On a blustery, rainy day Jayanti rode on her scooter to a job interview. This was her twelfth job interview in the past two years. She looked anxious and weary and her heart sank as she saw the long line of well dressed applicants. She scanned their faces as they got out of the interview room looking for clues about the omnipotent beings on the other side of the closed door. Their faces were blank or maybe she could not read their true expression. Since there was nothing to do, she waited patiently.
After about two hours, her name was called. She quickly straightened out her hair and kameez, took her grey file with her credentials and walked nervously to the door. She hesitated a bit and then taking a deep breath, opened the door and forced herself to walk confidently into the room. The three grim looking men and a woman politely asked her to have a seat as they thumbed through her certificates. The questions came rapidly, “BA commerce, are you planning to go for MA? You had good scores in the College Entrance exam, why did you not opt for Engineering or Medicine? You are 24 years old, is this your first job after college? What are your plans for the future? Do you have any recommendations other than what you have from your college?
She felt none of these questions had anything to do with the legal assistant job. But she felt compelled to answer as she did not want to leave any loophole by which she could be rejected.
“I come from a lower middle class family and we did not have the resources to put me through a private Engineering or Medical college. The Government College had only a couple of seats for my caste. I graduated two years ago and since then I have been looking for a job. I also do not know any prominent citizens or mentor who could recommend me,” she replied politely hoping this should explain her situation.
“Have you thought about marriage,” asked the woman.
“Yes,” replied Jayanti keeping her cool, “my parents are looking and are trying to come up with the money for expenses.”
“Do you live with your parents?” asked the woman.
“Yes, with my mother and brother.”
“What happened to your father?” asked one of the men.
“Car accident,” she responded laconically, as she felt this was not going anywhere.
After a couple of minutes while they kept perusing her credentials, one of the men smiled broadly and gave her the classic dismissal, “Thank you, Jayanti for coming, we will be in touch.”
While navigating her scooter through the overcrowded and narrow lanes, she could not delve on the interview, nor did she want to. It had happened many times, and after the interview each time, nobody cared to call.
“It’s getting harder and harder to ride this scooter,” she thought as she tried to force her way between the narrow space between the sidewalk and the huge vehicle. At one time she came very close to an accident when a little boy darted right in front of her almost causing a collision with the closely following Maruti van. But in spite of all the hassle, she preferred riding on her own transportation versus taking the bus where she had to deal with all the groping and the lechery of fowl men on the prowl.
It was still a couple of miles from home when her scooter started sputtering. The panel showed that she had run out of petrol. She stopped at the nearest station to fill up and as she saw the price meter rising with the intake of petrol, she felt a stab of dismay about having to buy the petrol on credit as well as to make the monthly payment of 3500 rupees. “I badly need a job,” she thought desperately.
As soon as she reached home, her mother asked, “Did you get the job?”
“Don’t know Ma. I’m trying hard and really don’t know what they want. I don’t seem to impress anybody,” she said frustrated and crestfallen.
“Don’t worry, next time will be better,” said her mother to cheer her up, “I made some hot parathas, eat beti, and you will feel better.” Her mother looked worried. “I need to get her married,” she thought, but how was she to come up with the wedding expenses. With a lot of scrimping and scraping, she had saved up only 3 lakhs.
Jayanti had no desire to eat. The summer heat, the tenuous trek back home, the mounting debt on her credit card, and the raging disappointment swallowed her appetite. She quickly escaped to her room, held her face in her hands and softly cried in frustration. At 24, her life simply stopped and seemed to go round and round in circles.
By force of habit, she got up and went to the internet/PCO/ kiosk at the end of her street. She scanned for jobs. There were many jobs advertised, jobs for clerks, office manager, legal assistants, bank tellers, technical assistants, teachers, research assistants, and many others. But she knew from experience that for every job advertised, there were thousands of applicants. And she knew she would not stand out as extraordinary or in any way gifted to attract attention. She was just an average girl from an average family. But does not an average girl deserve a job? Does not an average girl possess any feelings or desires? Does everything have to depend on possessing a higher degree or affluence? While pondering on this thought, a pop up flashed on the screen advertising for a job. She clicked on it only to find out that it was a job for a live-in caretaker/maid. The pay was for 4000 Rupees with room and board and involved taking care of the advertiser’s mother in addition to light housework and cooking. The ad was put up by Sheila, a free- lance journalist.
