In this episode, Shruti talks with Shrayana Bhattacharya about her book, “Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence.” They discuss the symbolic resonance of Indian film star Shah Rukh Khan, women’s changing social and economic status in India, the importance of supportive communities of women, Delhi as a city in transition, and much more. Bhattacharya is an economist in the World Bank’s Social Protection and Labour Unit for South Asia. Her research interests include urban bureaucracy, social protection and informality. She completed her postgraduate education in public administration and economics from Harvard University.
SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan. Today my guest is Shrayana Bhattacharya, a development economist working on labor policy and social protection, about her book, “Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence.”
We talk the entanglement of love, labor and longing of women in post-liberalized India, structural transformation in the economy, women being left out of the gains from liberalization, about Delhi dinner parties and of course Shah Rukh Khan and his movies.
For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit mercatus.org/podcasts.
Hi, Shrayana. This is a very long-due conversation. Welcome to the show. I’m so thrilled that you’re here.
SHRAYANA BHATTACHARYA: Shruti, I think we have waited two decades to have this conversation. I’m so thrilled to be here and to be talking to you, and you’ve played a very special role, at least in my life. I’ve known you a very long time. I’m really happy to be here talking to you about the book. Thanks for inviting me.
‘Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh’
RAJAGOPALAN: Before I get into the book, maybe eight or nine months ago, when you announced the title of the book on social media and you were putting out the cover and things like that, I remembered an event from many, many, many years ago. This is a small Delhi dinner party—which we will get to in a bit, the nature of small Delhi dinner parties, but it wasn’t one of those. It was a small thing that one of our common friends had arranged to say goodbye to me before I left India to go on to do my master’s and Ph.D. You had come back to town just a couple of days before that from fieldwork in Jharkhand and Bihar and thereabouts.
I don’t remember the exact project, but you were sharing the stories of these women. And because the housekeeper who used to work in our home at that time was from this region, and you knew her really well—her name is Nimmi—and you were telling me that you met many, many people like Nimmi, and they also loved Shah Rukh—and how you broke the ice with them, and they all loved Hindi movies. They love watching TV ads, and this is like this post-liberalization miracle. You were telling us all these stories. And I remember this as if it were yesterday, but this was in September 2007. You said, “One day, if I ever write a book about this, I’m going to call it ‘Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh.’”
RAJAGOPALAN: Then cut to 2021 or whatever year we’re in. I don’t even know that.
BHATTACHARYA: 2022, yes.
RAJAGOPALAN: I see. Now we’re in 2022, but six or seven months ago, I see this post, and I’m like, “Holy crap. That really turned out to be the name of the book.” Now I’m holding it in my hands. I thought we’ll start with this story because one of the reasons for our friendship, among many other things . . . most people think it’s nerding out over economics, but it’s also Shah Rukh somewhere at the back.
BHATTACHARYA: Yes, and our joint frustration with a certain kind of male who is never Shah Rukh. You and I have had too many conversations when we were in college complaining and moaning. But, Shruti, one thing I will say is that I think I had the title before I even had the book in my mind. You’re right. That’s what you were saying. I think around that time, it was between 2006 to 2007 that the idea—these conversations were happening, the idea was germinating.
I was certainly trying to put together diligent notes and just set up the framework to follow up on some people’s lives, but I knew that I wanted to call the book “Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh.” If there’s one thing—the book has changed so much in its form, what it was supposed to be, what it became. If somebody had said to me that I would spend 15 years, or more than a decade, following a set of women, I would’ve said, “Get out of here. That’s impossible.” But I did. I never thought I would do it.
Throughout, the one thing that has never changed is, it was always going to be called “Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh.” It’s now a reality. Now when people look at the title, of course, I think some people get confused because then they think, “Well, is it fanfiction?” I recently joined Twitter, and I think I’m going to be somewhat utilitarian in the way I will use Twitter, which is I’m only on while the book is in a certain set of—it’s in a phase. Then I am quite reticent, as you know, I think on social media, certainly. I joined Twitter around the time—in fact, eight months ago in March 2021—when we were going to announce the book.
I remember when the first article—it was an excerpt or something from the book—came out, I saw some gentleman who actually sent me a message saying, “Oh, this was such a relief because I thought this would be fanfiction for Shah Rukh Khan.” I said, “No, I do write fanfiction for Shah Rukh, but that is for me. That’s completely private. I’m not sharing that ever.” The title was a combination obviously of “Desperately Seeking Susan,” and also the fact that there are actually small pocket books, like there’s a “Desperately Seeking Bowie” and there’s a “Desperately Seeking—” which you can find in museums, I think, across the world.
I think the more I heard the stories, honestly, Shruti, the fact that all the women in the book and myself included—and there’s an entire generation of women who is seeking, well, one, a masculine ideal that doesn’t exist. So there is a desperation in that. Freedom, which is also a desperate struggle for freedom, a desperate struggle for money, a desperate struggle to just have a space of your own.
I think the idea of “Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh”—I realized Shah Rukh in the book in that title is a metaphor for markets, money, freedom. And each time I had a conversation with someone for the book, the charge that that title had just grew in my mind and in my heart as well. In fact, the one thing that was never edited and never negotiated was that title. And you’re right, it was around that time, 2006, 2007, when we all knew each other, that that idea came to be.
RAJAGOPALAN: The thing I really love is the book—at the core of it, this is a book about big questions of structural transformation, the way I think about it as an economist. I think what you’ve zeroed in on is the love and longing in labor. Structural transformation is fundamentally a question about how people spend their time, whether it’s a labor-leisure tradeoff or a labor-income tradeoff. Women, historically, because of female seclusion, because of caste and sexual purity—you know every single one of these arguments, it’s all in the book—have had their lives minimized in a way where their labor, love and longing is all wrapped into one individual or one family.
One of the things that’s happened post-1990, which is also the structural transformation taking place in India and also the rise of Shah Rukh, is that women’s lives—at least the promise was that it won’t be so circumscribed and that now our love, our labor and our longing can pursue different avenues. They don’t have to all zero in on the man. That’s how I see the book. Is this overreaching?
BHATTACHARYA: No. I had a very simple task. And actually, it’s simple, but I realize it’s very difficult to do, which is—I knew as a social science student, as someone who had studied economics, has studied gender, has studied bits of anthropology. And you know me; I’ve been very confused about, am I an economist? Do I want to study anthropology, sociology? What do I want to do? I’ve always never really had a disciplinary home per se.
I knew all the changes that were happening in our society because I read literature, I read journalism, I was out in the world. As a person in the world, you will notice these changes. But I wanted to tell a very simple story of, well, how do ordinary people—and not just the poor or the working class, but even people like me or my friends or people in different class groups, women in particular—how have they experienced those changes now?
I think when you say structural transformation, that’s exactly what that is. What has liberalization felt like for you? For me, the emphasis in the book is on felt. The book starts—the first page, as you’ve seen, is a graph of female labor force participation rates. We know those numbers, and we know it’s telling us something as economists, certainly, and even sociologists or demographers. It’s telling us something about exactly, as you said, the way women have spent their time and their labor and their energies. But what I really wanted to tell a story of as well was, there are also emotions that they have spent. There are emotions that have been consumed, that those numbers hold a lot of sentiment.
I think you and I will agree that the best writing on the economy has always captured sentiments. And I really wanted to tell people a story of, when the Indian economy has transformed the way it has transformed in Indian society, the economy as a subset of society shaped by both, what has that felt like? That’s a very messy process, but to me, honestly, it was just that simple task. I just wanted to tell a story, that if I followed these 10 women over a course of a decade, as our economy and our society are changing, how are they experiencing it in their personal lives?
Shah Rukh just happened to be—because he is a post-liberalization icon and his star is also very much a product—and it captures, Shruti, the story of exactly that structural transformation. It’s really interesting to me. He’s a star who studied all the institutions that Nehruvian India created, and then he capitalized on everything Manmohan Singh’s India offered via technology, the economy, consumer economy, all the options that were suddenly available.
I realized that if I wanted to tell this very simple story—if I just wanted to take on this simple task of what have the past 30 years felt like for a subset of women—in him, I found this completely surprising research tool. Because through the use of him, because of the sentiments that he captures as well and the longing that he captures, I realized that this was suddenly a way where even me or you, or so many women I know, would just open up about what they thought about men, what they thought about their time, how it was difficult for them to even follow an actor that they loved.
I don’t think it’s overreach, what you’re saying. But to me it was, I had to set myself a very simple task, which is these women are experiencing our economy and our society. And I just simply want to convey a set of sentiments that those statistics that I know very well are conveying.
I wanted to tell the story. I didn’t want to enter their lives through the statistics; I wanted to enter the lives through fandom. Yes, it is a story of structural transformation, and it is a story of the sentiments that that structural transformation has evoked, has curtailed the frustrations that are involved and the loneliness, which is why it’s “India’s lonely young women.” Because one of the arguments I make in the book is that there is a tremendous loneliness that this process has also created, both for the good and for the bad.
