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I would rather be judged on this potential than the clothes I wear. Nonetheless, if you believe that my clothes decide my work ethic and performance, I respectfully excuse myself from this trip.
Here is the second winner of our August 2017 Muse of the Month contest, Ashima Jain.
The cue for this month was from the movie Angry Indian Godessess. Indian women are policed and shamed for their choices, whether it is the kind of clothes they wear, or other things they do – woe betide the woman who smokes! And this is not just in their homes in middle class societies – it is everywhere, even in case of supposedly ’empowered women’. What women want is freedom from this and be able to make their choices without being judged.
Tarini stood in the spacious corner office overlooking the garden that stretched out towards the front of the office building. And yet, the beautiful flowers dotting the boundary wall did little to alleviate the sting she felt as the words reverberated in her head. Clutching the airline ticket for her first official international business trip, all she could think was how angry she felt. Angry enough to want to tear the very same ticket to shreds and throw it at her Director’s face.
When she had been summoned to the Director’s cabin after lunch, she had expected to be given a lecture on the Do’s & Don’ts during her visit to the India Apparel Bazaar. This was a bi-annual event held by their American client wherein they invited their Indian vendors to showcase their product, work with inhouse designers, and convert samples into confirmed bulk orders. It translated to big numbers on her firm’s End of Year Performance report. To be part of this travel team meant a step up in your career.
However, today’s impromptu meeting had nothing to do with the agenda for the client visit. As Tarini had just been informed after being handed over her tickets, it was to discuss her personal travel wardrobe. Her Director had decided it wouldn’t be appropriate for an employee of an apparel consultancy to attend meetings in the US, dressed in a salwar-kameez.
Who is she to decide what I wear, thought Tarini, frown lines on her forehead fighting to give way to a full-blown scowl. Yes, a salwar-kameez was Tarini’s standard wardrobe and she was not ashamed of it. She loved wearing them and was often complimented on her choice of fabrics and colours.
It was no mystery she wore them as a way to camouflage her increasing weight, a life-long battle in which she had now accepted defeat.
Tarini shook her head in exasperation.
Why are women’s clothes always an issue, she asked herself. No matter what we wear, we are never appropriately dressed.
She did know, however, that her attire was her choice. No one else had a say in the matter. If Tarini thought that her clothes were acceptable to be worn to work at a big apparel firm in India, they were totally appropriate to wear anywhere else, the U S of A included.
“Speak up, Tarini. Do you understand what I am saying?” said Madam Director, interrupting Tarini’s chain of thought. “You leave in a week and I expect your wardrobe to be updated by then. We are in the apparel business and it is important to walk the talk in front of the client. If you need assistance, have someone from the Design Team help you out.” With that, she turned back to her laptop, indicating the end of the meeting.
Manjula, her boss, who had been quiet during this invasive exchange, rolled her eyes on the way out. As soon as they were out of earshot, Tarini opened her mouth to speak, but Manjula raised a hand to silence her.
“It wasn’t my idea”, she said. “So, don’t start on me. I was as surprised as you when she brought it up.”
“Manjula, she can’t expect me to change my wardrobe as per her whim”, Tarini fumed. “If she wants me to travel, I travel with my choice of clothes.”
“I agree. It is your choice, but don’t forget this is an important rung on your career ladder. Travelling overseas at your age will reflect well on your résumé, especially considering you are on the buying side of the business. Most people have to wait years before they get this opportunity.”
“Well then, it’s her loss if she decides to pull me off the travel team”, said Tarini, stomping down the stairwell to their department as Manjula raced to keep up. She was worried that if this wardrobe business got out of hand, Tarini might not think twice before putting in her papers. She was a determined young girl and extremely capable, someone Manjula couldn’t afford to lose from her team.
The next two days passed by uneventfully. Tarini began to wonder if, maybe, it was an off-season thundershower that had thankfully blown over as soon as it had arrived. She was glad, for she could use these last few days productively to prepare for the trip – scheduling meetings, updating reports, following up on samples.
Naturally, she was in for a rude shock when Payal from Design dropped in on her late Friday afternoon just as she was packing up to leave for a factory visit.
“I hear someone around here is destined for a makeover.” Payal sang in her nasal voice as she sashayed across the floor like a runway model.
Tarini’s jaw almost hit the floor on hearing her words. Who on earth told her, she wondered. This was the last straw. Why did it have to be Payal, of all people? She was the one person who spared no instance in disparaging her for her traditional style of dressing.
She hurried to gather her things, choosing to ignore Payal’s jibe.
“I’m leaving, Manjula. Will send the updates over email”, she called out, as she sidestepped Payal on her way to the door.
Manjula nodded, watching a storm brewing from the corner of her eye, while pretending to be busy.
