Breaking Away - Beyond the Comfort Zone

Desi outlier

The legal profession captivated me since my teen years. I was passionate about being able to defend and protect people’s rights and interests, and being a lawyer would naturally enable me to do that.  I was also intrigued further because of its challenging nature, intellectual complexity, and constant evolution.

While I was deeply fascinated with law, I had to face a conventional Indian family background –where the system was inherently patriarchal. In this structure, a female was expected to be dependent throughout her life – first on her father, then her husband, and finally, her eldest son (if any). A high premium was placed on conformity.  Interdependence was fostered, self-identity was inhibited, and a conservative orientation was rewarded in the society then.

Thus, I could sense several storms brewing ahead for me, as no daughter or daughter-in-law in my family or my husband’s family had ever pursued higher education or a professional career then.

Despite the complexities, I have been very fortunate with my husband’s support & encouragement in my endeavors – he has been instrumental in helping me realize my goals while navigating life’s challenges (My husband and I met during our undergraduate studies, and so he was naturally cognizant of my dreams). We faced considerable societal resistance initially for marrying each other (by choice (rather than arranged) & as we belonged to different communities, which wasn’t the norm then), and predictably, for my desire to pursue law.  Nonetheless, eventually, I was able to enroll into a prestigious law college in Mumbai. 

This phase of my life was hectic as I juggled with a myriad of roles of a keen young law student and a first time job (part-time), and as a married woman amidst the expectations of a joint family system. I would wake up early to cook a meal for the family, dash to board a train for a 45-60 min one way commute to college, and after a frenzied day of lectures and work, I’d return home to the regular duties and then manage some window to finish my assignments by minimizing recreational or social engagements. Being placed in the state merit list at the end of the three-year program gave me a sense of accomplishment.  Following that, motherhood added a new dimension in my life, and circumstances made it inevitable for me to take a step back.  

The struggle – long-lost Pardesi 

After few years, in the wake of tremendous opportunities in the Middle East, my husband and I moved to Dubai with our two babies. It was during this time that I felt the need to kick-start again. While my life had changed, my goals had not. My future was important to me. But it wouldn’t be that easy to do so after a hiatus.  Indeed, I felt disheartened many times as I interviewed relentlessly and wasn’t able to secure a firm job having had a fairly long career gap and having moved to a completely different jurisdiction.  

During one of my interviews in particular, I was told that while my resume/CV reflected a bright, aspiring lawyer, it would have been more useful to a hirer if I had some internationally recognized qualification or experience, but that was probably perceived as not realistically possible at that stage of my life. That was a landmark moment of jolt (or spark!) for me.  I figured that I had to do something to prove my true self again.  I understood that I had to overcome that perception (which had seemingly turned into reality) and regain competitiveness and visibility in the legal industry at the time.  While I was dismayed, I genuinely believed that if I wanted something fervently and I tried hard, I could do it. I just didn’t want to give up.

I prepared fervently for the solicitors examination for England and Wales over several months while I continued to take care of my children who were attending pre-school.  But even becoming qualified as a UK solicitor didn’t seem enough, and I realized I still had to do better to reinvigorate my skills and knowledge. That’s when I decided to apply to various universities in the United States for a Masters in Law program. I was almost ready to process my visa papers to enter a dual program at another top US university, when I received overnight an email of acceptance that I was eagerly hoping for from my prime university of choice – Columbia University in New York. The distinguished faculty, intellectually stimulating environment, ethnically diverse student body, and the state-of-the-art facilities made Columbia University my natural choice for graduate study. I was thrilled to get admitted to the Columbia Law School for its graduate study program in law (LL.M.). But then it dawned quickly upon me that I had to make an extremely tough choice and duly consider things on balance as I’d be immersed in an intensely serious program – not disrupting my husband’s career path in Dubai, and also not dislocating the kids who’d be better off staying close to and connected with their known friends and family than being in a foreign land with their time mostly at a remote creche. And so, I bid a very heavy-hearted goodbye and flew to New York all alone.   

Big Apple- The Lion – ups & downs

The year 2001 was perhaps one of the most stressful periods in my life… the LL.M. program at Columbia was indeed very rigorous & it wasn’t trivial adapting to the American education culture in terms of content, pace and style, which was all very novel to me. More so, New York was in mourning and gloomy after the World Trade Center tragedy, which unfortunately struck just around when we started our Fall semester. And of course, all this mental and psychological pressure was happening while I was all alone there thousands of miles away from my family – an emotional upheaval in itself.  However, I had to hang on, stay focused and continue to complete the mission I had set out to do. There was already a lot put at stake.  The first semester started on a low note, but I ramped up in the following semester.  I managed a productive Spring semester adding an internship at the Federal Trade Commission as a research assistant on anti-trust matters, an opportunity referred by late Prof. Harvey Goldschmid (a kind and open-minded corporate/legal luminary whom I had a chance to learn from at Columbia).

I finally graduated in May, and that scene still flashes back – going up on the stage of the commencement ceremony exhilarated and overwhelmed, holding my son’s little hand and cuddling my daughter in my arms while I received my degree (I’m proud that they’re pursuing their own interests/career paths too currently in the US). After graduating, I stayed on to attempt the New York Bar Exam, whilst again bidding adieu to my family who had to return home.  The Bar exam required grueling preparation with focus and endurance, but again, the Columbia Law journey had set a good foundation to withstand that as well.

Back to Base – and Voila

After I returned to Dubai, I was finally able to quickly jump-start my career on a probationary basis at the same regional law firm (remember the landmark moment one?), which turned into a successful position coinciding with the news of my success at qualifying as an attorney in the state of New York. That followed by a decade-long career as legal counsel at a renowned US headquartered international firm with a Dubai office, ultimately reaching the so-called pinnacle – partnership, which I gave up in just a couple of years to take a breather in order to refresh and reflect. I have now transitioned to a dynamic in-house role with legal, compliance & corporate governance responsibilities at a premier fashion e-commerce company operating in the Middle East.

Lessons – Then & Now

It’s re-assuring to see the new generation back home pursuing higher education and careers of their choice (while it’s also becoming incumbent (and thus acceptable) for genders to recognize the value of sharing responsibilities and respecting each other’s roles) and that the society has shifted its mindset & riding along this wave of change.  

In retrospect, I have come to realize that while we need the universe’s grace for things to happen, we need to also give our absolute and total commitment to anything we set out to do in order to be able to achieve it.  Life has to be a meaningful and fulfilling existence after all for one and all, regardless of gender, age or ethnicity.

My vision was simple- intellectual enrichment and personal independence to be able to not only stand up for myself but also become more capable in order to step up and support any needy others to the best extent possible.  My journey also helped me share my experiences to guide & encourage few other aspiring women from my generation to subtly break some of their shackles and aim to reach beyond fixated boundaries.  Attending the graduate study program at Columbia University made a huge difference– it provided a robust platform and was the springboard in my life towards accomplishing my vision, and I am deeply grateful for that.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?
– Rabbi Hillel