LAID19 mins 325 19 mins 325
October, 6th 2018
Then it was called the ‘Golden Handshake’, years later it just meant- Not required. Goodbye. Then it was happening for the first time, years later, it became a milestone one had to bump into, an item on the checklist of life that had to be ticked one day; a fear that had to come true…someday. ‘Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me I am a Gingerbread man’ the famous nursery rhyme made its way to her auditory senses and she could feel her body tighten, her breathing became labored and her head retreated to the familiar, perfunctory, pounding headache. Once that started, life moved easy. The hammer inside hit hard to drown the noise within.
In her odyssey of life, at thirty-nine, Naina felt inept, incapacitated and unskilled at this jigsaw puzzle. A Butterfinger who couldn’t fit the pieces or rather who didn’t want to. It gave her clarity of what not to do, to train all her senses to focus on how not to be laid off.
Chamomile tea had a way of easing her fibromyalgia ridden body and Naina tried to relax. The letter from ABC Post lay on the chestnut center table of the living room. She had not asked for it. It came unannounced. Some of her writings had navigated the echelons of a famous literary journal in the United States and reached the editor of this famous American news website-The the internet newspaper. The promises were incontrovertible; somebody sloshed in ten tequila shots would let go of an opportunity millions of starved writers yearned for. Name, Fame, and Money, as the cliché goes, is a heady cocktail, tempting and irresistible. With her husband and her son out for the weekend camping trip, Naina was all by herself to meditate, reflect and refuse. The year 2008 swirled in the leftover tea at the bottom of the LaOpala teacup; every part crystal clear, as if it was happening now. It took exactly a millionth of a second to go back.
26th October 2008
She stared at the email message on her computer, her mind racing so fast that the words blurred together and no longer made sense. Just three lines, but enough to make her life--the life she’d worked so hard and sacrificed so much to build, began to crumble around her.
Naina looked at the time. It was 7 am, Wednesday morning and GD Gupta had sent this mail last night 11:45 pm. She rubbed her eyes, cleaned her glasses with her maroon velvet nightgown and read again. There was no mistake. Hurriedly she sprang at her phone and searched for GD Gupta on her contact list. ‘Aah! There he is. Let me call him up. Why has he sent this email to me?” an irate Naina tried to type, her fingers searching for the right keys, typing, deleting, retyping, deleting-- till the qwerty keys had small pools of tears on them. Nausea started to rise in her and sweat trickled between her breasts. “What will I ask?” Naina sat down with a thud on the wooden mahogany chair next to her study table. She had known this standard message for the past three years. As Regional HR manager North & East, she had sent this email to 80 employees last year. The ‘why’ she never understood then, she was clueless even now. Wiping the laptop with a cotton dupatta kept on the chair, Naina tried to get some control over herself, when she heard a knock at her door.
She rushed to the washroom, rinsed her mouth, washed her face, tied her hair in a careless bun and went to open the door.
“Hi! Naina”, Manu (T.N. Manjunath, EBDM, Corporate Sales, Teletech India Corporation, and her love life) stood there looking disoriented.
“Naina, there are so many employees who have this mail. Manmohan Kalti is flying today to Bangalore and would be meeting them. Is it happening again? I got messages from so many colleagues. I thought I should come over and check with you,” blurted Manu in one breath.
“Naina! What is wrong?’ Manjunath followed her to her bedroom.
“Oh! No! Why are you crying? Why? One minute,” he bent down over her teary eyes staring at the laptop screen and trembled as he read –
“Date- 25th October 2008
As part of the restructuring exercise, our Chief Human Resource Officer, Manmohan Kalti would be in Bangalore tomorrow and would like to meet you. Please keep yourself available for this important meeting. Being Regional HR S&W, we would like you to have the following employees assemble in the conference room at 12:00 pm sharp.
Corporate HR, Gurgaon.”
“Shit! No! How can they do that to you? You are the best, the best HR that this organization has ever seen. You are the pulse of the people, so celebrated, recognized, the employees love you and you are their one-stop solution for all their woes inside the office. No! Naina, they can’t do this to you. Why don’t you speak? Andrew Storne is so fond of you. Isn’t he? He is the damn CEO and if he thinks highly of you, how is it possible? Naina, answer me!” Manjunath held her arms and jolted her.
Naina rose from her chair, extracted herself from his clasp, wiped the teary phlegm running down her nose and managed a croak, “This is corporate and I am on the list.”
“But, where is it written that you are part of the list etc. I can’t see it.”
