Translated from the Hindi by Aditi Yadav
If you haven’t ever lost your job, you won’t understand what it feels like to live in dread. As I did every other day, I reached my seat and turned on my laptop. However, the “everydayness” felt a bit different today. Right outside the office gate, pandemonium had broken out, there were 30-40 people with placards in their hands. Pink slips were being handed to about 20-25 people every day. Amidst the chaotic crowd were some of my friends, and some people with whom I would exchange smiles near the office coffee machine. I didn’t dare face them, I felt as though I had personally ousted them from the company.
In the onslaught of the pandemic, the company’s funding had dried up. Suddenly, it had shelved its “let’s-change-the-world” plans. There were lay-offs almost every week. Those who had somehow managed to cling on to their jobs reached office only to live in mortal fear of their names being called out on the office public address system.
When it bellowed Mohit’s name—he sat right next to me—his eyes welled up. The water that rolled down his cheeks could by no means be called tear-like. It was different—a liquid I had never seen before.
The company management had told us that this was the last day it would be firing employees. It had already got rid of most of them. The whole situation felt similar to what used to happen during my childhood. Whenever thunder rumbled on, I would hold on to my mother. To allay my fears, my father would tell me a theory. “As light travels faster than sound, lightning has already struck somewhere before you hear the thunder roar. So you shouldn’t be scared of the thunderstorm. If there is anything that needs to be feared, it is the lightning that hasn’t yet struck anywhere.”
The pink slip roll call had begun alphabetically. Most people are scared of mathematics. This was the first time I felt ABCD was terrorising me. In the past few days, I had stopped drinking coffee from the office coffee machine. Going to office with lowered eyes, leaving office with escapist eyes—it was unsettling, as though I’d been going there to commit theft and not to work.
The pandemic had changed a lot of things. During the lockdown, I had seen thousands of migrant workers return to their homes. I felt their fear and desperation that day in the office. The speaker announced my name. Before this, whenever my name had been called out, it was either to receive some appreciation or medals. Today it was different.
I somehow managed to drag myself to the spot holding my shaky nerves. The process was simple. Having announced a name, the HR representative said a perfunctory “sorry.” A speech followed. It had lost its relevance due to the countless repetitions. I had read in books that words lose their meanings. But here, I was experiencing it for the first time.
Someone had EMI liabilities to fulfil. Someone was the sole breadwinner. Someone had devoted a lifetime to the company. Some screamed, some cried. Some cried after screaming, while some screamed after crying.
But why wasn’t this as miserable as I had expected it to be? Strangely, the very instant they uttered my name, I felt a sense of relief wash over me. It occurred to me that for the first time, I had seen lightning even before it had struck.
It was the same fear that had gripped me ages ago in the final year of college. After completing a four-year engineering degree, I returned home jobless. The neighbourhood folks badgered me, asking, “Beta, how long is your vacation this time around? “ I had no answers for this inquisitive lot.
I vividly remember the day I travelled 3 hours by bus to appear for an interview for a job that offered a mere Rs. 5,000 per month. Having failed the interview, I stood at a chai shop, thinking what a splendid life the chaiwallah had. He makes tea for tired people and gives them comfort. One can’t find solutions for someone else’s life, but the chaiwallah at least provides people with the courage to fight life’s battles.
Once in a while, we are all hit by some existential crisis. It makes one question the meaning of one’s life or lack thereof. Probably, it is then that one embarks on the real journey of life.
I couldn’t marry the girl I loved because I was without a job, was not employed, and she couldn’t afford to wait for me. I don’t know why no one laid down a clear disclaimer that the equation of love life remains unbalanced if you don’t have a job.
No sooner had the HR lady begun with the explanation than I interrupted, “I know what you are about to say, so let’s just wrap it quickly.” Utterly surprised by my response, she double-checked with me. I smiled back with a humble “Thank you.” Although my smile must have rankled her for a long time.
That day, I slept like a log—as though I’d returned after accomplishing a Herculean task. I don’t remember when I had last slept for 18 hours at a stretch. After waking up, I went to my favourite restaurant and ate. I think it was my revenge strategy—I always felt famished post nasty appraisals or poor results.
I wrapped up the stuff I had in Bangalore. I also sold off a lot that I had. After the sell-off, I realised how we lug around the heavy burden of redundant stuff.
