By educating yourself on the painful narratives of Desi women, see how you can empower HER by having the right conversations.
For the Desi women out there, do not be afraid to speak your mind.
For the Desi men out there, support the women in your life by listening to their needs.
For the Desi parents out there, give your daughter the respect and independence she deserves. Let her make choices for herself.
By bringing touchy subjects to light and having healthy communication in your households, we can ensure the proper treatment of desi women.
Yashu Rao is the first South Indian-American plus-size model and doubles as a Confidence Coach. She is the Founder of #HappyYashu, a Confidence and Lifestyle Coaching Service specializing in desi family structures. She’s here breaking down stereotypes and beauty standards as well as inspiring and empowering people to lead a life with self-love, confidence, and genuine happiness. Find her on Instagram giving tips and modeling.
On Monday, March 8 as we celebrated International Women’s Day, I received many empowering messages from my female friends from all walks of life. But at this moment in history, the irony of the situation is that while women have made tremendous strides in the workplace with fulfilling careers and increasing pay in the past half-century, the pandemic has upended all that progress in just one year.
President Biden has called it a national emergency and on that same Monday, March 8 on International Women’s Day, he signed an executive order establishing the Gender Policy Council within the White House to focus on uplifting the rights of women and address gender-based discrimination and violence among many other such goals. But a telling addition to his broad gender policy initiative was its particular focus on addressing the coronavirus pandemic and its disproportionate impact on women by engaging with the White House coronavirus task force.
Here are some sobering statistics from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. Nearly 3 million women in the U.S. have left the labor force in the past year. Those who are employed make up an outsized share of the high-risk essential workforce, holding 78% of all hospital jobs, 70% of pharmacy jobs, and 51% of grocery store jobs. Two out of three women are caregivers, putting them at risk of depression and anxiety. Nearly two-thirds of mothers are in charge of supporting their children’s remote learning.
“We saw all of these economic cleavages that were underneath those gains laid bare for us,” says C. Nicole Mason, Ph.D., president, and chief executive officer of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). Women fell out of the workforce at four times the rate of men and have a disproportionate number of job losses mainly because they are overrepresented in the hardest-hit sectors like the service sector, leisure, hospitality, education, and healthcare. Black and Latino women in particular make up a little over a quarter of all jobs in the service sector. If you couple this with the lower wages, pay inequality, fewer benefits in those jobs, it has been economically devastating for the women in this country.
We were already dealing with a broken child care infrastructure and the pandemic brought this into focus for many American families. School closures had a disproportionate effect on women as well. In August 2020, when schools did not reopen, 860,000 women exited the workplace because they had to make the tough choice between their families and their jobs.
Many of these women according to Dr. Mason are the primary breadwinners in their family and make less than 40k a year but still had to make this desperate choice because their children were failing virtual school.
Not surprisingly, mothers are also doing a disproportionate share of pandemic parenting, regardless of employment. This raises the question, why are mothers taking on so much more of the parenting responsibilities during this pandemic, even when they have a partner who could share the duties? And especially when those partners see the devastating effect it is having on the mothers, both emotionally and economically.
“This is because of the gendered structures of paid work that existed long before the pandemic” according to Dr. Jessica Calarco, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University Bloomington. This division of unpaid labor that women in families have always done has been starkly laid bare during this pandemic. Women are in crisis. They are tired, depressed, and scared.
Many of the work-from-home mothers described having little choice but to sacrifice their paid work for their families during the pandemic because they were the only parent able to work from home or they earned substantially less than their male partners or because their children demanded more of their attention at home. This leads to a combination of frustration, resentment, and then guilt – all taking a toll on their wellbeing and having an adverse effect on all aspects of their family’s life.
More than a quarter of mothers report more verbal or physical fights with their partners or spouses. 30% say they are yelling more at their kids. Another third says they are more frustrated with their children. Mothers also feel tremendous guilt at the amount of screen time their children are exposed to, because of virtual school and for entertainment.
