Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Young Indians, and their air of independence

As India celebrates 69 years of freedom, young achievers across various fields appreciate the liberties they enjoy and feel proud that a nation of go-getters is breaking stereotypes and walking the talk

Published: Aug 15, 2016 07:03:03 AM IST
Updated: Aug 10, 2016 05:36:12 PM IST
Young Indians, and their air of independence
Image: Bmaximage

‘It’s about making your own choices without thinking of norms’

Entrepreneur Richa Kar says independence is the ability to do what one wants to as long as it does not hurt someone

Richa Kar, 34
Founder and CEO, Zivame
Claim to Fame
Kar borrowed Rs 30 lakh from family and friends to start Zivame, an online lingerie store, which now gets around 3,000 orders daily

When you’re young, you take independence for granted. But fundamentally, independence continues to mean the same thing to me as it did when I was younger. It’s the ability to make your own choices in life without thinking about conventions or norms. The ability to do what I feel inclined to, as long as it doesn’t hurt someone, is what independence means to me.

When I started out with Zivame, I would ask people who advised me against it why they thought I shouldn’t be an entrepreneur. They would answer, saying that there was a lot of risk involved. I would tell them, “Ok, then I’ll take the risk.” Entrepreneurship to me was not in the literal sense independence from a boss or something. To me it meant, and continues to mean, the ability to do something that impacts people’s lives. That’s how I look at entrepreneurship.

With Zivame, I think we’ve created a very strong symbol of the economic, social and cultural progress of the Indian woman. In choosing to buy something that has been so engulfed in taboo, it enables women to say that I’m going to invest in myself. There’s always this expectation of women to first spend on family, children and then themselves. Lingerie is often not seen by others. You’re choosing to invest in yourself, and that is liberating. Four years ago, when we were a two-member team, I would take customer calls too. There was a woman in Jalandhar, Punjab, who was ordering some honeymoon lingerie, and we began chatting. She told me that she had broken her leg. “I’m having an arranged marriage,” she said. “My fiancé is in New Zealand and since my leg’s broken I would have had to go to the store with my family. I’m not really comfortable with that. You guys have made me feel empowered for making my choices.”

If [some] women have not been given their due but I have, then I need to succeed. We need to take charge, take control and execute things that create a larger impact.

At Zivame, we have 55 percent women in the workforce. We have men too. You should see how they come together. If you’re open about individuals’ roles, I don’t think people will hold back. If an opportunity presents itself, I’d like to see men and women both fight for the same job, without gender being an issue. Biologically, of course, women end up taking breaks from work and that affects their careers and ambitions. That’s somewhere I think we, as an ecosystem, need to make change happen. Currently, paternity leave is about a week or so, and maternity leave is three months. Why shouldn’t we question that and say why not let paternity leave be three months too, instead of extending maternity leave to six. If we look at some small things differently, it’ll help women compete in their corporate journeys instead of being part of a race that they believe they’ve already lost.

(As told to Angad Singh Thakur)

Young Indians, and their air of independence
Image: Amit Verma

‘We have come a long way… just need to gather pace now’

India’s football captain Sunil Chhetri believes each individual should be aware of his responsibility towards the country

Sunil Chhetri, 31
Claim to Fame
The Arjuna awardee became the first Indian to score 50 international goals during his team’s 2018 World Cup qualifying match against Guam in June 2015

Independence, for me, is being able to express myself in the best way I can, to have a platform where I can showcase my talent, and surroundings where I can do this happily.

I had complete independence when I was growing up. My parents did not ever stop me from doing anything I wanted to do. I had the liberty to go up to them and share with them what was in my heart. We would then discuss the repercussions and benefits. Most kids from my generation would have heard statements like, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that… this is wrong’. However, I was lucky that my parents trusted me and encouraged me to pursue my dreams, no matter what they were. For instance, when I was young, I wanted to be the next [Sachin] Tendulkar or the next Leander Paes. Eventually, I decided to be a footballer, and they supported me throughout my journey. I feel support from family is paramount to being an independent human being.

