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Indomitable review: Breaking the glass ceiling

Arundhati Bhattacharya is the first woman to have led the over 200 years old State Bank of India (SBI), one of the world’s largest. She was listed as the 25th most powerful woman in the world in 2016, behind Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and Janet Yellen. Her book, Indomitable, follows her from birth in Bhilai, through college in Calcutta, marriage in Kharagpur, motherhood and rise from a probationary officer to the top post at SBI, a career that took her places far and wide: Lucknow, Bengaluru, Mumbai and New York.

Bhattacharya has held back so much that Indomitable cannot be called a memoir. “I attempt to record the growth of India as seen through my eyes,” she writes in the preface. The narrative that follows is a collage of snippets from her life. “I may never have been born at all,” she begins her story. There’s too much drama in her early life and too little later in her banker years. Her grandfather’s grandfather entertained the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) at his grand residence in Bokul Bagan, South Calcutta in 1875. Her sister had a nanny and a pony. But Bhattacharya grew up in a household of financial challenges, and a loving family, playing with tadpoles, and drinking Horlicks — not an extraordinary story but nevertheless delightful.

Quiet on banking hurdles

In contrast, the challenges during the author’s time at SBI, bad loans, frauds and defaults, get perfunctory treatment. Bhattacharya doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. She offers no observations or analyses to better inform our understanding of India’s banking sector.

Memoirs usually bring out the theme of what makes the writer’s life stand out. Indomitable’s author is a glass ceiling breaker. What does she owe the rise in SBI to? The book’s title, as also her first name, conveys that she is “unstoppable”. What makes Bhattacharya unstoppable? She doesn’t answer the question directly but her narrative suggests this is a woman who believes she never saw a challenge she couldn’t overcome simply by working hard, and imbibing lessons hidden in failures: “Life is rarely fair, and some situations cannot be cured.” The support of her husband and colleagues plays a role of course. And there’s serendipity; guardian angels appear more than once in the narrative. At one point, a white owl watches over her. Significant events happen to take place on auspicious days in the religious calendar.

Gender bias

The dewy-eyed account of the world begins to resemble reality a bit when the author narrates incidents of gender bias, which she overcomes with grace and determination, without aggression or resentment. But again, she is too guarded. Readers must guess about these struggles from anecdotes such as when she scraps the first batch of cards that are printed for her as chairperson because they identify her as “chairman”. The reason being the SBI Act refers only to a “chairman” when the bank began recruiting women probationary officers from 1960.

She doesn’t dip into experiences from her various postings at the bank, be it Uttar Pradesh’s badlands or at SBI’s branch in New York, to let readers form impressions about what characteristics make the author a role model. There are only a few sepia anecdotes of British-style bungalows and hand-pulled fans at old SBI branches.

Indomitable keeps you engaged till the last page, after which you can’t help feeling that the author had a great story which she chose not to tell.

Indomitable; Arundhati Bhattacharya, Harper Business, ₹699.

The reviewer is the author of The Lost Decade .


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Printable version | Jun 16, 2022 9:48:32 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/indomitable-review-breaking-the-glass-ceiling/article65267093.ece