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Monday, October 22, 2007

Privately yours

Mr Barat attributed a host of qualities to himself. He thought he was a perfect gentleman- which perhaps he really was; he prided himself for being an excellent judge of human nature , which did not always prove to be right and that he considered himself to have been endowed with an enormous masculine appeal , according to his female colleagues, was the biggest joke on earth.

Mr B N Barat was the Senior Manager of Mackilsons & Magor, originally owned by the British but now looked after by the State and as was the case with most state owned companies it was on the brink of being declared a sick unit producing spare parts . Mr Barat was looking at a leave application that was lying on his desk with apparent distaste. That lady wants leave again. What nonsense, leave cannot be sanctioned, not so frequently . Mr Barat pressed the bell. Send Ms Sonali in - he howled.

The woman who drifted in looked more like a faded and dehydrated leaf . She had wrapped herself with the pallu of her saree. It was end December and very cold, but as always she was without shawl. How could such a frail woman withstand cold was a wonder. Mr Barat involuntarily shuddered under his warm tweed coat. The saree she had borrowed from her second sister-in-law was quite heavy and protected her somewhat from the December cold wind . Most days she had to borrow sarees from her sister-in-laws (there were three of them) and she very considerately and carefully selected the ones that were kept for the laundry and she limited her demands to the essentials only leaving the luxury of worm clothes much to the relief of her sister-in-laws.

Her daughter was burning with fever when she left home today for office. Chinki was only eight years old. Sonali gave her a tablet commonly prescribed for fever and promised, she would return early and take her to the doctors. She also promised to take a few days leave from office.

Mr Barat did not try to hide his displeasure.

Ms Roy, you take leave too often to be good for the office. Please don’t take it otherwise, but don’t you agree that ladies should best be looking after home and children rather than take up positions at offices, thereby displacing some good male candidate, a bread earner of a family. The office needs working hands and not vacant seats. I am sorry I can’t grant you any more leave. Please try to understand.

Sonali came back to her seat resigned to her fate. She knew what she would do. She would simply not come to office for the next three days. Not because she had promised her daughter but because she can’t leave an ailing child all alone. It is very easy to say you should not join office and remain a housewife only, but how can such housewives like Sonali, fend for herself and her child if she cannot work in an office because she takes leave too often. Bread earner indeed, so what is Sonali doing , play acting?

Deeply disturbed Sonali came back to her desk and to her work. She had to finish her pending work. She took the petty cash payment ledger and made the entries mechanically with a frown on her small forehead. These part time sweepers, they are a nuisance, Sonali mused. Always after money, putting fictitious bills for cleaning, carrying garbage. Sonali could distinctly remember there was no garbage on the compound last Monday as the office closed in the morning following the news that Mr Samanta, their Accountant expired in a road accident. Still Ramdeen had placed bill for cleaning garbage from the compound on Tuesday. There were a few more bills to be entered in the register, a few vouchers to be made and she thought of sending the register alongwith the vouchers to Mr Avik Sengupta, the Assistant Manager. On a second thought she herself went to his chamber. She must get these signed today itself. Mr Sengupta was having the usual after lunch long and leisurely chat with Mrs Depali Sinha, a catchy young lady with a reputation of leaving a string of broken hearts behind her beautiful frame.

Mr Sengupta gave her a wan smile- please Sonali why don’t you leave them on my table. Err.. I am rather busy…

Sonali looked at the dump of files, registers and papers on his table waiting to be attended to. I won’t take much time. I am sorry Sir, but these must the signed urgently. I am waiting…

Mr Sengupta gave a hurried and cursory glance through the papers and counter signed. Relieved Sonali sent the vouchers for payment.

