Journalist Kaveree Bamzai’s new book advices urban working women in India on how to live it up
From canonical feminist literature to contemporary pop culture, the books revisits a variety of sources
Ironically enough, even as I was writing this piece on a book that talks about the various burdens women bear, I had the kind of experience that is all too familiar to women, especially Indian women. It was a festival day, I was being co-opted into participating in a ritual that I don’t particularly care for, and I had a deadline that was non-negotiable. Any Indian man in this situation would choose to prioritize work—and people would get it. “He’s very busy," they would say, nodding their heads and closing the door gently on the man. I, on the other hand, had to change into a sari, rush out and take part in the festivities, panicking all the while because I was intensely aware of the time—and also aware that feelings would be hurt (with potential long-term repercussions on relationships) if I said, firmly but politely, that I needed to stay home and work.
These are the kind of scenarios faced all too often by middle-class urban working women who try to balance work, family, deadlines and relationships, that journalist Kaveree Bamzai talks about in her book No Regrets: The Guilt-Free Woman’s Guide To A Good Life. “After 31 years of full-time work, two boys, two dogs, one husband, there are two options. You either admit yourself into a sanatorium or get lifelong therapy. I thought let me do some self-therapy (not self-healing, mind you) and write this book," says Bamzai on email. The aim was to “introspect, think, distil all the reading and understanding gained over the years" and put to use some of the wisdom she had acquired from women she had met on the way.
Along with extensive and smart readings of books that aim to capture the female experience—from canonical feminist literature like Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex to relatively modern classics such as Erma Bombeck’s If Life Is A Bowl Of Cherries, What Am I Doing In The Pits? and everything ever written by Nora Ephron—Bamzai weaves in experiences from her own life and those of her friends, neighbours and female relatives, as well as women at the top of their game whom she interviewed for this book. “We carry the weight of our families, our children, our worlds on our shoulders. Even if we start out in life with complete confidence, over the years, social norms and conditions end up battering our self-esteem to such an extent that we feel guilty about everything," says Bamzai, “about not spending enough time with our children, not taking adequate care of our parents, not being fully present at work sometimes, even about leaving the planet in the state it is. Sorry is our default setting."
While the book doesn’t pretend to have all the answers to how to stop feeling guilty—perhaps only a complete overthrow of the patriarchal systems we live in would really allow women to believe they are not ultimately responsible for everything—it does offer solidarity and good advice, from being guilt-free about employing a good nanny to meticulously planning when to have children.
Data shows the number of women in the workforce in India has dwindled alarmingly, despite more women being educated and a more open society (at least in urban India). According to the National Sample Survey Office, India’s female labour force participation rate, the share of working-age women who report either being employed or being available for work, fell to a historic low of 23.3% in 2017-18. And this has Bamzai worried. “My generation of women was desperate to work, sometimes at great cost. With society moving towards greater individualism and very little by way of actual government support for working mothers, it is more difficult for women to stay on in their professions after marriage and children," she says. She also blames companies for not being supportive enough of women: “Corporate India, stuck in its time warp of mandatory work hours and endless meetings, has to change its mindset too... the culture of work in India still favours what I call the SMAMs—smug, middle-aged men, who love the sound of their own voice, and can listen to it for hours in meetings that go on without end."
Families have to change too, especially husbands. They have to stop pretending they don’t have domestic crises—children falling ill, nannies taking leave, elderly parents who have to be taken for a check-up—and create a culture at work where it’s okay for everyone, and not just working mothers, to take off in the middle of the day to do what needs to be done if there is a crisis at home. Only then, Bamzai writes, can women lead lives of no regrets.