“Whoa! Hold your horses, woman.” Payal spun on her feet to follow Tarini. “Where are you galloping off to in the sunset? We have work to do.”
“Do we?” asked Tarini, grinding to a halt that nearly had Payal bump into her. Turning around, she said, “I don’t remember anything on the calendar.”
Payal stepped back to allow space between them. Thrown off her game, she fumbled with her words. “Um. . . this is about your. . . uh. . . discussion with the. . . uh. . . Director. About your. . . uh. . . travel wardrobe.”
For the first time since maybe ever, Tarini noticed Payal seemed flustered.
Secretly enjoying it, she glared at her and asked, “What about it?”
“She, uh. . . asked my boss to. . . uh. . . have someone from the team, you know. . . help. So, I. . . uh. . . I mean, he sent me.”
“Thank you, Payal. I don’t need your help.”
“Hey, we’re all one big team here”, said Payal, spreading her arms out around the room. Clearly, she had rediscovered her charm.
“Payal, we are a team to run this business. Not for anything else. Your help is not needed. Now, it so happens that I am not galloping off into the sunset as you mistakenly assume, but am late for a meeting. So, goodbye.”
Tarini was gone in a flash, leaving a confused Payal behind her.
On Monday afternoon, the travel team was scheduled for a dry-run of their presentation. Though they had prepared well, everyone was nervous to the point they hadn’t eaten a bite all day. The Director was notorious for making last minute changes and have everyone run helter-skelter, till the time the flight actually took-off from the airport. Food was unlikely to go down well in such a situation.
Surprisingly, the presentation went well with only minor changes pointed out by her. As everyone filed out of the conference room, Tarini was asked to stay behind.
“Dhanush mentioned that you turned Payal away despite my instructions.”
Tarini wondered if this was a question or a statement. The Director seemed awfully calm today which was quite unlike her.
Straightening herself up, Tarini matched her gaze with the Director’s and said, “Madam Director, I gather you have had a long and arduous journey in your endeavour to achieve success. Being a woman, I expect that journey would not have been easy, having to fight your way through and chart your own path on the basis of your merit. It would be unfair if you were passed over for a well-deserved opportunity on the basis of anything other than your capability.
As a young professional, I value the opportunity and the encouragement that you provide to propel me forward in my career. I would like to think that this comes from the potential you see in my work. I would rather be judged on this potential than the clothes I wear. Nonetheless, if you believe that my clothes decide my work ethic and performance, I respectfully excuse myself from this trip. You may rest assured that I will prepare whoever you choose as my replacement.”
When Tarini finished her monologue, she thought the Director appeared bemused. She continued to stare at Tarini with a strange expression. After half a minute, it began to feel awkward, but Tarini was not one to back down.
Any response that was expected was interrupted by the buzzing of a mobile phone. The Director lifted her phone off the edge of the table and looked at the caller’s name.
“I need to take this”, she said. “This could be a while. We will talk again, later.” Leaving Tarini standing with her mouth agape, the Director exited the conference room.
Back at her desk, Manjula asked her what had transpired between them. Tarini gave her the update and flopped at her desk. Exhausted and ravenous, she pulled out a box of fruits and started rambling between mouthfuls.
“Where does that leave me? Am I going or not? Do I need to prep a replacement? Who? When? How?”
“Slow down Tarini”, Manjula laughed. “Until she announces a change in plan, it remains as is. So, stay on top of things and prepare yourself for the visit. Forget about anyone else.”
Tarini pulled in deep breaths while chomping on big bites from an apple.
A few moments later, Manjula added, “I’m thinking, after all that you said to her back there, there is no way she is not letting you go on this trip. I have worked with her long enough to know that you are now her new hero. The apple of her eye.”
Hearing that, Tarini nearly choked on a bite of her apple and Manjula burst out laughing as she poured her a glass of water.
The next time Tarini spoke with the Director was at the Airport, two days later, when she wished the team luck before heading to the Business Class check-in counter.
The meetings were a huge success, and so were Tarini’s clothes. At the end of their week-long trip, various motifs from the clothes she had worn had been sketched, copied and scanned as artwork for next season’s development samples. Tarini wasn’t complaining. It wouldn’t be long when these samples would possibly turn into bulk orders for their company. Tarini wished Payal had been here to see this.
The climax to the trip was at the dinner hosted by their client on their last night in-country. The team from India was amused to see their Director step out of the elevator, dressed in a silk saree, something they had never seen her wear to work.
She exchanged a pleasant smile with Tarini as everyone huddled into the cars that were to drive them to the upmarket Italian restaurant.
Word in the office corridors is that the Director now carries a selection of Indian clothes for all her overseas trips.
Note: While this story is inspired from real life, the events described here are fictitious.
Ashima Jain wins a Rs 250 Amazon voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the top winners at the end of 2017. Congratulations!
Image source: pexels