“Manu, I have done this exercise three times in my 10 years tenure at Teletech India and I know this mail far too well. There is no doubt,” answered Naina sharply.
Manu looked at her aghast. His phone rang and he went out on the terrace to attend it. Naina looked at her phone. 39 messages from various employees. She could feel the panic spreading, just the way it always did when such mails came to people- unaware, unprepared. Her phone rang. She glimpsed over it to see Rajesh Vashisth calling. She had seen his name in the attachment but today she had nothing for him. The sky had fallen on her life and everything she had built, earned for herself. She muted the phone and came out to the living room. The sun rays had started streaming on the cane chairs bedecked with vibrant cushions. The rug underneath, the color of a forest canopy, had leaf patterns all over, leaves picked up from the richness of spring and woven. A bouquet of Rajnigandha (Tuberose) on the glass table spread not only fragrance but also life. The 3rd-floor studio apartment in Electronic City boasted of a comfortable and tasteful life. The abode gave away more than she meant to. The frilly net curtain hung over door and windows, over the mantle stood picture of her father and herself. People always wondered why she didn’t have her mother and brother in the marble frames, but they always got distracted by the unusual quotes of Rumi and Khalid Hosseini engraved into plaques on the wall. One bedroom stood looking purely functional with computer table, swivel chairs, a laptop, a bookshelf and many drawers full of stationary. The other bedroom was where her tired bones rested- cozy, warm, dimly lit and handwoven tapestry spread on the queen-size teakwood bed.
Naina moved closer to the glass cupboard; her fair skin and dimpled cheeks, almond eyes and chiseled features coupled with the most radiant smile, made men swoon over her wherever she went. That was secondary, though. Naina was one of the most sincere, genuine, and agile HR manager Teletech India had seen in years. She was on the awardees list each time, every year. The very first year she was awarded ‘The most promising newcomer’. Post that, there was Naina for sure, each year. She worked hard at her job, made meticulous reports, met timelines, promptly responded to employee’s concerns, managed to hold back key talent and recruit the best from the competition. She was the star of Teletech India and her manager Natasha Malhotra swore by her. Andrew Storne, a Scottish who had relocated to India with his family 11 years ago had recruited Naina. Then, he wasn’t very impressed with her credentials but the interview had swooped him. “She is impressive. I wonder why she didn’t do her MBA?” Andrew Storne handed the applicant file to Natasha and left.
Naina had built this for herself. Every day, inch by inch, bit by bit, she had struggled to build this life where she felt respected, valued, and appreciated for the first time after her 12th grade ICSE board results. This life had been earned the hard way…the rough way.
Though, it wasn’t always like this. She sat down on the red bean bag, gifted by Manu a few months back, closed her eyes and her mind traveled back to 1999 when her father- Shri Devendra Talwar, IIT-BHU metallurgical engineer, SAIL-Steel Authority of India, Bokaro had come home with the saddest news of his life; of their life.
“They are laying me off. They do not need me anymore.” Her father looked deeply troubled and beads of sweat trickled down his forehead in the winter month of January.
“Lay off? What does that mean?” Pratima, her mom looked at her husband with a worried expression. An M.sc Zoology, B.Ed, Pratima had given up teaching to take care of family responsibilities.
“Why don’t you say anything? What is this layoff??” she prodded.
“Pratima, I do not have a job anymore. The department for which I work is not generating enough revenue, it has become a cost center and hence they have planned to shut it down. Some new investors have come in, they think the organization needs to trim, get lean and all ineffective, unproductive department and people need to go. I am one of them…ineffective, unproductive. They are offering me a VRS scheme, which they call a golden handshake and I must take it. We have two months to wrap and leave,” said her father in one breath.
“But, But... No! I mean, layoff, but…” her mom went speechless.
Two months later, after her 12th-grade board exams, the family relocated to Patna, in rented accommodation, near to the small plot where her father had decided to build their house. Her older brother was in Delhi, Kirorimal College pursuing B. Com Hons. When her results came in May, she had topped the state with 92% marks. St. Stephens was her dream but the family now contemplated whether they could afford to have two children in Delhi for higher studies. Her father was getting 17,000 Rs as interest from the corpus amount he got from SAIL as part of full & final settlement. Naina never asked why he didn’t look for another job, she could see how broken he was and withdrawal from the world was the only way he reconciled with the situation.