I enjoy playing all forms of football, but the pride of playing for the country is unparalleled and incomparable. I still get goosebumps and a part of me always cries out of happiness whenever I step on the field to represent India.

As a nation, we have definitely come a long way. Could we have done better? Of course, we could have. There are many things in our country which are a bit difficult [to implement and change]. Every Indian will agree that there are many ways in which we can be more free as a nation. Overall, there are a lot of things we have done well, but there are others that also need to be done well. However, we must remember that it is not only the job of leaders. Each person in our country is responsible and by realising this, we can speed up the way we can be free as a nation. We are headed in the right direction; we just need to gather pace.

We have made definite progress in terms of our culture, but here too, there’s a lot left to be done. We have to push from all directions instead of pointing fingers at others, saying they are not doing their work. We must think about what we are doing for the country ourselves and for the kind of freedom we want in our nation. Once we attain that clarity as an individual, the road ahead wouldn’t be too far.

When it comes to sport, over the years, the number of people who want to play has improved greatly. However, we are a country of a billion-plus people and no matter how much we do, everything that happens will appear to be less. We can do a lot towards improving sport in our country. The first step is to tap the right talent and make sure we give them whatever is necessary to improve. They need to be given the right opportunity.

There are many things I want to do for this country. Most importantly, my vision is to see that every kid, he or she, who wants to play and is good should get good facilities and surroundings to improve their skill.

We must enjoy and feel proud of our independence because there is no country better than ours.

(As told to Shruti Venkatesh)  

Young Indians, and their air of independence
Image: Joshua Navalkar

‘Independence is the freedom to say no’

And that power can only come from not depending on anyone financially, says comedian Radhika Vaz

Radhika Vaz, 43
Claim to Fame
Vaz has won the Breakthrough Series Short Form (2015) for her web series Shugs & Fats at New York’s Gotham Independent Film Award and has authored Unladylike, a memoir

My father was in the Air Force and I was enrolled at The Lawrence School in Lovedale, Ooty, when I was 10. At the boarding school, living in a dorm with 15 girls whom you had never met before… making decisions at that age that would otherwise mostly be taken by parents was my first experience of being an independent human being.  

I think of independence as the freedom to say no—to anything or anyone. And you need to be financially independent for that. It’s okay to be financially dependent on your job, but if you are financially dependent on a person, you will do what they tell you to do. You are a subject then and that person becomes your master… the best you can hope for is that you end up with a benevolent one. I don’t think we will progress unless we make ambition and financial independence a requirement for our boys and girls.  We can’t keep telling our daughters to “just have a job until you get married”. Those days are gone.

As a comedian and writer, I see professional independence as a function of how well my right to freedom of expression is protected. In India, we are not protected in any real way and any half-wit can file an FIR (First Information Report) against a comedian for making a joke, forget even talking about film censorship in the country.  

The only distinction that I see, when I interact with the audience, is based on gender, not geography. During my shows, in India and elsewhere, whenever the ratio of women to men is higher, I have a very good response because my comedy is from a woman’s perspective. When the crowd is predominantly male—like a corporate show—I have to tailor what I say as the men in these rooms are there because their employers paid me to entertain them; a female perspective is often a new thing for them. What surprises me is that when I get a 50:50 split, which means a lot of couples, women are hesitant to react to certain things because then that would mean they agree with me and a lot of what I say is against femininity and its stereotypes. These women don’t want to share with their men that they too have had such experiences. I wonder what that says about independence of thought. You care so much about what someone thinks of you that you won’t even laugh?  

Another conversation we need women to have openly is with regard to kids—to have them or not. I chose not to have children. I never wanted to parent anyone and saying no to children was probably the most independent choice I ever made, although it was an unpopular one.

We all ask, ‘What happened to the country that created the Kama Sutra?’ There was a time you could blame the British and Mughal invaders for making us prudish and conservative, but we have been left to our own devices for a while, so now who should we blame for our caste and class systems? But things are changing. For instance, anything that is highly technical—like coding—does not require ‘perfect English’.

