New Work in the City

I am not beginning work in Mumbai with a clean slate. Ideas about its work culture have been seeping into me like the incessant monsoon rain, with no umbrella wide enough to prevent me from getting drenched. Truth be told, I’ve been asking for it, needing to know the unruly contours of this world before stepping into it blindfolded, which is how I imagine what entering one’s first job is like.

In this endeavour, I’m told a lot of things. I’m told how Mumbai isn’t Delhi – one can’t get away with the clout of one’s father, or even of oneself. I’m told of how it singularly speaks the language of money, all power and privilege arising from and dissipating with it; how it’s professional, unperturbed by vacuities or flattery. Everyone is perpetually in a hurry, to reach office or to leave it, to catch the fast local or to avoid traffic hours – one has to learn to keep up with pace. One has to carve corners in the interstices between the spaces everyone else already occupies.

I am unsure if I decide to come here despite or because of this. But once I do, some of these notions begin to rinse off my surface to leave behind an original starry eyed self. Like the millions who throng this city of dreams, I am nervous, excited and vulnerable. Hence, to calm myself, I utilise a 90% discount at a Kemp’s Corner bookshop and begin to read.

My Salinger Year is a memoir by Joanna Rakoff on her experience working in a publishing firm in New York. “On my first day at the Agency,” she writes, “I dressed carefully in clothing that struck me as suitable for work in an office… I had never worked in an office before, but I had acted…. and I regarded this outfit as a costume.”

My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff Bloomsbury Publishing (2014)

If all the world’s a stage, I think, all of work is an act – our mothers are our costume designers, carefully picking first-day outfits, our fathers the production managers, comparing salaries with budgets, and our bosses are the directors, gauging potential and assigning roles.

To put on a costume then is to slip into this new role, to listen attentively is to pick up the tones to deliver dialogue. Joanna’s New York stage might be clad in snow and mine in Mumbai awash with rain, but sitting in Cafe New York at Chowpatty, I see the differences blurring, both cities full of crowded streets, high rise buildings, unaffordable rent and persistent dreamers still.

As I navigate my first few weeks at work, I relate to one of Joanna’s major problems – lunch. It isn’t just about the lack of packed lunches in our bags, it has to, for instance, do with figuring out the appropriate lunch hour – should it be the one when one feels hungry, or when everyone else disappears into their holes, the corridors empty of humans, filled instead with their undecipherable bedlam of chatter? It’s about managing the finances of lunches, a constant math in the head, choices to be made. It’s about finding a lunch-group, an attempt to not end up as the colleague who eats alone or, gasp, works while eating.

Yet, on her first day, when a coworker asks an overworked Joanna, “Have you had lunch?”, I realise that in office speak, this is the dialogue that melts audiences and helps one find friends among colleagues.

In time, the valuations of my weekends start rising like the bullish markets and when I come across Altaf Tyrewala’s poetic rendition of Mumbai in Ministry of Hurt Sentiments, I am unsure whether to laugh or scoff. It opens with the lines:

‘Thank God for Monday mornings, 
Thank God for monthly outstandings…
At your windowless airconditioned office
Located in the heart of an unruly suburban grid’.

It seems that every working person is united in his derision of weekdays, suffocated by the stuffiness of his workplace and plagued by the epidemic of backaches. Work becomes a common identity we share with those with whom we share nothing, a club with membership requirement of solely a salary account.

When I pick S. Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borge’s Mafia Queens of Mumbai I expect it to be a pink peek inside the dark hyper-masculine underbelly of the city, away from the familiar white collar jobs of womenfolk like me. However, it lands me right up at my own office’s doorstep. The book opens at Bada Qabrastan, where the underworld’s mighty lay buried under-the-world. Then, through the route I take to work daily, it takes me to a former don’s residence near my current home and to the drug cartels of a locality I want to inhabit, leaving me unsure of my plans.

‘Mafia Queens of Mumbai’ S. Hussain Zaidi Tranquebar Press (2012)

The stories of the mafia queens don’t just give these women space in the city’s crowded folklore, they place their history in proximity to my present. Rising from ashes to provide for themselves and their families, their struggles aren’t unlike those of ordinary working women. Their effortless transitions into newly-assigned roles is inspirational, exciting even, leaving me feeling like a cop getting a kick out of a thief’s cleverness.

I find Jenny Bhatt’s Each of Us Killers, a collection of short stories revolving around work lives. Here, a man thinks he has made it because he owns a “a two-by-four fixed food stall with three tables in front. All in a prime, expensive location at Parla Station, West. All paid for with blood, sweat, and don’t-ask-what-else.” I want to ask about the “what-else” – the blanks left by the romantics, the gaps the strugglers are scared to fill. What does one have to give up in order to make it here? Is it ultimately worth it, a peaceful night’s sleep still within reach – or is the city too loud to afford us even that?

As monsoons bid a teary-eyed farewell and the sun’s piercing gaze takes over, I wonder if its heat can dry off the remaining preconceptions I carry. With the sky now clear of clouds of opinions, do I finally see things as they are? Mumbai’s never-ending rain, the hair-raising humidity and the non-existent winter are well known, but no one discusses the capacity of the October heat to empty us and then fill us with potential.

As I cross the Bada Qabrastan during my commute to office, I wonder about the people who work there, those who noticed the potential of the bare walls outside to paint them with murals. I think about the power of tea to make conversations flow at work, perhaps even more than lunch. I think about the view of the majestic BMC building from the terrace of my office, my tiny escape, and the entirety of life outside of work, the limitless escape. I think about all that I am not told about work in this city, about the seasons I am yet to discover and the pastures I might find myself in when I take off my blindfold.

Soumya Anand is an officer in the Indian Revenue Service. Once charged with her morning coffee, and when not working, she prefers to spend her time reading, writing and exploring the city on foot.