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The Bitter Better Half
It's a rebellion by the elite against the bureaucratic forces condemning them to a life of perpetual luxury. These are the wives of Indian ambassadors who are now demanding the right to work while their husbands are working abroad. "I had learnt how to lay the right forks and knives at table, I had taken care of the August 15 celebrations and had perfected the art of making great samosa...but there was not much else to do," says Kokila Rangachari. Then came her husband's posting as ambassador to Algeria. "The American Embassy School asked me if I could teach there but because of antiquated Indian rules, I found it very hard to accept."
The rules deny any spouse of the head of mission the right to work during the tenure of the posting. "Finally, I decided to work a few hours every week and as a reward the school awarded me a copy of a children's encyclopedia!" Even so, others in the embassy accused Rangachari, a senior consultant with ficci, of breaking the rules.
Now, Rangachari and other women including Smita Jassal, mea spokesman Raminder Jassal's wife, are trying to have the rules changed in a move coordinated by Indira Mansingh, the working wife of Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh. Ironically, wives of those holding a rank lower than the head of mission are allowed to enter into certain professions in keeping with their positions overseas, such as teaching. "When in Moscow, in the early '90s, I worked as an art critic of the Moscow Tribune, it was alright as long as I was writing about non-controversial issues such as babushkas," says a senior diplomat's wife who does not wish to be named.
But wives of these junior officials have to take permission from the Indian government before working and until recently had to submit a report of earnings as well. "Although wives of diplomats of a lesser rank than that of an ambassador are allowed to work, all the permissions and pieces of paper that need to be passed back and forth can be discouraging," says Farida Khan, whose husband is presently posted to Paris.
Khan, an assistant professor at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, has opted to stay on in India since 1988. "I object to the fact that while we work hard to be social secretaries and perfect hostesses and try to give a good image of our country, the government does not reciprocate to fulfill our needs in any way," she says.
Rangachari finds it galling that the higher an official rises in the diplomatic service, the more restrictive are the rules pertaining to his wife's employment. "I could not take a single penny in Algeria for my work but the military attache's wife had a job and was earning $1,200 a month. It's so pathetic when you compare it to other western embassies, say the Germans, who can do whatever they want."
But even allowing wives of junior officers to work without much hindrance is a relatively new development full of bureaucratic delays. Nandini Prasad, who heads conferences and exhibitions for tci Ltd, a tourism business, is about to travel to Washington where her husband Alok has been posted as the deputy head of mission. Says she apprehensively: "I have reached the top of my profession after a lot of struggle and it's an unhappy position to be in."
The move to change the rules has been dragging on for years now. There is one consolation though, for the wives—if the head of mission happens to be a woman, her husband too is required to take a sabbatical.
Partly because of these rules, Amita Shukla, wife of the Indian ambassador to Singapore, has decided to return to India at least for the short term. "It would be wrong to say that I am returning only for work," says Amita, whose daughter is about to get married. "I am equally here for my daughter, but it's true that if I go to Singapore, there is a blanket ban on my working." But Amita, who works with designer J.J. Vallaya, sees herself coming and going from Singapore during the lean periods in the fashion industry in the country. "It's easier for me as Singapore is not that far away, but everybody cannot do this," she says.
Exclaims Rangachari, "Although Indira Mansingh is trying hard to evolve a consensus on the issue, there are still some old-fashioned women in the ifs Wives Association who believe women should not work." Except, perhaps, as social secretaries.