It is customary on Women's Day to ponder over how to correct the historical disadvantage that women have been put to in most societies. And a great way to understand what companies and boards and even the law may do in India to help the cause of financial independence for women is to read the autobiography of Arundhati Bhattacharya, former chairman of the State Bank of India (SBI). The title "Indomitable", the English equivalent of the Sanskrit word "Arundhati" admirably fits Bhattacharya's struggle to balance her personal and professional life and what is even more striking here constant effort to excel at work and leave SBI stronger at the end of her career.
The book is definitely more than just a woman's struggle. It is an excellent insider's account of the struggle of many public sector bankers, tossed as they are from department to department and transferred from state to state several times in their career. Bhattacharya recounts how she fought snakes in some rural branches, repaired fuse boxes, was on the road in the Badlands of Uttar Pradesh sometimes from 4:00 AM in the morning to visit far-flung branches and returning at 2:00 am. And then before she and her family could adjust to a new city, along would come to another transfer to usually a diametrically different universe like say to the foreign exchange department of a busy branch in Kolkatta. And even as she settled in and found a nanny for her daughter, along comes another transfer order, this time to New York!
The book also breaks a lot of misconceptions people may have about the "cushy" lives of public sector bankers. Practically all her life, Bhattacharya appears to have worked 15-20 hours for SBI. Not surprisingly when she reached high enough to make decisions for the bank and for the banking sector, she ensured that the half-days of Saturday are converted to full holidays for at least two Saturdays in a month. Every working woman in India will understand how seminal this contribution of Bhattacharya is.
The book also leaves the reader with a lot of respect for State Bank. Appointment to every new department involves a lot of learning by the banker. The requirements of the treasury department are sophisticated and demanding, notes Bhattacharya even as semi-urban branches require one to understand the intricacies of the myriad small and medium enterprises that dot India's Tier 2and Tier 3 cities, while rural postings require totally different set of knowledge and skills. A State Banker's life appears to be a never-ending chain of learning. And the bank has admirably succeeded in passing on learnings by creating online modules which new entrants to a department can access and learn.
Bhattacharya's career also coincides with the bank transitioning from handwritten ledgers to computerised records to digital banking. Given the scale of SBI, each of these paradigm shifts involve massive macro planning of budgets and manpower as well as intricate attention to detail. But more importantly, the enthusiasm, the passion, and the sincerity of Bhattacharya and all her teams of bankers to overcome odds and scale new heights permeates every page. It is not common for financial sector experts and even media persons to sound dismissive of PSU bankers. A reading of this book, will for sure erase much of this prejudice. So sincere, detailed, and passionate is Bhattacharya's description of each of the milestones she and the bank set for itself and achieved.
But ultimately this book is about a woman's struggle. Bhattacharya's account of how she struggled to find good schools for her differently-abled child, how she juggled with her aged parents and bed-ridden mother-in-law and still managed to clear every interview to higher grades, is moving. Most working women professionals would be able to identify with each such struggle.
Also outstanding is Bhattacharya's command of the English language. The narration of her time in SBI (from Chapter 4 to 16) is most absorbing, almost unputdownable. Maybe she should have trimmed the first three chapters which recount her school and college days, where the pace of narration slows and the themes meander. I would blame the editors at HarperCollins for not advising Bhattacharya appropriately. The book works better as a story of a woman in SBI who rose to lead the bank.
The book clearly brings out Bhattacharya's extraordinary ability to learn and adapt to ever-changing circumstances. In fact, even after her career in SBI, she has moved to a totally different universe – she is the CEO of the India unit of the US-based technology company "Salesforce". That must have been one hell of a change after a four-decade-long career in banking!
While one wishes Bhattacharya well in her new role, one hopes she uses her constructive and sensitive approach to women's issues and her considerable clout in India Inc to change attitudes of companies and boards, and even lawmakers. CMIE's latest data shows that female participation in the labour force in urban India is as low as 7.2 percent versus 64.8 percent for men. I don’t have ready data for the number of women who drop out of work after they bear children, but this wide chasm between male and female employment may well have much to do with companies not co-operating enough to let a woman balance her personal and professional lives, especially when she is a young mother. I would exhort more men in high positions to read Bhattacharya's story so they understand the pain of women employees when they become young mothers. I also hope more young women read her book to understand how tenaciously she overcame some severe odds and went on to be named one of the five most powerful women in the country, as she states with justifiable pride.
First Published: IST