Dr. Calarco’s research shows that the pandemic is having serious consequences for mothers’ paid work, relationships, and wellbeing. She says these inequalities exposed by the pandemic reflect the gendered inequalities in our workplace and are “not just the function of men not stepping up to do their part”. They are a function of failed policies, of the lack of affordable childcare, and lack of maternity leave. This forced women into lower-paid jobs and part-time work even before the pandemic and now leave them feeling like “they have no choice but to sacrifice their own careers and wellbeing for their husband’s higher earning jobs.”
When the recovery begins, it is very important to create economic policies that support this sector that was hardest hit – women and especially women of color and lower-wage workers. Some of the policies that could help women recover their place in the workplace include a minimum wage increase, especially for women of color. If the Federal government cannot pass this legislation, follow the lead of many states and cities that have done so. Healthcare, childcare support, and paid leave investments are also critical policies that need to be legislated. Education and job training opportunities for women coming back to work after the pandemic is also critical. And most importantly, we need vaccines in the arms of all Americans so that we can safely open schools and daycares and get women back to work.
Corporate America should open back-to-work programs and reduce barriers for women to return to work. Paid leave and childcare facilities could increase flexibility that frankly, most employees with families want. In many cases, the executives who are women and mothers with children at home and are saying to Maria Aspan, senior writer at Fortune, “I am not just worrying about this for my employees, I am living this.”
There is a genuine desire to work on these issues, but, says Ms. Aspan, we have to wait to see if there is “any action behind the rhetoric”.
This is a unifying time for all women, of all socioeconomic levels, that have been hit hard by this pandemic. We need to hold both the government and the private sector accountable. It is time for all of us to band together to advocate for policies that will help all women thrive emotionally and economically. And we will take our partners with us into this more equitable future.
Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking, and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality, and public education.
In its simplest form, feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” In other words, because women have traditionally had fewer rights, feminism is about asserting and working to achieve equal rights for women. However, nowhere does this imply that achieving equality should be solely women’s fight or women’s goal.
There are but scarce instances when men made it their business to fight for women’s causes. A shining example is the active participation of Indian men in the many marches that took place all over India in 2012 after the horrific “Delhi rape.” Rather than retreating behind rationalizations such as “men will be men,” or “it has always been thus,” or blaming women for their choice of attire and pursuit of activities outside the safe confines of home, thousands of men agitated for respect and safety for the women in their lives — their daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends, coworkers, and neighbors. The men showed that women’s lives matter and that they matter to them.
In taking this proactive stand, the men were following the example set by a few men who came before. In this essay, I want to highlight a few of them.
I am sure many know about Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor, and her heroic struggle to bring medical care to the women of India. I just published “Radical Spirits,” her deeply-researched biography. In the course of my research, I came across a letter that her husband, Gopal, wrote in 1878 to an American missionary requesting help to educate his wife. The letter makes an eloquent and heartfelt case for the importance of empowering women and men’s essential role in making that happen:
Ever since I began to think independently for myself, female education has been my favorite subject. I keenly felt the growing want of it to raise the nation to eminence among civilized countries. It is the source of happiness in a family. As every reform must begin at home, I considered it my duty to give my wife a thorough education, that she might be able to impart it to her country-sisters…. On the other hand, female education is much looked down upon among my people… My attempts have been frustrated, my object universally condemned by my own people. … and yet I cannot give up the point. I will try to the last, there being nothing so important as female education for our elevation morally and spiritually.
Gopal Joshee believed that it was important to educate and empower women, but not just for their own good. He saw that this was an indispensable component of the good of families, communities, and country. Indeed, he went so far as to state that the state of women was a hallmark of a civilized society. And, in pursuit of this goal, he stood alone against his community and defied its regressive views.
Another great example of a feminist man is Ziauddin Yousufzai, father of Malala. In his TED talk, he said:
Ladies and gentlemen, this plight of millions of women could be changed if we think differently, if women and men think differently, if men and women in the tribal and patriarchal societies in the developing countries, if they can break a few norms of family and society, if they can abolish the discriminatory laws of the systems in their states, which go against the basic human rights of the women.
In other words, he made it his personal mission to empower his own daughter and to champion the empowerment of girls and women all over the world. The title of his memoir, “Let Her Fly,” says it all.