Naina, though, was his pride. Her academics and extracurricular achievements, especially in public speaking made her the cynosure of his eyes. It also compensated for a not so talented, academically weak and careless older son who had barely managed to get through B.com hon in Delhi University. The father and daughter dreamed of UPSC and Naina becoming an IAS would bring back her father’s lost prestige, glory, and self-respect. This wasn’t directly spoken. It was understood. Her father had escaped Bokaro and hid in a small house in a remote corner of Patna to avoid humiliation and insult. He had been hurt, deeply wounded. She got through St. Stephens, Sociology Hons. It was a popular elective for UPSC. The family budgeted 2000 Rs/month for her in Delhi. After giving 1000 in a PG accommodation, Naina had 1000Rs left for her food and college expenses. There wasn’t any room for additional ‘need’.
As she tried to survive within her meager means in a dingy PG accommodation of Nirankari colony, North Delhi, sharing her room with three other girls, one thin mattress on the floor, one green colored floor study table, Naina frustration grew and helplessness soared. Food came from a nearby dhaba* packed in small poly bags and never enough to satisfy hunger. She avoided the cafeteria, the pav bhaji* outside the college, the trip to the theatre with friends and possibly everything that a college-goer life throbs on because she had no money to spend; not even a rupee. A few months later, she chose to walk down 4 kilometers up and down and save 6 rupees in a shared auto. Birthday party invitations were declined on the pretext of ‘preparing for UPSC’. Immersing herself in studies and UPSC preparation made her feel better but deep within she yearned, she felt thirsty and empty. In the 2nd year of her college, Naina met Aman, her college senior, and two months later they were passionately in love with each other. Aman was pursuing Economics Hons and belonged to an affluent family of South Delhi. One meeting through a common friend, Naina had knocked the socks off Aman. For Naina, Aman came as a respite for her emotional needs and financial crisis. She could go to the cafeteria, eat the street food, visit the malls, buy clothes and earrings, zoom in his car and enjoy a movie at PVR, all at Aman’s expense. Love comes with a price tag and it cost Naina her academic performance, her focus on UPSC and her virginity. Her grades deteriorated and she learnt the art to lie to her father on every phone call. Aman graduated after a year and went on with his life, leaving her heartbroken and crippled. A rebound relationship one after another made Naina the quintessential floozy of her college. In life, the downward spiral is faster than an upward one. Three years rolled by and she managed to graduate with 55%. To appease her father, she attempted the UPSC prelims exam. Her father’s high hopes that Naina would compete in the first attempt crushed when she didn’t qualify for Prelims. Naina was lost, distracted, and destroyed. The trip back to Patna was difficult. Her father failing health made her condition worse. Her brother’s career lay in the rut and her world finally collapsed with the death of her father. He left a letter for her, the shortest letter a father ever wrote to his daughter ----“I am quitting. You don’t.”
The words jolted Naina out of the garbage she had become. With her father not around, UPSC became irrelevant. Her mother started working at a local school. Naina prepared for her entrance exam, took admission in M.A. Organizational Psychology, Arts Faculty, New Delhi. They didn’t have money for any MBA school and Delhi University Psychology course was the closest to offering a placement post Masters. She needed money…soon. Two years later, Naina got placed in Teletech India Pvt Ltd at a salary of 9,000Rs/month as an MT-Human Resources, Gurgaon. From then, she worked as if her life depended on Teletech. Her office became her dwelling. The results of her toil showed. First, her job got permanent and then promotions followed. She spearheaded a project which would decide the next destination of the Teletech Corporation innovation research center. The day CEO Ann Mulch announced the destination to be India, Naina became an overnight star. She was awarded, rewarded, and promoted a little later. Her mother now lived with her and her brother had secured a job as a journalist in ETV, Delhi. Within two years she was promoted as Regional HR N&E. The success story continued and after a year she became Regional HR head S&W, based out of Bangalore. Her mother chose to stay back in Delhi with her son. Naina moved to Bangalore and ensured her family was well taken care of. She had hit back at life with a vengeance. Today the very life she had earned the hard way, seemed to crumble. What happened to her father was happening to her …all over again----a layoff. This shattered her.
Manu opened the door and stepped inside. He looked troubled. In the 15 minutes that he spent talking on the phone, Naina had traveled 20 years back. Coming to her, he gently hugged her from behind, “Naina, Rajesh Vashisth was on the phone. I don’t understand all this. But, this time, I am with you.”
“Stop it Manu. Do you know what it all means?” Naina screamed in fury, her body trembling.
“Naina, I do. I have seen it all in your eyes these years.”
“You have just seen it, I have lived it. It’s scarring!”
