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Read a tale of endurance, will & a daring fight against Covid. Click here for "The Stalwarts" by Soni Shalini.

In Wonderland

In Wonderland

19 mins

What are you doing here? Your name is on the list!’

‘What?’ Pooja was jerked out of her sombre state. Not having cleared the selection processes of multiple companies visiting her college campus, she had given up hope.

It had become a routine process. She would sincerely prepare for all the tests: mathematical, analytical, technical; but not manage to clear any of them. So this time, she had not bothered to prepare for any but just sit for the heck of it.

‘If I prepare, I don’t get through; if I don’t prepare, I don’t get through. Then I shall rather choose the latter. Why make so much effort? At least, I can tell myself that I did not get through since I hadn’t prepared.’ This was her logic and it was certainly better than the mental resonance that she was not good enough for it.

However, this was a pleasant, contradictory surprise. She hurried herself to dress in formals and make herself presentable for the interview.

‘All the best!’ her roommate wished. ‘Thanks!’ she whispered as she simultaneously rehearsed the lines in her mind. ‘I would be interested in the profile......The company offers scope for......’

Pooja entered the room and simply regurgitated the rehearsed lines.

She came out after some time. By this time, her friends had flocked near the room, waiting for her. She knew why they were there. This too could be like the rest of the times, when she would break down and they would offer her their consolation. She sat at the bench along with them, anxiously waiting for the result.

She had never hated studies but never loved it either. She had never appeared in the topper’s list but was never at the bottom either. She had always been dangling ‘in-between’ somewhere. She was good at sports but was not outstanding in it. She was a melodious bathroom singer but not good enough to be a stage performer. She had a good physique but not an hourglass figure as well. She had participated in all co-curricular activities right from childhood. Won few, lost some! This summed up her early school days. And then it was time to select subjects to study further. Like any other teenager, she had been totally perplexed when it came to selecting a career option.

‘Quantitative and technical certifications supposedly ended up with jobs’, she had observed and reasoned out.

‘So? Take the safest route. Select science! Well, no harm in choosing. One had to complete graduation anyways. So why not have a technical hand!’

And, that is exactly how she had landed herself in an engineering college. Of course, it wasn’t in one of the top colleges.

Pooja’s mind had loitered from childhood days to her present situation.

‘Don’t worry!’ her friends echoed as they tried to express their support to cheer her up.

‘Pooja, the result is getting pinned onto the board’, observed one of her friends.

She collected herself and meekly went to the result list. Her name was actually there!

‘Congratulations! We knew you would nail it!’ She gave a sardonic smile at all of her support group and a sigh of relief.

Pooja was both thrilled and scared. Thrilled because she had managed to fetch herself a job while scared because this was a technical job. ‘Technical-Design Intern’ was what was stated on the offer letter. ‘Not sure how much technical proficiency that would require!’ she thought to herself as she signed on the acceptance letter. The leftover college days flew past in bliss without anyone realizing it and suddenly it was action time for all, in their respective areas.

Sky-scrapers and formals; Pooja had entered the office premises. She registered her name on the visitor’s directory. ‘Please wait’, was the hushed instruction. She sat at the foyer and looked around to kill time. People whispered in accented language and sober tones; shook hands with a fake smile which would evaporate on crossing past the person. Everyone seemed to be in their busiest hour. Office and its nuances; this world was very different from college. The HR manager greeted her and proceeded for the completion of formalities and introductions.

And in no time, she had started with the induction training. These sessions saw her brush shoulders with the ‘more technically talented’, all freshly hand-picked from their respective colleges.

‘How am I going to survive?’ she would constantly end up asking herself.

‘Well, sincerity is the only arm’, would reverberate as her mind’s response.