These two men, Gopal Joshee and Ziauddin Yousufzai, are separated by almost 150 years. Ironically, both were thrust into the limelight because of the tragedies of their protégés. However, these tragedies now live on as triumphs. Despite Anandi Joshee’s early death, or maybe because of the shock and tremendous loss that it represented, segments of 19th century Indian society took a decisive turn towards acknowledging women’s full humanity and their potential. Similarly, because of the violent attack on young Malala, there is greater awareness all over the world of girls’ right to education and empowerment.
Tamil Nadu: The government offered a 50% subsidy to girls/women to buy scooters and laptops
Uttarakhand: Girls enrolled in school get free bicycles
Kerala: Sanitary napkin vending machines have been made mandatory in all higher secondary schools
Karnataka: Girls studying in government and aided private degree colleges receive free education
Gujarat: Free medical education to female students
Undoubtedly, there are countless nameless men fighting the good fight within their circles of influence, be it in their families or workplaces, or communities. For example, I know of a farmer who sold part of his land to finance the education of his daughters.
However, the battle is far from over. Many issues continue to challenge women. Starting from the management of menstruation and early marriage to access to education and medical care, they extend all the way to sexual harassment and rape, family and maternity leave, and equal pay.
So, here is a challenge for men to be more active feminists. Encourage your daughter as much as you do your son. Create a safe and welcoming family and work environments. Agitate for equal pay for women. Be compassionate and generous to your women coworkers and your subordinates (including household help where applicable).
Make every day Women’s Day and make every month Women’s History Month. The goal should be to make women’s disempowerment a historical artifact rather than a present-day scourge. Rather than diminish your power, it will only empower YOU more.
Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor.
Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash
I wrote this piece of fiction in honor of victims of acid attacks — especially in India. It was developed at EnActe Arts as part of the WEFT (“women enacting for themselves”) program. It is a humble and probably inadequate attempt to depict the victims’ plight, written with deep humility for unless we walk in their shoes we cannot know the unimaginable pain they bear. I offer it with empathy for their suffering, and admiration for their courage in the face of such heinous crimes. India Today Data Intelligence Unit (DIU) has found that between 2014 and 2018, there have been 1,483 victims of acid attacks in the country, according to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau. Many more go unreported or unrecorded.
In my dreams I am whole, with my easy laughs, ready quips, fleeting annoyances, steady love of ice cream. I am walking, happy. But I shiver. I walk towards the sun. I don’t see the gaping pit ahead. I wake up shaking, sweating, hot and cold. Then my hands are on my face, and… I feel the scars, the craters, the hardness — Your gift.
Your gift erased so much of me, my face, my one window to the world. They say we are nothing without memories. We are also nothing without a face. This visage, this countenance, this mirror where the world sees itself reflected and knows its place. How do I tell the world who I am? I look in the mirror and my one watery eye sees a stranger, a horror story with no end. This thing that used to be a face, a recognition, a mirror is now a dark hole where all light ends and nothing reflects. Where there used to be me, my signature smile, my left cheek’s dimple – it’s all gone. I remain a nameless, faceless ghost visible only in my misfortune. Your branding iron left a seething script.
When it first happened, they wanted me to utter your name. I wouldn’t defile my mouth. The neighbors, the relatives, even the police came asking. They came to condole, to comfort my father, my mother, my brother who seethes in daily rage. But I know they just came to see me – the remains of me. Curiosity beats empathy but sometimes that’s the only vehicle to my door. I wrote your name down only once and gave it to the police. My mother took a photo of that piece of paper with my brother’s phone. When did she learn to take photos with a phone? She knew I wouldn’t utter it again, so she kept the “evidence” she said. But I know she keeps this paper to rekindle vengeful fires in her heart. My gentle, god-fearing Kali, who quietly tolerated harsh words from her mother and mother-in-law, is ready to kill for me today.
My father does not look at me. I miss how he used to cup my face, kiss my forehead every morning. Proud Papa. Now he won’t touch my face, just puts a hand on my head looking away. Sometimes I hear him crying when he thinks I can’t hear. My mother hardly cries. Instead she asks him harshly, “What’s the point of crying now?! Have you called the lawyer?” She is hard. So hard I fear her brittleness will break her. She only softens when she brings me food. Patiently lets me eat, gently wiping the drool from my mouth. My lips’ bare remains, mere lines relearn how to contain food. Grateful I can still taste, I tell her how much I love it. She won’t even acknowledge this joy. She keeps her vengeance alive.
