The 1990s are remembered either as an effusive celebration of economic liberalisation or with nostalgia for what was lost to globalisation. While much non-fiction has been written on the economic transformation, there isn’t enough fiction capturing the real lives of the people who worked in those India offices of global companies, who learnt to adapt to a new corporate culture, and created as well as consumed the many products of a globalised world.
My Poems Are Not For Your Ad Campaign by Anuradha Sarma Pujari, translated from the Assamese by Aruni Kashyap, is a workplace novel that explores the complexities of urban life and office culture, offering a window into the way women were viewed—by their male colleagues, by other women and by the rest of society—as they began to enter the workplace in larger numbers in a newly liberalised economy.
First published as Hriday Ek Bigyapan in 1997, the novel follows 29-year-old Bhashwati, a poet who works in an advertising agency in Kolkata and feels oddly out of sync with her surroundings. The better she gets at her job, the further her dream of being a published poet drifts. The nature of dreams lies at the heart of this novel—dreams pursued, dreams abandoned, those on hold, those that died, and, saddest of all, dreams that fade unnoticed as one gets caught up in routine.
A sense of history-in-the-making pervades the narrative as it describes the explosion of consumerism and opportunity. This remains the book’s strongest point—Pujari is writing of life as she saw it then. One of Assam’s most popular writers and a Sahitya Akademi Award winner, Pujari began her career in advertising and told The Hindu, during the launch of the book in Guwahati three weeks ago, that she drew upon her own experiences.
Despite this, Pujari’s characters all feel strangely thin—whether it is the artist Chinmoy, for whom the married Bhashwati feels a fleeting attraction, or Maya, who is part of the client servicing team and confides in Bhashwati about having to give in to demands for sex in order to hold down the job and support her family. Situations built up with great care fizzle out: Bhashwati gets into a scrap with a senior executive, Sunanda, who treats her with condescension in front of a client, but the war of words leads nowhere. Bhashwati is the model worker, meeting all her targets and having no goals of her own, though she worries privately, uselessly, and often, about “the eroding values in a changing society”.
While her anxieties run in a loop, some of the questions the novel raises are relevant—the role of women in the workplace and society, and the true meaning of work: Is it merely a means to earn a livelihood, should it bring satisfaction, should it contribute to individual development, and how much should it influence other aspects of one’s life?
A translator’s note or a preface would have brought in greater context. Without it, this remains a book that only captures a particular place and time, the ideas of which often feel anachronistic to a reader of today.