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In everyone’s understanding the two women were holding fort for Pareek- the heir- to claim his rightful place at the helm of the company. That was what tradition expected them to do.
Subhi rubbed the pain ointment into her knees and went to the kitchen. Nothing could stop her from giving her personal touches to her grandson’s favorite dishes. She peeked out of the kitchen windows and saw the media vans already lined up. The 16th birthday of a business scion was good fodder for the paparazzi. According to the tradition (a word that made her shudder because of all the burdens it brought with it), this was when they made a formal announcement about Pareek-the sole heir of this large empire joining the business.
In the olden days, responsibilities came early. So did tragedy and hardships-and 16 could be an entire lifetime. Times had changed, but tradition, as is often the case, remained unwavering. She pushed those thoughts away. The press conference was scheduled later in the day. Thinking about it gave her a sense of satisfaction and pride.
Tara was awake too. After all, she had to wrap the gifts she had carefully selected for her son. At 16 (already!) her son was mature beyond his years. She figured this a result of his turbulent childhood and the egalitarian set up of the gurukul that he was attending. If only her Abhi could have been there today at the press conference. He would have been so proud of their son- and of her too.
16 years ago
The festering feud had taken an ugly turn. Jealousy, greed and lust had colored the battle for control, power and supremacy. Family had fought family like never before. Grief, shock and death had left no one untouched.
For Subhi, the heartbreak of losing her young son Abhi was compounded by her husband’s decision to renounce worldly matters-and life with her. Arjun was deserting her, and the life they had built together, when she needed him the most. And she didn’t even get to decide if she could accompany her husband. Anger had pierced through her. This was just another one of the many decisions that he had taken and expected her to follow. Well, she had had enough of this place-she would return to the home she was raised in, to her parents.
Tara, having lost her beloved husband Abhi, was in deep shock, and was not responding to anything around her. All that she did was to relive the events of that fateful day. If only she had stopped him? Then he would still be here, with her. They would be a family-and her unborn child would have a father.
Subhi’s heart had gone out to Tara. “Tara, we cannot change destiny. What is written will play out. Even if you had tried, you wouldn’t have been able to stop Abhi. He would never ignore the call of duty.”
Tara had quietly turned to the older woman and asked “And his duty to me? To our child?”
The next day Subhi had found a bottle of sleeping pills next to Tara’s bed. It wasn’t opened but the possibilities terrified her. Something snapped inside Subhi. She would stay here. For Tara. For the child she was carrying. Because she recalled her own days as new bride, an expectant mother and a freshly minted parent only too well-especially the loneliness that she had felt in these important phases of her life. And Tara’s situation was even more challenging. Once the baby was born, Subhi could leave.
It was a difficult labor for Tara, and Subhi had panicked when Pareek hadn’t cried. She had immediately called upon her brother who had arranged for the best medical help; and the tiny baby had been revived. The baby – the successor to what would have been a huge empire – had survived.
Tara, however, remained as melancholic as ever; spending her entire day fussing around and tending to Pareek; ignoring even her health in the process.
Subhi worried about her daughter-in-law. Life had, of course, been grossly unfair to her. Tara had put her studies and hobbies on hold when she had married Abhi – a joyous but short-lived marriage. It was true that Pareek was both her responsibility as well as her lifeline.
Subhi was glad that Tara had him in her life. But she was also convinced that Tara needed more than that. A sense of purpose that sprang from her own self-and was not linked to another person-even her own child. Tara, the person was as important as Tara, the mother.
When Subhi had entered this joint family as a young bride her identity had become linked with so many things and people that she had lost sight of herself. And then, everything had been snatched away, leaving her lost and alone. In Tara too, she saw a girl whose sense of self was getting eroded. Over the years-and the challenges she had faced- Subhi had learnt that life would be more turbulent that one could have ever imagined. It could strip you of everything that you had ever held close to your heart-and then some more. The only thing that could keep you going was a sense of purpose.
She began taking Tara under her wing, involving her in matters of the firm, asking her for her help with technology, and sharing the mundane managerial problems that she faced at work.
The affairs of the firm were in complete disarray. Debtors, sycophants, money lenders, associates- all had their own claims and stories; tales which they shamelessly used to exploit the two women who were now managing the affairs of all the men in the family.
According to the charter Subhi was the CEO of the firm. The post of Chairman, traditionally held by the eldest male member of the family was vacant. Subhi’s role was essentially managing the firm to be able to hand it over to Pareek later. Subhi leaned into all that she had picked up from her husband and his uncles during her life in the hierarchical household.
Subhi would bring files home, and in the evening play with her grandson so that Tara got time to read them. Work was unfamiliar terrain for Tara, and there were many moments when she felt herself giving in to her despair. At such times, Subhi would gently yet firmly give her meandering thoughts direction. Tara was grateful for how Subhi had consistently drawn her away from the downward spiral of loneliness and anger that she had found herself in after Abhi’s tragic death. Subhi realized that she too needed a sense of purpose. And that mentoring Tara gave her a sense of fulfillment.