The next two days were just night mare for her . Chinki’s temperature rose to a limit and the child shivered and started talking in delirium. sonali bathed her daughter repeatedly. She was constantly by her side, bathing her, watching her with anxious eyes, caressing , feeding whatever little liquid she could consume, and taking temperature at intervals. None of her in-laws was by her side with a helping hand as usual, but they also did not disturb her or called her for doing any household cores, for which sonali felt immensely grateful. In her delirium the child cried for her father which made the hapless mother more distraught. Three year ago, Kabir, her husband simply vanished from her world. He was the draftsman of a newspaper house. One day he did not reach home. Some of his colleagues said they saw him near the Howrah station and some of them even asked him where he was going to which they did not get any straight answer. At first Sonali thought that Kabir must have gone to Bandel, where her elder sister-in-law lived. But a few telephone calls later she was again at her wits end. Kabir had not been at any place they knew of. For one whole year Sonali waited for him in vain and she still nurtured a faint hope at a corner of her heart that some day Kabir would return to her.

Monday Sonali reached office quite early and did not panic when Mr Barat called for her. She decided to show the boss the doctor’s prescription, and so she started putting the paper on his table first thing on entering his room. Mr Barat brushed it aside saying no need…, no need… and asked her to take a seat which was rather unusual. Sonali sat on the edge of the chair with a palpating heart; surely she will not be dismissed for taking unauthorized leave.

Sonali , the office owes an explanation from you. He put out a hand to restrain sonali, who was about to speak. You have made a grievous mistake in the payment register . For you, a sum of Rs.1000/- had been paid in excess to the electricians who placed a bill for Rs.3999/- + Rs.202/- and you have put the total as Rs.5201/- instead of Rs.4201/- and the bill has been duly paid . sonali take my word for it, if you can’t make the electrician deposit the excess amount by tomorrow to the office cashier, I would be constrained to issue a show cause letter to you.

Sir please, let me explain, sir I was really very much worried about my daughter’s health. Sir I am giving you back the money- now, right now. Sir please don’t take such an action.

Why should you return the money, you have not taken it yourself, nor did you do it deliberately . Was there a sarcasm hidden behind these words? Sonali could not gauge.

Mr Sengupta, spoke in her defense “ sir I can vouch for her, she won’t do any such thing. It was a clerical mistake only.”

Well, a costly mistake Mr Sengupta, and the office cannot overlook such carelessness.

Mr. Barat was, after all, not an unkind man but he had a set of fixed outlooks on life. First among them was that women should not be seen in the workplace. Their ideal work arena, according to him should be confined to their kitchen and if need be they can work in educational institutions at the most.

May be thought that men will be men and they can take certain liberties, like flirting away their valuable office time inside office premises and with their junior colleagues and can afford to overlook mistakes such as the present one while countersigning important bills and vouchers for payment but the blame should squarely be put on the weaker shoulders.

Mr Barat did not really intend to take any serious action on the incident if the money was returned safely but he wanted to teach Sonali a lesson. That it is a serious world, this workplace, that proper attention and care should be taken while performing office duty and that she should not have the audacity to defy his order and stay at home freaking away time meant for office work. Men also have families but they cannot afford to neglect office for family . So should be the case with women. If they cannot take such a stance, they have, according to him, no right to be in this place in the first place.

Sonali by nature was a very private person and fighting continuously with adversities in life had made her doubly so. She could hardly recall when was the last time she shed any tears. But this was a situation where tears were very much in demand. Mr Barat, the ultimate word of manliness, always melted before a weeping female. It would suit his male ego in the right place and in the right degree. But this is not the stage, so glycerin won’t do. Sonali decided that she must do what she had never done before; she must pour out her life’s misery before this man. Pity, the word that she hated most, was her only resort, for she can’t afford to lose the job. She can’t take any chances either. She was not yet confirmed in her post.

Mr Barat listened to Sonali’s typically tragic life story with a peculiar gleam in his eyes. It seemed to Sonali as if he was mentally licking her wounds and the feeling of suffocation and drowning came back to her. She stopped midways and hated Kabir like never before for leading her to this unenviable situation showcasing herself as the wronged woman, abandoned by husband neglected and ill-treated by the world in general just to arouse pity in strangers , to get things done in her favour. Why is it that when husbands leave their wives they take away their dignity with them?

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