Breaking Through – Book Review

Book – Breaking Through

Author – Isher Judge Ahluwalia

Release date – 20 August 2020

Genre – Memoir

A book that I picked up on the recommendation of the owner of my favourite book store and I am so glad I did that. The book, a crisply told tale of the life of an ambitious and driven woman talks about how courage, determination and consistent hard work can lead a person to success and fame. It reinforces the fact that a woman when she sets her mind on something can achieve it no matter what comes in her way. 

Strong, ambitious and driven women have always fascinated me and whenever I learn about any one of them I get all charged up and want to know more about the story of their lives. I love to understand how such women managed to get through life playing all the roles that they had to, doing all the things that they had to and never let anything get to them. And if they did it with grace and elegance than it adds to the admiration that I have for them. I always want to know as to what is it that makes some women accomplish way more than what others can ever hope to.

‘Breaking through’ is the story of one such woman, Ishar Judge Ahluwalia and the story is in her own words. It is a book that needs to be read by women of all ages for the way it inspires and motivates. It surely did that to me. I picked it up and managed to finish reading it in two days. This is no reflection on the reader but on the way the story had been told, the book has been written.

Essentially the book is a memoir but it is the way that Ishar tells her story that sets it apart. She relates it in a simple and easy manner which enables the reader to relate to it, identify with it. She could have been talking about any young girl who grew up in the sixties in a conservative India but what emerges is that she was different from the others. Not only was she academically brilliant but she was consumed by this desire, this zeal to be her own person in every possible way. It talks about how she made things happen in her life.

The author talks about her life, about her area of interest which is economics and though it could have become a dry and boring read she doesn’t let that happen. The book manages to hold the reader’s interest all throughout. The way she puts it, it is so natural to be able to relate to her desire to be an independent woman, with a mind of her own. Thus what also emerges that this economist is a great story-teller too!

It is an inspirational story of a woman who manages to break through all kinds of barriers, social and economic to get to her goal in life. Though from a humble background she goes on to become one of the leading policy economists of India smashing the gender stereotype along the way.

In her growing up years in Calcutta, Ishar finds herself surrounded by girls who have no choice but to give in to the family pressures and get married early on in life. They have no control over their lives and they are happy with that state of affairs but she is not one of them. She is ambitious, she is driven and cannot see herself leading that kind of a life. What she knows is that her life is hers and she cannot let anyone take over the reins. She understands that the surest way to do that is to pursue higher studies and equip herself.

As she says ‘My desire to pursue higher education was about something as simple as retaining control over my own life.’

Thus from a young age she knew what she wanted to do with her life and only she made sure she did it. After finishing school she joined Presidency College in Calcutta from where she moved to the Delhi School of Economics and then to MIT, successively moving out of the safe cocoon of home, city and then country. Considering the times she lived in this wasn’t a small achievement.

Even though her father was keen to get his daughters married off she and two of her sisters managed to convince him to let them study further. Truly, where there is a will there is a way.

The book brings out two distinct aspects of the journey of her life. One aspect is that of her becoming an economist of repute. It wasn’t an easy road but she chose to take it and attained success. There was a lot of academic rigour that was required, lot of things to learn and adapt to but she took it all in her stride and got to her goal. She never let anything come in her way. So whether it was her inability to speak English, adapting to the US system of education or even adapting to life in the US she managed to to overcome each one of them. She took up assignments, projects and travelled to different parts of the world to gain perspective and insights into her chosen field. The result was that she gained respect not only in India but in other parts of the world as well.

Always with a clear vision even as an economist she took a clear stance of working towards a freer and liberalised Indian economy. She played a part in fighting against the Indian economic orthodoxy which was all about the license Raj and restrictions on the private sector. Always a go -getter she managed to transform The Indian Council for Research on International Economic Affairs [ICRIER], it into one of India’s leading economic think tanks. In recent years she has been focused on the challenges of urbanisation in India.

The other aspect that stands out is that despite being the wife of a powerful man who was close to the powers that be in India’s political circles she managed to hold her own. She refused to be known as just as the wife of a well-known husband. She carved out an identity of her own and refused to live in his shadow. Being the wife of a super busy husband meant that she had to raise her boys almost single-handedly, another role which she played with grace and elan. She learnt the art of prioritising and so was able to balance both her career and family. Living in close proximity to the power corridors of Delhi it was a task for the couple to keep their children grounded but they managed with Ishar making sure that t happened. Clarity of thought has been her mainstay which I feel had been one of the secrets to her success. For instance, she knew that she wanted to raise her children in India so that they could be close to their roots. Therefore, when her first one was on the way, the couple chose to relocate to India giving up on their cushy life in the US. 

The book shows that to succeed one clearly has to have goals in life and the zeal to pursue them, come what may. One needs to be bold with courage of conviction to stick to one’s choices in life

Today when Ishar is battling an illness she is doing that too with the grace that is so characteristic of her. A Padma Bhushan awardee she has written this book hoping to inspire and encourage the women to succeed in life to shatter the glass ceilings.

She says,’ For those into whose hands this book finds its way, I hope my life has some lessons of interest.’

What do you think?

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  • Daisy Duggal Singh
    October 4, 2020

    Very well written and it has a message for every woman. Keep the good work going

    • Sangeeta Relan
      October 4, 2020

      Thank you 😊😊

  • Nitin Deveshwar
    October 5, 2020

    Isher Judge Ahluwalia was an extraordinary woman. I never had the good fortune of having met her in person but I have had the pleasure of being friends with her elder son Pawan who was also my colleague when we worked at McKinsey & Co.

    I draw parallels between Mrs. Ahluwalia and my favourite Sangeeta Ma’am. Both of them have led their life with dignity and panache in a man’s world. Their intellect in their field exemplary and their persona is such that people love to listen to them speak on matters of economics, philosophy of life and looking after their families. Both Sangeeta Ma’am and Mrs. Ahluwalia have two sons and it goes without saying, the boys are well brought up with modern values. Sangeeta Ma’am has asm much been the woman behind her husband’s success as Mrs. Ahluwalia has been for her husband Mr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

    The other day I read a beautiful memoir written by Ms. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw on the Late Mrs. Ahluwalia where she spoke about their friendship and how full of life she was and even in her illness was focussed on completing her book and helping her husband with his. Such zest for life and determination to excel were factors that made her so special.

    Having know Sangeeta Ma’am has been a pleasure and she bears great resemblance in character and nature to Mrs. Ahluwalia. Her views on modern family values and how women rights are important in our society are well communicated through AboutHer which has become a must read for people of all genres.

    • Sangeeta Relan
      October 5, 2020

      I have actually been left speechless by this! This is too overwhelming. I would love to be a woman who was as impactful and inspirational as Isher Judge Ahluwalia and I feel I have a long way to go. But Nitin for you to say that I am similar to her is a huge compliment. Thank you so much!