I can’t recall the particulars, only the horrific pain of your carnage. Or why? Later they said it was because “you could not bear an unrequited love”. “Love”? Yes Love! Love? I want to laugh! I have forgotten that sordid history. Somehow the acid erased that too; clean, flat, blank like the contours of my face. Perhaps best this way or I may join those that blame me. “She could have said yes…”, “She could have married him…”, “Girls these days think they are better than anyone…”. Your signature devastation demands justice and there will be none. Blaming me helps the onlookers feel better. Perhaps safer. Some relief for their miserable, beaten souls.
When I came home after the first 23 surgeries, I heard them in my stupor from all the painkillers. I hated them then. All of them who said, who still say I could have alleviated your hate, who think I should now be traded off to someone even lesser, to “free” my parents. Perhaps free them of any hint of guilt. They know they are who made you possible. They supplied the fodder for the kind of anger you thrive in. When I first heard them I would scream but no sound emerged. Only violent, bruising tears. But then my mother – my gentle Kali – took care of them and their solicitousness. That makes me smile – only on the inside. The skin on my face borrowed from my thighs, my stomach stretches too thin to bridge a smile. I’ve tried it in the mirror – a contortion for a smile. I cringe with my eyes without eyelashes, even as I marvel at my perfect painted eyebrows. I often marvel at how well I saw all the flaws in my reflection before this annihilation of me. Maybe now I will learn to accept what I see. Maybe that is how I win.
It’s been over two years since I came home. I must have nightmares because my mother shakes me awake, often caressing my forehead, trying to calm me. But all I remember are dreams where I am whole. At first I prayed for a merciful death. But now I don’t want to die. I listen for the birds singing in the morning. My good eye loves the sun. I still marvel at how well my mother sings. I cook with her, I learn to sew with her, little things. Soon my hands will be steady. I put my head on my father’s knee when he comes home every evening. His blessing stalls the night.
This week I step out for the first time. I shake so hard that my Kali grips my hand tight as I accompany her to the market. I cover the side of my face. I want to keep my old face. I don’t let go of her hand. Soon I know I will bare my whole face and let them all see — and let you see. Maybe when I see you in court. I will look and point at you – steady, unselfconscious, straight. Maybe you can relish what you wrought. Your hatred manifesto. I will let you flinch at my ugly erasure. And when you flinch I will laugh. You gave me unutterable pain, you scarred me for life, almost erased me. Almost. The me that your acid cannot erase, is here. Still here. I win because I will make YOU look away.
Reena Kapoor is a writer and photographer. Her poems take the reader on journeys through a multitude of places, time periods, and emotions. ‘Arrivals & Departures‘ is her debut poetry collection.
While I ran about in the sprawling open courtyard of my mother’s house in a somewhat sleepy little village in rural North Bengal, I remember my granny sitting on a low stool cooking in the dimly-lit kitchen. It was already dusk and a few hours later, a tasty dinner was served. My parents had gone down to spend a few days during the Durga Puja holidays.
After my mother’s family moved to Kolkata, I often used to visit my maternal uncle’s place. Here, the kitchen was big and bright, but granny still continued to cook. Her specialty was a chicken dish which no one ever in my family has been able to replicate. Maybe it was the spices she used or her loving and caring hands that were behind the deliciousness.
Granny is now no more. She passed away a few years ago, but I still remember her chicken curry. Today, after watching The Great Indian Kitchen, a Malayalam movie earning rave reviews from critics, I realize how I never knew my real granny: what was she like, her likes, dislikes, desires, and aspirations. Maybe none of these things ever mattered to anyone in the family.
And this is what makes the ‘great Indian marriage’ such a fearsome thing to enter into, especially in an arranged marriage set up, where women are mostly expected to cook and clean and act submissive. Exceptions are always there. In my family, I have seen my father making tea, cooking rice, and even doing household work. An aunt of mine who lives in Delhi was horrified when she learned that I had praised her husband’s culinary skills in front of my other relatives. It was a most shameful thing for her and she reproached me for making the hush, hush fact “public”.
