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An unsuitable girl

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

A woman from a minority community learns what it takes to fit into the Wall Street culture in an entertaining but thoughtful memoir.

The Indian edition of Suits: A Woman on Wall Street has a small but significant change in the cover photo. The global edition shows a woman caught in mid-stride in a form-hugging black power dress, briefcase clutched in one hand, the other adjusting the strap of her high heels. The subliminal message is sexy — and misleading.

The cover of the Indian edition displays a pair of trousered legs encased in sensible high-heeled pumps, striding down a pavement. Whether by default or design, Hachette has caught the essence of Nina Godiwalla’s book much more accurately than the original publishers. Far from being a hoary shilling shocker of sexual harassment in the workplace, this is a down-to-earth and lightly fictionalised insider’s story of a young Parsi woman’s attempts to fit in with the exclusivist culture at one of the most famous addresses in global finance.

In truth, the book doesn’t need artificial sex appeal to sell. One obvious reason is the post-2008 timing, although Godiwalla’s story is set well before that. Wall Street and its greedy investment bankers and traders pretty much suck, in public opinion, so there’s a ready market for “faction” like this (witness the stream of insider accounts of the 2008 meltdown that still washes up on publishers’ lists). But Godiwalla’s account, at once funny and thoughtful, is extremely readable.

The sub-title, “A Woman on Wall Street”, however, tells only half the story. Suits is about cultural adjustments at multiple levels. Godiwalla comes from a Parsi family that’s settled in Houston, Texas. It’s a typical immigrant story — the controlling father determined to ensure his children attain his notion of the American dream and the children caught between cultures and the pressure to excel. Add the hyper-parochialism of a rapidly diminishing global Parsi community — family social life centres on the stiflingly affectionate Freany Aunties and Jal Uncles who have gravitated to America — and Nina is the classic American-born confused desi even before she hits Wall Street.

Godiwalla was, of course, familiar with cultural alienation; like many Asian immigrants she learnt it in the school of hard knocks — junior high. When her class was asked to bring home food for a Smorgasbord, her grandmother make burfi, painstakingly covering each piece in silver varak. But her classmates mocked the green sweets for looking like “green puke”, joking that burfi meant “barf”. Her teacher told her to take them home, suggesting her mother had forgotten to take off the silver foil.

Training as an analyst on Wall Street, Godiwalla finds her non-Ivy League background as much a handicap as her gender and ethnicity. “My first impression of my fellow J P Morgan interns was as startling as theirs of me. Initially they judged me harshly since I wasn’t one of them. But I’d learn soon that it wasn’t personal. Most of them were used to being around people just like them and so their natural tendency was to box insiders into categories before they could get to know them better. After one dinner with this money-is-no-object crowd, I learned this is where the real bonding took place but I couldn’t afford it.”

These lessons are as much part of her on-the-job training as the phoney assumptions on which investment bankers base their projections for clients. Later, working as an analyst with Morgan Stanley, Godiwalla sees the overweening and spurious power of the i-banker up close. Her boss berates her for not centring a heading on a slide and for using dots instead of stars on a map. The stars are apparently meant to convey the vital message to clients that Morgan Stanley will make them stars, he explains.

Working 80 hours a week in an uber-competitive environment, partying at the toniest New York restaurants and nightclubs, it is a lavish corporate account and anti-depressant Prozac pills that make this world go round. The competition to stay ahead depends as much on fitting in as in crunching numbers accurately. Godiwalla rapidly learns to knock back tequila shots, memorise baseball scores, smile at tasteless male locker-room humour and to choose black or blue pant suits after a capable woman colleague is pilloried for wearing a sleeveless top — in short, to be one of the white male guys who dominate her work group. “It’s slow brainwashing,” she tells a colleague after a breakdown, “I’m being rewarded for being a monkey — for agreeing not to think, speak or have an opinion.”

As a woman from a minority community, she finds she has to work thrice as hard as, say, Michael, the well-connected Ivy Leaguer whose family name and ability to schmooze with the power elite (and to introduce his boss to strippers) earn him as many brownie points as Godiwalla’s serial all-nighters. As for relationships, there is no time for them. “[I]t would be an enormous mistake to hook up with someone at work, even though they were practically the only men I might see for weeks,” she writes. “I couldn’t let them see me as anything less than a banker. I started to understand why my male colleagues spent so much time at strip clubs. Besides the need to control and humiliate someone — after someone had controlled and humiliated you all day — loneliness takes over.”

If Suits is unlikely to become an all-time classic it’s because Godiwalla lacks a novelist’s ability to structure conversations realistically and because there are too many profound ponderings on the Meaning of Life. But the book works because she tells it like it is, in an unsentimental style with an eye for detail. Her website describes the book as The Devil Wear Prada meets Liar’s Poker. A more accurate comparison would be with Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. Like Bonfire she conjures up the world of illusory glamour with remarkable accuracy, though her story is less of a cautionary tale.

Author: Nina Godiwalla
Publisher: Hachette
Pages: 352
Price: Rs 395

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First Published: Sat, December 24 2011. 00:15 IST