A Confluence of Indian American Literature, Culture and Women’s Leadership at a Sisterhood Event in New York City
- Hosted by Seema Network on the sidelines of the Jaipur Literary Festival New York, the event featured author Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee; author, actress Nandana Dev Sen, and founder of Girls Who Code Reshma Saujani.
It was a perfect mélange of literature, culture, leadership and women empowerment on a beautiful Wednesday evening at the Delhi Art Gallery in New York City last week. With the gorgeous backdrop of perfectly curated pieces by diaspora artists, three well-known Indian American women from different walks of life came together for a talk hosted by Seema Kumar, founder of the Seema Network.
Held on the sidelines of the Jaipur Literary Festival New York, the Sept. 14 event, titled ‘SEEMA Sisterhood Salon in the City,’ featured author Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee, author, activist and actress Nandana Dev Sen, and Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code and the Marshall Plan for Moms, and author of “Brave, Not Perfect.”
The event was hosted by Kumar, who is also the publisher of “Seema” magazine, has made it her passion to extend a hand to women and girls who look like her. She aims to create a strong community that thrives with the support of each other, fuels dreams and aspirations and develops strong bonds of sisterhood.
The panelists were a perfect fit for Kumar’s work and the theme of her magazine. Each one, in their own way, has established themselves as strong, powerful women, and are role models to many brown girls.
Divakaruni who has written several books with a female protagonist, turning Indian epics into personal journeys from a female perspective, explores a women’s struggle to retain autonomy in a man’s world. Her latest book “The Last Queen,” is the tale of Rani Jindan Kaur, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s youngest and last queen, who challenged her gender role and confronted the British and her enemies.
There’s a difference in a female character written through a male gaze versus those portrayed by women authors, she says. “There is a difference when women write about women,” she told the audience. “We understand women from a deeper vein; we understand women from the inside, and that is really important.”
As a writer, Divakaruni says that she has always tried to show women as humans, “who are heroic at times and also are vulnerable.” Her characters are willing to take that vulnerability to show their emotions like desire and fear. It’s all the more important for women in her stories to have these characters because “we are influenced by the women we read about, much more deeply than we realize, especially in the early part of our life.” As a young girl, she recalled getting ideas about women from the books she read. “So I want to create these women, looking at whom, all readers, but certainly women readers will say, ‘Yes, I can be myself,’ and I don’t have to relate to the reflection of what was presented to me as the right way.’”
And while women are human, they are constantly being pressured to be a perfect mother, a perfect wife, a perfect daughter, a perfect daughter-in-law, a perfect cook and so forth — like an acrobat.
This aspect of a woman was presented by Sen who translated a book of her mother, Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s poems in English titled “Acrobat.” It is a collection of poetry about womanhood, intimacy, and the body politic that together evokes the arc of ordinary life.
She read the poem “Acrobat,” describing how a woman thinks she can manage it all. “She thought she knew acrobatics rather well; that she could juggle time with both hands; play with the now, right next to the then; .. the poem continues celebrating a woman’s acrobatic power.
Sen, the daughter of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and the celebrated Bengali poet and writer, told the audience at the Delhi Art Gallery that translating 91 of her mother’s poems curated from six decades of writing, turned out to be an extremely challenging task. There was an emotional angle, as well as the fact that translating poetry is far more arduous. “The rhyming obviously must be preserved in a totally different language,” she said, adding that she ”wanted to be faithful to her rhyming scheme.”
However, Saujani is challenging that very notion of expecting a woman to be perfect, both in the workplace and at home. In her book, she lays out a blueprint for how to make “the workplace work for moms.” She dismantles the myth of “having it all” and aims to lift the burden we place on individual women to be primary caregivers and to work around a system built for and by men. In her book, she argues that “the time has come for innovative corporate leadership, government intervention, and sweeping culture shift.”
Saujani’s perspectives on the role of a woman changed during the pandemic. With two little kids, she was working full-time for Girls Who Code. That’s when she realized that having it all was a euphemism for doing it all. Two million women have left the workforce since the pandemic hit in March 2000, she noted. However, she feels that we women are “so distracted fixing ourselves, than fixing the system.
In her book, she talks about subsidizing child care, paid leave and gender-neutral paid leave policies and mental health crises. “Fifty-one percent of moms report more anxiety and depression,” she says in her book. “So companies have to start thinking not just about our output, but our mental health. I don’t think that we are appreciating the burnout that women feel right now.”
Pointing out the unfairness to mothers in the workforce, she noted that women have always been qualified, “things change when we become mothers, not because we’re choosing to stay at home, but because it becomes untenable to be a mother and have a job. If we can fix that motherhood penalty, the motherhood bias, we’re going to get equality faster and to have a more realistic opportunity to solve this problem once and for all.” All these things are even more relevant now, she noted, in a post-Dob world. “What are we as women going to do,” she wondered. “There’s a war on women in America.”