I can understand her consternation, the great dilemma she felt because women are expected to cook for their families. Little do they realize that in doing so, they become fettered and chained forever.
I am no great cook, but I can make basic meals for myself and during the lockdown prepared a few dishes, among them egg biryani twice. My friend Neeraj, who is a great cook himself, keeps on sending me recipes and colorful snaps from his kitchen from time to time. He once taught me to cook the perfect rice over the phone.
Cooking is art no doubt, but as the movie shows it can become a tedious routine. The movie’s female protagonist, Nimisha Sajayan who plays the docile wife and later leaves her husband to follow her dreams, is expected to cook rice on the firewood, besides making a variety of tasty dishes and serving food to the men. In almost all the scenes featuring her, she is shown cutting, chopping, and dicing vegetables, besides making hurried meals, attending to the faulty kitchen sink in need of urgent repair, cleaning up the kitchen, dusting, and washing her hands frequently.
I entered into a brief marriage only to regret it to this day. My in-laws expected me to shift to a small town where they lived, take up a part-time job or better still become a housewife and cook for the family whereas I wanted to pursue my dreams. So, I packed my bags and came to Delhi when I was offered a transfer.
Cooking is not an issue. I prepare food for myself every day and quite enjoy doing it. But slaving away in the kitchen is quite another matter. In the movie, the men are shown relaxing, doing yoga, and reading newspapers whereas the women are portrayed tirelessly working in the kitchen. The most evocative scene in the film is the one where the women eat food at the table made dirty by the men with spilled over and chewed food. When the wife confronts her husband about it later at a restaurant over his bad table manners at home, he gets angry.
For most women, cooking and doing housework is a routine and they are not supposed to complain. It is for us to decide whether to follow our dreams or please the men. If you want the first, just let it go like I did eight years ago, or else give up on your desires and aspirations.
My next-door neighbor back in Kolkata could not fry papad properly and they always used to get burnt. She was always the subject of criticism in the neighborhood, but nobody praised her ever for being an excellent teacher, her love for Bengali literature, and intelligent conversations.
Women in our kitchens have become such a regular fixture that we never pause and question their narrowed existence. All my childhood memories are centered around the great Indian kitchen: my granny on her low stool, my father’s mother stirring the milk tea, my aunt chopping vegetables, my mother making sweet delicacies in winter, the neighborhood aunty (she was called Ronny’s mom after her son’s name as if her identity never mattered) making parathas so that we children could enjoy it on Sundays.
Welcome to the great Indian kitchen. If you don’t like it, you are free to leave like Nimisha’s character or me. After so many years, a remark by my erstwhile husband came back to me. He had remarked once, “You never served me tea (in Bengali of course).” But you see I was born to rule and not to serve. I served him coffee, of course, but he conveniently forgot all about it. But what I remember is that he never made either tea or coffee for me and that’s what made all the difference.
Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a Delhi-based freelance journalist.
Prarthana, also known as PJ, is an independent filmmaker born and raised in Pune and currently based in Los Angeles. What began as a pursuit of architecture in Mumbai, ended with a thesis dedicating a museum to the history of Indian Cinema. It was this bout into Indian cinema that sparked joy. From there, PJ knew she had to pursue filmmaking.
Prarthana Joshi is a trailblazer. She is a woman. She is a filmmaker. She is an Indian-American transitioning from Bollywood to Hollywood, setting the stage for Indian stories and narratives in global cinema. India Currents interviews her to get insight into how her identities play a role in her unconventional, male-dominated career path.
IC: What is the importance of filmmaking to you?
Filmmaking is a way of life. I remember when I did my college application in 2009, I said that cinema is my religion. What I mean by that is that you start looking at the world as a storyteller, you see hurdles in your life as character-building exercises. You appreciate each and every profession because you start realizing that everyone has a story to tell. You become eager to learn new things and new possibilities. Stagnancy and normalcy are like death. You start to appreciate the journey rather than the award or the end-result.
Most of the time when a project is over, you feel life is leaving something behind and just eagerly waiting for the next one to start. And it feels like…this is all I know.
It is 100% love for the process. Discovering the story, meeting new people, exchanging ideas and thoughts. It becomes part of your lifestyle and there is nothing glamour about it. Lots of hard work, lots of hair pulling, and problem-solving going hand in hand with the creative stuff.
