An anthology of biographies, She Walks, She Leads encapsulates the journey to success of 24 women leaders of India. The names include corporate honchos like Parmeshwar Godrej, Swati Piramal, Naina Lal Kidwai, activists like Jyotsna Darda, designers like Ritu Kumar, and actors like Shabana Azmi. The 550-page book is penned by debutant author Gunjan Jain.
Books honouring women achievers in our country are aplenty. Is this book — bolstered by eulogies from Shashi Tharoor to Azim Premji — telling us something new?
In many ways: yes.
The biographies are supplemented by reference conversations with stalwarts who are witness to key events of the protagonist’s lives. Take the case of Mary Kom. The daughter of landless labourers from Manipur, who punched the daylights out of stereotypes concerning class, gender and India’s northeast by becoming a world champion sportsperson, is described by Priyanka Chopra as a “gold medallist mother and wife”. Similarly, legend Sachin Tendulkar proudly states that Saina Nehwal has taken badminton to the next level, as Sania Mirza has done for tennis.
Zia Mody’s portrait contains interviews with her father Soli Sorabjee, mother Zena Soli Sorabjee, husband Jaydev Mody, partner Bahram Vakil, besides Anil Agarwal, Kumar Mangalam Birla, Sunil Mittal, Deepak Parekh, Gita Piramal and Cyril Shroff.
Anecdotal narratives by the featured women and the people who know them, lends a greater dimension to the book than mere monologue.
“SWSL is about the journey, and not the destination. It’s about women from different backgrounds, age groups and professions. It’s this variety that makes it different,” says Jain, who is currently studying at the Harvard Business School.
Sheryl Sandberg believes that the single most important career decision a woman makes is whether she’ll have a life partner and who that partner will be. This book proves that adage.
The book also provides hitherto unknown aspects of its famous subjects.
We know, for instance, that Nita Ambani, The First Lady of corporate India, spearheads Reliance’s philanthropic initiatives, while being the mother of three, an educationist, a danseuse, a patron of sports and a champion of social causes. But the book also describes her whirlwind romance and marriage with Mukesh Ambani, which Shah Rukh Khan puts succinctly as, “Mukesh is the perfect sketch and Nita fills in the colours.” It candidly states that despite being told that she couldn’t have children, Nita persevered for eight years and went on to become the mother of three children. It reveals how she crafted her own legacy to beyond a cheque-book endeavour, while being mentored by the indomitable Dhirubhai Ambani. The book quotes her as saying that “the biggest thing is to empower people and give it away.” It depicts her as someone who is making a difference even though she doesn’t have to. It’s eloquently crafted and deeply inspiring.
Another brilliant anecdote is that of author and philanthropist Sudha Murthy. It describes how she dated Narayan Murthy when he was a broke introvert. So much so that he would request her to fund their dates, of which she kept an expense tab that she tore only when they got married! Murthy says of his wife, “The only barrier that women face is self-imposed; it’s all in the mind.” This is epic stuff!
Each profile has been carefully, extensively and lovingly captured: Priyanka Chopra is described as Bollywood’s only shero (she+hero) who Ranveer Singh says connects everyone from Boston to Bihar. The supernova stardom of Kareena Kapoor who is one of the few female members of Bollywood’s 100-crore club is wonderfully portrayed, as is that of media icon Shobhana Bhartia, who was deeply inspired by Indira Gandhi, or the matriarch Indu Jain overseeing the $4 billion BCCL empire.
While the book highlights that struggle exists; it just changes form, it also lacks a certain authority. It portrays a Panglossian view of womanhood with an indulgence that borders on pandering. Most women covered in the book are born with the proverbial silver spoon or have been married into those with one, thus diminishing the feminist slant of the book. Instead of using the book as an opportunity to debunk stereotypes of women’s achievement borne out of privilege, it becomes subservient to it.
We often think of feminism as a movement for women to disenfranchise men from their patriarchal privileges. How can this be when most of the women in the book are bolstered by the fathers and husbands and legacies in their lives?
My other issue with the book is the overstating of the term ‘female’ leader. Do India’s most powerful people need a gender prefix? We do not write ‘a male leader’, so isn’t ‘a female leader’, by analogy, wrong? Don’t we then end up reducing a woman to her biological abilities? Still, to be fair, the process of inclusion and participation in our country is nascent and certain latitude must be afforded in the name of context. After all, in almost every context, male is the unmarked gender, while female is the marked one.
This is a problem not only with the book, but also with our society.
Still — I’ve never ascribed to the notion of superwomen who are expected to balance their professional and personal lives while wearing the perfect chignon. It’s a veritable patriarchal minefield that the book, in its own way, sidesteps. Society often times dehumanises and vilifies a woman for having an opinion or for garnering success.
The book flips this gender equation and eulogises them.
Mukesh Ambani says of the book, “There is no such thing as a glass ceiling for those with talent and determination to reach higher summits of success. It is society’s responsibility to create a supportive environment for every aspiring daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend and colleague, so that women’s unleashed creative power can transform mankind as a whole.”
After all, as we attempt to move towards a more equitable society, it is important to muddle through, to lead imperfect lives, and to create a history of conversations. And for that, a book like She Walks, She Leads lends a certain inspiration and weightage to the experience of women smashing prejudices and glass ceilings everywhere.
Meghna Pant is an award-winning author, journalist and speaker whose new book The Trouble With Women will be published by Juggernaut in September