Working to live vs living to work…
During the years that I was learning to live on little and juggling meagre budgets and coaxing them to do more for me, I was also seeing shades of life that enriched me immensely. Through this period, I consider myself fortunate that I ‘worked at jobs’ before I got work that helped me live. Through this work, I saw the world exploding before me in all its richness. I feel blessed to have met the people I have, seen the colours of life I have, and to have done the kind of work that I didn’t know I was capable of.
The kind of job that was ludicrous in its expectations…
First, my experience with ‘working at jobs’. There were the offices, there were the colleagues, there were the bosses and there were the clients. Uniformly monotonous, consistently demanding and unequivocally unappreciative. I have read somewhere that using too many big words in one sentence is characteristic of bad writing. But how do I describe jobs that systematically killed my soul and robbed me of my creative instincts? How do I describe a job that turned me into a person who didn’t think of quality of work? How do I describe a job where I was more worried about reaching office on time so I could press an impersonal computer button that would determine whether it was 9.41 am or 9.41.02 am? That lifeless computer would then compute the number of times when I was one minute or 30 seconds later than the grace time allotted to me. How do I count the times I lost salary worth 4 hours of working time, for the sin of arriving late for 3 cumulative minutes to office over a whole month? How do I describe a job where I was asked by the office odd-jobs person why I should feel hungry at 3 pm when I reached office hungry and tired after a client meeting, and ordered in for a late lunch? I have no qualms about being described as a bad writer describing this kind of job in clumsy, badly crafted sentences. The irony was that it was a respected ad agency – a place that was supposed to nurture creativity!
The job that gave me life
The office where I got a second chance to live my life was actually a big room above a welding shop. It was tucked away in a side alley of a posh locality and verged on a slum. Sparsely furnished with surplus furniture from the Director’s home, spartan was another word for it. It overlooked a tiny laundry owned by a young man who stood for eight hours behind an ironing table and had first hand information on everything, be it HIV/AIDS (which he believed affected only ‘second-hand’ women), or which bus took one from A to B anywhere in Bangalore where I live. He was my morning conversation person when I reached office too early and had to wait for it to be opened.
That office became my home in the five years that I spent there. It had soul; it held life and it held warmth. The kind of warmth that enveloped you as soon as you walked in. As long as I was there, nothing, not even adversities of the kind I was facing fazed me. Was it because it was an all-woman office, barring two males? I can’t say for sure because it would mean being somewhat unfair to the male species. I’ll just say I got lucky, or maybe this was God’s way of making up with me.
Meeting life in all its colours
Shangon, Founder and Director
How do I describe her? More friend than boss. She knew when to speak, when to leave people alone and she knew just when I was at my lowest. Those were the evenings, when after office, she laid out the comfort foods like hot vadas from the cart downstairs and the tea – and we spoke. We bared our souls to each other because we knew that each of us could keep confidences. And that the next day we had the maturity to again slip back into our roles of boss (she) and employee (me). If there is one person who put me on the road to recovery without a fractured mind, it is Shangon. She forced me to look into myself and find a person who I didn’t know lived in me.
Ujjwala – my most loved colleague
The day I first saw her is so vivid in my memory. She is fair, very fair and the little black and gold beads of her mangalsutra sparkled like little dots against her fair skin. A feminist to the core, she flaunted this symbol of marriage like a badge of honour. Oxymoronic I thought, but that is Ujjwala. Fiercely, militantly strong about what she believes in – in this case her symbol of matrimony. I sat in the workstation next to her for all the time I was there and drew strength from the very positive vibes she emanated even when she was quiet. We travelled the length and breadth of India together. We could walk into a village living in abject poverty and speak with the women like they were our buddies, or walk into a saree store in Odisha and feast our eyes on the most gorgeous sarees, knowing fully well that between us we didn’t have the money to own even one. We could come out sated after a biriyani meal in a roadside dhaba without worrying about the bacteria I’m sure we were putting in. It was with her I felt safe in little hotels of small towns of India (where we had to stay while on field trips) even when we heard drunks weaving their way around outside in the corridors.
Then there were the little ones – because they were far younger than ‘us three’ – Hema, Vini, Shyamala, Shobha. Edwin and Mahesh the two men, knew how to fade away when we were in our ‘most women’ avatars. It was in that office that we held baby showers, understood that women had pre-menstrual mood swings that made them demons, spoke women things and revelled in femininity, and did some good work. When we were not in the mood to work, it was perfectly alright to gather around the ‘scarred dining table’ in the centre, call a halt to work and gossip. We had our problems – we sulked over perceived slights and did all the human things, But we overcame and moved on.
Before I knew it, I was living a fuller, rich life and my troubles were seeming smaller and smaller because I was traveling and working with communities who had even less than us. I was meeting battered women who were bravely battling alcoholic husbands, educating their children, bringing in household incomes, learning to deal with micro-credit and walking miles for a mere pot of water and smiling through all of it. Each time I met them, I cringed, for all the times I had grumbled about my own life of perceived poverty.
I didn’t, have not become an angel. I am still human, still capable of being small and greedy and judgmental and am still full of faults. But I do know that I’m richer because I have met people who have given me a new kind of bank balance – knowledge and the ability to understand and feel empathy.
Finally one day, it was time to move on. Like all good things, this too was coming to an end. One day, I had to gather my weapons, which were infinitely stronger by now, and move on to fresh, wider horizons and chart newer, maybe more exciting paths. I didn’t know then, which way providence was taking me. Yet again, decisions were being made by an unknown hand, who was leading me into uncharted territories. I was wise enough by now not to be scared. I set out…