IC: Do you feel like you have to erase parts of your culture in order to make movies in America?
Erasing a part of your culture is not possible. I believe that who you are, runs in your blood. I can pretend all I want but my brain works the way it has been trained to. My perspective has changed though. When a world of possibilities opened to me and I saw a different way of living and thinking, I did start being more critical about my culture and my beliefs. I questioned my morals and became more investigative in general. I don’t accept things blindly. I don’t do things because everyone does it. This particular change has nothing to do with culture. It is just part of growing up.
And there could be certain cultural things that I might not partake in but that doesn’t mean that I hold a judgemental point of view towards them. I think certain things are for me and some things are not.
And as for making films in American, I think the definition of good and bad is synonymous no matter where you go. People feel the same feelings and hence…the basic story is always about a journey of a character finding it difficult to get what they want to achieve. The circumstances, the world,and the obstacles might be different but they are humans no matter where they are and what they want. So I am not sure if I had to give up anything as such. I think I have gained a lot more.
IC: What do you want to add to South Asian representation in global/American media?
When we talk about the representation of the entire South Asian community, it already sounds like we are trying to blend in so many smaller communities and putting them in a box of a sort.
I wish I could break that box and not make it so symbolic or isolated.
I think I want to tell stories about people who are passionate about their dreams and desires and happen to be South Asian. I wish I get to a point where I could talk about the diversity within the community, the struggle to hold on to the culture in the modern world. A stateless, countryless, boundaryless world with infinite possibilities and yet the perpetual longing for a community. There are so many issues that are dear to the South Asian communities that never get discussed. Like how do they communicate with families that are in South Asia? What are these long-distance relationships like? What it means to create strong nit communities here. What are these communities like? What are their problems like? I hope, I can tell stories about things that matter to this community.
IC: What was the journey of crossing cultures?
When you decide to travel to another country, especially a country like the US, you have a preconceived notion of what it will be like. We have seen movies and TV shows from the US so we think that we know everything about this country. But when you actually get to live there then you really begin to slowly understand the culture, bit by bit. Your perceptions start to change.
Moreover, cinema is a reflection of pop culture, history, and social conversation. Conscious or subconscious documentation of life as such. So to truly understand a country’s cinema, I knew I had to learn a lot about the country itself. This was something I realized early on. I also grew up watching Bollywood films and realized that I had a lot to catch up on. So most of my free time was…reading, listening to podcasts, watching documentaries, older films, and TV shows. After living here for 10 years… I still feel that I am catching up.
I also learned a lot but just talking to my friends, who grew up in different places within America. I had no idea that someone who grew up in Wyoming and someone who grew up in New York could have so much different upbringing. Had no clue of the cultural diversity within this country. It is a reflection of how little we know about other countries. When I met people from different parts of the world in LA, I constantly felt like my mind was opening up. I was learning to see the world and its people in a whole different way. Respecting and learning and valuing the differences and similarities.
When you look back at where you come from after having this changed perspective, you learn to appreciate what you had in your upbringing and culture and also learn to critique it as well.
Then there are other struggles like being away from family and friends; Struggling to create a new world and a support system. But the best part is that this all seems worth it when you are so driven by your passion and the work. So all these things happen naturally and effortlessly.
IC: What obstacles have you faced?
When I came to LA, to do my Master’s in 2010, I did not know a single person in the city. I had an aunt who lived in San Francisco but that’s it. I was on my own. When you are creating projects in school, that are each individual short films and it takes a lot of resources to make them happen. When I had directed my first short in India, my parents and my family came and helped in gathering all these resources. In LA… It was left to me and my classmates, who were equally new to LA to just figure it out. That was the first lesson in learning to be on your own and thinking on your feet and taking responsibilities that will directly affect your project and many times your classmates’. You slowly learn and figure out the city, where you can resource what things and start building your network. Those days were without social media and online resources, so we had to physically go to places and ask around. No Whatsapp or Facebook groups that could help you or guide you. Now it is so easy to find things.
The best part of knowing where you started is releasing how much you now know or have learned that you didn’t when you first came. A city so foreign slowly becomes way more familiar than the place you grew up in.
