Chitra Vasudevan,questions our view of the world and the meaning of empowerment. Success and satisfaction in the Corporate world did not lure her in spite of every indication that she was headed that way. Through this brief autobiography, she gives us an insight into the working of a mind that chose to quit a lucrative corporate career and embrace full time volunteering as a joyful, satisfying alternative.
She also shares with us her thoughts on labeling women, while urging everyone not to look at career and income as a measure of success. Ultimately the reinvention here is in many ways a redefinition of the traditional mores, throwing away that which fails to add any meaning or joy and replacing it with that, which enriches and nurtures.
(Please do check out Yoke society website, an endeavor to empower the youth of Kodanganallur Village, TamilNadu, founded by Chitra Vasudevan)
I am the last born in a family of three children. My siblings are both more than five years older than me, and so I had a pampered childhood, with parents, Grandmother, Uncle (only 11 years older), brother and sister doting on me. Although my Grandmother and Uncle moved back to our ancestral village when I was about six, we remained a close-knit family with several generations of cousins staying in touch. Our home used to be a hub where everyone felt warm and invited, despite being very much middle class with modest means.
I went to a ‘better’ school than did my siblings. My aptitude for music was discovered as a three-year old, when I used to accompany my sister for Music classes, and would sing all that she was taught, in perfect tune. I don’t remember when I “formally” started classes in music; I am told I was about four years old. Studies came easy to me although I would never work hard enough to top the class. As with most children, I would often be asked by all visiting friends and relatives, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would happily say I want to be a doctor, not knowing what it entailed to any extent.
When I was in final year school (we were the last batch going with 11 year schooling for the ISC examination) I wanted to write the Joint Entrance Examination of the IITs. People good in Maths were supposed to get into Engineering, right? We were doing O level Maths at school, and one of my classmates had chosen to do A level privately. I wrote to the JEE authorities asking for exemption, and they replied saying A level Maths was a pre-requisite to the JEE. The next option was to get a Science degree and then do a post-graduate professional course. Admission into undergraduate courses for ISC students was not easy as our marks were invariably lower than those who had done Pre University course. Thus I landed in Stella Maris College for a graduation in Chemistry, a subject I thought I liked. Actually I was not too sure what I wanted to do. So I literally grabbed the first call I got from a reputed college.
What I enjoyed at College…
College was fun although the Science stream was known to be the serious kind. I had been Secretary and President of Chemistry Club, and enjoyed the roles. We kept the Department flag flying through the year with several activities. I loved organising activities and the faculty and students supported me to the hilt.
As we came to the final semester, we would discuss what to do further. A couple of our classmates were getting married. Some of us thought Biochemistry would be a good career option. One of my classmates, part of my ‘group’ (groups were inevitable, as it seemed!) mentioned to me that her father was a guest faculty at Department of Management Studies, University of Madras, and he could easily get her in. But she was not going to do PG, but prepare herself for a married life soon! That got me interested as I had already done the IIM entrance and did not do too well. Why not try at the University Department? After all, my mother was clear that I could do any course I chose to, in Chennai, from home, but should not move out. That’s how I applied for MBA at Madras University, and cleared the Entrance, GD and interview to get in.
Becoming a ‘Manager’
Management course is very comprehensive. I enjoyed the exposure I got to Economics, Psychology, Accountancy, Statistics and Systems. They weren’t ‘dry’ subjects as I had imagined. Our team did projects and assignments with great interest. Infact when I finished my course, I realised that I literally knew every inch of Mount Road from Safire to Anna Statue as we had gone up and down with our surveys and fact-finding so many times. Some boys in my class at MBA used to lament, that when girls joined the MBA course they were denying potential breadwinners (read boys) the opportunity of taking care of entire families. They would argue that by having a career of our own, we girls would probably be spending more on luxuries than on bare necessities for a family. I don’t know why, but this thought remained with me. They would also point out to some of the girls in my class who were already married, and one of them even in the family way. “Wasting an MBA seat to sit at home tending to your babies”, the boys would taunt us.