The technical training had come to a conclusion within a month. By now, Pooja had acquainted herself with few unsaid corporate dictations. Leaving the office premises on time was a crime. You could sit at your cubicle surfing or doing nothing. But leaving late conveyed that you were working till then. Colleague-groups flocked at some corner, puffing smoke and gossiping to entertain themselves out of the office pressure. If you joined this group, you were a buddy; if you didn’t you were merely a formal colleague and would end up missing on some important piece of information discussed. Humility had no takers; one had to constantly market himself. And, there was no plain ground or level playing field. One had to be at the top of the hill.

The responsibilities started getting allocated. Rahul received ‘Technical Escalation Support’. Rohan and Siddharth were given ‘Technical Programming’, Vidya was for ‘Technical Optimization’ whereas she had ‘Technical Design’ laid on her plate.

‘Oh No! All are technical! There is no use even in switching places.’ Pooja just wished that her work was a little less technical than that of the others.

There was an initial warm-up period for some time when each one helped the other wherever they got stuck in their respective work. But with every passing day, that helpfulness was slowly diminishing and the warmth was declining. Each one was getting sucked up in their environment without themselves being aware of it. Pooja realized that the rat race had begun and that she had joined it already even though unwillingly. To survive, she had no choice but to run. All were soaked into work. And Pooja was lost into oblivion in an attempt to match the pace.

‘Pooja, the design you have submitted to the client is not in line with his expectations!’

She looked at her manager trying to explain. He was however not willing to listen.

‘What the hell are you doing? You are not a fresher anymore!’ yelled her manager.

Her emotions had now choked her enough that she was unable to speak anything. Thankfully, this conversation was in her boss’ room with no one else listening else it would have been further embarrassing.

This was not the first time she was hearing this. She felt humiliated as she came out of the room, her eyes brimming with tears and all sight hazy before her.

‘I cannot let my tears roll down before others’, she thought.

Her vision was very much blurred due to her tearful eyes. She, however, contained her emotions and somehow managed her way to the washroom, with her head facing the ground. As she hurriedly reached inside, her feelings burst out and she wept wholeheartedly.

She returned back to her desk only after gaining composure. It was hard to concentrate in work. This yelling was now becoming an almost daily affair. At times, it was not justified. But most of the time, unfortunately, her supervisor was right.

‘Am I that bad?’ She walked down the building to take a break as this question lurked in her mind.

Siddhartha and Rohan were smoking on one end, criticizing their respective Team Heads. She sugar-coated her problem in appropriate words before divulging it to them.

‘Don’t worry Pooja! That’s what bosses are supposed to do!’ This comment was such a respite! It gave her the feeling that she was not the only one suffering. There were others riding on the same boat. Pooja went back to her table, trying to work again with a fresh approach.

There was something else that gave her a breather from all the mad rush. Occasional calls with her friends from college, generally over weekends. Each one would vent out their respective frustration pertaining to either their profiles or companies or bosses as she also joined in sharing her pain. However, in no time it would be Monday morning again with everything remaining the same.

The only thing which would make her forgive the circumstances would be the SMS beep from her mobile stating ‘Your salary has been credited to your account.’ That was the smile which was imparted in installments over the year.

It was one such Monday morning, marking the completion of two financial years. Pooja had managed to pull them off somehow with low ratings in her reviews. She had dragged her work and pulled it off with all the wears and tears. Rohan and Siddhartha had their faces gleaming after receiving their appraisal letters.

‘That’s fine. I am not that good’, she consoled herself.

Vidya received the ‘Budding Employee of the Year!’ award.

Pooja did not bother about this at all. But all this surprisingly put her in focus. It made all others notice the fact that there was one girl exceptionally talented from the bunch which was picked by the HR team. While there was another one whose hands were absolutely empty. Pooja was the exception, though in a different way.

‘Management Degree was the only exit!’ Pooja ruminated over a luscious burger, to munch off her depression. She decided to call on her friends that evening.

‘The courses train you to manage a lot of portfolios.’

‘You can also change your vertical if you want like shift to BFSI or HR’.

‘We too have started preparing for it. It gets you better salary prospects as well.’

