By Divya Ravindra Menon
For many young men in the South Asian Diaspora, it’s often a foregone conclusion that after their brief collegiate affair with Art History, or their year of living dangerously in New York, they will eventually heed the genetic call of their family business. I would venture to say that until recently, it was not always so for the young women in our community.
However, in the past dozen years or so, the priorities of many families have shifted from getting daughters married to giving them the same opportunities that their brethren have enjoyed. As a South Asian woman, I wonder if the choices and roles are as clear for us as they are for our brothers.
I was raised in a household where gender didn’t exempt the boy from making his own sandwiches or the girl from carrying her own suitcase. Of course, as we grew older, I found that I was better at putting things on a plate and my brother ended up with larger biceps, so we both settled into the roles that suited us best. Growing up we also had a third sibling, the family pharmaceutical business, which my father spent much of his life building, partly to support his growing brood, and also as a labour of love.
As children, my brother and I were largely ambivalent about it since it took our father away on long trips and it didn’t seem particularly exciting. Interestingly, the only time I would voice an opinion would be when a random ‘uncle’ or such would assert that my brother would bear the responsibility for the business because he was the boy. But this was mostly my latent feminism talking, as opposed to any unfulfilled desire to actually take on such a mantle.
Ten to fifteen years later, I find both my brother and I deep in the trenches, working for my father. We’ve both taken separate routes to the same destination. He graduated from college and quickly made his choice. I meandered through three or four jobs before deciding to finally jump in. I think perhaps, as a girl, I was given a license to roam that my brother never had. There was always that unnerving and unspoken acknowledgement that I could always get married and have babies, but he had to keep the family motor running, which was unfair to both of us, in a way.
When I joined the business, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The company had grown in a way that made it different from the home I had initially expected it to be. My father was my boss, which was also difficult to comprehend. Our relationship morphed as soon as we entered the glass doors. My brother has never remarked about this change of dynamic and often I feel like he is accomplice to it. It was startling to have two of my closest relationships go through such a paradigm shift on a day-to-day basis. It took me a while to understand that my role as a daughter and sister had no place in the office.
At home too, we started to ‘talk shop’ more than ever. The family dinners where we discussed cricket and argued about who takes better care of the dog were a thing of the past. Hours would go by discussing strategy and sharing information while my patient mother would bear with the three-headed monster we had collectively become. When my parents made their weekly call to check up on me, it became a rundown of tasks with my father–all related to what I had accomplished over the week, despite the fact that we had almost daily conference calls at the office.
At times it worried me that my relationship with my father would become merely ceremonial, stripped of the bond that we had shared my entire life.
It occurred to me that this was not an issue for my brother. He could jump in and around these roles with absolute ease. For him, it felt like he was rising to an inevitability and he didn’t find the dichotomy of who he was in the office and who he was at home as confusing as I did. For my part, I was fighting it. I couldn’t deal with the amalgamation of roles and had begun to resent the fact that somehow my life had become interwoven in a way that was thoroughly unsatisfying. I felt like I needed to be both daughter and employee, fully and separately.
It has only been through sudden developments that I have realized this duality could be satisfied. My father fell ill in late August and while he was undergoing treatment I found that there were two gaping voids in my life. One, a doting father, the other an omnipresent mentor, and I realized I missed both. It dawned on me that my relationship with him had not diminished since I had joined the business, but had enriched as his role in my life had grown multifold. This renewed understanding of him, of myself, and our reality gave me the strength to fully realize that I could rise to fulfill both roles, just as he has done for me.