It was challenging to do, but I was very committed to doing it because, as you know, I’m very committed to telling messy stories, and I’m very committed to my fandom, so both.
Shah Rukh as the Symbol of an Ideal
RAJAGOPALAN: Aside from fandom—instead of Shah Rukh, it could have been some other cultural icon. It could have been art. It could have been the “K Saas-Bahu” TV series. It could have been a series of ads; it could have been R.K. Laxman cartoons. It could have been many things, but the one thing I find quite remarkable about the time period that you’re studying, especially with Shah Rukh, is we all feel like we know him. In fact, I would go so far to say that you and I are the crazy people who have spent hard-earned pocket money to watch something awful like “Guddu.”
BHATTACHARYA: No, it’s not awful. [crosstalk]
RAJAGOPALAN: Even as a Shah Rukh fan, I would say maybe “Guddu” and “English Babu Desi Mem”—these movies are really better left alone.
BHATTACHARYA: I have to say, “English Babu Desi Mem” is just—I mean, what a story. An NRI [nonresident Indian]—it’s hilarious because the film he did before was “D.D.L.J.,” I think, and the NRI falls for this wonderful—it was the right match, he was an NRI as well, we have shared experiences. Here we have an NRI who—I think there was some parody on him basically owning a Mayur suiting company—he shows up to Bombay and decides to fall in love with a bar dancer. It’s quite subversive, but he was also just—it’s him at his comedic best as well, because he’s really funny.
RAJAGOPALAN: You never quite feel for any of them. I just thought the movie terrible. Even in those days, when I had no discerning eye and my love for Shah Rukh was at an all-time high post-“D.D.L.J.,” I was like, “Okay, this is not very good.” But to go back to Shah Rukh, thanks to telecom liberalization and the explosion of cable TV in India and the explosion of advertising and consumer goods, everyone feels like they know him, which I’m sure none of us do. But there is something quite interesting in him as a research tool, as opposed to any of the other cultural icons, which is he’s known, he feels like a fundamentally decent man.
Someone who works hard, someone who has done well for himself, someone who treats his colleagues with respect, someone who loves his wife and loves his children. At the core of the longing and desperation that you’re talking about, aside from everything else, this is something that just keeps coming up in each of the stories of all these women. At the end of the day, what they really want is being treated with some parity—whatever their socioeconomic or caste or class circumstances—by a fundamentally decent man. When you lay it bare like that, it doesn’t seem like a tall ask, but it is impossible to find.
BHATTACHARYA: Yes, I’ll say two things on this. I think he has captured—and I think this actually requires talent. And not enough is often said about the fact that to convey what you are calling decency—and some would call a vulnerable masculinity or a progressive masculinity; there are different phrases people use for those set of attributes—it requires tremendous talent and conviction to portray that in an open-hearted way. And it’s rather remarkable that as an icon he’s been able to do that. We have to take a minute to acknowledge that.
I don’t think it’s easy to open yourself up like that, and he has. I think because of that masculine model that he represents—it came at a time when a whole generation of women suddenly, because of the structural transformation in the economy, suddenly, because of the images that they were being bombarded with, which they hadn’t seen before. Suddenly, they were able to go to primary school; suddenly they were vaccinated. There were all these things—there were highways. And they suddenly realized that this aspiration for this new masculine ideal was not some impossible ask; it was actually something that they could expect.
There’s a chapter in the book at the very end where, in a way, I’m trying to give the reader a rather simple survey of what’s happened to women in the country. It’s called an “Equilibrium of Silly Expectations.” The reason I say that is because I think, in a way, what he’s done is he has really pushed women’s expectations. I think it’s a mutually enforcing interaction. It’s not that he has shaped it. I think women were ready for their expectations to be enhanced and strengthened and bolstered, and he essentially is a great conduit for that on screen.
As a consequence, women, we have an entire generation of women—and you and I are part of the generation, Shruti—who expect much more from men, expect much more from marriage, expect much more from society. Our expectations are significantly higher. The language of settling and adjusting, we will call it settling and adjusting. So many of the women in the book—across class—they’ve said to me, “My standards are as high as Shah Rukh.”
And what are they saying when they’re saying that? They’re saying that “I’m not going to sacrifice my romantic expectations and agency,” and that’s quite remarkable given we are still in a country where arranged marriage, and a kind of arranged marriage, tends to dominate the market. I think part of the story there is expectations. I think that he, in a way, is a metaphor for this boom in women’s expectations. I really believe this, across class groups. This is something I noticed, irrespective of which socioeconomic circumstance you come from.
The second, I think we have to take a step back and give credit to the films that were made that he chose to be part of, which is that I measure very crudely—and I hope people will do this in a much more rigorous way than I did—which is I measured how much women speak and the number of female characters in his movies, and it’s just very apparent. I think intuitively we knew this, but I measured it just to test my intuition and the instincts.
It’s not surprising women speak more in his films. He plays characters, and he’s in stories, where women and men are trying to understand each other. They engage with each other much more. I think part of the story around what you said—decency, the words “izzat,” “tameez,” respect—these are words that kept coming up across the book, irrespective of who you spoke to—the way he speaks to women.
I think a lot of that has to do with the films that he was a part of, the people who wrote them, the people who directed them, his co-stars, certainly. It’s 30 years of a career. It’s 30 years since liberalization. It is interesting that if you look at the movies that he has made, even until now, like you look at “Zero,” which was his last film, Shruti. He is playing a narcissistic dwarf who is really upset that he is dwarfed by the status and accomplishments of the women that he’s falling for. [crosstalk]
RAJAGOPALAN: Quite literally.
BHATTACHARYA: Yes, exactly. I say this in the book, he’s capturing that in every possible way. I think, for a man to play that kind of role, to be in that kind of movie, I think it really requires a kind of talent and interest in exploring different facets of the masculine, which I think he’s always been doing. I think the story behind that decency and the fact that everybody is saying, “I want a man who will support me, will support me to work, will support me to rest, will just treat me as a person, just a regular person.”
I think we do have a culture—and sadly, I think it still exists. It doesn’t matter how elite the circles are. You were joking about dinner parties; I see it everywhere—which is, I think we have a culture where I think a lot of men, sadly—and I don’t really know why this still sustains. I have lots of theories, but I don’t really have a lot of evidence as to why. I’ve noticed that you have a generation of men who either treat women as—they desire them or they fear them.
It’s really difficult, I think, for a large set of men in our culture—I’m not saying all men, but many men in our culture—to engage with women, to listen. I think he represents a masculine ideal which does engage, which does listen, because of, I think, the movies he made and also the expectations that—I think women’s expectations, because of the economy, were set to explode, and he is the right foil for that. I think that is a theme that runs through the book.
Not Everything Glitters for Gold
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to zoom away from the abstraction of Shah Rukh and zoom into the lives of the women. My favorite story in the book was Gold, because I don’t have a Gold in my life but I feel like I know her. I feel like when I meet her, I will instantly know what she’s about, and I will both have some sorority with her but also judge her a little bit.
To me, she is the prototype of structural transformation, right? In one sense, she has literally flown; she’s an air hostess. Even as a metaphor, what she decided to do with her life works really well. She has used all the skills that she has, which is to be in the service and hospitality industry. It’s not easy; you need to be clever, and you need to be quick on your feet. You need to be able to speak well, deal with people well. You need to be really beautiful.
Now, technically, she’s unfettered, unlike women in India. She can literally fly. At the same time, it’s the same anxiety and the same burden and the same lack of agency and parity which holds her back. To me, her story spoke so much to me because it’s almost like she’s the prototype for what was promised to us as women in the early ’90s, and what didn’t come through and what did.
BHATTACHARYA: Yes. In fact, so many people have messaged me saying that that was the one chapter where they cried proper tears. I think part of it is because she and I—we continue to be close. I think we were speaking to each other at a time which was also very difficult for both of us. I think we were both in this rut.
To me, she’s a fascinating story of two things. One is actually the jobs that were offered to her. You’re absolutely right; they came because of that structural transformation. Aviation changed. The codes and rules around aviation changed. Suddenly you had all these private airlines. Suddenly all these jobs got created, right? These jobs—and I get into details in the book—these jobs needed people to come in who would be migrants moving in from other parts and would be mobile populations and mobile workers.
What’s fascinating to me is if you look at the history of women in aviation—while India does have actually the largest share of [female] pilots in the world, and we’re so proud of that statistic, and we should be; it is quite remarkable. At the same time, if you look at the history of women who’ve been cabin crew and the legal history of just being able to gain some weight, have a child, be over 35 and have a job . . .
The sector that she works in, which is so—it is one of the most heavily female sectors in terms of jobs, but it also is so instructive in teaching us how much struggle women continue to have to make for basic freedoms, like going over 35 and having a job. That was actually something that we had to fight for. I think she’s working in that environment, and she comes into the sector in the mid-2000s where things are changing.
