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“You are not serious, right? You are about to graduate from one of the most prestigious colleges in the country and say you don’t want to work. Ridiculous. I mean, why study in the first place?”
Slosh. The empty glasses chimed as water poured into them. Clatters of crockery and cutlery resounded in the cosy room. The two occupants of the room relished the delectable fare in the silence that emanated from long-standing familiarity.
“I am eating a home-cooked meal after a long time,” Pragati said while taking her third helping. “Thank you for insisting I come by to your place.” Her shiny black hair accentuated the white of her face. A faint trace of lipstick enhanced her lips. Dressed in black trousers and a blue blazer, she was incongruous in the homely dining room of the two-bedroom house in Mumbai’s Andheri.
“Don’t be formal, please,” Shikha smiled from the chair next to her collegemate. The dusky hostess looked radiant despite her long hair tied up in a messy bun. The red bindi on her forehead shone brighter than the room’s light. In her yellow chiffon saree, she looked every bit the lady of the house that she was. “You have come to Mumbai after long. I couldn’t have let you go just like that. It has been ten years since I last saw you.”
The two friends had last met on the occasion of Shika’s wedding, a year after their graduation. It was a long time ago, yet it seemed like yesterday. They had kept in touch over calls, texts and episodical emails without getting a chance to meet in their disparate worlds. Until today.
“Your culinary skills have improved all the more,” Pragati gushed. “You must be putting your free time to good use.”
Shikha’s smile froze before it could appear on her lips. “Free time?”
“Yes. Not having to worry about pressures of work, travel, boss’s temper etc., you must be having plenty of time to yourself at home.”
“Taking care of the house entails a lot of work,” Shikha replied. “I don’t get as much spare time as you think.”
“Oh, come on. You have a four-member family, and at eight and six, your two kids are grown up. Life must be easy for you. Unlike me. I barely get time to sleep on weekdays and use weekends to catch up on the same.”
Shikha stared at her friend. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
“You what?!” Pragati looked wide-eyed at one of her closest friends. It was two months before the final year of their college was to end. Placements were going on in full swing.
“You heard me. I am not going to take up the offer at Barclays,” Shikha repeated.
“There are people like me who are still struggling to land a job, and here you are rejecting a five-figure salary offer! What type of job do you want?”
“Nothing. I am not sitting for any more placements.”
“Why?” Pragati was flabbergasted.
“I don’t want to work. I would rather get married and look after my family.”
A prolonged silence followed. Then Pragati burst out laughing.
“I wanted to be well-qualified. The end objective of a good education need not necessarily be a job,” Shikha frowned.
“Oh really! Why do people slog for twelve years in school and afterwards three-four years in college? Why am I thinking of going for an MBA two years later? All for landing that well-paying job.”
“That is your way of looking at things. Of course, your chances of securing a good job increase proportionately with your qualifications. But I don’t see getting a job as the sole objective of education. I studied to grow my awareness, appreciate certain subjects more deeply and grow as a person.”
Pragati rolled her eyes.
“Learning is a lifelong process, and I intend to keep learning. I don’t think I am wasting my education if I decide not to work after graduation,” Shikha reiterated.
“Ok. So, you want to get married. No one is stopping you from having a job and being married.”
“Agree, Pragati. But I won’t be able to manage two full-time jobs. Managing a family is a huge responsibility and is equivalent to a full-time job. I admire those women who balance home and work effortlessly. But I don’t want to be like them. I want to be there for my children when they come back from school, unlike my mother.” Shikha had a determined look on her face. “My parents are so busy at work that they don’t realise that my sister and I have grown up.”
“I didn’t know you are so regressive,” Pragati smirked.
“I am sorry?”
“You have a retrograde mentality. In an era when the world is batting for women rights and equal representation of women at work, you are talking about education without a job and family over a career. The cause of Women Empowerment suffers because of women like you.”
“I believe that Women Empowerment is about a woman having the choice about what she wants to do with her life, and not being forced to go by the demands that society places on her. I am exercising my choice of not to work so that I can have a happier life, and you are discouraging me from the same. Tell me, who is regressive here?” Shikha posed.
