A BPO tale
Short story written not too long ago.
My dad, he is old fashioned. A touch religious, but very old fashioned. He has very few friends who smoke. Many are teetotalers. Most of the wives are just that. Good women, who cook well, teach and take care of the kids and them. The men have day jobs; even the self-employed tend to work regular hours. Two or three bedroom houses, a few showcase items, wooden and bronze handicrafts, no soft toys, a color television, the music system, a framed photograph of some faraway El Dorado that passes off for art, and these days a computer – these are what you would find at every sight if you ever paid them a visit. The family sorts – Mostly contented.
My name is Laura. At home they call me Hema. I was re-baptized when I was 21, an age at which the Indian constitution also enfranchised me. Not that one has anything to do with the other. My colleagues think I am old fashioned. There are a few things I am not ok with you know – pre marital sex for e.g. Just plain uncomfortable with that. Blame my genes. My school. Oh hell. And me. The other supposed vices? Alcohol, nicotine and marijuana? That’s alright I guess. To each his own. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I don’t have a day job.
I work at a data processing center. We get rows and rows and rows and rows of data. And we reconcile them. Are this X and that X the same, how about this Y and that Y. No, that’s a Z. Flag it then. As jobs go, it’s a fair deal. I make a decent sum, enough to live by myself, not that I do. It doesn’t exactly call for exercising my neurons, but heck, whoever wanted to think for someone else anyway. It’s just a job. Paolo Coelho, God bless him, is enough to make me think. And I can indulge in my three interests – books, coffee shops and bowling, without counting the paise. Typically, after I have kept aside enough for my LIC policy, just in case I drop dead reconciling, I go bankrupt by the twenty-seventh or twenty-eighth of every month.
Anyway, this is not about me. It’s about my dad and
Dad, he didn’t get it that I worked night shifts. That a cab stopped by our place at odd hours in the night. For a while he was behind me to get a better job. A day job. He would go,
“Hema, why don’t you look for a morning job just like everyone else?”
“Just like whom appa? Half my classmates work at night. The rest are unemployed.”
“Maybe you can look for a lesser paying job, that should be alright”
“But why would I want to do that? It’s not like it matters what time of the day it is as long as I am cocooned inside the office.”
“It’s not good for your health”.
Can’t argue much with that, that’s probably true, but it always ended there, its not good for my health. You should see me, really. I am what you could call a stubborn specimen. That virus hasn’t been discovered which can keep hale and hearty me down. Touchwood.
But after the while had passed, he dropped the matter. He was semi-retired, as in he worked when he pleased. When you are old enough and wise enough, you can sometimes afford to that. If not, the knees make sure of that anyway. And it turned out so that my working nights suited both of us just fine. We got around to talking a bit, after I woke up in the late afternoon, about this and that, him and her, here and there. The good thing about working nights, at least for me, was that it sort of forced me into spending more time with family. You just can’t head out every afternoon after all. It was good conversing with dad. He was old fashioned alright but he wasn’t downright dogmatic. Which suited me just fine. Initially, we started out nibbling at the surface, about work, about the shopping to be done, some bill to be paid, some obnoxious neighbor, that sort of thing. Fortunately, these almost always went well which meant that in time we got around to probing away a little deeper than skin deep.
“Tell me Hema, are you happy with your job?”
“Hmm…Yeah, it’s ok. Boring sometimes, but otherwise its ok. Good colleagues.”
Sometimes he was even bold enough to wonder how come we weren’t discontented. To be perfectly honest, I mean for the most part it’s a rote job. How long could one just suck it up, do it just for the pay.
I didn’t have a good answer to that one. I didn’t have much of a choice really, which was of course obvious. The folks who had been there for two years or so, they asked these questions of themselves a lot more. For those newbies like me, who had been at it for just a short while, these questions did crop up but it was something we shrugged off without troubling ourselves too much, it sat lightly on us. Most of the experienced folks ended up as a team lead, which meant that either they couldn’t get themselves good enough for anything better or they had convinced themselves that this was a great career – that it wasn’t any different from the shop floor and it paid better, and would do so at the very least for a few years more. The rest got out, some decided late in life that it was better to study than to work, some decided that this truly sucked, and tried to figure out something less sucky. Personally, I didn’t think it was too sucky. It helped me stay on my two left feet, and like I said, these were still early days.
So we would sit and discuss this, and somewhere along the way, we ended up agreeing that a job is a job is just a job. Once upon a time, some people cleaned up, while the rest did their thing, today more people clean up – the customer support guy, the processing associate, the research analyst blah blah, very few rule the roost, just that the clean up is a little more sophisticated, a lot more respectable, can buy you the washing machine, and so you can employ a maid to do your dishes.