We had a few companies coming for Placement, and I was shortlisted and selected by one of the local advertising agencies. It took a few months before I got my letter of appointment. (I was almost taking my second offer, which was in Pondicherry, much to my mother’s discomfort.) Thus I began my career with a leading Advertising agency, which was starting a full-fledged Research division. Two of us were the first recruits, my boss and me. Our job was to automate (design software for) Media Planning. I found this very interesting and thus decided that probably Research should be my career option. My Math skills came in useful as we went along. I would have been at work for about a year or more, when my marriage with Vasu was arranged. I was to move to Hyderabad, and therefore quit work.
All this while, my music training was going on, and I had moved on to train under a top-ranking Carnatic artist by now. Music would always be my passion and solid accompaniment to whatever I chose to do.
First Break and the Learnings
Marriage meant becoming a part of a very different family, a very different city, language, people, and coming to terms with all that. It took me a while to realise that you cannot take independence and support in what you do, for granted. I also learnt that not all people need to take to you instantly and warmly. Until then, life had been smooth for me, a pampered upbringing, good education and fair amount of success everywhere. The lull after marriage was a good exposure to ‘the other side’. I must say that this experience tempered me a lot, and grounded me literally and figuratively.
I was at home for four years after marriage. My father in law was not keeping too well, and with Vasu on tour most of the time, I had to stay home. I did not have a choice, but used the time to retrospect and learn to accept life as it came. My father-in-law passed away in 1988 and soon after we were moving to Delhi on transfer. I wrote to my first employers about this and they offered me a job as a Research Executive in Delhi. Thus I resumed work after a pretty long break and it was almost like starting all over again.
Our tenure in Delhi was short, and Vasu was transferred to Chennai now. I also took a transfer with my company. And soon we moved to Hyderabad, and this time I shifted companies. Three years down we were to move to Mumbai, with my company also willing to transfer me, when Vasu’s ex colleague made him an offer from the UAE. Thus we shifted out of the country. My first assignment in Sharjah where we lived, was checking the Russian translation of a brochure for Sony. My employer in Hyderabad had given an excellent reference to one of her contacts running an Advertising agency in Sharjah and a passing mention in my CV that I had a Diploma in Russian (I did the course soon after school and alongside my first two years in college) landed me this freelance assignment. In one assignment I recovered all the fees I paid to learn the language. Soon I joined a Market Research Agency based in Dubai and changed to the Dubai Ports Authority subsequently.
Working in the Middle East was a little different from working in India. In India, in the agencies I worked in, my professional colleagues were really smart. Quick, clever, very intelligent – it was a challenge to be in that environment and be on par. I had the advantage of a boss who was ahead of his times, in my first job. We had to necessarily grow in leaps and bounds to keep pace. It was tough, but when we could do that, it felt so good. In Dubai, everybody was very smartly turned out for sure, but I missed the intellectual challenge I had in India. At times even some mediocre analysis done by me would be so much appreciated that I would often wonder why. Infact when I left Dubai, five years down, I often said that a lot of mediocrity thrives in Dubai. I was making a sweeping statement, as now I find nothing wrong in mediocrity and a lot of it thriving in India as well. After all, the world cannot be made of intelligent people alone!
Back in Chennai
When we moved back to India after five years in the UAE, I was firm that I did not want to go back to working in the Corporate sector. There were so many reasons. I had already put to good use the knowledge I had gained in my MBA, in my jobs in India and Dubai. My salary was only supplementary to the family, and working in the Middle-east meant fair amount of savings. My work style was such that I would take deadlines seriously; hence there were times when I would carry work home. I would also be stressed until the job was done and delivered. I decided that such stress can be done without. While I had the energy and means, I wanted to work in the Voluntary sector, probably with some children. In a sector where I won’t have to think about bottom-lines and deadlines all the time. My older cousin who was working with an organisation for children and young adults with developmental disabilities, took me to her centre and that’s how my career as a Volunteer began.