Work became solace and sustenance for both women. They began working closely together- poring over case studies, scrutinizing account statements, working on strategies to increase cash flow. Tara quickly realized that her mother-in-law was astute and pragmatic. And very well versed with the family business too. Subhi realized that Tara was intelligent and sharp- she could accomplish so much with the right guidance. Tara gradually grew more self-confident.
Subhi would find relevant TED talks for Tara and share them with her. They would surf the internet for patent laws. Subhi would give her complex analyses to carry out- ones that she had spent hours preparing. In between long sessions of work, the conversation would turn towards the business empire- both its past glory and the difficult times that had come. And an unspoken question would be preying on the minds of both. Would the company-and its fate been different if it had been run by the women of the family? The bond that shared loss had forged between the two women became stronger.
Subhi was aware that just lineage wouldn’t be enough even in a multi-generational business family for the milestones which Tara had the potential to accomplish. She nudged Tara into joining the management course.
Once Tara was awarded her degree, she too immersed herself in the resurrection of the company. She would share the latest topics from B-school magazines and seminars with Subhi and they would discuss their relevance to the company. Tara would summarize a business strategy and Subhi would quickly give her an example. Usually an example that she had picked up from Arjun’s frequent discussions and travelling with him.
They would book getaways at resorts -and discuss plans for the company over drinks and spa treatments. Subhi’s post-traumatic stress disorder, a legacy of her difficult life, had left her with frequent migraines and days of persistent sadness. In these phases, Tara would quietly give Subhi the only support she could. She listened.
For Subhi, this was something new-it was she who had always been the listener. Arjun, her husband, with his dynamic personality had always been the talker-quite a charmer too; and she would mostly listen to him speak about his travels, adventures, and ambitions. Now, Subhi spoke. Haltingly at first, and fluently later-about her dreams, her childhood, her world views. Thoughts that became clearer as she articulated them and gave her the chance to rediscover parts of herself that she had thought were lost forever.
When Pareek grew older and began attending the boarding school, Tara began to devote more time to the company and was nominated as one of the Managing Directors. In everyone’s understanding the two women were holding fort for Pareek- the heir- to claim his rightful place at the helm of the company. That was what tradition expected them to do.
Subhi led them out into the lawns where the journalists were waiting. The three of them took their places. Pareek, tall and lanky was in the center, flanked by the two strongest women he knew-his mother and his grandmother. Tradition dictated that he address the gathering. But last night, over the skype call, they had written their own little script for today’s event.
The reporters were surprised when Subhi began to speak.
“Welcome, I know you are here to know the plans for Indraprastha Enterprises- actually Pareek’s plans for the firm. As you are aware, the charter of the firm was valid only until Pareek attained the age of 16 years. It is now the time for major changes in the organization.”
“Are you nominating him as Chairman?”
“No. Pareek is still young. He is exploring his interests and his thoughts. We don’t wish to pressure him with the responsibilities of taking big decisions so early in life.”
This was what the three of them had agreed last night. When- and if – Pareek wanted, he could return to the firm as a trainee. And work his way up. Right now, though, he wanted to continue the gurukul way of life – being a lifelong student and learner. It was his life. His choice. And he was glad that the women in his life understood this. Just as he had fully endorsed Subhi’s suggestion.
“Then who will be chairman of the firm. It is an important role.”
“Chairperson” Subhi corrected the journalist.
“Let me introduce you to the first woman chairperson of Indraprastha enterprises. Tara.”
A murmur broke out. Subhi could hear the words, tradition, woman, mistake, just a widow….
“Ma’am is she qualified for this huge responsibility. You do understand….”
The condescending tone was familiar to both women. Tara stood up.
“Yes, I do understand that the chairperson needs to be well versed with business matters. Beyond my management degree and my experience, I have something more powerful and effective. I have been mentored by this amazing woman here-my mother-in-law Subhi. And regarding tradition, let us now refrain from using it as an excuse to silence and suppress the power of women.”
Author’s note to the reader: This is a retelling of the story of Subhadra, Abhimanyu, Uttara and Parikshit, from the Mahabharata, happening after the great war. It is also the story of the transformative change that a strong mentor mentee relationship, even within a family can bring.
Editor’s Note: For IWD 2023, we’re publishing #MentoringStories in both fiction and non-fiction, for the IWD2023 theme #EmbraceEquity. This fiction piece is one of the winners. See all mentoring stories here.
Image source: SBI Khushiyon ka Card/ YouTube
Shalini is an author and a practicing doctor specializing in respiratory pathology.
Her book Stars from the Borderless Sea (2022) was longlisted for the AutHer Awards 2023 (Debut category).
Shalini was awarded a Jury Appreciation read more...
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