7 September 2014

*Short Story* Does it always have to be this or that?


Rukmini's thoughts were far away from the food she was supposed to be researching. It was soon going to be time for the weekly meeting with Saravanan, to discuss the bar menu for next week. Only this time, she had to discuss something more than food. As an employer Rukmini tried to maintain a certain code, and one of them was to never pry into the personal life of her employees. This changed of course, with the years they were in service and how their relationship with her developed. But with a man of Saravanan's nature, despite him being her first employee, they had never crossed that border, the line of friendship.

Finding a cook for the bar had been an horrendous experience. Back then, working for a woman was uncommon and when the prospectives discovered they would be dishing out food for a bar, they never returned. Rukmini had spent futile months hiring people, for them to show up for a week, then leave or to not show up at all; she was the substitute cook too often. Saravanan had been sent by Swaminathan; he had left their village to find a job in the city and knew only Swaminathan as a reference. From Swaminathan's door to hers he had arrived: a petite frame supporting a sanguine face and thick head of hair. Swaminathan had only told Saravanan that a client of his was looking for a cook; he had omitted that the client was a woman and the job was in a bar. Both factors dismayed Saravanan, so despite her offer, he declined to join her. It was only after his second month in the city, compelled by fast dwindling savings and a family of four to feed, that Saravanan returned. She knew he wasn't happy, and kept wondering how many months it would be before he simply didn't turn up to work. But persist he did.

They had many arguments after he had settled into the job. Why didn't they serve non-veg? Who has heard of taking drinks without non-veg snacks? The day she suggested that he add some indo-chinese items to the menu, he had looked at her like she had asked him to serve raw rice as an appetizer. Scowls and grunts had followed for days. Finally when he saw her teaching his assistant to make the dish, his pride took over and he went out of his way to ensure that the Gobi Manchurian was the most ordered item on their menu. Rukmini learned that he was an obdurate, and sometimes caustic man, with a work ethic any employer could only dream of. So they managed, grudgingly accepting each other into their lives, like two siblings whose only commonality was blood. Their weekly meeting was a dance, a ballet of movements, choreographed with words, timed pauses, eye movements and set ups; who would get the better of whom?

Today's meeting was going to be even more difficult because Rukmini had to bring up a personal topic. Saravanan had been behaving oddly for the last couple of weeks. In addition to his usual grumpiness he was exhibiting an uncharacteristic disinterest in his job and barely talking to anyone, even to issue mundane instructions. He came to work, did his routine, but had no heart in it. Last week Rukmini had to order the discard of five trays of thayir vadas, because the curd in it had soured too much. The normal Saravanan would have never used a sour batch for making the dish, and even if he did, he would have tried to repair it. The abnormal Saravanan simply shrugged, adjusted the towel on his shoulder, kicked up his lungi into a knot and walked out as Rukmini was reprimanding the waste. It wasn't insubordination, he just didn't care. How do you talk to such a person?

Saravanan shuffled into her office, pulled a chair and then stared at the wall behind Rukmini, like she was an apparition. Rukmini breezily welcomed him, and got going with small chat about the weather. Saravanan continued to stare at a fixed point, somewhere to the left of her. She looked back at the wall, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Change tactics, thought Rukmini. "Oh what would you like to put in the menu next week Saravanan, mangoes seem to be coming into season." She cheerfully outlined all the mango dishes they had previously tried. No response. Exasperated, Rukmini took the mouse of her computer and hit the table with it. Bang. Bang. Bang.

Saravanan said, without taking his eyes of the wall, "Amma, it is good you don't have children. Ungrateful and useless fellows. You feed them, clothe them, send them to the best school, make all sorts of sacrifices, you know Sudha hasn't bought a new saree for herself in ten years, and then, one day, they grow up and try to erase you from their lives. Why did we struggle so much, Sudha and I? I left my village for those children. I had land, but still I left that to work here, in this place, and make vadas. Why Amma?" He said this in a neutral tone, bereft of emotion. Like he was reciting the bus timings to go home.

Rukmini was unsure what to say or do. To a fellow female she would have touched her hand, or offered a hug. But Saravanan, sigh, now that he was talking about his personal life, should she assume that they were friends? She sat tight, putting on a kindly face, or what she thought was a kindly face.