Volunteering in the Disabilty sector opened up a new world to me. It was quite non-structured, and informal unlike the Corporate world, but still the ends were achieved. I was willing to spend three afternoons at the centre, and keep the rest of the day for my music classes (I had resumed my classes with my guru and had also started teaching at home). However, my first employers were reaching out and asking me to join work again. Three afternoons at the NGO proved to be mostly idle, reading in the library, waiting for work to do. The professionals were busy doing many things; but there was no continuous work for me and I felt I was wasting my time. But I did not want to give up on music and so told my first employers, I will work flexi time, four hours per day, as a Consultant. I was incharge of the branch in Chennai and got myself a mobile phone (very expensive in those days), to be available “full time” to clients.
I kept in touch with the NGO, but sporadically. Although I had told my bosses at work that I would work for about three years, I held on for five years with the Consultant arrangement. When I quit, I started teaching music at the special school I volunteered with, in addition to learning (with my guru)and teaching children at home. I also started volunteering for a magazine.
By this time, I had also taken some initiative with my village project, to clean up the water hyacinth proliferating on the river surface. My students of music provided me several opportunities to organise events – based on various festivals, occasions, and even for raising awareness on the water hyacinth problem. I enjoyed organising these events immensely. So did the children.
So when I quit work, I already had enough to keep me busy. It was like I had weaned myself out of working for a salary. Of course the money box stopped ringing, but I was anyway providing only for the jam, while on one salary we could definitely have bread and butter. Our living had always been modest and therefore I did not miss the inflows. Infact I continued to use the fees the children paid for my music tuitions for the children of my village, as I had started the Summer camp as an annual event, after registering an organisation, calling it YOKE.
What made me quit my career? First, I always knew that my earnings would only provide for the rich toppings which we could do without. So when I quit working, the changes in our lifestyle did not hurt. We could manage without the cushion. Second, I longed to work with children and with the community. My exposure at the NGO and this longing manifested in some way into our village organisation YOKE, which is now growing. Third, my career had actually had a number of breaks – short and long; therefore I had not climbed the Corporate ladder high enough to feel insecure; last but not the least, I was busy and enjoying all the other things that I was into – learning music, teaching, organising events, entertaining guests, and volunteering.
I have somehow remained in touch with atleast a few of my classmates at school, college, University and colleagues at work. My network is now growing, with the social networking sites and search engines proving to be a great help. And what do I find now? Most of my classmates at school did very well academically, and went on to work. Today, several of them are sitting back, and taking on assignments as much as they want to. Atleast some of my classmates have dabbled at quite a few things and finally settled with something they love doing. And doing it to the extent they want to, not as a full-time, 9 to 5 job. It is almost like all of us went on the centrifuge and finally precipitated into what we are doing now – quite similar in the basic thought (following one’s passion but not getting carried away), and perhaps different in scale.
Careers and Empowerment
Do women have to be on a ‘job’ in order to be empowered? Do women who remain at home have to necessarily say with regret ‘I am just a housewife/homemaker’ as if it implies they are nothing much? Do women who have great careers and success have to indulge their children for not giving enough time and wash off the ‘guilt’? I would say a big NO to all! To me empowerment is all about doing what one wants to do, out of choice and not out of compulsion – external or from one’s own desire to ‘be with the Joneses’. Empowerment is all about taking a decision after deliberation, and not regretting it ever.
Does that mean women need not be educated? Of course not! We need to be educated in order to provide the balance in the world.
Because only women are capable of using their education in mentoring a good family, community, and society.
Because only women are capable of looking more at the whole than at the parts.
Because only women can dream and make the dreams a reality.
To all women with or without a career, let me assure you, by borrowing a phrase from a programme that came long ago on BBC, “The Future is Female”!