On her way home, she thought about the job. It was strange that it popped up on an internet site. Who would look for a glorified maid’s job at the site which was visited mostly by professionals and technocrats? Maybe, the lady was new to the city and could not rely on the informal network of servants, watchmen, neighbors, friends or employers, or maybe, she had exhausted all her resources and still could not find a person. Anyway it’s a good thing that housekeepers are getting jobs in this economy. At least they are able to survive, which she with her Ba commerce degree could not do. She had half a mind to tear up her degree to pieces. And then, something hit her train of thought as she thought about the job. It was paying 4000 rupees and that would cover the cost of the scooter’s payment with a little bit left and also save her brother expenses for paying for her food and clothes. And they could rent out her room. The more she thought about it, the more she felt in control of solving her all-consuming problem of money. At this time, that was all that mattered. And then she stopped in her tracks, “Why not?” If being a maid could bring financial freedom and give her freedom to live life on her own terms, what’s wrong with that? There would be opposition. She can imagine her mother saying, “You would work as a caretaker in someone else’s house? My God, upon my dead body. What would people say? How will you get married?
She knew that this would be shameful and a loss of face for the family. It’s a topsy-turvy place where people worship money bags who loot everything in sight, yet frown unabashedly on someone who works with their hands. She had read in the internet that in many countries outside India, students and housewives cleaned houses to pay for tuition or earn extra income. If only there was the same respect for labor, she could have obtained a Master’s degree and her brother could have graduated with an Engineering degree. However, at this time, a nagging thought surfaced, “what if I am rejected because I am overqualified for a maid’s job? After wrestling with various alternatives, she decided to give it a try and the next morning rode on her scooter to the address advertised on the site.
Sheila was pacing the room and talking to herself when Jayanti made an appearance, introduced herself and said, “I saw your ad requiring a caretaker/maid.” Sheila looked shocked and asked, “You mean, you are going to work as a maid?” “Yes, I am,” replied Jayanti in a slightly diffident tone. “But --, but aren’t you a bit overqualified. I mean you look educated and smart. Why don’t you get a regular job? I’m sorry I am looking for a maid and pardon me, but I don’t think that you are suitable for the job.”
“Please, madam,” pleaded Jayanti. “I cannot get a regular job as no one will hire a BA commerce graduate. And if I do not get a job, I will be a burden on my stressed family. All I am looking for is some financial independence. Give me a chance. Just try me for a couple of months. If it doesn’t work out, I will leave.” Her desperation must have seeped through her face and Sheila’s face softened as she looked at Jayanti.
“Okay,” said Sheila after some thought, “two months. You can start today if you want to.” Jayanti promised to come the next day and left Sheila to continue her monologue with a puzzled frown.
At night, she lay in her bed, tossing and turning. She thought about how her life went downhill after her father died in a car crash. She was in the 10th grade. Her brother was in the third year of his Engineering degree. Luckily the flat was insured and they didn’t have to pay rent. However, her brother had to quit college and get a job in a call center. His salary of 10000 rupees per month was not a princely amount but helped to make ends meet. She finished her college and began the dreary job search. Now she had reached a fork on the road when she must make a choice- either she branch out on her own or forever be dependent on the scraps of life. The job with Shiela would give her a ground to stand on. Since Sheila’s home was about 30 miles from her home, she would be able to evade the gaze of neighbors and the ensuing gossip.
All hell broke loose the following day when she told her mother and brother. “Oh God! What have I done to deserve this?” her mother wailed. “I expected better things from you,” said her brother. She felt very bad and her eyes were misty. But the all-powerful magnet of destiny was drawing her to an undefined goal. She wanted to hug her mother and brother but they turned away. She left with a heavy heart not knowing if she had chosen wisely.