She works for an airline which is an excellent recruiter. You’re absolutely right—I say in the book she’s very proud about this. She is very proud about this, which is that she was the first person in her family to fly. No one had ever been on an aircraft before her. And she’s a runaway, Shruti. I mean, she ran away to take this job, which is fascinating because if—and I quote some of the work that some journalists have done on the early history of aviation.
Some of the earliest women who were working in cabin crew for, at that time, Air India and Indian Airlines would typically be non-Hindu women. And many of the Hindu women who would work, many would run away. It’s changed a lot. It’s a large sector.
Not everyone who’s working there think—there are different reasons why they’re there. And families are very supportive of these jobs now, but Gold is a runaway. She runs away because her family will never appreciate her, accept her for who she is, and she runs away. She flies, you’re absolutely right. She flies not only literally, but also there’s a metaphor there of her just running from conformity and arranged marriage in a small town. Then she flies, but she’s so lonely in the flight.
She’s lonely when she watches families flying together, and I described that in the book. She’s lonely when she explores a relationship with a Frenchman. I’ve met this group that she was interacting with. It’s just fascinating to me the way she would observe and report some of the expat community in Delhi of a certain time. Jungpura Extension, I think, at a point of time was Paris Extension, if I’m not mistaken. There were so many French people who were living there. I think that’s changed now.
It was interesting to hear her observations on these communities. She then tries to explore love in an environment which her family couldn’t even have imagined. This is a set of people from countries whose language she doesn’t speak, and yet it’s actually the fact that she’s lonely even in those adventures, but she’s still having them. I think she says—I’m not going to give it away for the reader; the reader should read to see whether she has a happy ending, but it is amazing to me.
She will always say to me that “I left my family because I thought I didn’t want to marry who my parents chose, but now I’m struggling to find someone who will marry me for me.” Yet she relishes that. In a way, she’s willing. I say this in the book, that so many of the women in the book—and Gold is a very particular experience of this—which is that they were willing to endure the taxes, the nonsense that came with navigating freedom because with freedom comes—there are taxes; there is accountability.
She herself says, “I cannot be protected the way my sister, who’s chosen an arranged marriage in Rajasthan, will be protected by her family.” She is on her own. She loves being on her own, but there are pitfalls to that as well. She’s willing to endure—be it abortions, be it terrible boyfriends, be it extremely abusive relationships in some cases—but she is willing to put up with that because that is the price for freedom for her. That is a freedom that has come about because of her job, because she was able to leave.
One of the things I was very keen in the book, Shruti—and I’ll close on this—is that when we talk about the labor market, often we don’t realize how much the labor market is tied up also with all these feelings of loneliness, love, sexual rejection. One of the things that chapter really brought through for me—as I sat back and just listened to everything she’d said to me over a very long period of time—I realize her case is one of those where you realize that while the job opens up and there’s freedom, she’s still constantly struggling to be free in an odd way.
And I think it’s a really beautiful story of how a young person who negotiates a completely different equilibrium for herself—not at all one that her family would’ve ever imagined for her. I think that is actually the promise that was made to us. She’s able to make something of that promise, but I think it leads a lot to be desired. I think her story is one of that.
RAJAGOPALAN: Also, you start that chapter talking about the incredible inequality both in legal structure norms, how men and women have been hired in the aviation industry, cabin crew, and only pilots in some sense have parity because they’re judged by very objective measures of how many hours they fly and the levels at which they fly and things like that. Now, the other reason I think that Gold’s story spoke so much, or at least touched me in such a specific way, is if she had been a man, she would’ve been celebrated, right?
BHATTACHARYA: Yes. Of course.
RAJAGOPALAN: If it had been Gold’s brother who had run away from home, or just decided to have a little squabble with the family and say, “I’m not going to join the family profession. I’m going to go away, and I’m going to take this big job, and it’s going to pay me really well.” The moment he had converted that opportunity into a job, he would’ve come home, a royal welcome would’ve been given, and 20 women who were acceptable to the family and acceptable to him would’ve been lined up. And he would’ve never had to make that tradeoff between being anchored to your family and being close to them and also being allowed to fly and pursue opportunities in the labor market.
To me, that chapter really—I got into it. And when I was leaving it, I was like, “Oh, this is the crux of it.” The crux is not just that the opportunities don’t exist or they don’t present themselves equally to all women in India, which we know they don’t. We’re at an all-time low in terms of labor force participation. There’s a huge wage gap. So much of women’s labor goes uncounted, both within the household and in GDP and national statistics and so on. So we think that’s why the problem is that the jobs don’t exist. And then the moment I got to Gold’s chapter, I was like, “Oh, even when the jobs exist—
BHATTACHARYA: Yes, exactly.
RAJAGOPALAN: —there is no happy ending.” I spoke to Alice Evans about this. By the way, you should get to know her. Alice and I have been chatting about your book offline. She heard your podcasts with our good friends Amit [Varma] and Milan [Vaishnav], and we’ve been messaging back and forth, and she’s so excited. And she’s also a Shah Rukh fan.
BHATTACHARYA: I’m happy to hear that.
RAJAGOPALAN: When she came on the podcast, we were talking about this, the honor-income tradeoff, that women—the moment the family gets a little bit richer—stay at home. It’s either at very low levels of income where you’re on really the awful end of that tradeoff that you allow women to work, or at the higher ends where your honor is not associated with your labor, to some extent, or the woman working that this works. For women to be able to work in India, one of the things we were talking about is that the structural transformation needs to promise a much higher wage to be able to get women out of their home, relative to men.
Now, when I look at your narration of Gold’s story—not just the individual; I can imagine hundreds of thousands of women who are in her position—that tradeoff. It’s not going anywhere in our society. What is a good way to think about that? If we abstract away from Gold’s story and you put your hat on as someone who’s a development economist, who works in social protection, her story is one of loss of social protection. Though it is more family, it’s not the loss of government benefits or something like that. It is a loss of a particular social protection, and she’s traded that off for freedom and a better job and the opportunity to access a world that would’ve never been available to her. But what’s a good way to think about that tradeoff today?
BHATTACHARYA: I think a couple of things, Shruti. I fundamentally believe—and this is one message I’m trying to convey through the book, which is we have to stop thinking that the solutions to the problem that women are facing—and I think this might actually be true for other marginalized communities who are having a rough time in the labor market in terms of wages and work—I think we have to stop thinking that the solution is only going to be what we tend to call either demand-side factors of let’s get sectors to . . .
Actually, I’m a strong believer in affirmative action for women when it comes to jobs, particularly certain kinds of jobs. I think something dramatic needs to happen, but even demand-side factors or looking at improving supply-side factors to transport vouchers, incentives for families, all of those issues.
My sense is that none of that will work unless we have what I call in the book “intimate revolutions.” That essentially so much of women’s labor market decision-making is—we know it’s a joint decision. It’s the family that makes the decision, and what I’m learning is at an extremely high wage level, sure, the individual becomes relevant. And then the individual decides to deviate and fight the joint structure of that decision. I think there’s recently work out as well that seems to suggest this. I forget the name of the scholar.
My sense is that that only works for a very small pool of people, and I’m almost thinking of bankers or a certain wage level which is remarkably high. There are cases of that, by the way, in the book: women who will deviate from family structures because the gains are just too high to not fight. But my argument there is that given that higher premium is not really possible for most of the economy, just knowing the way the labor market is structured, I think we have to really think very carefully about policies that attack the work that women are currently doing. Let’s start with that.
The Reality of ‘Women’s Work’
BHATTACHARYA: I think what’s happening is, in the way we design labor market policies, there is almost no acknowledgement of what the real state of women’s work is. I think there’s a very aspirational dialogue there that, “Oh, we want all women to be pilots.” I’m going to be cute about it in the way I’ll frame it, but it’s almost like we want to believe we want all women to be pilots, but we forget most women are service staff.
What I’m using that as an example to suggest is that if you look at the language and rhetoric around women’s employment, we want everyone to be engineers and economists and bankers—which is great; I am all for that. As you know, in the book I really get into details on how women have been labor market lightweights, and it’s high time—I completely support that push.
But what about the actual work that women are doing? 64% of women are in home-based manufacturing. There is no program right now, Shruti, none, that actually acknowledges their wage rates. There is no regulation on their wage rates. The garment sector, which is home-based, or the tobacco sector, which is home-based work—in a few states there are regulations, but they’re barely implemented. It’s all lip service and really not credible. I think it’s high time our employment policies for women acknowledge the home as a workplace, while all the other programs are going on.
I’m not saying—please, the skills programs, the demand-side initiatives, all of that is extremely welcome. Affirmative action is extremely welcome. But I do think we have to acknowledge where women are currently working. Domestic work—India has yet to ratify any ILO conventions on regulating domestic workers. I am not saying that then these are the jobs that women should always be in. Absolutely not, but if you don’t pay them enough in the current jobs, and if their well-being in their current jobs is not strong, how then will they intergenerationally pass on to the next generation of girls that desire to want to do more
And one of the stories you see in the book is when women earn and they’re earning and feeling really stable, the next generation of young women, and even young men, start to take up more risk in their job choices and their career choices because they aspire for more. If we believe in this intergenerational transmission of aspiration and ambition, which my sense is it does exist—it’s true for us, Shruti, as well. It’s true for anyone.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. Look at our mothers.
