By Anusha Srinivasan
“So how is work?”
* * *
When asked this question, I see myself going into a flashback of sorts, complete with zoom-in (and zoom-out) techniques and trippy loops on screen. What do I say?
Do I talk about how every interview I attended in the recent past involved direct and indirect questions regarding my marital status? That I was being considered a flight risk because I was 25 and single. I discovered that there are only so many ways the question of ‘future plans’ can be worded, and that all these words will come back to when you plan to marry (and at times, why you aren’t married yet). “I have three sisters too; I know how it must be for you,” said one considerate interviewer. I sense my annoyance bubbling up, but it dies a quick death. I used to be one of those people who were quick to shout out, “How dare they ask you that? Is that even allowed?” Now, though, I am reminded of the women who have to treat a job as their ticket to a better alliance in the arranged marriage market, who need a job so as to land a husband whose list of requirements includes the terms Working Woman. I go on to wonder if these women would be allowed to work once the wedding ends and the marriage begins. I wonder if they care. I feel a bit resentful towards them, but I am no longer militant about this either. I think about it some more, and conclude that I only wish I were judged for what I (re)present, not what I am in the imaginations of others.
Do I talk about how in this very large engineering company, there are just two of us women on the floor? I could give you details and make you uncomfortable—every time we walk a few steps, we have at least five pairs of eyes watching us move. I see them following the way the cloth moves with me when I walk, I sense their stares on the back of my neck.
Do I talk about the time I went outside the building because my cellphone wasn’t picking up signal inside? I was advised that it was inappropriate for someone like me to go out as I please. “To talk on the phone, that too!” Do I mention my confusion, or my embarrassment? Perhaps I should mention how I came to understand the context, when I overheard two men. “Impossible to trust girls these days…they flirt, and then they leave you. When they cross the road with the phone stuck to their ears, whose lives are they ruining that minute?” I want to ask them how they arrived at this logic, if they imbibe values and life lessons from the movies they watch. I want to ask them why they congratulate a guy for finding himself a girlfriend (backslapping and ‘way to go’ hi-fives), and why they are so quick to condemn every girl who receives a phone call. I stay silent.
Do I talk about the episode of the missing dot? When a male colleague took it upon himself to enforce appropriate dressing, which in his opinion must include a pottu. “Pottu illa ma, paathuko [The dot on your forehead is missing, take care ma].” And when I ignore his advice, he suggests using a marker or a pen to draw one on my forehead. He asks the (only) other girl if she has an extra sticker pottu she could let me borrow. I don’t take him seriously. He doesn’t let go. Another day, and yet another day, he points out my error to me. “Don’t you like keeping it?” “You mean your mother didn’t say anything to you when you left the house today morning?” I say something rude, but it is too little, too late. I sense I’ve let myself down.
Do I talk about the Human Resource Professional who called us to a meeting? She advised us to wear clothes that wouldn’t distract our male colleagues. What could this mean exactly? The rules instruct us to wear salwar suits (with dupattas, take note). Pants are allowed on Saturdays, and she hurries to clarify it for us: “Pants are allowed on Saturdays, yes, but you must aim to be a Roman in Rome.” We can’t think of any more ways to dress ‘decently’, and we ask each other if we are being told to not wear leggings. We don’t look at her, we don’t answer her. She repeats herself, expecting a response of some sort. No, she expects our agreement, our assurance that we will not distract our colleagues. “You must be a Roman in Rome, right? Am I right? Hmm?” We nod and walk out, we don’t know yet how to describe this feeling that is inside of us. Maybe we don’t want to be Romans. We are upset, angry, hurt, but we also doubt ourselves for a minute when we look down at our clothes.
Do I talk about how we were told to not go for walks outside during lunch? “We can’t have you girls walking by yourselves outside.” We rebel, we continue to go on our walks. But we are not satisfied with this small victory. Do I talk about the argument that happened because I protested being addressed as paapa [baby]? They don’t comprehend when I tell them I don’t like it, they discuss among themselves the amount of thimiru [arrogance] that possibly runs through me.
I imagine showing up at work is like a game of Minesweeper, which I know I am going to lose. (I was never any good at it.) I can’t conform, I can’t fight. I keep stepping on mines and I wait for the day it will all blow up in my face. I fantasise about letting everyone know what is on my mind before the detonation occurs.
* * *
“Work is okay,” I reply.
Anusha Srinivasan is an environmental engineer who records her writing at anusrini20.wordpress.com.