IC: What advice can you offer other South Asians pursuing filmmaking?
I would love to say that be true to yourself and your experience. Each of us has a story that comes from the unique upbringing we have. Don’t try to blend in with the mainstream or modify your story because of what people may or may not understand. Because people do. We have. We have seen films from other cultures and have understood and appreciated them so there is no reason to compromise on authenticity.
Also…do try to find out why you want to tell the story you are telling? What conversation are you trying to have? Has this conversation happened before? What is my unique take on it?
IC: What are you currently working on?
Currently, I am working on a couple of different projects. They are both in the pitching stages. Both stories about Indians in the US.
Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.
No single event in history has disrupted our lives as has COVID-19. Maybe, the two world wars had a far more disastrous effect on our psyche, but the arrival of Coronavirus forced us to adopt new ways of living by isolating ourselves in the closed confines of our homes.
The first few days of the lockdown/SIP, globally, we witnessed a burst of creative activity with people entering kitchens to prepare delicious dishes, trying their hands at baking cakes, experimenting with Dalgona coffee, painting, sketching, Instagramming, and whatnot.
But soon we started to see its spillover effects. Long hours of Zoom calls, webinars, and increased household chores. And amidst all these developments, a ‘liberating’ thing happened: more and women discarded their bras in the comfort of their homes away from prying eyes.
On July 6, Geeta Pandey, a BBC journalist based in New Delhi, posted an article on the death of the bra to which I replied saying, “I like the bra. (It) makes me feel more like a woman.”
What’s in a bra?
Why did I say that?
I go braless only when I sleep or throughout the day the very thought of my boobs hanging about without any kind of support is too much to bear. I do not feel comfortable and to add to my woes, there’s a man staying next door and a couple of men living in the building opposite mine. Yet, sometimes I sneak out braless in the dead of the night to enter my kitchen for a cup of coffee.
For me, the bra doesn’t only mean a basic necessity to wear under your clothes. It is part of lingerie after all; something sexy, sensual, and unique. I remember once when discussing a colleague’s wedding plans, someone commented that lingerie shopping was the first thing she bought after her wedding was fixed.
Back in my school days in India, I used to accompany my mother when I needed to buy bras. She only got me the basic white and skin-colored ones. Malls didn’t exist then and the shopkeeper used to take a cursory look and bring whatever size he thought would fit me without even bothering to ask my size. My mother used to quickly hide the packets in her shopping bag and that was it. It was never ever enjoyable. “It doesn’t matter what you wear. No one sees the bra,” was all she would say. I couldn’t even dare reply that a boyfriend very much sees the bra. Thank God I didn’t have a boyfriend then.
When malls started popping up, I began to enjoy bra shopping. Most places let you try them on and for the first time, I learned basic things about the exact cup size, fit, purpose, and the need to find the right bra for sportswear, sarees, dresses, and so on.
Buying bras has made me feel so liberated that now, I cannot think of going without them or ditching them. They are my best friends and given me many moments of pleasure. Once in the middle of the night, my roommate and I started a discussion on bras after she came back from a late shopping spree with a bag full of lingerie. Surely, this is a liberating moment with no sense of shame or hesitation about one of the most basic things in a woman’s life.
My Instagram profile mentions me as a journalist, bibliophile, and feminist. Going without a bra doesn’t seem like liberation to me. For me, real freedom would be able to walk down the streets any time of the day without being harassed or ogled at. For me, real freedom would be to see the end of crimes like rapes, dowry deaths, and workplace harassment against women.
Bra or no bra? Maybe that isn’t the question…
Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a Delhi-based freelance journalist.
Genius Kids founder Rennu Dhillon says our greatest fear after death is public speaking — unless we make some incremental changes in our education system while we’re alive.
“Confidence is critical,” Dhillon says. “You have to learn how to take control of your life. Compassion, communication, eye contact — these are the kinds of soft skills that we as parents and teachers need to instill in our kids today.”
Her personal odyssey — long before she became a Bay Area education mogul, Radio Zindagi talk show host, and community activist — is its own story of confidence and coming into one’s own. Dhillon grew up in a tightly-knit Kenyan suburb, much like our Bay Area cities littered with extracurricular activities and educational pursuits.