The suggestions were plenty. No one was falling short of that on their Skype conference.

‘Why do all bow to that degree?’ she asked irritatingly.

‘Not all are able to get through its tough entrance process! They churn out the creamiest layer of all the applicants.’ On this fact, all were unanimous.

Pooja disconnected the call as she sipped on her cold drink for some cool thinking. Pragmatic thinking brought her to a workaround solution for her current situation.

‘Seven months to go before the entrance tests begin and I should get myself started.’

And then, weekend preparation coaching classes and evening practice papers became a part of her daily discipline; apart from her unappreciated job. Seven months passed within the blink of an eye. And then, there were tests taken for various management institutes for a full- time course. Why a full-time course? Since, it would come with a placement season. And that would be her actual rescuer from this mundane job, in which she was daily grinding herself. The results were out.

‘Enter your roll no. for knowing your status,’ flashed the blinker on the home-page. She entered it while simultaneously murmuring all the prayers that she knew in her mind.


‘Sorry, you have not been selected.’

She refreshed the screen and entered the roll no. multiple times. Maybe she had jumbled up the numbers, maybe the site was not updated. Maybe this and maybe that! But the status remained the same. Of all the colleges she had applied for, she was able to clear none.

‘And this time, despite all the preparations!’

Pleasant surprises are not for all times. It was not like the present job which she had got without preparations.

‘Maybe this stands as a compensation by Lady Luck. One job without any preparations. And no seat despite all the preparations. We are both even now’, she thought to herself.

Vidya spotted her grim-faced. ‘What happened? Are you fine?’

Pooja had no option but to share the story.

‘You shall get through next time’ was Vidya’s consolation.

‘Like you would provide me your brains!’ she blurted out in her thoughts.

Pooja stared annoyingly at Vidya as she packed her bags to leave. Vidya had never done any wrong to Pooja but she never liked her for obvious reasons. Vidya was good at her job as acclaimed by all colleagues which Pooja was not even close to.

Pooja called her friends for solace. Unfortunately, some had got through. Thankfully, some were sailing in the same boat as hers.

‘You can try again next year.’

‘You can apply for part-time.’

‘But a part-time course would not have a placement season! And I actually wanted that!’

‘But you will have the degree! The label will at least open you to multiple opportunities.’

None of the reasoning seemed to pacify Pooja as she disconnected the call.

It was the next morning at the office. ‘You are not selected!’ was still echoing in her mind. She tried hard to concentrate on her work but could not. She surfed upon the ‘internal recruitment’ portal for any possible respite. There was a ‘Sales Executive’ position which was open. She read up on the details. ‘Must be able to present and convince.......’

‘Hmm....I can do that. I can talk even on a boring topic and make it sound interesting’, she thought.

And ‘Apply’ went her fingers. Pooja had managed to calm herself down with this. There was a mail in her inbox by evening. ‘Application rejected by the Sales Director.’ The reason stated was ‘No prior Sales Experience.’

‘C’mon they can’t reject me everywhere!’ her mind retorted in anger and soreness. This pinch of failure was enough for her to gather the guts to walk into the HR Director’s room. She knocked the door for complying with the office etiquette. Though, she was inside even before receiving an affirmation.

‘Sir, I have been working in the design team for two years now and would be interested in exploring other profiles outside this team. Your HR policy allows employees to move over to different profiles and hence I had applied for one’, she spoke in one breath.

The manager gaped from the gap between his eyes and spectacles as to who had intruded into his room disturbing his peace of mind. Nevertheless, she continued ‘But it got rejected because I did not have any prior experience. I cannot have a prior experience unless you give me a chance to have one!’

Her entire problem-paraphernalia was laid out before him even before he could ask for her name. He looked pensive for some time and then responded.

‘Which profile are you interested in?’

Pooja was taken aback by his response. ‘Uh.... I am interested in Sales and Marketing!’

‘Send me the details on mail. Let me have a discussion with the Manager.’