My family had shifted to the village after I got a job in Bangalore. My father never built a house in the city. Although he had always lived in decent homes, it was always as a tenant. He always said, “Yaar, the houses we live in were built by some other people. But now we are occupying the premises. There is no bigger illusion on earth than building a house that you want to call your own.” He hadn’t read books most of his life. But post his retirement, he attended to ancestral fields and read books about farming. He stayed ever so busy in preparations for seasonal cropping.
When I broke the news of my return to my mother, she was elated. She had heard of “work from home” in the times of Corona. In all probability, I would have stayed in Bangalore hunting for another job instead of returning. But truth be told, I was missing my home in the village and yearning to live there. Whenever I dreamt of that house, it would somehow create a vision fused with my Bangalore house. Dreams are strange spaces. You often happen to find stuff in your dreams that you hunt for desperately in the real world. I wished that the house I lived in Bangalore had the umbrella of my village skies. After all, it’s only our bit of sky that we all wish to have and hold. Owning a piece of land sounds just like proclaiming your share of the sky. The first week after homecoming was delightful. I had left the village while I was studying in second grade. The classmate I had back then is now a father. His child is at present a student in second grade.
Life in a village sure runs pretty fast. When he visited me, our conversation lasted only as long as the tea in our cups. He wanted to understand what work I was doing. It was tough for me to explain what I was doing. Soon I felt nostalgic about my home in Bangalore. Yaar, I should have stayed there and looked around for work. Something or the other would have worked out had I persisted.
Seamless conversations between fathers and sons aren’t the norm in the part of eastern Uttar Pradesh I come from. With immense trepidation, I told my father about having relinquished the job. The moment his gaze met my eyes, I felt I could not lie.
“If you have given up on it, you may be having your reasons,” he said.
I hadn’t expected this reply from him. I barely managed to say that the company had laid me off.
My dad responded, “It’s okay. They might have their reasons.” Given my situation, I had expected my father to be livid. So far in life, he had always been mad at us. After taking to farming, he had adopted a mellow approach to life. A day had gone by, yet he hadn’t said anything about me to my mother.
Something had bridged the gap between father and son. I woke up in the morning and read the newspaper for hours. He made it a point to sit next to me and read all the pages of the newspaper that I had read. I suppose he wanted to converse with me through the pages I had read. Amma observed that after my arrival, he had doubled his efforts in farming. He was looking forward to reaping the harvest but was in no haste to do so.
He often hummed Kabir’s couplet:
Dheere dheere re mana, dheere sab kuch hoye
Mali seenche sau ghada, ritu aaye phal hoye
(Slow and mellow, O heart! Things take their time.
Gardener pours in gallons. Fruits to seasons rhyme)
If anyone around asked about my job, he replied, “In the times of supercomputers, the employees have become superhumans. How can one understand what they do!”
One day he woke up and suddenly said, “Let’s go!”
Having no other option than to comply, I followed him to the farm. He had taken out my favourite books from childhood from old cupboards.
All day long, he worked with farm folks while I read my books. In many books, I noticed that my father had underlined some text. This was also his art of conversing with me. All sons and fathers discover their unique art of conversation I guess.
During my reading breaks, I observed him keenly. I gradually started absorbing his spoken words and kept learning.
He was looking forward to reaping the harvest. But I couldn’t sight any lightning this time. The second tsunami of corona swept him away. I had lost my father. His demise filled me with rage beyond words. I was also angry that he never had open conversations with me during his lifetime. Would the universe collapse if a father talked to his son? The time for harvest had arrived.
In the last six months, I have learnt a lot about farming. I had no problem making money from the crops and also helped fellow villagers. When I came back from Bangalore I had a monthly income of ₹1 lakh, and here I was in my village sitting on a pile of ₹25 lakh just within one harvest season.
In my father’s diary, I found a note, “Everyone’s working to feed themselves. But no one is working to grow food. In the race to be superhumans, we have forgotten that we need to be humans first.”
What I do in the village is beyond the comprehension of my Bangalore friends. I often joke, “How can you superhumans understand what I do!”
I wish I had returned to my village much earlier and spent more time with my father. That couplet by Kabir, I had memorised quite early in life. But its meaning sank in much later—after my father was gone.
Divya Prakash Dubey is an ex-marketer turned best-selling author of Hindi books, including his latest work, Aako Baako.
Aditi Yadav is a civil servant from the Indian Engineering Services.