“My mother, being the typical Indian mother that she was, enrolled me into practically everything from music, art, piano, and sports,” Dhillon says and laughs. “But my father, a medical practitioner and the local Deputy Mayor was very deep into politics. So one of the big things that he really wanted us, kids, to focus on was communication. They enrolled me into a drama school called the Little Theater Club at the age of three.”
Dhillon’s childhood in Kenya marked the intersection of so many rapid changes, from an early wave of the feminist movement to political unrest in India following the death of Indira Gandhi. The young actress put pen to paper, drafting impassioned poems and letters for the local newspaper.
“I was a very, very controversial figure in my town,” Dhillon says. “I mean, I was always expressing my views, especially when it came to women’s issues. And my dad didn’t even know half the time when I was writing to newspapers. It would only be when we would get anonymous phone calls at home threatening me about something that my dad would look at me and say, ‘did you write that?’ And I’ll be like, ‘yep.’ God, I caused so much drama at home.”
Twenty years later, the outspoken Kenyan pre-teen, after completing her Pharmacy Degree in the United Kingdom, and Doctorate of Science, launched into two very successful businesses of her own – a matrimonial dating agency and recruiting firm in the United States. She then ventured in Recruiting CEO’s for start up’s and went from hooking people and people to people and jobs. As a single mother navigating the labyrinthian American Dream, helping young men and women find love offered startling insight into the role of ‘soft skills’ within the South Asian American community.
For Dhillon, the devil was in the details. From critiquing her client’s fashion choices to providing advice on eye contact and tone, she realized how the simplest features of personal interaction paved the way to success. Her experience as a dating coach and recruiter molded her vision when she opened up a Fremont-based daycare and accelerated learning center named Genius Kids.
Unlike mainstream education programs, Genius Kids instills public speaking and collaborative skills in students from a young age. Founded in 2001, the organization quickly caught on among Bay Area parental circles. Dhillon’s effortless relationship with kids, paired with her knack of combining learning strategies with the latest technology, brought in more families than ever.
“I think kids learn with smart and interactive technology,” Dhillon says. “We were actually one of the first preschools to ever introduce smart boards into the classrooms. Even the toddlers will come up on our stage, look at a screen, and point to the answer with their little fingers. These are our ways of teaching children. To stimulate students’ curiosity, I don’t want anyone memorizing stories in my classes. I want discussions. I want kids to tell me the story back in their own words — add their own flavor to The Three Little Pigs and use their own imagination. This is how we access a child’s voice and build on their confidence.”
For the second time in her life, Dhillon embarked on a writing journey, this time penning a parenting book titled, Raise Confident Children: Today’s Kids, Tomorrow’s Leaders.The book has different sections dedicated to Dhillon’s ‘Cs’ — compassion, conflict resolution, charisma, control — the different elements that shaped her experience in both teaching and parenting.
“There’s a need to simplify parenting into its basic ingredients,” Dhillon says. “It’s not something that always comes naturally — especially now that we have all these distractions. The world was very different for my great grandparents, grandparents, and my parents. Now, we’re living in a crazy world — completely insane. And if you don’t prepare your child to be able to face a world of the unknown, your child won’t have any control over their life. So I’m a huge one for books. I’m always on the search for new material and information because learning never stops.”
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, there may be no better time for Dhillon to release Raise Confident Children: Today’s Kids, Tomorrow’s Leaders. As lockdown restrictions force schools to adapt to a virtual learning environment, every parent must challenge their preconceived notions about testing, college admissions, and academic life. And perhaps there may be no better writer to release this book than Dhillon herself. As a woman who ventured across borders, within new industries, and into the lives of hundreds of children, Dhillon seeks to embody the very experience she chronicles in her book — a journey into the precarious unknown, where learning and adapting is always essential.
“Don’t underestimate your children,” Dhillon says. “Let them pursue and find their path. And most of all, listen to what they have to say.”
Stay tuned for Confident Children: Today’s Kids, Tomorrow’s Leaders, which releases on October 6th on Amazon! Click here for further details.
Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor for India Currents, she is also the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar, the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as the Executive Director of Media Outreach at Break the Outbreak. Connect with Kanchan on Instagram: @kanchan_naik_