BHATTACHARYA: Exactly. The reason we are different is also because our parents then were able to—they were far more economically stable than even the generation before us. I think the first thing that really needs to happen is we have to acknowledge the home as a workplace, regulate domestic work, acknowledge the realities of women’s work, as opposed to being in this aspirational trap where we want everyone to be pilots. But we forget that most women are in the handloom sector, and we don’t talk enough about where women’s work currently is. So that’s one.
I think the second is that if we start to believe that, even with the best technocratic innovations and the best jobs, women have to constantly fight and negotiate around care work and with families—because I have this line in the book, “Men earn money and women earn love.” That’s the structure right now of our economy. That is actually the unsaid structure of our economy. If women feel that they want to pursue professional ambitions, often they feel that they’re forsaking love. I think the stories in the book are examples of that. How do we make sure their families don’t tax their women for pursuing professional ambitions? Perhaps some of the things we can do to ease the domestic drudgery is let’s subsidize care work in a way that domestic appliances . . .
One of the domestic workers who I follow in the book says, “I wish everyone got an electric kettle for free.” Why not? I actually think this is true. How much time women spend heating up water in all kinds of places? Given that now electrification has become a big agenda item, and credibly so—I think credit to governments over successive periods of time—why don’t we think about subsidizing domestic appliances? Why don’t we think about easing access to water connections? Let’s first reduce domestic drudgery.
Then, simultaneously, I think there need to be investments in peer-to-peer networks. What we know from studies and RCTs as well is that when you have these peer networks, women’s ability to convince the family, for example, that I want to go for a job, demonstration effects—these are very important.
When women take on jobs as large groups, families feel more comfortable. There are examples of that in the book. SEWA [Self Employed Women’s Association] is a great example. The reason why the union works so well is because it’s a large group of women. They come together, and then they fight for their wages and their rights. I think far more investment in creating these collectives—be it through the self-help group movement, be it through cadres, be it through peer-to-peer networks, there are different ways you can try and do this—I think that’s really helpful.
The technocratic realm of supply/demand-side solutions, I’m all for those. And let’s test them, coordinate them better, invest in them credibly. We should remember only 0.69% of GDP is spent on what we would call women-oriented programs. Spending still remains extremely low. But I think along with that, we have to actually start, one, by acknowledging the current realities of women’s work, regulate and improve those sectors and the working conditions in those sectors. I don’t see that currently happening.
The second thing we need to do is think about creating more peer-to-peer networks and collectives and reducing domestic drudgery. I actually think, first, you start to attack the conditions that exist. And then the opportunities that start to come, you release some of the tradeoffs and become a bit smoother and a bit easier, as opposed to the way they are currently stacked up, where it’s completely stacked up against women. No matter the best programs, the take-up rates will remain low if collecting water is difficult, if you’re barely paying people for accessing transport to reach opportunities, and they don’t feel supported and loved.
Women Left Behind in Liberalization Gains
RAJAGOPALAN: I would add a third thing, which is we’ve historically inherited some policies which disadvantage women. I’m going a little bit back in time, but you remember India used to have this reservation policy of small-scale industries. It would have a list of certain types of industry which only belonged to the small scale and could not be pursued by any other entrepreneur. And in Nehruvian India it started with a list of some 40 or 50 items. I think the number was 47.
By the time—this was the Vajpayee government in the late ’90s—came around to dismantling the small-scale industry reservation list, it was 1,000 industries which were completely “protected” from any kind of entrepreneurship. When you go through this list, so much of that work would’ve been done by women, because these are the kinds of small-scale firms which are close to home. Women need to be close to home.
Many of women’s choices, or constraints in many cases, they’re endogenous to the family setup. By creating certain really terrible policies like this small-scale reservation list, we also harmed women. Not specifically targeting women—I guess there are other kinds of laws and norms which do specifically harm women. I think we’ve really cut off that tight network that used to exist in rural India between what was happening at home, in the field and in the local industry. Women were very agile and mobile in that space. We cut that off, in some sense, and then just made it domestic drudgery. I would add that to the other things that you mentioned.
BHATTACHARYA: I hear you. I think I have a couple of things to say. One is, you know my sense, Shruti. I don’t want to sound gloomy, but I am skeptical of—I’ll tell you what. If you look at the jobs landscape right now in India—and forget where we are right now because the economy is contracting—it’s not in the best of shape currently, particularly not in the job market. If you look at the growth spurt following liberalization, we’ve had steady growth rates for a very long period of time. Yet if you look at studies that keep telling you that while India grew, women did not corner very many employment gains of that growth. There are economists who studied this very closely and will say it’s not just been job loss growth, but it’s been job loss growth for women.
Men have not borne that burden as much as women have. Women have lost jobs, particularly, in fact, in many of the sectors that you just mentioned: cottage industries, handlooms, small-scale textiles in particular, home-based manufacturing as well. It’s interesting, right now we have all this impetus to manufacturing in special economic zones, which is great.
I think the question really is, “What is the goal of employment policy?” If the goal of employment policy is to boost essentially just infrastructure and growth rates, so that we have higher productivity, we sell more, we earn more, women’s employment may just be completely orthogonal to that. In fact, it may not even be related. In fact, you could have an economy—which we did, and the stories in the book tell you this—we grew exponentially, and yet women were not part of that growth process.
When it comes to the broader policy frameworks, I think a real question has to be, “Who is incentivized right now in our politics?” I’m hopeful who is incentivized to say more than growth, it’s the structure of employment. And I care about schedule caste, schedule tribes, women, people who have been left out of the labor market; their employment is a policy priority. Because you could have a policy priority which is growth, which is fine, and yet you would not need to make accommodations for groups that are essentially being left out of that process.
This is more tangential, but I think you’ll see the link. I remember I was once at a seminar, or it was a conference, where they were discussing a book which was essentially written by I think some extremely esteemed economic bureaucrat from the IAS [Indian Administrative Service] who’d sort of been part of the ministry of finance during a very critical time of liberalization.
I think he’d edited a volume on liberalization, the process of liberalization. It was an all-male panel that was discussing liberalization, and the wonderful and brilliant Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta was on that panel. He said, I remember—and I quote this in the book—he actually said that the fact that we have first an all-male panel . . . because he was talking about the social underpinnings of liberalization and exactly this question who has lost out—not lost out, but who has been left out.
Liberalization, in a way, has helped some people so much that you know you’ve been left out; you can see it. The gap is very visible. I think this goes back to the story on expectations. He was talking about the social underpinnings of this growth process. This is the real question, which is that when we talk about the next phase of growth that the country will aspire for, is it a policy goal to actually push women’s employment? Right now, I’m not sure. I hear a lot about protecting women. I don’t hear enough about attending to their needs, like the attention that women seek. I think I mentioned this in the book
I’m not gloomy, but I’m a bit skeptical. I agree, I think when it comes to broad-based policy reforms—look at the ability of women to work at night, transport facilities for women. There are so many policy levers that are available to us. You will use those levers if we have a broader social contract that believes that women’s employment is good for the society; therefore, we better make the economy make sure that we move in that direction because that’s a social goal.
I’m not sure that we are there yet. I actually think that many—and I mentioned this in the book. It’s my own frustration, honestly. Living in Delhi, I hear a lot of platitudes, but I actually don’t think anyone cares that much about—I think people are happy with—it’s a comfortable equilibrium. I think to disrupt that equilibrium, you need to basically explicitly make this a political issue. I don’t know whether we are there yet.
Female Migration for Jobs
RAJAGOPALAN: We’re definitely not there. I completely agree with you that men have captured most of the gains from liberalization and that structural transformation which happened during the ’90s and the early 2000s that you and I witnessed. I think two things that happened which need more attention—one is the kinds of sectors we opened up were very union government lists, construction, infrastructure, urban areas transformation, service sector, which is a very urban phenomenon. That fundamentally required migration.
RAJAGOPALAN: The way the Indian family system is structured is, oh, we’re here to look after everything at home. Why don’t you go out to the city, get the job and come back?
BHATTACHARYA: Yes, exactly.
RAJAGOPALAN: In a bizarre sense, not only did women lose the opportunity, they got further trapped in female seclusion because now really there’s nowhere to go. I think the second part of it is, even the intra-household choice made a very particular choice, which is, oh, if there is more income, then the woman doesn’t have to work, which you pointed out in the book. It just goes through across India, no matter which region, other than very low levels of income and very high levels of income.
I actually call working women an inferior good in India, in the sense that as levels of income rise, you consume less of it. That’s the classic economist definition of an inferior good. The family has to be raised by the female within the family. We can’t let children be raised by strangers. The moment you get a little bit more money, the intra-household choice is very much—and you’ve pointed out even in very elite circles, that’s the choice some of the women in the book are making.