Shiela gave her a tour of the house and introduced her mother who was disabled and in a wheelchair. The next few days she fumbled at jobs she was not used to – cleaning, cooking, and taking care of her mother. It was hard work but she persisted and slowly got the hang of it and grew increasingly efficient. At the end of two months, she was hired.
She was usually busy, but the evenings were free and Sunday was a light day as her mother went to visit relatives. One day, she passed Shiela’s room and saw some of the papers were scattered on the floor. She switched off the fan and collected the papers and put them in order. A little memo caught her eye. The memo spoke about the need to change the content and style of the write ups from columnists. She also got to read a couple of Sheila’s columns. The next day she dropped by Shiela’s room when she was working on her column. “I saw the papers lying all over the floor and I ventured to put them in order. I hope you do not mind,” she said with some trepidation. “Not at all,” said Sheila affably. She was happy that there was someone to manage the housework and take care of her mother.
Then Jayanti cautiously volunteered, “Sheilaji, I know it’s not my place, but I will be glad to help you in any way I can as I am free in the evenings and I would really like to educate myself.”
“I’m not sure how you can help me, Jayanti. They are talking about content. How can I change the content?” she asked.
“Sheilaji, I got the opportunity to read a few of your columns and it is mostly about the affluent world, the empowered world. Please write about our world, the jobless graduate, the struggle for dignity and survival, the young and the restless looking for direction, etc. I think that will give depth to the content.”
“Maybe, you are right. But there is no audience for sob stories. Most of our readers are a self- centered lot living in the fast lane and used to instant solutions and instant news,” responded Sheila with a slight tone of disillusionment.
“But we can change this. The purpose of media is to lead not to follow. We cannot be people pleasers but people leaders. So let’s try writing what should be written and cater to a wider audience,” said Jayanti. She was feeling like all these ideas and thoughts buried within her suddenly found an outlet as she went into details about the content and direction which she described as sparkling rivulets of wisdom. Shiela looked impressed and after some time she said, “Ok let’s do this. You do a write up about the life of a tailor, and we’ll take it from there.”
Jayanti poured her heart out into the column. She interviewed the tailor, his wife and his children. She depicted their life- how the parents worked 14-15 hours a day. People who earned in thousands would haggle and bargain with the poor man for 5 to 10 rupees while they blow up 100s of rupees in restaurants and drinks. How his son would come back from school and make tea for his parents and bring it to them while they were working. How the daughter missed her playtime to cook and clean the little mud caked home. And how they all went to sleep on the floor in a single room with stooping walls and no windows. She added a few more pertinent details and summed it all up with “Please do not bargain so ruthlessly, that they have nothing left.”
Sheila read it and said it was good. After a few corrections, she sent the draft for publication. The results were disappointing. No one really cared to read about the poor tailor. They were still mesmerized by the self-obsessed anglicized writers who always prefaced their stylized monologue with “I”. “I saw the lake.” “I fell in love”, etc. Sheila however was enthusiastic that it was published. It showed that at least someone had approved it.
“Jayanti,” “continue to write about the people around you. Let’s start a series of profiles both high and low for all types of readers. I feel strongly, this will work out for you.”
So Jayanti worked hard. She picked up a few topics and started working whenever she had a few minutes. Her articles were getting published and even though she was not a popular writer, her genuineness attracted a niche audience. Eventually, Sheila’s recommendation got her a job as an editorial assistant.
Nothing succeeds like success. Her name on a local paper made her mother and brother proud. They came to visit her with sweets and savories. Sheila became her friend and mentor.
Jayanti still continued to take care of Sheila’s mother and helped with the housework, whenever the new maid was absent. For she felt a surge of gratitude for an extraordinary woman who gave her hope when she was down and out, encouraged her to be a writer, nourished her talents and gave her an opportunity to thrive. She would never forget that it was Sheila who looked at her situation with new eyes and gave her a chance to empower herself.
“And sometimes that’s all it takes,” thought Jayanti, “a little stretching, a little giving and a little caring to bring life to a withering soul.”