Author, mom, trailblazer Indian, instinctively
As she awaits the release of her first book, Indian Instincts, Miniya Chatterji talks to Tulika Agnihotri Ojha and Umang Aggarwal about her life, choices, experiences, as well as the issues and people closest to her heart
Almost every young Indian woman has struggled with one or the other social convention at some point in her life. How does one describe an inspirational young woman who has managed to turn each convention on its head and converted each obstacle into an opportunity to be extraordinary? Meet Miniya Chatterji, an author, public speaker, businesswoman, who recently stepped into the most beautiful phase of her life — motherhood. This excitingly chaotic phase of her life has seen her simultaneously establish her entrepreneurial brainchild, Sustain Labs Paris, and write her soon-to-be-released first book, Indian Instincts, published by Penguin Random House.
A collection of 15 essays on love, money, parenting, religion, and democracy to name a few, Indian Instincts is a personal account of issues that affect the citizens of this country, says Miniya. “We wanted it to be like a classic, timeless book. So that even after 10 years, if somebody wants to know about India, the book remains relevant. At the same time, it is a wacky book; the cover has a peacock perched on a chair, when normally you would expect it to be outside. The book looks at issues that are closest to our heart, but from very different perspectives,” she adds.
The title of the book came spontaneously to Miniya. “I wanted to write about what’s at the core of us Indians. And for me, instincts do not necessarily mean innate. Some instincts are, of course, innate. But then a lot of our instincts are formed by the environment they are surrounded with.”
She writes in the book: “Our identity, thus, has little to do with our origins — which are the same for all — but is a product of the cumulative experiences of a lifetime that change according to context.” And Miniya has certainly built her own contexts. As a young girl, when she found out that her parents had fixed up her engagement without asking her what she wanted, she ran away from home. She started out by working 18-hour shifts to climb up the investment banking ladder only to realise that what she was doing did nothing for society. She has studied at the JNU, prefixed her name with ‘Doctor’, lived in Paris, worked for the French President’s office, worked as the Chief Sustainability Officer with Jindal Steel and Power Ltd, and then finally realised her dream of being an author at 38 years of age — a plan she chalked out for herself at a very young age.
Writing a book about India, an Indian identity, the society, and the beliefs that surround it, what kind of impact does she hope her wacky classic would have? “Well, it’s two-fold. For us Indians, it will be a mirror to show us what we have become. And for other people who don’t know India or who don’t live in India, it’s a more intimate account of the nation. The hypothesis of the book is that we have got trapped within the institutions which we have created — be in operations, governance, or religion. It’s like a Frankenstein situation; we have got trapped in our own making. The impact I want to make is hope that people will reflect upon this. Because the amount of talk within the media, the amount of pages and newsreels that politics takes… we are only talking about which politician did what, and the pollution cannot be managed because the CMs of two States cannot talk to each other! Somewhere, we seem to have lost the plot, the ease of the institutions.”
Interestingly, pollution is also the reason why Miniya, her businessman husband Chirag Lilaramani, and their newborn son Kaizer are relocating to Goa in the next few months. “Delhi is such a beautiful city, what with all its history. I love the city, but it’s becoming difficult to live here because we can’t take our son anywhere!”
Miniya hopes her book will help people snap out of the trap they have put themselves into. “I want them to realise that these institutions have actually been impinging on our freedoms. It’s not just political freedom, but freedom of choice for each individual, and the inequality that is thriving because of it. I am not criticising India, because it’s a beautiful country and I have come back to it. But I would like to call a spade a spade, and hold a mirror, very intimately.”
Having lived in various parts of India — her father was in the Indian Air Force — and travelled all over the world later for her education or work, Miniya feels “at home” in Paris and Cairo. After living most of her adult life abroad, she finally came back to India in 2014. “This is something which I had been grappling with for many years. I think that’s the reason why I left banking, career, et al. Because the job was giving me some kind of a currency to make ends meet. But I was working 18 hours a day, including Sundays. I started off with the lowest ranks of investment banking, but I didn’t have a life.”
From here on, Miniya tried to ensure that all her endeavors helped better the world, bit by bit. Ask the sleep-deprived new mom how she finds the balance — amidst changing the world and nappies — and she admits it’s a daunting task indeed. “In Kaizer’s first month, I took on a lot. The editing of the book was happening as I would be feeding the baby. The manuscript would be on an easel next to me, and the computer in front of the baby, on a pillow. So, it’s been very tough, very sleepless,” she tells us.