BHATTACHARYA: Yes. I want to nuance this, Shruti, a bit, which is, look, the economy grew. We’ve gone through this process of transformation. Yes, men have cornered the employment gains, but the income gains from that, of course, have accrued to you, to me, to women across the board. And then some have been allowed, given the privileges that they have, and the risk-taking appetite that they might have, to essentially capitalize on those further.
There are stories of that in the book. I think the greatest example of that in the book is a character called Vidya. She comes—elite of the elite, IIT-IIM [Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management] student and is a bit of a striver in her own sense. However, I do want to just nuance the fact that there are women who will say, “Well, as my husband is making more money, he should work based on the breadwinning end of the marriage contract. The world outside is so horrid with its boys’ clubs, public space being difficult. I’d rather”—it’s a voluntary withdrawal.
Particularly amongst upper-middle-class, elite women, I followed them. There was several of them I followed for five years. And during the five to six years we knew each other—I mentioned this in the book—most of them left their jobs. I used to ask them. Everyone said, “It just happened; it was the most natural.”
It was like a natural phenomenon because of mothering, because of caregiving, various reasons. I want to nuance when I say that, yes, of course, employment gains have been cornered by men, but there might be welfare gains that have accrued across the board to men and women. But the channel for women is very different. I think the book is trying to give you a flavor of that.
The way our economy has grown, jobs are not equal across the country. Jobs are clustered; they exist in specific cities. Even within cities, they exist in specific regions, and that’s not going anywhere. You won’t be able to change that. There’s specific reasons why that’s happening and may even be good, in some cases, that that’s happening.
What hasn’t changed, though, is that in hyper-urban areas like metropolitan cities, like Delhi or Bombay—in particular, I’m thinking about Bombay—there is demand for women’s housing because many women have said, “Well, it’s worth migrating.” Again, they want to take the risk, take the jump. They want to work, they want to pursue these ambitions. And there are cities in which the market has had to respond to that demand.
What’s interesting to me is that the conversation around female migration, like women’s migration—we know women migrate largely for marriage. We know this statistically. But women’s migration and pathway for jobs—often the conversations we have are essentially one of harassment and abuse, sadly, because you’ve listened to the stories coming out of SEZs [special economic zones], certainly journalistic reporters on those.
I have an entire chapter on domestic workers who are migrating from Jharkhand to Delhi, and the contractors are withholding wages. There’s all kinds of stuff that’s going on. Again, this goes back to what I said to you earlier, which is that, while we can have policies to have more pilots, which is great, why don’t we think about the current pathways of migration where women are thinking that it’s worth migrating to take up these jobs? We want to take up these jobs.
I’m thinking of nursing, I’m thinking of domestic work, I’m thinking of garment work. And yet, improving, easing, regulating through policy that work, we don’t see that right now. Not at scale. I think in some states, they’re trying to do different things. Again, tied to that in these areas, one of the core interventions is going to be supporting transport and supporting shelter.
RAJAGOPALAN: And law and order.
BHATTACHARYA: Yes, of course. That’s a whole separate episode. Just speaking from a perspective of employment and sectoral policies, I feel like those are things that we need to think about. Right now I don’t see that push. There’s a lot that we can do, and it won’t be expensive to do. These are not fiscal challenges, honestly. I think it would require very concerted political effort.
I’m hopeful. As things move—and I also think women as a voting voice is gaining strength, and my hope is there. I don’t get into politics too much in the book because that honestly didn’t come up as much, other than when I talk to elite upper-middle-class women. My hope is that—this is a large, growing, educated electorate, and my hope is that they will move on those agendas. Some people may say that’s a foolish hope given when our polity’s at, but that’s a broader question. I’ll leave it that.
Hope in the Minutiae
RAJAGOPALAN: At a very core level—aside from the dreaming; you and I are dreaming of a better future in some sense—we’re also economists. We think on the margin. I had an excellent conversation a couple of months ago with one in our job market series with Ashish Sedai. He’s at Colorado. His research is on rural electrification, like indoor pipe water delivery.
BHATTACHARYA: Yes. I’ve seen this.
RAJAGOPALAN: The gains for women are just staggering.
RAJAGOPALAN: It reminds me of that—I don’t know if you’ve seen this incredible video where Hans Rosling opens a washing machine and books come out of the washing machine. He says, “The moment we got the washing machine, I got to read because my mother would read books to me because she was no longer spending hours and hours of the day washing clothes.” And you’re right. I think on the margin, I am hopeful about small changes which will give you some big gains.
There is no clean, linear path. This is a process of negotiation, and you and I are at one point on that. Most of the women are at a completely different point, but a little bit more electrification or a cell phone or an additional Shah Rukh Khan movie at a theater close to home—it’s moving you up a curve in negotiating how you’re making these choices. To that extent, it’s odd that I’m usually so cynical about these things, but on the margin, I’m a very hopeful person.
BHATTACHARYA: Shruti, I have to say, 15 years—and some of these women are women I know, and who knows, maybe 10 years down the line I’ll do something—I’m very hopeful from all the stories that I’ve heard. And the reason is—I think you have a macro and a more formal perspective on that hope—my hope comes from just the minutiae, what I know of these women’s lives, which is that—I have a line in the book, which is that—I’m quoting W.H. Auden—“As long as the self can say I, the self will rebel.”
I noticed that this entire set of women I met, they were all just so aware of their own inequalities, unlike their mothers. A lot of things that would be taken for granted and accepted, they’re not willing to take them for granted and they’re not going to accept them anymore. And I think that’s the interesting thing about Shah Rukh saying that, “Oh, I’m not able to watch a film.”
In many homes, that’s actually the first access of inequality that they find they do not like and they call out, which is, “Why is it that my brother can watch anything he wants and can go anywhere? When I want to watch a Shah Rukh film, I’m made to feel bad. I can’t watch it. I have to beg and plead. I don’t have money.” One of the characters in the book says at the end, to her, freedom is measured in cinema ticket stubs. She should just be able to watch Shah Rukh films as much as she wants, and I think that’s great.
I’m very hopeful, but where I place my hope is in these minutiae. And I think the minutiae also teach me one very important thing, which is—I’ve been saying this everywhere as I talk about the book—I’m not a big believer in big theories, and I have no answers, but I only have questions. The one thing I do believe is that social change is intimate and it’s incremental. It happens—I’m thinking about what you just said at the margin—I’m thinking when people are deviating from scripts, when you tax people within your homes, when you tax people for essentially behaving in ways that are detrimental to a progressive ideal that we would like to aspire for and equality, that can credibly only happen in interpersonal relationships.
I really believe, if you look at the stories over the 10 years that I follow these women, I think what we learn is how much negotiating, how much they’re moving back and forth essentially to push for social change. I actually do contend—and this is related perhaps to hope—so while I’m hopeful, I also think that as a consequence, these women are exhausted because the moral burden, the physical burden, of trying to change things within your interpersonal life, within your home, with your family members, is a very difficult task. Right now, for those who are comfortable with the equilibrium, you’re not facing that. All the women in the book are not comfortable with the equilibrium, and they’re pushing it in different ways.
As a consequence, I’m hopeful, but I also recognize with that hope there will be exhaustion, which is where I really hope policy can help because then some of the exhaustion, at least the physical parts of that exhaustion, we should be able to handle. And my book honestly is perhaps one effort, along with Shah Rukh’s films and so many other kinds of literature, popular art, everything, which is to give people comfort when they feel exhausted. I really hope that young women who read the book read it and realize, “I’m certainly not alone in feeling this exhausted and lonely,” that it’s a common shared phenomenon.
There’s a structural reason why we are all feeling this way. And so I’m hopeful, but I also think that we then need to acknowledge the exhaustion of that hope and then help each other out in different ways, not just the government but ourselves.
Women Talking to Women
RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely. I have blinders on, especially when it comes to my work. You’ve known me a long time. I’m quite focused and a keep-your-nose-in-the-book person. One incredible thing that started happening when I started doing the podcast is when anytime I had a female guest—I remember the number of messages I got after Alice Evans and I spoke with each other. Because we have this relationship, it’s so clear when someone is listening to us that we also like each other and we’re friends. And so many women wrote saying it just feels so good to hear two women talking about economics.
I live in a very masculine world, because you know how economics is and you know how academic and policy economics is. It’s never even occurred to me that that’s an issue or that’s a problem. It is what it is. But even women who are say, 10 years younger than me or 15 years younger than me, and they’re in college right now, they don’t want that. They want you and me talking, and they want Alice and me talking.
One thing I love about the book—I know you call Shah Rukh your research method many times—but if there was just one thing I had to pick that I love about the book, it is the research method where you are talking to women. You are talking to individuals, trying to understand the very minute detail of where does their frustration lie, where does that happiness come from and so on. The sorority that I see when I flip each page of the book—you love these women.