We will eventually become more egalitarian only because it is all going to be about what’s in your head.

(As told to Shruti Venkatesh)

Young Indians, and their air of independence
Image: Joshua Navalkar

‘Independence is at the core of the Indian way’

Author Amish Tripathi says individuals are responsible for their actions and that is both an empowering and scary thought

Amish Tripathi, 41
Author of the Shiva Trilogy
Claim to Fame
His debut Shiva Trilogy became one of the best read works in the country, selling over 2.5 million copies

I guess the measure of independence was a little more circumspect when we were young. In the 1980s and early 1990s, when I was growing up, frankly, there weren’t as many opportunities in India. We weren’t doing very well economically. Those were the days when so many dreams were not achievable, and you were taught to be practical, pragmatic.

My first experience of true independence, the time when we really took charge of our lives, was when I got married in 1999. I used to work at Standard Chartered Bank. My wife, Preeti, was also working. As part of the perks you got for working with a bank was a house. Ours was a tiny, bank-owned flat in Bandra. That was a magical period. Economically, of course, it was tough. We had very little furniture. Our table was a carton filled with newspapers and a chaddar on top. Our bedroom had just a mattress and bedsheets. But both of us were very passionate about music, so we had a Rs 10,000 music system (a very large amount in those days). That was true independence in a sense, setting up a house together. And the romance of struggling to make it on your own (at least it appears romantic through the lens of nostalgia!).

Even when I began writing my books, I continued working. While writing books, I’m driven creatively, but the decision to resign from my job was a pragmatic one. I had to be responsible. If you want independence, you have to take responsibility for your decisions as well. Only when my royalty cheque exceeded my salary, after my second book, did I quit my job.

In my writing, as in Indian culture, independence has played a very important role. In our traditional culture, God is not someone who judges you. God is within you. You are not someone who is a helpless supplicant in front of a higher power who will tell you what to do. You will be responsible for your own choices, and the higher power will support you. It’s a very empowering thought, and also a little scary. Independence, then, is at the core of the Indian way.

In ancient Sanskrit, there was no word that was the equivalent of blasphemy. The concept didn’t exist, so the word didn’t exist either. Take an episode from Natyashastra (an ancient text on the performing arts). A play was being staged that was insulting to divine beings, who tried to disrupt it. Lord Brahma stepped in and said whatever’s within the confines of the stage is sacred; nobody can stop what is being said there.

In our laws though, there are constraints on freedom of expression. Some of them have come from colonial rule and some we ourselves have put in after becoming a republic. We all know what “reasonable restrictions” in the First Amendment of 1951 to Article 19 (1) (a) mean. It’s so open that it is relatively easy to legally curtail your freedom of expression. The real test of freedom of expression is when you defend someone whose speech troubles you deeply. And that, the Natyashastra will tell you, is the Indian way.

(As told to Angad Singh Thakur)

Young Indians, and their air of independence
Image: P Ravikumar for Forbes India

‘The new India is all about change’

Squash player Dipika Pallikal, who has been fighting for equal pay, says freedom is about expressing yourself and that people are no longer afraid to stand up for what they think is right

Dipika Pallikal, 23
Squash player
Claim to Fame
Dipika Pallikal recently bagged her second national squash championship and was the first Indian to break into the top 10 in the Professional Squash Association’s Women’s rankings in 2012

I have been travelling outside the country since I was 13 and did everything by myself. The independence that my parents gave me at that age is a reflection of their confidence and trust in my ability to achieve my goals. Independence, according to me, is expressing yourself and pursuing the goals that you have set for yourself. As an athlete, expressing myself on court is very important for me.

When I was a junior, a lot of girls did not play squash. At that point, education played a very important role as something to fall back on. Though my parents were supportive of my decision to play sport, they were very clear that I had to finish my education before taking up the career that I wanted. Education remains important, but now you have people like Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal and myself showing the world that you can be World No. 1 and make a living out of the sport you play.  