"Your daughter is it? How old is she? Must be in college now, no?" She hoped she guessed right.

"Vasanthi, she only Amma. She is sixteen. We paid so much for tuition in science subjects and you know what she wants to do, fashion". He spat out the last word like it was snake venom. "She doesn't want to give the engineering or medical exams. She wants to join some national fashion school. Fashion, what money is there in making a blouse and skirt? And who will marry her? Already I have to set aside a large dowry because she will be educated, but if she can't earn her own living, who will accept her? Is this what we sent her to school for? To become a tailor?"

There were several points in the narrative where Rukmini try to stammer in a but, or oh, its-not-like-that but Saravanan said it all and then looked at her, really looked at her, focusing his gaze from the wall to her face. "You have to talk to her Amma, tell her not to throw away her life like this. She is a talented girl and she will waste it all on fashion."

Rukmini thought, bar owner and now career counselor.

For workplace harmony Rukmini decided that it would be best to talk to the girl alone, so she invited Vasanthi to her office. What met her was a girl clad in skinny jeans, kajal-smudged eyes, long hair shining and swaying as in a shampoo advertisement, and a barely visible nose stud. She certainly looked like she belonged at NIFT. Unlike her father, Vasanthi wasn't grumpy, but like him, she was adamant.

"You have to explain to him Rukmini Aunty. He think fashion is for bad girls, girls with no interest in studies. When I told him about how much money I can make as a designer, he didn't believe me. He thinks that all those people had connections and rich parents. Besides, he is worried how I will get married. Why should I choose a career based on that choice? Marriage is so far away. Please Aunty, you have to make him see that it is a respectable career choice and I will be good at it." Rukmini had a long discussion with the girl and found that she had thought through her choice well, and had even cleared the entrance exam. She had gone so far as to find out how to get a study loan too, in case her father didn't agree to fund her studies.

Rukmini thought, bar owner, career counselor and now, family relationship manager.

Should she get father and daughter together in the same room? Ha, then she can celebrate Diwali early, with all the fireworks that are sure to happen. Or should she continue to go back and forth, till one of them relents? Meanwhile though, the thayir vadas would continue to be too sour and burnt food would get churned out from her kitchen. Too bad there was no insurance against employee personal distress. After ruminating on options, Rukmini began to formulate an approach, one that neither party was expecting. She called Rekha.

The following Tuesday, on the bar's day off, she told Saravanan to bring Sudha along and meet her at the bar. She wanted to them to meet a couple, and would drive them there herself. Luckily Saravanan was too emotionally drained to protest, which Rukmini had been fearful off. Instead he moved his neck a fraction, which Rukmini took as a nod. They arrived primly dressed and on time. Rukmini drove them to the Rao's house. They were parents of an old schoolfriend she had, and she wanted Saravanan and Sudha to hear the story of their daughter from their own mouths. Thirty years ago, when they were still teenagers, her friend, their daughter, Jyostna shyly announced that she wanted to sit for medical entrance exams. The Raos were an orthodox family and their only wish was for Jyostna to get a degree in Home Science while they looked for and finalized a husband for her. Jyotsna was adamant, so she sat for the entrance exams anyway. Rukmini and her family were the ones to celebrate with her when she got a medical seat. Jyotsna managed to convince them that she would start the course and once her marriage was fixed, withdraw from it. It was, she told them, just a way to pass time. Her parents were skeptical but rather than bear the tantrums of their only child, they relented. Towards the second year Jyotsna's parents found a boy for her, but she wasn't ready. There were threats of suicide, tears of rage, beatings and starvation, but nothing would move her. Finally, her father told her that he won't fund her education and locked her in her room. The next day Jyotsna was gone; climbed out the bathroom window. Her parents assumed that she would return once she had calmed down and be their sweet little daughter. Instead, a few weeks later they heard she had married a senior doctor. They never spoke. When a year later her father tried to approach her, she dismissed him as a stranger. Today, they hear about her, from relatives and friends. They know she has children and is happy. But they never hear her voice. After the meeting, Rukmini didn't want to spell out the point of the story; were Sudha and Saravanan prepared to lose their child over such a matter?