At the same time, you are a researcher. You’re also frustrated because you’re like, “I can see what’s happening but I can’t do anything about it, but they’re also my friends, but they’re also my subjects.” Then you are obviously zooming out at various points and extrapolating or inferring some of these ideas to a larger set of women. How hard was this research method? What made you choose it? This is not traditional, and it is extraordinary, and you’ve done it sensationally well in this book.
BHATTACHARYA: I have to say two things, and I think this might also hint at what I will be doing in the future. At the very early stage of my career—and I think you know this—I had the pleasure of working with the wonderful feminist economist Ratna Sudarshan. She used to head the Institute of Social Studies Trust at that time. She’s very much a person—had I not known her, had she not hired me, had she not mentored me, this book wouldn’t exist.
One of the things she’d said to me, and I mentioned this in the book, which is that you can’t be clumsy with your curiosity. Because she’s seen, over years and years, girls with kajal, and you are wearing your khadi kurta, and then you want to go learn about the poor. She told me one thing; she said there has to be some reciprocity in the way these conversations are done. Because I had discussed this with her, at an early stage, when I was thinking about doing this even as an academic project.
The one thing that really did keep me a bit in check and just made sure that I was doing this in a way where—because I never actually asked any of the women I spoke to about their lives directly. We actually only talked about Shah Rukh, but it just so happened that he’s so powerful that when you talk about him—and by the way, it’ll happen right now. You and I start talking about him, we are no longer talking about him. We’ll talk about the men in our lives, what happened when we went to watch the film, where we were when we were watching “D.D.L.J.,” what was happening in our lives.
A strange combination of Mr. Khan and Ratna led to this line of inquiry, and then I was encouraged by several others. It happened by accident, but I was also very cautious that I did not want to—there is no steady method here, in that it wasn’t like every six months I was taking a standard questionnaire and going back to them. It’s just that when I could—and I’m very transparent about it in the book, and actually we describe it as I’m bobbing along in these people’s lives. It’s not like I’m actively pursuing them as respondents per se. Whoever I could talk to and whoever eventually was comfortable with being written about and written about in a certain way is there in the book.
I think for me it was quite remarkable, one, to realize that if you actually—funnily enough, if you take the researcher hat off and you are just present—and I think this is where fun and fandom is very transformative. I think fun is a prism to enter people’s lives. And I’m thinking about what I do next, and I think it will be related to this theme somewhat.
I think we live in a society and a structure where I think certain people, we don’t want them to have fun. And then when they do have fun and when you ask them about the fun that they have, you will learn remarkable things about these people, the way they understand the economy, the way they understand society, the way they understand themselves. I think it was that. My commitment to just the idea that I wanted to enter the lives through frivolity and fun. In this case, it’s captured by fandom and love for Mr. Khan, as opposed to going and asking direct questions. That just never occurred to me. I think that’s one thing that I have learned.
I think the other thing I will say about the journey is that it’s impossible to do research on women. I think this might be true for most countries, but certainly at least where I was because they just never had time to answer any questions. They’re always called in to deal with work, something ghar pe kuch ho gaya—something happened at the home, domestic duties. “I don’t have time right now to see you.” There’s a woman who, when she comes to meet me, she tells me, “I’m pretty certain my husband has sent a detective” who’s following her everywhere she goes because he’s convinced that she will run away. It’s there in the book.
I realized to do research and to talk to women in an unstructured way, perhaps, is very hard. Yes, the women I met, they have played a seminal role in my life, and we will continue to know each other for a very long time. With this book, really, Shruti, I have to say has been an act of generosity and just generosity from just a group of strangers. I think they’re all hoping at some point the book will reach Mr. Khan. I think all of us will feel very—I think our experiences will be somewhat strangely validated if that happens, but I think that’s not a binding constraint per se.
I think that it’s a set of experiences that has really led me to think very hard about fun as a prism to enter any discussion on society. I think that’s probably what I will do moving forward as well.
RAJAGOPALAN: I think you are also short-selling yourself. I’ve known you a long time. Everyone can’t pull this off. You are deeply empathetic. You have come home to my home, and you have made sure that you speak with me, that you speak with all the men in the house, that you speak with my mom, that you go into the kitchen. While Nimmi, the housekeeper I was telling you about, was making coffee for you, you were standing inside the kitchen and chatting with her while she’s making coffee for you.
This is another lovely thing you’ve done. You’ve pointed out throughout the book how women’s labor, love, life is so deeply entangled that you need to penetrate and actually go into their home, into their life, to be able to untangle it. You’ve actually managed to do that. You can’t do that, like you say, without a certain amount of friendship. You can’t do it as a researcher observing a subject. What you’ve done is actually not doable in the traditional way, probably because the traditional way was designed by men, for men, to study men. There’s a whole conversation about that, but I think that’s part of it.
BHATTACHARYA: Yes. I also think—this is where I will credit Mr. Khan. I have to, because I think the reason why people were willing to entertain me or talk to me was because everybody wants to talk about him. They wanted to talk about him with me because I, of course, get very excited and delighted in the way I talk about him. In fact, one of the things I’m looking forward to the most after we finish the—right now, I’m doing more technical conversations around the book, but there’s going to be a conversation with fan clubs coming up. And there I will just let my fan arrive. Honestly, Shruti, I really feel—I think some of my favorite writers always say this, which is that the best projects never feel like projects. They just feel like you’re living life.
I felt that for me this was so special because it was just like I was living life, and then the book happened. What was tough, though, was the writing at the end, which of course—we all know anyone who has to put text together, it’s always very difficult. I’m very grateful to Shruti Debi, who is my agent but also very much my guide because she really held my hand through making sure it all came together.
Speaking the Unspoken
RAJAGOPALAN: I know you are crediting Shah Rukh Khan and his icon and the fandom with a lot. But even as a researcher there is something buried in there, which is, when you try and engage with other people and you’re trying to really dig deep, if you can laugh about the silliest of things, the funniest of things without judging them, they’re going to open up you in a completely different way than if you dismiss them for loving a song or loving a film or loving an outfit or Katrina Kaif’s eyebrows or Manish Malhotra Lehenga.
If you’re not going to judge them for those things or say, “Oh, that’s frivolous,” then they will open up and show a completely different side of themselves, whether it’s family, whether it’s abortions, whether it’s domestic abuse. You’re really getting into some deep stuff in there, and that’s quite a leap from the Shah Rukh fandom. Even as a research method, you’ve tapped into something quite extraordinary, is my sense when I read the book.
BHATTACHARYA: No, thank you so much for saying that. That’s really wonderful to hear. What I will say, though . . . one of the journalists I was talking to, in fact, when they were writing a story about the book, they said to me when they read the book that they felt like a lot of the women who were talking to me, it sounded like they had never been asked some of these questions before, which by the way is true. I think this goes back to what I was saying to you about why I really believe peer-to-peer networks, women’s groups, solidarity networks are so important. I actually think there’s so much experience that is shared, and we don’t sit and hold each other’s hands or just talk about it.
Sounds very kumbaya, but you know me well enough to know that I’m not that personality at all. But I really do believe that this is where solidarity has such a strong role to play. The reason the book has that charge—you’re right, thank you for noticing it—I do think it’s because many of us were talking about things that I think usually people don’t talk about. In our country it’s also considered somewhat not appropriate to talk about, and also somewhat it’s gauche to talk about it.
In fact, when the book came out, some of the early—I remember someone. It’s been wonderful, just the general reaction, but I know that there were people at a certain stage who’ll look it and say, “This is so silly, women gushing.” My contention is, if you actually listen to these women, beneath the exuberance and the gushing they’re saying some very meaningful things about their lives. I think the book shows you that.
Yes, I do think it has a charge, and I think it has a charge because of that sense of speaking the unspoken, things that you’re not supposed to talk about. I think the book launched at the Bangalore International Center and it was very exciting. One of the things—I was joking with Janhavi [Nilekeni] later, and I said to her—because we talked about abortions. I think somebody said this to me later: “I don’t think there’s been as much discussion of abortions during events typically on these books.” There are things that are very uncomfortable.
I think we are very uncomfortable talking about love, talking about sex, talking about intimacy. One of the things that you realize in the book is that love, sex, intimacy, all of these things are fundamentally tied up in our economic experiences and our economic decision-making. We better talk about them. I think the reason the book has that charge is because we did.
RAJAGOPALAN: You and I are from Delhi. At least I have a love-hate relationship with Delhi, and I think it’s quite clear from the choice I have made; I have left. The chapter where you are telling your own story, and when you published an excerpt of that chapter, “The Aristoprats,” I got pretty mad. I don’t know if you remember we had this conversation. I was really upset. My first reaction was, how dare someone treat you like this, because you’re my friend and I’m not able to separate that.
I got even more mad. I was like, how dare she allow herself to be treated like this by these people. I think we had this brief conversation. I was like, “I love reading it, but it was really difficult to read.” When I read it now as part of the book, I feel completely differently about it, because the thing I understood is now—you are also searching. We’re all searching for something. While we are looking for something, we are going to make some choices which in hindsight might be a terrible idea or a mistake. And you’re like, “That shouldn’t have happened. I feel I’m never going to allow myself to be treated that way by another person like that.”
