Bengali Women

TO define the role of Bengali women, we should first explore two concepts: Shakti and Anchal. Shakti is the concept or personification of divine feminine creative power, sometimes referred to as 'The Great Divine Mother' in Hinduism.
• As the Divine Mother, she is known as Adishakti.
• On the earthly plane, Shakti most actively manifests through female embodiment and creativity/fertility.

In Bengal and across most of Eastern India, women are respected and recognised as the embodiment of Shakti. She empowers and completes her husband's destiny in this life. Besides being the custodian, protagonist and catalyst of the household. She also bears and rears/raises the children who will continue the lineage.

The end portion of the sari slung over the shoulder is called the Anchal. It is not just a part of her clothing. In effect, the anchal is a concept which defines her authority as custodian and protagonist of the household.

The Anchal is:
• where she ties the bunch of keys: of the house, the almirahs, the safe where money and jewels are stored, the entrance/main door and the puja-room;
• where her children come and cry or hide their face seeking relief and security;
• what she pulls over her head as a ghomta (hood) to show respect when standing in front of elders; and
• what she uses to wipe the sweat off her husband's brow when he returns from tilling the fields or other work.

Novelist Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (author of novels like Parineeta, Grihadaha and Devdas) portrayed Bengali women as strong, motivated characters, with pleasing demeanor on the outside but possessing steel-like inner confidence and unrivalled mental strength to weather all storms and protect the family.

A] First generation (1910 to 1946): Homemakers and silent motivators
The first generation of Bengali women who accompanied their husbands from British India to Malaysia largely emulated Sarat Chandra's female characters.
a) Besides holding the house keys they functioned as the silent protagonists who helped create the foundation plus initial development of a cohesive community;
b) Caring for their children, husband, families in a new land, adapting and adjusting over time;
c) Nurturing and developing close relationships as they welcomed and helped new arrivals, inducting them to life in Malaysia. They facilitated the building of the early Bengali community in Malaysia; inter alia ...
d) Providing hospitality during term time to children whose families lived in rural areas and had little access to urban schools.
e) Encouraging cultural bonds and identity building through language, songs and dances;
f) Bengali women in Malaysia continued to transmit and sustain cultural traditions and the traditional societal mores (samajik riti-niti).
g) Stay-at-home women, during this early period connected with neighbours, building bridges and positive relationships with other ethnic groups.
h) Such initiatives accelerated their families' connectivity and empathy with other local communities. This also accelerated the integration process of Bengali families, including their affinity and acceptance of a Malaysian identity.
i) But in their hearts their primary allegiance remained with India.
j) Back in the sub-continent, during the 20s to mid 40s, undivided Bengal and Punjab states generated maximum recruitment for revolutionary groups seeking freedom from British rule.
k)Most Bengali women (without any hesitation) gladly offered their most precious possessions, their sons and daughters, to the cause of their motherland when Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose demanded "..Give me blood and I will give you freedom".

To form the Indian National Army (INA) with Japanese support, Subhas Chandra Bose, convinced Indian (British Army) soldiers in POW camps to commit to the cause of fighting for Indian independence.

His stirring, motivating speeches also generated extensive support from the Bengali, Sikh, Sindhi, Tamil, Rajput and other Indian ethnic population residing in Malaya, Singapore and Burma.
• Bengali and Sikh Punjabi women particularly leveraged their wider connectivity to generate more emphatic response from other sub-continental ethnic groups.
• They never "lost sight of the allegiance due to their native" homeland, "ever remembering that nature had implanted in their breast, a sacred and indissoluble attachment towards that country whence they derived their birth and infant nurture".

B] Second generation (1946 to 1976) Dual role: home-makers and partial income contributors
a) Locally born Bengali women now got married and became mothers;
b) Imported wives brought to Malaysia from around the mid 60s were highly educated with graduate and post graduate qualifications. But these ladies continued the traditional distaff roles cooking, home-making and teaching the Bengali language and culture to the next generation.
c) Spouses still demanded that wives and mothers should primarily remain home-makers, despite better basic education compared to women in other communities.
• However, their superior education facilitated more efficient transfer of the Bengali language, alphabets, reading writing skills, connectivity with literature.
• Speaking with Samrat and Sucheta Sengupta, one notices how much time and effort their late mother Shibani had invested towards this task.
• These mothers increasingly insisted that their daughters/ younger Bengali women, should pursue college/tertiary education, most particularly in teacher training colleges, medicine and nursing;
• Plus they positively influenced the mindset in the community.
d) Simultaneous command of English and Bahasa Malaysia generated better placement in positions of demand, particularly secretarial and clerical appointments on completion of secondary schooling.
e) Constituting only a micro-segment of the minority Indian community, Bengalis were almost powerless in national politics and government, and generally did not receive government financial awards and scholarships.
f) But Bengalis are unable to burke their reverence for higher education.
• Parents gradually acquired the confidence to send their daughters abroad, particularly for medical studies.
• Bengali mothers (and their spouses) started sending bright daughters like Dr Madhuri Majumdar and Dr Taposi Choudhury to medical colleges in Calcutta.
g) Tightening of local employment market encouraged the better qualified women to move abroad leveraging both career opportunities and marriage.
h) Earlier generation of employed Bengali women, like elsewhere in the world, faced difficulties as they straddled the fine balance between work and home-making commitments.

