Uma peered out of the window. The lights in the building across the road were switched off. She looked at the clock and thought she could still catch Shailesh in Toronto. Was it too early for Tapan in UK? Perhaps it was. She re-heated the dinner in microwave and thought she should now have it.
The Report had to be on Ramnik’s table (rather on his screen) next morning. She could not let him down. It was 1.05 a.m in Singapore and she was trying to meet a HO deadline.
Uma is a modern phenomenon. She emerged from a small town in Karnataka to score spectacular marks in Engineering and transited to a prestigious Indian management institution. She was picked up by a foreign consulting firm and posted to an emerging market in South America (she had taken a Spanish Course during a vacation). After postings in USA and Europe for varying periods, she was posted to head a business vertical in Mumbai Office.
Uma’s transition through various continents left her with little time for a well developed personal life. While she absorbed the features of the more open and rather transitory nature of relationships in these societies, she did not venture into them due to the strong in-built and instinctive resistance to them. She was attracted to a charming and dashing South American colleague briefly and a Belgian diplomat she dealt with for a Government contract. But she was put off when they ate beef for dinner and liked their drinks after sunset.
Uma is a tall woman (by Indian standards) and very efficient in an intimidating way. She could lay her hands on an attachment to a nineteen month old casual mail within less than 50 seconds. Her table was uncluttered and the files arranged in chronological manner with old files cleaned up at fortnightly intervals. Her choice of attire reflected the influence of passage from a small town to international cities and back to India. She preferred western dress which was in distinct contrast with her delicate Indian looks. I thought that she looked softer and more beautiful in the rare moments when she wore Indian dress (monthly traditional dress day).
Uma’s aggressive demeanor hid a shy nature which had left her with an underdeveloped inter personal skills. This, I have found, is a failure in many academically brilliant individuals who have focused more on academics rather than on acquiring a well rounded personality. She could be at times rather abrupt and rude in her demands on her colleagues which earned her the nick name of “iron maiden”.
Her sister Laxmi had opted out of the race after marriage and was on the verge of getting a green card. Her parents had stuck to their moorings and were contented with their small town life amongst familiar people and surroundings. Her father had retired from Indian Railways and had a conservative outlook in most matters. Her mother was a home maker and firmly believed that girls should get married at a certain age and then proceed on a course determined by biology and grudgingly the modern world. She viewed Uma’s success in the early days with pride , later with apprehension and now with resignation.
Her parents were normal Indian middle class couple with normal expectations from their progeny- marriage, children and so on. They started believing that the laptop which shared the empty place in the bed was the spouse- albeit an inanimate one.
I met Uma in the course of my official life. She was the co-lead in the assignment she was doing for my employer and I was the coordinator. Uma easily overtook her colleague in understanding the matter and guiding on implementation. Her colleagues and co-lead looked at her with apprehension as she could lash out unexpectedly before realizing that she needs to control her reactions.
I came to know her better when she moved into the block of apartments I lived in. Both of us were in certain common committees which managed the apartments. Uma brought in the same degree of determined resolution to the issues that I had seen earlier. Her intimidating level of efficiency and ability to marshal facts and figures made the oldies running the block a bit wary of her. Expectedly either she got her way through or we had long and weary arguments on comparatively smaller issues. The net result was that every one checked discreetly whether Uma would attend a meeting beforehand to avoid needless bruises.
I saw her softer side one late evening when I had gone for a post dinner walk. It was early winter and a light cool breeze was blowing without being chill. I saw Uma sitting on the steps of the Swimming pool staring out despondently. She had left her parents at the railway station to go to their home town after a ten day stay (shortened from a planned three week stay). She was bitter on two things. She wanted her parents to stay with her for at least a month, Even if their curtailed stay could be forgiven, at least they could have agreed to fly back rather than insist on using the free railway pass her parents were entitled to.
I asked her were there any pressing engagements prompting this return. Though on the face of it there were reasons (annual car festival at the nearby temple), the real reason was that they were quite bored. Her long working hours left them lonely. Uma had little interest in food and ate odd items as per her mother ( cereals and fruit juice for breakfast, a small and tasteless lunch and a small portion for dinner) . Uma believed that food was an incidental need and not an end in itself. Her mother believed otherwise and felt that excellence in food was also a goal in life which needed more mental discipline than any large expense or effort.
I asked her when did she leave her hometown –rather effectively her home and the way of life as her parents lived and understood. She thought for a while and said nearly 14 years. She had lived in a hostel for Engineering and Management course. The small town life and its enjoyment of its limited and recurring events (car festival, Ayyappa Pooja, New Year and so on) now left her cold. She could identify the US festivals- Labor day, Thanks giving, -more easily (work had to be planned around it). In India, festivals were all over the year and part of day to day life.
I then inquired about what she loved to do the most when she was rid of her day to day burdens. She thought for a while and said that she used up such time to read up official mails earmarked for leisure reading. The time left after that was spent for catching up of professional reading and then cleaning up her cupboards.
I persisted and asked her to shut her eyes and tell me what was the happiest memory that came to her mind. She shut her eyes for a while and said that the image that persisted was her mother preparing Jilebi and Mysore Pak and keeping it ready for her when she returned from school. Mother did not insist on her washing up before taking them. She would look at Uma lovingly when she was savoring these sweets. Mummy would not restrict the number of sweets or number of times she could take. After eating, she would muzzle her face on her mother’s waist and tell “ you are the best Amma in the world”.