In a sense, you have to go through that to know what the line is that one draws for oneself or one draws for others never to cross. This time when I read it, funnily enough, I was not mad at all. I was dreading getting to the chapter, having read the excerpt.
This time, when it’s part of the collection of everything else, I saw something completely different in the story. What I saw was Delhi. Even for the most privileged people like you and I, Delhi is just a dumpster fire. [crosstalk]
BHATTACHARYA: Okay, no, no. Shruti, I’m going to take on the really difficult task of defending Delhi. Let me say a couple of things. One, Shah Rukh Khan is from Delhi, and as I say in the book . . .
RAJAGOPALAN: He’s from Hansraj College economics department, which is where I studied. Let’s just put this on the record. He’ll understand the book. We were taught by the same professors.
BHATTACHARYA: Yes, there we go. I’m so glad to hear that. The thing is, at the end of the day, every urban city has its own flavor. It has its own way in how it’s structured and organized. I say about Delhi, it’s a city that I have lived in forever, but I never really feel like I truly get it. I think, in fact, I’m not the only one; I think most Delhiites feel this way. What’s peculiar to Delhi—my sense is, and I think the chapter picks up on this, along with Vidya’s chapter in the book—is that it’s a city which is so stratified. It is a city of 20 million people, Shruti, but it often feels like it’s just 20 people, and you keep seeing the same 20 people constantly, again and again.
I say in the book that “If New York is a city for wonderful encounters with strangers, Delhi is the city where you avoid them in drawing rooms.”
I do think that . . .
RAJAGOPALAN: I avoid them everywhere.
BHATTACHARYA: Yes, no, you avoid them in your own drawing room when you meet the same 20 people. Having said that, I think it is also a fascinating city. I think so much of this structural transformation that you’re talking about—it’s one of the cities that really has witnessed so much of the churn, the communities that are settling here, the migration that is happening in the city, the way it’s changing. As a site for not just power, but as a site for culture, it’s just fascinating.
Someone told me recently that the way to deal with Delhi is to just not go to parties. The problem is, I want to research parties so I have to go. I’m looking forward to—in fact, I was telling our mutual friend ,Yamini Lohia, that I’m waiting for this madness with the pandemic to be over because I’m missing that research site. Although now that I’ve written the book, I don’t know if anyone will invite me because I think they’ll be worried that I’m sitting and making notes.
RAJAGOPALAN: If I know anything about Delhi, it’s going to be the opposite. They’re going to invite you because of the book, and they’re going to hope to make an appearance in the book. That will be the cachet; [crosstalk] I made it to Shrayana’s book.
BHATTACHARYA: No, no, no, you’re being cynical. Having said that, I will say a couple of things, which is that I do think the city is—even compared to other cities in India—unique also in how it feels very aggressive and uncomfortable for women in large parts, like public space. I do get into this in the book, yet it is a city where very few women do work. The rate of urban female labor force participation is low, but it’s still a sizable number because it’s a large city. I think it’s a really important site to study how women are occupying space, how women are occupying jobs.
As for the theater of network wealth in Delhi, Shruti, I promised that at some point, if I write fiction—I’ve been saying this now of late—I will do a drawing-room theater on Delhi. I still haven’t fully understood it. There is something very peculiar about it. I can’t imagine studying this kind of churn anywhere else. Let’s remember all of us are products of the city, its good and its bad.
Limited vs. Open Access Order
RAJAGOPALAN: No, I was born and raised in Delhi. It’s almost like a love-hate relationship with my own family. I’ve been thinking about Delhi a lot, and I think I have figured out what makes me personally uncomfortable. Do you remember North-Wallis-Weingast, when they were talking about these long-run economic growth things?
They distinguished between limited access orders and open access orders, and limited access orders depend on social relationships and who you know. Society is, in a sense, organized along interpersonal relationships, privilege, social hierarchy, and so on. Open access orders are completely different; it is impersonal. You know how to trust strangers and trade with strangers, including rule of law, fairness, property rights, so on, all the usual stuff that you know. All the great economic successes, and I’m talking very long run, have transitioned from limited access to open access—transition from feudalism to capitalism, as we would have put it in our comparative systems class.
India is transitioning between these two orders, but I think in Delhi it is most visible. You know where I grew up in Delhi. I don’t think we ate dinner or lunch anywhere other than IIC [India International Centre]. Before I was a teenager, I knew who’s an additional secretary and who’s joint secretary and who’s secretary depending on who stood up to receive whom.
You know exactly what I’m talking about. You know me well; you can imagine the deep allergic reaction I have to a world like that. At various points, there are choices about how do you navigate that? Do you make it better? Or do you exit it? I think I just ran as far as I could. What I’ve observed about the limited access versus open access orders—you are the first person to point out to me in such a visceral sense that it also extends to love.
BHATTACHARYA: Of course. Absolutely.
RAJAGOPALAN: There are people you’re willing to hang out with at a party, there are people you’re willing to date, there are people you’re even willing to have sexual relationships with. But you would never marry them, and you will never bring them home, or you’ll never introduce them to your boarding school friends or something like that. There is this politics going on, which is this transition between a limited access and an open access order, and we are nowhere close to the open access order. Is this a good way to think about Delhi and what’s going on in it, without just shitting over the people and the place?
BHATTACHARYA: No, I think it’s a great way to think about it. I do agree with what you said, and this is what I meant by the churn. It’s a very interesting city to study churn and because of this transition, to me, Delhi is—and I often say this to people—it’s like being in this combination of a Jane Austen novel and an episode from “Mad Men.” It’s that, because if you look at one of those . . .
RAJAGOPALAN: “Gangs of Wasseypur” thrown in the middle, when you are on the Noida Toll Bridge or something.
BHATTACHARYA: Yes. To me, I think the Delhi that you were talking about—because remember that there’s also a large part of Delhi which is operating through networks in a very welfare-enhancing way. I’m particularly thinking of construction workers, retail workers who are moving to Delhi through migrant networks.
RAJAGOPALAN: Domestic workers.
BHATTACHARYA: Exactly. That’s where I think networks work very well because people are supporting each other. These are risk insurance mechanisms. I think the networks that you and I are talking about are more elite circles, which I also think are fading. They are actively under attack. There, I do think it really does feel like Jane Austen meets “Mad Men,” because I think if you look at those Austen novels, everybody usually knows how much capital and land the people surrounding them comes from in a Jane Austen novel. Everybody knows exactly their wealth point and their asset point.
Everybody also usually needs somebody else to introduce the person and vouch for them like in interpersonal encounters. You can’t just meet people—and by the way, this is still true. So many people I met would be scared of using dating apps because it is an unsafe city. You don’t know who you’re going to meet. There’s a lot of vouching for and gatekeeping, even in the romantic sphere.
RAJAGOPALAN: There’s a lot of chaperoning like a Jane Austen novel. I am not sent anywhere without our driver, Naveen.
BHATTACHARYA: Yes, exactly. There are people like that. I think that’s changing as well. What I think has changed dramatically, which is where I call the “Mad Men” episode, there’s a lot of casual sex, there are lots of casual encounters, young people are meeting, mingling. There are very interesting ways—I will explore it further—that there are marriage models and the way people are living their lives which are quite intriguing, which are not what I think standard traditional marriage is certainly supposed to be.
I think that, unfortunately, even in those right now, because of the economics of the city, men hold more power because women cannot exit those structures because being on your own—even for me as a single woman, finding a house in Delhi is very difficult to do.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s tough.
Delhi in Transition
BHATTACHARYA: I think that even the parts of it which are—and that’s why I invoke “Mad Men,” because you know there are a lot of sexual encounters being had with men holding far more economic privilege. We are there. I think Delhi right now, a certain milieu of Delhi to me feels like “Mad Men” meets Jane Austen. And I agree with you, it is this churn, and it’s this transition. We’re stuck somewhere there, and then we’ll see where we go. Hopefully, we should go into a Yash Raj film, where all of us will break out into dance.
RAJAGOPALAN: Hopefully, we should go to Adam Smith. I think this is where I might have imbibed too much of what I read and do for a living into who I am and how I see the world. For me, the number one lesson from Smith—he was the first, to my knowledge, to point out that the wealth of nations doesn’t depend on wealthy people.
The examples that he’s giving are the butcher, the brewer or the baker. To Smith, the wealth of nations comes not from rich people; it comes from ordinary people engaging in the market process. I think that is my deep problem with Delhi, because of erstwhile colonialism. It’s a colonial capital; it was the head of the Planning Commission, which is the socialist capital.
There’s been a lack of what some of the scholars, my colleagues at George Mason, call analytical egalitarianism. There is a lack of that in the sense that they still think that the wealth of the country comes from the elite, that it doesn’t come from the Golds of the world. It’s not with the Vidya, Manju and Gold who are contributing to the wealth of nations; it’s all these people who are sitting in Planning Commission and the additional secretary and the joint secretary. The more I have become an economist, the worse I feel about Delhi as a city, probably because it’s the policy capital.