Pooja had expected some more resistance. ‘Look, you are a newcomer!’ She had expected some more debate, ‘We selected you for a technical job!’ Some more convincing, ‘Please hold on for a team reshuffle.’ Well, the answer was none of these. That was again a surprise.

She reconsidered her choice as she returned back to her cubicle. She was not sure of her decision though she had already delivered a speech on that. She checked upon the website. Well, there were no more internal openings and looking for jobs outside the company, would again require certain number of years of experience pertaining to those profiles. And none would allow her to venture into a new portfolio. Pooja was not sure whether it was the profile she really wanted. She looked around. Her immediate-colleagues were working at one end of the office. However, she was definitely sure about what she did not want.

‘I’m not cut out for technical work. This isn’t like my Science Tests where you work hard overnight and score good marks.’

‘Send.’ She pressed the button since it was the only option out.

Her spunk had worked and she landed herself into the Sales Team. The first six months were delightful. It was a ‘hand-holding’ period which was under the nurture and guidance of her Vertical Head. The half-yearly assessment saw her Manager writing ‘Good presentation skills and convincing capabilities.’ To summarize: ‘Promising Salesperson. Looking forward to individual contributions.’

She was ecstatic and had a pizza treat for her other colleagues. Neither Vidya nor Rohan or Siddhartha knew what it was for since they were now in a team different than hers. But she had the lame excuse of not having regular lunches together with them.

This bliss was however, short-lived. And she realized this when the quarter closure was near. It was the quarterly team review. Her manager underlined ‘Pooja, you haven’t closed upon a single deal yet. I expect you to close at least one of what is mentioned in your Sales-Funnel.’

This was a sober fuming in comparison to that of the others. The quarter had passed without her delivering but she was excused since she was still relatively new. Pooja determined herself to work harder and followed the decision religiously as well. She only realized later that she was excused at the Team-Review not because she was new to the profile but because her manager had managed to conclude an unexpected deal which compensated for her blank figures.

The same did not hold true for the year-end however. And this was absolutely obvious in the year-end Team Review. The Manager breathed fire on her before all. It was humiliating. But it was slightly less humiliating when she saw others in a similar situation. No one smirked at the other. Each one waited for their chance at the butcher’s altar. Review session concluded with a luncheon which was there to smear balms over the bruises imparted inside the meeting room.

All this was forgotten soon with new sales targets being defined by the Director for each of his Sales teams catering to different verticals. Pooja enjoyed the job since it did not require you to sit at your desk all the time and leave late. You could come late or leave early; all in the name of a client meeting. Whether there is one or not, no one checked or even bothered. But what was strictly checked was the numbers. Beg, borrow, steal.......but one had to deliver on the allotted revenue numbers. Pooja was striving for it daily. Client meetings, presentations, conference-calls; no page was unturned. But it had slowly started seeping in that things were slipping out of her hands.

‘Pooja, I have to justify your presence in my team!’

She argued, ‘But sir, I have concluded some deals listed on my funnel.’

‘Not significant ones! We want bigger individual contributions.’

‘Oh No. Not again!’ she thought to herself as she came out of the room in a sense of déjà vu.

It was beyond office timings as she slogged at her desk that evening. No, it was not for sales or any office work. It was for updating her CV on the career site. The only others in the office at that hour was the technical team which sat relatively distant.

‘I don’t belong there either!’ she thought as she looked at them while simultaneously surfing for job openings.

‘My presentation skills are good, just that I can’t fetch in the numbers! Maybe, I can try only Marketing’, she tried to rationalize again. But again, most openings’ requirements came down to prior years of experience of handling similar portfolios.

‘But shouldn’t skills be the criteria for selection rather than years of experience? They can always evaluate the candidate’s potential and groom them accordingly’, she questioned. Well, there were no listeners and no answers!

‘I can’t try with the HR Manager again! I have lost that one privileged opportunity already.’