The last sentences came in a voice choked with emotion. Probably it came with a surge of memories tinged with emotion and sentiment. She looked at me through eyes which seemed to have travelled a long distance and bid me a wordless good bye.
I did not meet her for some weeks as I was travelling and she was also travelling. Both of us missed some Committee Meetings where surprisingly the absence of both of us was felt. We met over a festival weekend. Padma, my wife , had arranged for a small religious ceremony where we had invited a few close individuals. Uma turned up late (some office emergency) and stayed back for dinner and long conversation. Padma has a knack of bridging the old world and the newer ones and had struck a chord with Uma. Both of them discussed long forgotten menus of dishes rarely made and how the same festivals were celebrated differently in southern states.
Padma innocently asked how she spent her spare time and whether she could join some of the common religious functions held in the suburb. Uma gave me a look which indicated that she had not forgotten our last conversation which obviously has left an impact. Uma had done a performance review- of her life so far- which lead her to face some uncomfortable truths. Uma had a core of honesty which did not spare others ( making others very uncomfortable with her) and also herself. She found that her life revolved around her job and career. The benefit of her efforts had to be ultimately weighed in the scale of pecuniary consideration. She wondered if she went back to Brazil or Sao Paulo (where she had done some brilliant work) how many would recognize her now and more importantly with how many she could share those days.
This led her to wonder what she had in common with colleagues with whom she had spent most of her waking hours in the last fifteen or so years. There was little she could find in common. She was uncomfortable in parties and found it hard to start or sustain conversation on trivial matters. Comparison of IFRS versus US GAAP or Indian GAAP (accounting standards for the dense reader) was hardly matters which sparked interests of all.
She spoke about a US colleague she met during her last overseas assignment. He had spoken glowingly about the time he spent doing carpentry work over the weekend. It was his hobby. He was an IT professional and used his creative abilities in making furniture which made people curious. He had a waiting list of clients- rich ones- who were prepared to pay a premium for his hand made products.
Uma realized that she had let the job and career dictate her life instead of being the other way round. I had once told her that all our efforts in earning a living is to make the time outside that a pleasure to live. It had resided in a corner of her mind and raised its head now.
She had taken a two week break and went to live with her parents. She hired a car (a latest model Toyota- she could have afforded a Merc or BMW- her parents joy could not be measured in monetary terms, but did not want to overdo it) and took them to Hampi ruins, stayed in a private resort in Coorg and then visited the beautiful temples in Karnataka (Hornad, Subramanya, Sringeri, Dharmasthala, Mookambika and several others). It was not a whirl wind visit. She stated overnight wherever needed. She enjoyed the pristine forest of Kudremukh, stared at the river in serene Sringeri, asked the soothsayer priest in Subramanya about what she should do to gain personal happiness and so on. Her parents were amazed at the change and did not to ask what led to her change.
Her mother made Jilebi and Mysore pak and also soft idlis (as soft as a baby’s cheek) and three varieties of chatni. They were much , much better than the lunch at Four Seasons in New York. She just embraced her mother ( she could not muzzle her face on her mother’s waist now) and that was enough to convey her feelings. Her father took her for morning walks and introduced her to his friends. All of them had children who were abroad running after a mirage of success and money. Their knowing eyes did not have any questions and knew the answers. They just took her to the nearby riverside and just sat there staring at the river flow as it had done for centuries.
Father had indirectly asked about Ranga Rao’s son Harish who was now in NY with Mckinsey. Now, she had met Harish at some common client’s assignment and had quite interesting times with him. He was a teetotaler and had spoken at length about meditation and efficacy of prayers. Would he be a dull company speaking only about advaita or would he also be fun to be with, having a good sense of humor?
All this came out in a long and emotional conversation which surprised Padma more than me. Uma seemed to have had a long and hard look at her life so far and concluded that it needed a mid course correction. Did her eyes look softer now, I wondered.
It was clear Uma’s life had reached an inflexion point and she had to take a decision.
She chose to look at a life which balanced her skills and provided a meaning to existence.
Scenario ends here
Uma is a creation of my imagination. But the circumstances narrated in it are not far from reality. The thought that recurs in my mind is the extraordinary impact our job and career has on our lives and that of our family.
When I started working nearly four decades back, employment was a cherished but extremely difficult goal to achieve. The question of career alternates, which is a reality today, did not exist. Employment was a means to earn a living. By dint of extra ordinary efforts progress in career was possible. But that was not a compulsory goal. It was fine if an individual retired not far from where he started off.
The corollary to this attitude was that family time was taken for granted. An individual had time to go after pursuits of his choice. Today, the situation is different. A well qualified person has many alternate career choices. Having made the choice or changed it several times, it gathers a momentum which the individual is unable to control.
How we earn our living is of significance and importance , but if they reach a stage where it dominates our life , then it is time to review our life. The parable of Uma recited above is not an unrealistic one in today’s context. The issue here is how much of ourselves we give to the organisation we serve and what is it that we leave for ourselves.
Uma’s career success is admirable. The trajectory from a small town in India to world capitals and acceptance of skills and knowledge across the globe is something to be admired and emulated. However in the course of this marathon, do we pause to wonder what is it that we enjoy as an individual – as compared to our official position- and actually convert it into reality.
What would you tell Uma if she meets you?