|The College Council from the left Aneeta George, Aileen Pais, Sr Margaret Mary, Gayatri Devaraj, Preetha Thomas and your truly|
I joined college in the summer of ’73, not overjoyed at the prospect that I would have to study in these backwoods, while almost all of my cousins went away to glamourous city colleges.
Despite my apprehensions, college turned out to be fun. Since I am not a person for half measures, I threw myself into college life; made more friends, discovered new skills and generally had a whale of a time. But all along was this niggling fear that I would be left far behind in the race of life.
I got clarity on this, the fear, I mean, when one bright morning, we sat on the green grass under the `stately evergreen’ half listening to Ms Lux’s lecture on Queen Anne’s England- of Addison, Pope and Swift. It was an ideal Nilgiri day; days like that is the stuff of dreams now.
The sky was a brilliant blue dotted with tiny lamb clouds, a bumble bee hummed among the ox-eye daisies and the nasturtiums. The lotus in the tiny pond bloomed and in a distance the Nilgiri thrush called. If life was to stand still that was a good moment to do so.
Suddenly the idyllic scene before me paled. Wasn’t there more to life?
Would I be content to pass my days watching the seasons? Yes, I would.
Would that be enough? No.
That was indeed the first defining moment in my life.
The second defining moment, as it were, happened many years later; after marriage and two children. I was in the reception on the first floor of Kasturi & Sons, waiting to be called in for an interview with the editor of a newspaper which was to be launched shortly. It was very quiet; smart young men in blue (MIB) buzzed officiously about. Life size portraits of Editors Past adorned the walls staring down at the lowlife that dared to sit. As if that relentless stare was not enough to unnerve, I made the mistake of picking up a copy of Frontline. To my great alarm I found that I could not understand a word that was written there. (It is only later I came to know, that nobody understands Frontline, including the people who write for it. Later I also realized that the MIB generally buzz around when the female of the species is sighted.)
I panicked and was on the point of scooting down the stairs, when the MIB went into a flurry of activity. Then the lift door opened and a lady emerged from it. She glared at me, sitting on the sofa with a copy of Frontline in hand and then stalked off. That stare really shook me; I thought I would just run away. But a little voice at the back of my head said, “Stay, see this through. At the most what is the worst thing that will happen…? You won’t get the job!”
So I stayed and got the job. Many years later, Viji, one of the two men who interviewed me said, “You were one of my best recruits.” Sadly, Viji is no more. As a reporter and desk man he had much to impart. Everyone who has worked with him has his or her favourite Viji story. But that is for another day.
The other man who interviewed me was Mr. K Venugopal the Executive Editor of the newspaper, which was to be called The Hindu Business Line (BL). All he asked me was if I could type, what arrangements I had made for my kids when they come back from school and whether I could work late.
I worked in BL during the crucial years when the economy opened up. Suddenly there were a lot of financial reporters on the scene, the general reporters, especially the ones from The Hindu treated us with disdain and were very unpleasant at times. But we didn’t care, we were different and we were going to change the world.
BL reporters were handpicked from backgrounds as varied as insurance, advertising, teaching, public relations, banking and a few housewives like me. We even had a former Catholic priest among us. We were a breed apart and we looked it. The fashionably attired women created quite a stir in the canteen and caused many a heart attack for the security. The men were also well turned out. For the first time, male journalists strolled into the office looking like they had walked off the set of a fashion shoot for Allen Solly.
On the work front, we attended innumerable press conferences as company after company went into initial public offerings (IPOs).At every press conference; financial journalists were offered cash and other gifts to write well about the companies. Some took and some didn’t. Those of us who didn’t earned the derision of the others.
In the February of 2007, I resigned my job in BL and moved to Mysore. A quixotic decision at best! A few months into the quiet life, I decided I needed a job. So I posted my resume on one of the job sites; then one fine morning I got a call from Dubai asking me if I was interested to work on a newspaper. I said ‘yes’ thinking that it was a prank played by my friends. The calls continued and I kept up the joke. Until finally the man at the other end, said that the visa and appointment letter would reach me after Ramadan. I was shell shocked.
After I gathered my wits about me, I realized that I was ill equipped to work in a foreign country. Everybody reassured me and said, “Dubai is like Kerala”. But I was scared shitless. Imagine me, well past my prime embarking on this mad cap chakkar. However, my husband put some perspective into this and said, “Look at this as an adventure and what is the worst thing that can happen?”
In the September of 2008, I landed in Dubai. Dubai, the boom town, was hiring. Every day, plane loads of people looking for a new life landed in this Arab Emirate. Construction workers, engineers, software techies, chefs, waiters, drivers, maids, you name it, they were all there. Little did we know that the great banking crisis of 2008 was about to turn the world upside down.
My Indian Airlines flight was three hours late. After I had retrieved my baggage I followed the signs to the counters where I could pick up the original visa. The holding space in front of these counters was jammed. Two other airlines had just landed bringing more labour into this city of dreams. The one from Indonesia was a maid special. As I waited in queue I watched the agent walk down the line handing back the passports to these young aspiring maids. Every now and then there would be an outburst as a girl was denied entry. The other aircraft was from Pakistan carrying tall, ruggedly handsome muleteers; at least, they smelled like that. But observing them, I was convinced that many of them were actually Army officers; such was their bearing. They were quiet and tense, if any of them were denied entry, we didn't know about it. I was dead beat but had to wait for quite a bit for the iris scan and that all important paper- the original visa.
So it was well past mid night, when I emerged from the Terminal; there was no sign of the taxi which was supposed to meet me. There was nobody at the Dubai Tourism booth also. I walked up and down, wondering what to do. I thought to myself, should I just go back inside and take a flight home. It was very tempting. ‘One last try!’ I told myself, at that precise moment, a defining one at that, I noticed that someone was at the tourism counter. I told the Arab gentleman my problem. He called the hotel and asked them to send a cab immediately.
The cab arrived half an hour later. I then went on a midnight tour of the city. I realized that the cabbie was going around in circles as I spotted the Burj Al Arab, Dubai’s iconic building, at least three times, during the ride. It was only much later I was told that this was one of the illegal cabs and the cabbie, a Pakistani at that, was avoiding paying salik at the toll plazas en route.