BHATTACHARYA: That’s a sad correlation. You should put that on a T-shirt, Shruti. “The more I’ve become an economist, the less I like Delhi.” It’s a great line. Shruti, I think things have changed significantly. I really do believe this. I think a few things. We saw riots in Delhi, there was a pogrom in Delhi, and you saw how young people, people across communities came together. It really didn’t matter who you were, or what your network wealth was; there was a groundswell of just a street protest. It was remarkable. I see this now, in different pockets of young people, communities, artists, journalists.
There are people who are really risking so much, irrespective of what their backgrounds are, to really fight the good fight. I think to produce what you would call the wealth of nations, the progressive idea or holding on to a progressive idea of what India should be and is—I’m actually very hopeful, having seen all of these scenes in Delhi. I think what you’re describing goes back to all the Shri Lal Shukla novels on the structures or old privilege; they are fading.
I do think that they have—there’s so much political churn for a lot of bad and I don’t know how much good, but I’ll just leave it at that. Yet, with all of that, I think that there were structures that existed. I don’t think we can actually talk about them as being as stable as they used to be in the past. I actually say this from my own experience. Look at the people who are producing creative work in our country, be it in Delhi or in Bombay, certainly in Delhi. It’s really opened up now.
Look at young journalists and who’s writing what. I do agree with you that there’s a certain kind of capital that operates in Delhi, but I think that that capital, it’s no longer with the people that you and I would think it is with. It’s actually changed significantly. I don’t fully understand it well enough to comment on it in detail, but I do think it’s a city that’s transitioned again, and I think it will in the future. I’m hopeful.
I hear what you’re saying. I think it’s a characterization of a structure that has gone. I think things have changed, and it’s very different. The city I occupy—although right now, of course, one is occupying a city in isolation. You’re in rooms and hiding and hoping that things become better. Just use that as an example. Shruti, when Delhi was going through the worst kind of devastation and the state had in many places essentially disappeared as well, it was communities of people, irrespective of who you were and how much network wealth or capital you had, it didn’t matter.
I was checking up on elderly people living near my parents’ home. There were so many people checking up on each other, helping each other out. I think there is a tremendous amount of that kind of community solidarity. It perhaps expresses itself in different ways. I think it’s a city that’s transitioning. I think there are pockets that will always—there will be pockets, and I think in Vidya’s chapter, I described this so beautifully.
I’ve done—whatever I had to say about that world in Delhi, I’ve said and done in that chapter. And I really have nothing more to say right now, which is that I think there will always be relative deprivation of capital, of asset, of network wealth, and that’s fine. That’s a small space, and it can operate and I think we can all operate in very different spaces. I do think that there’s actually a lot that’s very hopeful in the city.
RAJAGOPALAN: Now I have to ask you—first of all, the book is sensationally well written. What is your writing process?
BHATTACHARYA: I don’t sleep. It’s called insomnia. I think that’s my writing—no, actually, that’s not true. I have been sleeping very well. Discipline.
RAJAGOPALAN: That’s an Aamir song, though, if we had to invoke, “Mujhe Neend Na Aaye.” [crosstalk]
BHATTACHARYA: That’s true. I’ll say two things here. It’s interesting, I am quite a stuffy traditionalist when it comes to writing, which is that my way of dealing with it is you write every day. Even if it’s a few lines, even if they’re terrible, it doesn’t matter. Just every day. Routine is a very important part of how I manage things. As you know, I have a day job that also does take a lot of time, so I can be very exhausted—and a lot of writing, and a very different kind of writing.
There will be days when I will be tired, but I will still make it a point to at least put down a few lines, a few words, or just look at what I had done or maybe re-edit something. I think what really helped me during the final phase of the book—and Shruti, we edited and finalized it during the years of the pandemic because I had given the final draft to Shruti Debi, as I mentioned her earlier. I had given it to her sometime, I think, in 2019.
Then she was reading it, and then it was during the pandemic that she and I finalized the first draft, as it were, and through multiple iterations. Just having a reader who—at that point, I didn’t know her very well. She’s a wonderful reader. So many people I think in Indian publishing can also attest to this. She’s just a terrific reader. I think I was very lucky to work with her because she’s just a terrific reader, and she slashed a bunch of things.
You know, I think I respond very well to female authority. In a way, she became my Ph.D. guide. I actually said this to her: If the book was a Ph.D., she was my guide through it. It was a difficult time for everyone because we were all sheltering at home. That was very helpful. I think my writing process is routine, but then find a good reader who will read for you, with you. After Shruti, the book was edited by Shougat Dasgupta, who was brought in by HarperCollins to edit. And Amrita Mukherji helped with copyedits, and they were just fantastic.
Of course, the book you write on your own, but it is also a collaborative process because I was very fortunate. Shougat, in particular, because he actually was the one who’d encouraged me to release "The Aristoprats” excerpt with Indian Quarterly. And he had edited it back then, and he came back to edit the full book, which was very special. It felt like going back full circle. I think for me, the writing process sounds very boring but routine. I make lots of notes and then I write, so routinely note-taking and routinely writing, as simple as that.
The second is give the book to a reader. Don’t get upset when they say this is rubbish, engage with it, be okay with it. This is what happens when you work with a set of economists that I have, which is that you’re very comfortable with—I think this is one of the things about economists. [crosstalk]
RAJAGOPALAN: Peer review and . . . [crosstalk]
BHATTACHARYA: Someone tears you to shreds, you’re quite okay with it. For sure that didn’t happen, but I was very open to feedback, and I was open to knowing that I didn’t know how this was going to be fully done. And so that’s the second part. The third thing, which I really do think, sometimes lines just come to you, and so you should just either put a voice note or just write them down because you’ll forget. You will forget; it’s human. So I think just using technology where you can, that’s the process.
RAJAGOPALAN: Now, I have to ask you the most important question: Through the pandemic, what have you been binge-watching and, in your case, other than Shah Rukh?
BHATTACHARYA: It’s tough because I have been binge-watching him—everything. Interestingly, I’m not a big binge-watcher. So, in fact, the pandemic was a strange time for me because I don’t watch things very much. I’m a reader; I don’t watch stuff. But after the book was finished and into the first year of the pandemic, the book was done. Mid 2021, late 2021 was when I started then feeling like I had some time to watch things. And I have grown obsessed with, strangely, “The Mindy Project,” which is a really interesting choice, of all things. For some reason, I just . . .
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s fun.
BHATTACHARYA: Yes. Probably just the first three seasons, and then that was it. Then I decided—maybe because I was feeling like I needed to reconnect with my Bengali roots—I have been rewatching all Satyajit Ray films and rewatching them again and again because I just love them. And now they’re on movies, so you can see them properly, the way they’re supposed to be seen.
RAJAGOPALAN: If there’s a parallel for this book, it must be “Mahanagar.”
BHATTACHARYA: Yes. very much. I have a poster of “Mahanagar” in my house and—
RAJAGOPALAN: I love that film so much.
BHATTACHARYA: —it’s a fabulous film. I encourage everyone to watch it. And the third thing that I have been binge-watching is—I was obsessed with “The X-Files,” and so this was time for me to go back.
RAJAGOPALAN: It hasn’t changed?
BHATTACHARYA: I realized something about it because I had to watch Mr. Khan’s films again because I was doing this measuring, and so I wanted to just be double sure of the numbers. I think something about that period of watching all these films when you were young—because I did watch a bunch of films when we were just teenagers, and which is when I was watching “The X-Files.” So it really encouraged me to go back and rediscover those roots.
That’s broadly been it. But to be honest, Shruti, I’m trying very hard and I’m failing at times, but I’m trying very hard to be a bit regulated about watching and all of that. Because I’m a little scared that then I’ll just be completely consumed. And the good thing there is, I think you know, work has been really busy because the [World] Bank—we’ve been part of multiple projects supporting COVID response programs, and so that’s been taking up some time. But that’s broadly what I’ve been doing.
RAJAGOPALAN: It was so good to do this with you. I feel like it has just been just such a long time. I look forward to this Jane Austen in New Delhi—
BHATTACHARYA: Meets “Mad Men.”
RAJAGOPALAN: —networking culture [crosstalk] book, and everything else that you are working on right now. And thank you so much for doing this.
BHATTACHARYA: No, Shruti, look, this has been a conversation—I said in the beginning—two decades in the making. And so this was so special for me to just come back. The book is real, and I can’t wait to see you in Delhi. And more power to everything you—and I know what you’re trying to do with the podcast. Thank you so much for inviting me, it’s been a thrill. Thanks.
RAJAGOPALAN: Thanks for listening to Ideas of India. If you enjoy this podcast, please help us grow by sharing with like-minded friends. You can connect with me on Twitter @srajagopalan.
In the next episode of Ideas of India, I speak with Rukmini Shrinivasan about her book “Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India.”
Also, check out our new initiative commemorating 30 years of India’s market reforms at the1991project.com.