“For Chirag” — reads the dedication page for Miniya’s book. And she credits him wholeheartedly for being a huge support in all aspects of her life. “It might sound clichéd but my husband has been a huge support — he’s a hands-on dad, he doesn’t imagine things, he is not complicated, has no ego. One of the most crucial career choices that a working woman makes is the spouse she chooses… it’s just so important.”
Chirag also finds mention in her book. And oddly enough, a chapter titled ‘Money’ talks about her first meeting with him even though the book has another chapter called ‘Love’. When asked why, Miniya says: “I didn’t want the book to be about me… sitting on an ivory tower and making comments based on studies. I have used relevant examples from my life. Each chapter has its own theme. And somehow, that theme was just where he fit in!”
Even parenting is based on inequality, she believes. And that needs to be worked on. Talking about her experience of almost being forced into marriage at 19, and about how in hindsight she knows that her parents meant well, and that it really helped that she didn’t try to analyse what had happened, she says: “The contexts are different in which our parents operate and in which we operate. I left home at 19. I had graduated out of school at 16, started working at 17, so I was financially independent. And when I moved out, I slept on the floor in the hostel room of my JNU friends. Soon, I joined a magazine across the road as a sub-editor. In developing economies, the difference between generations is always huge. Because every few years, the country changes so much. So, the different contexts would continue for a while. What we need to understand is that the other person operates in a different context. This also holds true for differences based on religion or money.
“If there is a lack of the freedom of choices that you make in everyday life, that’s what I mean by freedoms. What I eat, what I wear, to not say certain things, or be a certain way…if you are rich, you have more freedom. If you are poor, you have less freedom. If you are straight, you have more freedom. If you are gay, you have less freedom. And that’s not true for most other countries. This country thrives on inequality,” she says.
In Indian Instincts, she writes: “Just like religion, a ‘corporate job’ has usurped a high moral status.” Elaborating on that, she says: “In corporate jobs, your boss is like God. You have to do whatever the superior says. And many of the corporates are owned by families, so there’s very little corporate governance. I have worked in the West, and this is not how corporates work there. Here, it has become a way of climbing up the social ladder. That’s why in the book, I compare it to religion. Because we become so blinded by what needs to be done for the boss. We need to snap out of this insanity of adding lines to the CV. If we do what we love doing, we do well. In France, a part of your university education is taking a year off. But in India, you have the compounded problem of being allowed to do what you love doing.”
Working women are often told that they are going to have to choose between work and family at some point. The choice supposedly becomes all the more urgent once they have a baby. This is another sphere where freedom of choice given to different sections of society in India is not equal. How did Miniya ensure that she didn’t have to choose between these very limited options given to women by society? “I thought the maternity laws were very progressive. But I soon found out that it actually depends on the HR manager to even give you that maternity leave or not. I was incredibly lucky to be at JSPL at the time. I wanted to be a hands-on mother, and Naveen (Jindal) was very supportive. But so many women, even top managers at companies, can’t figure out a way. As soon as a girl even says that she is pregnant, her job is up for grabs. And it’s not just at the workplace. Even health practitioners… the kind of advice they give you… The problem is that one gets really taken in and that becomes dangerous. You start fulfilling the ambitions of society, rather than your own,” she says.
In their own way, a large section of Indians speak against the claims based on the hierarchy of religions, communities, and races. The book attempts to disprove these claims using science. What made Miniya want to do that? “It’s actually such a simple thing that you are all born of the same person — stop judging each other. A simple message might be more effective when it is backed by science, facts, and stories.”
Among her biggest accomplishments or birthing three ‘babies’ recently — Kaizar, Sustain Labs Paris, and Indian Instincts — which one did she find more challenging or all in equal measure? Miniya laughs and says, “Nothing can compare to your baby. It was an 18-hour labour with no epidural, so Kaizar would be number one for me! The second would be my first book; a lot of my life has gone into it. I am an academic, but I didn’t want the book to be so… I am making arguments backed with my PhD degree, but I would like the general public to be able to enjoy what I am writing. The book was a very emotional experience for me.”
The word ‘Miniya’, which has an African origin, means ‘a lot expected of her or a lot desired of her’. There isn’t an iota of doubt that Miniya has lived up to her name.
Miniya Chatterji’s book, Indian Instincts, published by Penguin Random House (Rs 599), releases internationally on January 25 in Davos, and in India on February 14, in Delhi
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