Our country has definitely grown over the years, especially in connection with women’s sport. Some years ago, parents did not allow their girls to wear a tiny skirt and go on court to hit a ball. That is changing. The country has become more open to actually wanting women to go out there and play. In every sport, we have a woman ambassador and that’s good for women in the country. People are also starting to take other sports as seriously as cricket; [earlier] we lacked world champions whom we could watch on TV.

We play an individual sport… playing for your country and playing as an individual is very different. But when we put on our India T-shirt, there is no better feeling than representing your country—be it in the Commonwealth Games or the Asian Games. The high of getting a medal for India is unparalleled. Two years ago, I won in the Commonwealth Games and we bagged a gold medal for India. I have played squash for 13 years but that remains my most memorable achievement to date. Also, the sense of belonging you feel when you come to your own country is unmatched.

However, women’s safety is something we need to work on. When I go abroad, I’m literally walking around the streets doing whatever I feel like and feeling safe doing that. But here, we read stories of rape, abduction and so on every day, and it only has to do with women.  

I have also been very vocal about equal pay. I’m not saying it just for the money; I’m saying it for respect too. I think we women put in equal effort and study as much as the men, but are paid less. Over the last five years, I have fought for equal pay at the nationals and things changed this year. The women’s and men’s teams got equal prize money.

Things are changing and that’s what the new India is all about. People are no longer scared or afraid to stand up for what they think is right.

(As told to Shruti Venkatesh)  

Young Indians, and their air of independence
Image: Amit Verma

‘Freedom can only be about Indians’

If we measure what we truly value, we’re more likely to get it. Nation building is better calculated by the ability to achieve our goals, says SC advocate Karuna Nundy

Karuna Nundy, 40

Advocate, Supreme Court of India
Claim to Fame
Constitutional and commercial litigator, has won some of India’s most important cases and been involved in major human rights litigation and legal policy

As a child, I thought independence was about India and the flag. Four decades later, I know that freedom can only be about Indians.

Our histories can make grim reading, especially the parts that look like the present. In the early days of Independence, Dr BR Ambedkar resigned as law minister because he was unable to bring a progressive Hindu Code Bill. He said, “To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex, which is the soul of Hindu society... is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap.”

India’s palaces are sumptuous and tiny. In government, Parliament, the judiciary, in the upper tiers of companies, NGOs and the media, we find a reflection of our 80/20 problem: Savarna, Hindu, straight, able-bodied, privileged men ruling everybody else.

What then are the freedoms we must bring? The education and takedown of structural barriers—for women, Dalits, queer folk, adivasis and the disabled to rise and achieve this country’s highest mortal powers; the freedom for anybody from anywhere to have an idea and build it without demands for a bribe or an uncle in the ministry; the ability to speak and compete politically, so that power may hear truth.

All evidence shows, though, that human history reaches for justice. I am proud to share a country with the young women of Pinjra Tod, who bring colleges closer to the places of growth and learning they are meant to be—not a pause to preserve students’ chastity between a father’s and husband’s house. With Dalits in Gujarat who will lay down a carcass and say: “No more.” I am proud to be of a people that stays the course of the courts with little justice for Bhopal; that sends one of the lowest numbers of people to ISIS.

In everyday lives, it’s economic justice that affects most people: Food, shelter, electricity, health and education. It’s why so many middle-class folk do jobs they hate; schools and private hospitals of decent quality can be back-breakingly expensive. However, the outcomes of justice, our nation building, are measured in one of the greatest illusions: Per capita income.

If we measure what we truly value, we’re more likely to achieve it; justice and nation building is better calculated by Indians’ ability to achieve our goals. Martha Nussbaum’s ‘capabilities approach’ includes: Life, bodily health, bodily integrity, senses, imagination and thought, emotions, practical reason, affiliation, other species, play, and control over one’s environment. To this I will add, as droughts scorch us and the waters rise, a fair share in climate justice—a measure of consumption that encourages restraint by the profligate and mitigating compensation for others.

While we bring these capabilities, through our work and at home, there are times the task is tough and the world seems dark. It’s easy to be inspired and persevere when the going’s good. This is why we practise.

(This story appears in the 19 August, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)