Then one day, he said to me, How about we go together to one of your hangouts? Just the two of us, to Barista or Coffee Day or wherever it is that you kids disappear to.
That seemed like a good idea, but I had a better one. Rather than Barista, I told him that we would go to Java City. Not only was it a coffee shop, but the two of us could listen to some music as well.
And so that Saturday, at around 5:15 or so, we landed up at Java City to hear Peter and his group play some jazz while we gorged on our lemon tarts. Jesus, are they good or what! Dad didn’t know that they played jazz, it was all some English music, pop, rock whatever. It didn’t make too much of a difference to him anyway. Two words said it all – Western Music. As far as he was concerned, Lalgudi and Amjad Ali were the cool dudes. The place was packed, as it is on most Saturdays, so we had to wait a little before we got a table.
“Appa, listen to the music. It’s pretty cool you know. Very nice, feel good stuff.”
For a while we sat in silence, sipping the cold coffee, munching on the tarts, and appreciating the music. After about 20 minutes or so, he turned to me and said.
“You know, this is strange”.
“Yeah, I know, jazz sounds like that initially, doesn’t it?”
“No, not that. I mean, yeah, its good, the bald guy has a good voice, and it’s not too loud. I mean this place…it’s strange. Look at all these people. The boys, the girls, smoking away to glory.”
“Do you smoke?”
“You come here often, don’t you?”
“No Appa, I don’t smoke. And I can’t help it if others do. I come here for the music, and the vibes I get here. It’s very energetic.
“Good. But what do you mean, the vibes you get here?”
“I mean, the place is so…so…full of life you know. There’s this buzz, the music, the chatter, the college kids. All of that you know.
Shit, it’s Deep. Idiot, can’t he see I am sitting with my dad. Damn, look that way, no this way. Down, Up. Oh hell, he’s coming over. Damn, never mind. Fuck, finally he realizes my dad’s here. Too late. Bozo.
“Hi Hema.” Dad’s looking at him. “Hello, I am Deep”
“Hi Deep. Deep, this is my dad. Dad, Deep, friend and colleague at work.”
“Hi Deep. Nice to meet you”.
“Ok Hema, catch you later then. Me shall say hello to Peter. Have a good time Sir. Nice meeting you…Blah Blah…”
Deep left and there was this uncomfortable silence that followed. No doubt Dad was thinking about the Sweetheart bit.
“Appa, he is not my boy friend. Just a friend. And he just calls every girl he knows a sweetheart. Chumma thaan.
And I knew it was not ok.
There was the girl I had seen often at JC. A human chimney if you ever saw one. Once I saw her smoke 10 sticks in 2 hours. Fuckin amazing.
Dad seemed to have noticed her too. “That girl there, I wonder what kind of upbringing she’s had. Look at her and you would think here’s a nice girl, and there she goes smoking like she’s lived all her life on the footpath”.
Maybe I didn’t tell you this before, but Dad, he wasn’t particularly affected by the poor. It wasn’t a caste thing with him, it was just that he thought people tended to be poor because they deserved to be poor. In his book, poverty, smoking, alcoholism and worse went hand in hand. You could differ, but he wasn’t convinced easily. I suppose the rich who smoked and sneakily rolled their joints in air conditioned cafes would someday end in a footpath too. Yeah, right!
“Your friend smokes too, eh?”
There we go again. Blasted Deep, he is probably doing it on purpose.
“Yeah, he does. I have tried to talk him off it, doesn’t seem to register.”
“And he smokes when you are chatting with him?”
“He isn’t very respectful then”
“I don’t mind too much actually. I am sure he wouldn’t if I asked him not to”
“You haven’t asked him?”
“You haven’t asked him?”
“No, I guess not”
“That’s the problem with your generation. You don’t put your foot down. Sab chalta hai by your books.”
I guess I made a mistake coming to JC in the first place. The two of us together at a coffee shop? Should have put my foot down at the absurdity of the very idea.
“You don’t have an opinion?”
“Opinion? Yeah, I have one. I think I can put my foot down when I want to. Deep likes his smoke, and I am not too bothered by it. It’s not like I am passive smoking all the time. So yeah, it’s ok with me. To each his own.”
A while passed, and then Dad came up with this cryptic comment, “I wonder if this is what Gandhi fought for – To each his own? Is that what freedom is?”
I don’t offer a comment. Another while passes, and he is muttering an answer himself. “In a capitalist world, I suppose yes. In a socialist world, I guess it would be “To each his own, as long as we all believe in the same things”.
He smiles. That random observation seems to have made him happy.
“You don’t smoke, do you?”
“No appa, I already told you I don’t.”
“Good. It’s not good for your health”.
Trust me, its tough being 21, working nights, not having a boyfriend, and staying with your parents. And all at the same time?