“No, Manu. No more listening now. I will not let this happen.”
“But Naina, think rationally. Firstly, you do not even know if you are a part of the list. You just recognize the email and are assuming things.”
“Really! Assuming? I have done this thrice in my tenure. Also, being in HR I have been aware of the impending restructuring. But if they think they can lay me off, Naina Talwar, then they are crazy fools. I will not let them have a feast at my expense. Noooo!” shrieked Naina, banging the glass cupboard so hard, it rattled.
“Okay! Even if your name is there, you know in such cases they give three months’ notice period and a hefty F&F which they call a golden handshake. You can easily look for a job meanwhile and move on. Why not look at it as an opportunity? You have been deliberating upon it. Isn’t it?”
“Manu, this is not about a job. I can get a fuckin job,” hollered Naina dragging him by his hand to her bedroom where her father’s photo hung.
“You look at this? This is about the 6 alphabets - LAYOFF. My father went through one and could never come back to life. An IIT engineer, so respectable and so intelligent, the company one day decided he is not needed. He could never work again and later, it swallowed him leaving his family shredded into pieces. It has taken me a lifetime in these years to assemble the parts, resurrect myself and pull through. Not again!” sobbed Naina uncontrollably.
Wait! Just one minute, I know, I know.” Naina sprang towards her bedroom and grabbed her laptop bag. She pushed the button furiously.
“C’mon, c’mon, start… right…what’s the username…nainatalwar. What is my password…o ya…how can I forget my password- ‘layoff@1999’? Manu stood stunned as she uttered her password.
“Naina, wait! Let’s think.” pleaded Manu.
“There is no thinking here,” Naina roared.
Her outlook took time to open. Naina breathed heavily, her eyes two fireballs, her fingers moved fast, her lips trembled, she kept gulping her saliva, adjusting her spectacles.
She clicked on the ‘compose mail’ and typed two sentences, wrote the subject line, gave one last look at Manu, who stood watching her from the door, then to the photo of her father kept on the table, and clicked sent.
“Hahaha, this is it. I have won. They cannot lay me off. I don’t need to sleep with anyone. I don’t need to lie to my mother. Yes! I need to call Maa. Wait, I will call her up later. Let’s rejoice Manu, I am in control of what happens to me. Life can’t play dirty games with me and expect me to suffer. Let’s raise a toast. Oh, it’s tea time …who cares…this is celebration time” Naina rushed towards the refrigerator, pulled out two wine glasses and started pouring. Manu silently entered the bedroom and peeped at her open screen. His eyes widened and he dropped down on a nearby chair with a thud. The screen was bright and the message shone loud and clear
I am resigning from the post of regional HR S&W. Kindly arrange to relieve me at the earliest. Thank you for a wonderful stint.
Naina entered the bedroom, singing, Ting- Ting, ladies and gentlemen, Naina Talwar resigned on her own. She wasn’t laid off. Do you all hear? You see, she wasn’t laid off”. Naina looked at Manu. He sprang to hold her and she sank in his arms letting out a loud cry… “Baba.”*
That was in 2008. Post her resignation, Naina got married and relocated to the United States with Manu. Her professional folder still carried a copy of the resignation letter- the only one in her career. People grow strong enough to blow at the iron bars that hold them and see them bend out of their ways like some witchcraft and Naina melted them by her words. She chose a path where she was her own master, the words her slave and destiny in her control. None could recruit, none could lay her off. From a blogger profile to a website that minted money through Google AdSense, Amazon associate’s program, Naina played the safest Chutes and Ladders.
Hours went by, the world slipped into evening and night. Stars shone like sugar crystals spilled on a granite kitchen counter, but inside Naina, with the exception of the biological processes, everything stood still. Her gaze, the email, and her resolve. This wasn’t the first time she had been approached for corporate work. Initially, her friends from the HR coterie reached out to her, later publishing houses. Naina picked up the laptop and typed the same alphabets, the same sentences with the same determination-
“I am sorry, I can’t make it for the meeting. Also, I choose to work for myself. Thank you for your interest. Regards-Naina T. Manjunath.”
Pain has a way of transmogrifying life. To someone like Naina, it commingled with her red blood cells and provided the oxygen which supported life. Pouring the cold, insipid, leftover Chamomile tea in the kitchen sink, Naina reached out for her cell phone to call her husband and son.
*dhaba- roadside restaurant in India
*pav-bhaji- fast food dish from India- vegetable curry served with bread.
* baba- father in Hindi language.