Organizing a meeting for Vasanthi turned out to be a bit harder. People of the background that Rukmini wanted didn't come to her bar. In fact they avoided it and probably shunned anybody who came there. But Rekha had finally tracked down a friend of a friend who was willing to talk. They met at a cafe. The girl wished to remain unnamed for the meeting. Vasanthi arrived, in an attire similar to when she met Rukmini. The contrast between the two girls couldn't be more striking. One in an unassuming salwar suit, with her dupatta pinned on either shoulder, well combed and oiled hair, held by numerous pins. The other the very definition of a light, flowing summer breeze. From first glances, Rukmini could tell that the girls didn't like each other. But Vasanthi had to hear this.

The girl worked in a software firm. She had been there for three years now and liked her company. She had been able to go abroad for a short while, France, for three months and they had liked her work enough to ask her to go back there for longer. Vasanthi sat with her arms folded across her chest, with a "So?" expression. The girl just looked at Rukmini thereafter.

My mother worked as a maid servant, while I went to school. Everyday we left home together, she to the big houses, I with my packed lunch to the local school. She never got a break. She worked seven days a week and always, even though she toiled for her salary, the Ammas in the big houses made it seem like they were doing her a big favor. My father was a good man, but he was unable to work for too long. Later, much later, they found out that he had cancer. No one in her neighborhood knew what that was. My mother's earnings went either towards his medicines or my school books. I cleared the medical and engineering entrance exams; what I wanted to do was to give the IAS exams, for which an arts degree would have been sufficient, but then I thought that it would be better if I do something that will guarantee a job. So, I went in for computers. In the last year of my college, my mother fell ill and I was really scared that cancer will take her away too. Luckily, I got a job on-campus and they gave health insurance for the whole family. My fears came true, my mother did really have cancer, but they caught it early. The medicines and hospital trips cost money; money that I hoped to have saved so I could study for IAS. But I am glad I had that money, for now I can spend it on the most important person in my life. Rukmini Aunty wanted me to tell you about me. This is the story.

Vasanthi was not unmoved. Her hands cupped her face now, and for some time, the three of them sat together, not saying anything. "Aunty, can I leave now?" Rukmini smiled and walked her out of the cafe. Vasanthi watched them. Rukmini Aunty said something, the girl smiled and then she left, walking briskly towards the bus stop.

Rukmini came back to the cafe. Vasanthi had regained her composure as well as her defiant stance by crossing her arms again. "Aunty, what is the meaning of all this?" Unlike her parents, Rukmini knew Vasanthi would need a post-script.

"Look Vasanthi, we all make choices. Some that have big consequences, some trivial and some none at all. That girl made choices putting her mother's need ahead of her own, and she was happy that she had done so. There is a possibility that one day when her mother is dead, she might regret this choice. But there is also the knowledge that she did whatever she could. She felt that her struggling mother deserved her monetary and physical support, and set aside her ambitions for that. Similarly, you have a choice. I know you can make good money as a designer, but you have to remember the insecurity that drove your father to seek a job in my bar; it had to do with money, and providing a good education to his children. Yes, you are not responsible for his choices, but you must respect them, understand them and make your own accordingly. I wanted to you to hear this story, just so that you don't look at only your perspective on this matter, but also you parents. Okay? I cannot tell you or your father what to do. I can only make you see consequences of some choices in other people's lives."

"Aunty, are you done? Can I leave?" Rukmini nodded, and Vasanthi left in a huff.

Something happened, because a week later, Saravanan seemed to have returned to earth. He was pulling on the ear of his assistant for not making the vada batter consistency up to his standards. Rukmini desperately wanted to know how she had helped, if at all, but their weekly meetings returned to their normal thrust and cut; her pride wouldn't let her bring up the topic herself. It was six months before she finally heard.

Saravanan had given Vasanthi one year to prove that she could make more money than their neighborhood tailor. He had got her a sewing machine and Sudha was helping her keep accounts. If she succeeded, she could go to NIFT. If not, she had to take the engineering entrance exams. So Vasanthi was a designer by day and student at night. Rukmini knew it would all work out.