It was next morning when her manager greeted her with, ‘We have managed to get a much-awaited appointment with this client. I want you to front-end this.’ She smiled. This was a huge boost to her dampened spirits carried over from the previous day. It was the beginning of a new day.

‘Pooja, you have exactly half-an-hour in hand to reach there.’

‘What? Is the meeting scheduled for now?’ she looked upon anxiously.

The manager looked at her in disgust. How could she complain? He was probably giving her a low hanging fruit, maybe an immediate closure opportunity.

‘Sir, just that my car was given for servicing today.’

‘The building is just around-the-corner.’ And he walked away.

No cab was willing to get hired at a decent amount for a ‘round-the-corner’ trip. Pooja reached the client’s office in an auto-rickshaw. The meeting however revealed that it was merely for a price comparison and was not a sales convertible opportunity.

‘I should have guessed so. Why would he just lay out something on my platter! He will surely prefer to front-end the winnable deal himself.’

She left the building disheartened only to be received by a drizzle. The auto she had hired broke down midway in the road puddle, leaving her with the only option of hiring the cycle-rickshaw on way. She hired the cycle rickshaw in the middle of the increasing showers. The distance was just approximately a kilometre. But seemed light years away, just like her targets for the financial year. As the rickshaw puller paddled endlessly, she recollected the calls she would receive on her phone stating ‘Ma’am are you interested in credit card, are you interested in buying a flat, are you interested in a car?’ Well the question was just of the client being interested!

‘I have lost this one too’, she thought. The increasing showers had now converted into a downpour. It was not possible to alight and take shelter since there was none on way. Her mind dangled between other career options as the humble rickshaw puller continued to pull. The wheels circled and so did her mind.

She had loved singing. But, at the time she was learning music, there were no recording studios around. Only co-incidentally spotted talents could bud into great singers. Those who were not would actually have to live in anonymity till their talent abandoned them. Her talent had deserted her. She could merely hum now. ‘Sports? No way! People were willing to incubate the skill if you were a cricket aspirant. If any other sports there were not many takers. And an earning out of that skill was certainly out of question. She had lost every bit of this flair as well, with every ounce of weight she had put on, sitting at her office.

Pooja reached office completely drenched; drenched in both the rains and her reasoning. She fetched herself a cup of coffee as she stared blank outside the glass pane of the office pantry. She glanced at the miniature images of the vehicles below; still preoccupied.

‘What the hell is happening with me?’ She had always been a confused teenager when it came to selecting her career options. Qualitative skills were very tough to pursue as a career but could gain you the stars if you were successful. She had taken the safer route of ‘job guarantee’.

‘Whether one is absolutely poor or affluent; either ways there was nothing to lose. But if in between, like me.....there was definitely: something to lose!’ It is a gamble of losing even the average situation she was currently in. Pooja had been scared of losing that average situation.

Pooja had no passions but she had been good throughout. Good at studies, good in co-curricular activities in school. Debates, elocutions, dramas, sports; winning some, losing some. She was good at all though not excellent. She was what the world calls: Average. Neither good nor bad: oscillating between the two extremes. But, in this world of survival of the fittest, being Average was a challenge. She could go and risk all, for a flair she mastered. The world was however closed for an ‘average’. It was the Law of Averages.

Pooja looked around. She belonged to no-one’s country, no-one’s land. She was lost in wonderland. She was ‘jack of all trades.’

Pooja now knew the answer. ‘Wriggling out of a situation’ was not what she would do now. ‘I will have to start from the very beginning and face my shortcomings head-on!’ she determined. It took her a second to conquer her fears. She looked outside.

The sky had cleared and so had the clutter in her mind. She went back to her desk and scribbled each of her average skills on separate chits for a draw. She mingled it all up and finally picked up one. ‘I shall at least master this one.’ she promised to herself.

‘Pooja, you are completely drenched. You must go back home’, observed a concerned Vidya.

‘Ya!’ she responded and left for home.

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