Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Spotting smartness

Herself reflected

As I began to do the typing work, I noticed for the first time that even a letterhead could be done smartly. Then I met a few people in person sometimes. They were as smart as their letterheads. I was not only impressed, but also drawn towards them. They exuded confidence, spoke smoothly and knew exactly what they wanted and what they were doing. Well, I certainly wanted to be like them. It so turned out in that business that most of the callers and visitors were male. I had this great desire to unravel the mystery of their confidence. I would look for a small opening in the conversation and ask them about some detail of their background.

There was this caller, who appeared to be well into his forties from his voice, who would always fix up an evening meeting with my boss. I soon learnt he was the Chairman of a trust that ran a hospital. He would always be sweet and friendly on the phone. Once I made bold to tell him that I wanted a chance to meet him in person. He laughed. After a few days my Boss told me that Dr Cholkar had appreciated my way of handling calls. I was thrilled. I also realised that Dr Cholkar was a well-known personality in the city and regarded as a very effective speaker. He would get frequent mentions in the local newspaper. He didn't appear too smart but wielded some power alright. He did remark once that he liked my voice on the phone.

Some of the regular visitors to the office became friendly. I felt good with the kind of male attention. I realised I was slowly getting disengaged from the female company. Wasn't that what I wanted? I started doing little things with my appearance, like not wearing the bindi sometimes, wearing my hair shoulder length, keeping them open on Saturdays. I wanted to wear pants and jeans. I would have to save some money for that.

Sushama noticed these small changes in my behaviour. She was a nice and warm person but wasn't willing to step out of the line too much. I wasn't enjoying her company as much as I did in the beginning. So I started spending more time in the office after office hours, doing odd bits of work. That was how I first met Dr Cholkar.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Struck by smarties

As I began to type, I noticed how smart even a letterhead could be. That really opened my eyes. You don't have to be humdrum and lacklustre. You have right to look smart and good. That's how these people make their stationery. That must be how they would look in person, I thought to myself. I looked forward to a chance of meeting some of them. I wasn't disappointed.

Some of these businessmen were smart, confident and smooth in their talk. There were some advocates and also some doctors. I thought these professionals really knew how to carry themselves. I wanted to learn that. I would try and find out where they came from, what they did and what they wanted to do in life. I had this overwhelming desire to be like them : smart, confident and suave. But I had no clue how to be that way. Perhaps their youth, money and education gave them that edge.

I got familiar with the callers and visitors and some of them appeared quite friendly. I could ask them a question or two outside the official talk. Some of them told my boss that they liked the way I handled their calls and coordinated their business for them. One such person was Dr Cholkar, the influential Dean of a well-known hospital in the city. He was well known in the social circles, every other week he would be speaking at some public function and would get a mention or two in the press.

He told my boss that this girl was not only a receptionist but an efficient administrator. I had once got his appointment with my Boss changed and also got his tickets booked for a film he wanted to see with his wife. He had merely said on the phone that he was not sure if he could meet my Boss at the appointed time as his wife was interested in seeing a film. He hadn't got the tickets but would soon be sending someone there. I said I could do that for him since the cinemahall was closer to our office. I put the cash together and got him the tickets. That impressed him no end. I didn't know his exact business relationship with the boss, but knew they were pretty close and that my Boss had great respect for the reputed Surgeon.

Monday, November 22, 2004

The hopes and fears

I thought I looked decent enough. But when I asked my roommate, Sushama, to give me some job leads, she said," I don't mean to be rude to you, Rima, but you'd have to change your hairstyle. Cut them short and tie them up, but no braids. That's not the done thing here. Of course, I will ask around other offices in our building." That was promising. She helped me get my CV and application typed in some standard form. I had learnt typing. But I couldn't speak in English, nor was my vocabulary good enough.

As I went to the office in her building with my application, I was anxious. I didn't know anything of the office work. I had helped my mother in her school and all I knew was every office needed some filing. The owner called me and asked if I could do the job of a telephone operator. I said yes, not knowing the difference between the telephone operator and the typist. I wanted a job. Today, sitting in this skyscraper in New York, I laugh at myself. How raw, naive and simple I was!

Any way, I started this job and wrote excitedly to mom. There was no question of writing to my dad. He was inert, passive and desolate as ever. I could pay for my room rent and barely manage the food expenses in that salary. But I had the job now with me.

Most of the people who came to the office were labour contractors, suppliers and a few customers. I began to understand something of this construction business. Most of the flats were booked at the site office. People came to see the construction, and if they liked the scheme they would book the flat there. The site people dealt with them and handled all interactions. Only once in a while the customer would show up in the office. That was the pattern then.

The boss would receive telephone calls from the customers, bankers, politicians and his friends and family. I had to handle these. Very few of them spoke in English. I learnt quickly enough to deal with the contractors and workers. I wanted to get to the meat of the business. So I told my boss that I could do typing as well. He said, "Don't ask for a rise in salary. If that's fine, I would give you some typing work." That was my first lesson in the world of work. If you do additional work, you are expected to charge for it. Not bad, I said to myself.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004


I have been wanting to look at my life as it has unfolded. I can see so many bends, turns and twists in the path I have travelled. The accidents, the fellow-travellers and the robbers that I met on the way. It's such a jumble at the moment.

I remember the first time I came to the city leaving my town behind. I had left my family behind in search of a career. The only person whom I carried in my heart was my mother. I can't make out today whether it was support that she gave or inspiration that she triggered in me. But one thing for sure, I was determined to strike it on my own. I didn't want to remain a town girl with an oily face and hair made up in two braids. Neither did my mother. She was a woman with an exceptional resolve and a mind of her own. She was running a school that was set up by her father in the small town, while my father kept meekly at his government job. The comparison sounds a little unfair today, but at that time, I couldn't fathom my father's utter passivity towards life.

I was hardly 16 at the time, but felt that longing towards doing something big. I couldn't put my finger on it. I vividly recall the uneasiness I felt with my friends whose vision never went beyond the bounds of the town. They were content to do household work besides their studies and their minds were fixed on the impending marriages. All that the girls thought of was who their future husband would be and what would he be like. It was all so stupid. Only a few girls from better-off families would go to college after school. They would never talk to the boys, but keep to themselves and chatter about the new fashion in the one film they saw in a year.
I didn't want any of that utterly silly stuff. I wanted to do something else. I didn't know what I was made of, but knew I was my mother's daughter.

And so soon after giving my School exam, I told my mom I would go to the big city and study. She said, do your college here and then move. I told her I couldn't stay in this place any longer. I felt claustrophobic. "Mom, don't worry about the expenses. I will find a job and pay for my education." "Who will give you a job?" "There are so many firms there. I will try. If I don't get anything, I will come back."

I came to a distant uncle of mine who stayed in a small apartment in the city. Immediately I started looking for a ladies hostel. Luckily the city had umpteen of them and I chose one that was in the better and more modern part of the city. I think my uncle was relieved to see me go there. I felt I was breathing free for the first time. I shared my room in the hostel with another girl from a district place. She was working with a construction firm.

I remember the morning in the hostel when I looked at myself in the mirror. I quite liked my eyes. They glowed. The face was a little longish, but it was not bad. I couldn't help my dark complexion. I thought of my two sisters. Most of my aunts used to like them better. They had pleasant features. Mine were supposed to be too sharp to suit a feminine face. I had cultivated a defiance towards my aunts. At least I wasn't girlish. Neither did I share their childish ideas of what a girl should do.