The red and bold sindoor, strongly reminiscent of tradition, is placed bang in the middle of the front cover. It becomes the “O” of “Powerful”, and I see it as a tribute to the Indian woman and her close affinity to life still influenced by custom. That “pottu” (as we call it in Tamil) right there is an invitation to someone like me, who is passionate about both women’s lives and Indian culture.
And when I read that the book explores the archetypes of “the innocent Kanya, seductive Apsara, warrior-like Veera, the noble Rani, nurturing Maa, the wise Rishika”, I am intrigued. This is Nirupama Subramanian’s third outing as an author. She is a renowned coach who works to empower women across different stages of life, and I expect she would have a lot to say on the subject.
I also have my fair share of misgivings. It is very easy for an archetype to become a trope and then slip into a stereotype. With women already burdened by many biases that affect every stage of their lives, I don’t want to add some more mythological nomenclature that further disenfranchise them.
Vulnerable and unsure
A book talking about power, especially women’s power, is somewhat relevant when you think that at this point of time, post-Covid, the Indian woman is probably as vulnerable and as unsure of herself as she could be. India has hit the lowest ebb of women’s workforce participation in recent memory, and every talent manager has furrowed brows wondering what can be done to retain the few women who still have jobs.
Avtar’s recent study on the attrition rates of women shows that more women have dropped out of the workforce on account of the double-horse-riding during Covid, and it makes you wonder if anything could have been done differently. Could companies have started off their diversity journey earlier? Should flexibility have been made the norm rather than the exception? Ought families to be sensitized about the woman’s unwarranted load? Or, perhaps, should the Indian Woman Professional exhibit greater self-awareness and reclaim her power, even as she deals with the blunt trauma of economic VUCA?
And this exact idea becomes central to “Powerful”. Indian women (and probably her sisters around the globe), Nirupama asserts, are often prisoners of our own vaguely defined identities. We seem to be harking back to certain semi-formed notions of who we are rather than ridding ourselves of the unwanted baggage of childhood conditioning. The archetypes, stretching across (somewhat Freudian) definitions of age, sexuality and wisdom, are brought into play to help women understand where they are over-indexing and where they are lacking emphasis.
Nirupama’s writing is refreshing and humble. It steers clear of the very tempting template of defining every self-sabotaging action of women as originating from the six patterns it showcases. I loved the autobiographical touches and also found myself reflecting on my own mores. I thought the reference to the feminine mystique as a source of power was a tad too reminiscent of Bollywood magique. The examples chosen seemed practically off the pages of Stardust and Cine Blitz.
“Powerful” has some great research that appeals to today’s contemporary young woman, the metro-vaasi, the Netflix-generation, and I liked the fact that it is delivered without being overwhelming. Deft writing, coupled with an effortless conversational style, makes “Powerful” a good read for your next Chennai-Delhi flight.
Book: Powerful - The Indian Woman's Guide to Unlocking Her Full Potential
Author: Nirupama Subramanian
(Dr Saundarya Rajesh is founder-president of Avtar, an organisation that provides both strategy and implementation solutions in diversity, equity & inclusion)