Pragati was taken aback for a moment. Then recovered and looked at her friend with an expression of pity tinged with disdain.
“I have your best wishes at heart,” she said to Shikha. “But I can’t force you if you don’t want to take up a job now. With time you will change your mind,” Pragati concluded with the superior air of one who knows that the other person is making a mistake.
A decade had passed without Shikha feeling the need to change her decision. She was happy in her life.
After graduation, Pragati had persisted with her efforts to make Shikha take up a job. Shikha had shrugged off the not so subtle remarks on her having an easy and aimless life. Then she got married, and both friends were too busy to think much about the other’s life and lifestyle.
Shikha had forgotten all about their confabulation in college, until today. It is a strange thing about old conversations. Sometimes, you remember the pauses in between sentences more, the sighs, even the expressions, even if you cannot see them. Shikha could see the look of concern, scorn, pity and derision in Pragati’s face like yesterday.
Shikha decided not to ignore Pragati’s remarks this time.
“You would not know, dear, how challenging and time-consuming it is to look after one’s family,” Shikha said sweetly, “when you don’t have a family of your own.”
Pragati’s spoon with the ice cream scoop stopped in mid-air. Her face reddened. A remnant of a tear appeared at the corner of her eye as she stared at her friend.
“I didn’t expect this from you, Shikha,” she said while depositing the untouched scoop back on her plate. Pragati was too happy and busy in her rising career to miss a companion. Yes, a few years ago, there was a time when she had almost succumbed to the pestering of her parents and the ‘you are still single’ remarks of her relatives, and started to date seriously. But the men she liked were either intimidated by her success or expected Pragati to quit work after marriage. So, she gave up on marriage and pretended that the comments and judgement of society didn’t hurt her.
Her friend’s remarks served as a harsh realisation that it did hurt.
“Pragati, I am sorry,” Shikha said in a soft voice and passed a couple of tissues to her friend. “I didn’t want to make you cry.”
“That remark was in bad taste, Shikha. I haven’t found a man with whom I want to share my life. By choosing to focus on my career, I am not adversely affecting anyone, am I? What right, then, do other people have to pass a judgement on my individual choice?
“Exactly, Pragati. Like you have chosen to prioritise your career, I made a choice to prioritise my family. I am busy from dawn to dusk cooking meals, supervising the house, looking after the studies and play dates of my children and making sure I am there for my husband. Some days, I hardly get time for myself, but I am happy in the life I have chosen. No one has the right to comment on my life and choice. But people still do, and it riles.”
Pragati glanced at her friend with a newfound appreciation. It hadn’t occurred to her that being a full-time homemaker is an empowered choice that someone can make and comes with its share of responsibilities. Shikha would be as busy as she was, if not more. While she had been accusing society of passing moral judgements on her life, she was guilty of the same misdemeanours in her behaviour and actions towards her friend.
She leaned forward and squeezed Shikha’s hand. “I am sorry,” she whispered. “And thank you for showing me the mirror.”
The tears that coursed through Shika’s face mirrored her own.
“Forget it,” Shikha reassured her. “Bade-bade deson main aisi choti-choti baatein hoti rahti hai.”
The two friends laughed. The ice cream on their plates had melted into water, but neither of them cared. It was a good dinner, and their conversation was like the icing on the cake.
This story had been shortlisted for our November 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest. The author-juror Anuradha Kumar said about this story, “Two friends who made different choices in life, and choices are made willingly. Yet as this story shows, no matter how well you think you know someone, it’s hard to understand another person’s choice. Empathy comes hard, and that is quite a sobering realization.”
Image source: a still from the short film Ghar ki Murgi
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Smita Das Jain is the author of the bestselling short story collection, 'A Slice Of Life: Every Person Has A Story,' available worldwide on Amazon. Her E-book 'The Lost Identity' is available on Amazon. read more...
Women's Web is an open platform that publishes a diversity of views, individual posts do not necessarily represent the platform's views and opinions at all times.
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