C] Third generation (1976 to 2006): Emerging as parallel achievers
i) Around this time, qualified medical professionals like Dr Esha Sinha-Roy (nee Dasgupta) married into local families, but maintained their professional career ambitions.
j) Those joining government service as well as private sector career paths, did well till they reached the "proverbial glass ceiling", but they learned to compromise aspirations, as they accepted the community's lack of political and societal clout.
k) Highly qualified locally-born daughters like Dr Hena Mukherjee became inspirational role models for the third and fourth generation of Bengali women.
l) Number of DINKs (double income no kids during the first five to seven years of marriage) increased.
m) Loss of Bengali talent increased, as qualified professionals increasingly sought better and equal opportunity environments.
n) However, as education standards in Malaysia dipped, those with only local education and experience found their competitive edge weakening.
• Positive minded, ambitious professionals found ways to acquire better knowledge and skills;
• Alternately, another group sought refuge in that fallacious "this is Malaysia" concept. Lack of local competition permitted them to survive, till ambushed by more educated and enterprising younger generations and foreign talent.

D] Fourth generation (2006 onwards): Ambitious careers and empowerment
a) Increasing number of nuclear families and economic necessities nowadays demand a double-income family. Employment for Malaysian Bengali women is now a firmly expected principle.
b) But thorny issues persist, since even 21st century spouses convey imperceptible unwritten expectations that women should manage both home and work, with a slightly higher leaning towards home-making and children. Affordability of foreign maids is providing a partial solution.
c) However, even single women like Subarna Paul, are finding it difficult to balance work commitments with the task of caring for an aging, widowed mother.
d) Confidence in pursuing ambitious careers even in the government or NGO sector has increased among Malaysian Bengali women:

Case 1: Payal Choudhury, a third generation Malaysian Bengali, joined the civil service as a pharmacist (after graduation) and is currently employed at Klinik Kesihatan Seremban. She was awarded Anugerah Perkhidmatan Cemerlang (Excellence Service Award) in 2015 by the Negri Sembilan State Government.
• Despite obstacles encountered, she intends to continue in government service, quietly confident about overcoming all hurdles.

Case 2: Malaysia-born Seema Sengupta who was educated in Gokhale College (Calcutta) has established an enviable track record. She has worked in dozens of countries and will shortly be moving from Nairobi (Kenya) to take charge as the new deputy representative for UNICEF in Bangladesh.
• Incidentally, her father Mihir Ranjan Sengupta had been associated with St John's Ambulance for several decades.

Case 3: Veteran academician, Dr Hena Mukherjee, is a Harvard-trained educator with enviable working experience as the "lead education specialist" for South Asia, for World Bank (in Washington DC) and earlier at the Commonwealth Secretariat, London as chief education programme officer.

Dr Hena Mukherjee shared several meaningful insights regarding the most practical way forward for Bengali women in Malaysia, despite the hurdles and constraints encountered.
1) Increased knowledge and better understanding of this (little known) Bengali community in Malaysia is required.
2) While it has spawned well qualified and focused women at work, Bengalis need to understand the importance of visibility and improve their profiles by volunteering for committees at work and increased participation in the decision making process. Women need to understand the importance of visibility and work on uplifting their profiles by volunteering for committees at work, increase profile in decision-making processes and overall increase levels of participation;
3) Acquire better understanding of institutional and governance structures in order to make them work for women and work towards increased acceptance of suggestions and proposals;
4) Access mentors where necessary and available;
5) Provide mentoring for the younger generations when required and become their role models.
6) Bengali women should not become apprehensive about glass-ceilings but be determined to experience a graceful ascent based on choice, character, commitment, creativity and circumstances.
7) Considering the:
▶ Bengali focus on achievement, academic degrees, technical and professional skills etc, and
▶ that most students/trainees are self-sponsored implying low unit costs for investment by government agencies in training,
▶ the potential of Bengali women’s participation in high-level occupations under the government’s 30% gender policy is strong and must be encouraged.

Leveraging this writer's own experience in the global and local arena, he is keen to add these six observations:
1) While the jobs may be based in KL/PJ, Penang or Johor, one must accept the verity that most of your clients, competitors are regional or global players. So one must be able to review/measure the product delivery and skills sets against international, competitive standards. Without foisting that myopic "this is Malaysia" anathema.
2) This is the Malaysian way, this is how we do things here in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, etc is a myth. There is only a professional way or unprofessional way, allowing for marginal societal, behavioural and situational adjustments.
3) Communication and presentation skills are relatively weak.
4) Barring a few exceptions, one notices an unfortunate divide or disconnect between Malaysian-born Bengalis and expatriate Bengalis.
• Both for career growth and for increasing the MBA base/goodwill, one needs to reduce this "us and them" hubris.
5) Most expatriates, especially those working in FMCG marketing, advertising, media, communications, marketing research and high-tech sectors are international professionals with a substantial corpus of experience. They have encountered and transcended multiple hurdles, including racism, hard competition and complex office politics nuances. They are at least 30% to 50% ahead of the best local persons in their field, else they would not be posted here.
• One should try to tap into their wider experience and knowledge.
6) Managing one's career requires determination and careful strategic planning with a mix of short-term and mid-term goals. Besides a targeted vision and the patience or attitude of Sunil Gavaskar or Rahul Dravid.
• Except for rare, appropriate, short-term tactical needs, the T20 cricket approach is akin to career suicide.