As as she grew up Malini had often envied friends with more liberal parents. She liked the way they dressed, their glossy hair flowing down to their shoulders while hers, shining with oil, had to be tied tightly in a long plait. Her friends enjoyed Western music which her father considered utterly decadent. “How can this be called music?” he barked when she listened to a popular hit. “Some noisy, mad fellows yowling!”
Of her father, Sethuraman, his relatives said, ” Mr. Conservative personified!. A role model for our community. What principles! Simple living, lofty thinking.” He loved such praise as he didn’t get much of it at work anyway, being a middle level State Government officer. In his office, no one cared whether you worked or not. You only had to know how to work the system. Some 30 years ago with the brashness of youth he had tried to be the rebel. After nearly being sacked for propagating his principles, he had accepted reality. Now he was fast approaching retirement.
All through her years at college, Malini had one major dream: to be independent, financially and emotionally. She yearned to break free from her cloistered world of studies, home and parents. Her father said, “Excel in studies. As our only child, we expect you to help support the family. Many ladies work in banks these days. Do well and you could become a senior officer there.”
After long hours of studying (and in any case she was not allowed to do much else) she graduated with impressive grades topping her class and immediately applied for employment with great excitement. Replies came from two banks. They did not have suitable openings in Bengaluru, or indeed in the South of India. One meant moving to Uttar Pradesh, while the other opportunity was in Haryana. Her mother was quick to object, “I will not allow her to go that far to places we have never even seen. Imagine the poor girl living all alone there. Get a job in Bengaluru or don’t work at all. We will find you a good husband. That is final!”
During her college days she knew only one boy, a shy fellow in the neighbourhood, who borrowed her notes, meeting her clandestinely at the bus stop. He was the only guy, other than her cousins, she had spoken to in all her sheltered life. He secretly admired her, thinking she could be quite attractive if only she dressed more fashionably. Her clothes and hair style made her look far older than her years.
He told her, “The best jobs in Bengaluru are in the BPOs. My bro is in one of them. Boy, does he make a killing each month! My dream is to join him. The money is great, so is life. A job there can change your life!” Privately, he felt she would not fit in there as they preferred “hotties”, or so his brother said.
” Sounds interesting! I will try for a job there,” she said eagerly.
“You won’t fit in there! You are more suited to a Government job. In these multinational BPOs, they want youngsters with zip, guys and girls who are hot! They won’t take girls like you, with your old-fashioned views.”
His words stung. In such times, angry and miserable, she blamed herself. How dare this idiot, with half the marks she had scored in their final exam, question her capability? What made him think she wasn’t smart? Besides, why did people act as if she didn’t have a mind of her own? Why did they decide what she should do? The answer was simple: she let them.
This had to stop.
She too had dreams. She must act before it was too late. Without consulting her father, or confiding in her mother, she dashed off applications to a few international BPOs.
She was called for a test and interview and went with some trepidation. After all, it was her first experience of doing anything entirely on her own. The test was easy enough. Then came the dreaded interview. “O.S. Malini!” called someone. As she stood up, her heart thumped against her chest. “Speak stylishly, these things matter,” whispered a boy with spiked hair, who sat next to her. Her impressive grades couldn’t be missed but so too could her dowdy appearance. Muttering a swift prayer she walked into the interview room.
They must have been impressed with her intelligent answers, sincerity and obvious determination. She was overjoyed to receive a letter of appointment, with an unbelievable salary. She read the letter ten times to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. Best of all, the job was in Bengaluru.
It was time to break the news to her parents.
As she feared, her father was most upset. “BPO job? Never!!” he shouted. “What will our relatives think? A girl working at nights with strangers whom we don’t know anything about! Think of our reputation! No one will marry you! Get a job in a bank instead.”
She found an unexpected ally in her mother, “God has gifted her an incredible pay packet. Even better, she’ll continue to be at home with us.” Together, they managed to convince her father. Malini accepted the job with huge excitement.
“There will be all kinds of temptations before you. Beware the forbidden fruit,” her father said, remembering a phrase he had read long ago.
“People will take advantage of your innocence. All kinds of riff-raff are getting jobs these days. Don’t say later that I didn’t warn you!”
On reporting for work, she was directed to fill in a bunch of forms. She studied the first one carefully not wanting to make a single error. Then, as directed, she wrote her name in full, ensuring that each letter was framed within the prescribed box. Thankfully there were boxes in plenty as, “Ottapalam Sethuraman Malini” was such a long damned name.
“Ottapalam! Rather an unusual name for a girl! ” said Meher Bomji, the fair girl in HR conducting the induction. “They call you Otty for short, right?” she enquired, her immaculate nails and trendy hair style reminded Malini of the commercials she saw on TV. Malini felt conscious of her stubby unpainted nails and unruly hair.
” Ottapalam is the name of a place,” she said slowly.
” Of course, Outer Palam. In Delhi – near the old airport, right?”
” It’s in Kerala. About 2600 kms south from there.” Malini replied, she liked to be precise with details.
Meher seemed to be highly popular though, waving to passing employees and giving them big smiles. She must be one of the more experienced employees here since she was so well-known, thought Malini. Actually, the beautiful Ms. Bomji had been there for all of two weeks. She crossed her shapely legs accentuated in the skirt she wore.
Malini felt awkward in a sari which her mother had forced her to wear that morning. In order to avoid a row on her very first day at work, she had reluctantly agreed. No one else wore a sari, she noticed.
“So Ms. Sethu Ramanmalani, you speak Sindhi, right?” asked Meher, with raised eyebrows. This girl’s intelligence didn’t match her looks, fumed Malini. How had she got a job here?
Meher continued, “Everyone knows Advani, Lalwani and Bijlani. Ram Jethmalani is famous, but Ramanmalani?”
Malini remembered what that boy had told her in the bus stop. Did they give preference to those with good looks here?
She blushed furiously, cursing herself for her complicated name. Why not a simple, “Meher A. Bomji” like this girl had on the Company ID card hanging from her shapely neck?
Sensing her embarrassment, Meher smiled, “I was just being chatty. Don’t get me wrong. We are a broad-minded Company. Who cares where you come from? We are interested in your performance. Nothing wrong in mixed marriages. I am all for it. Your Dad is a Sindhi and your Mom is from Kerala, right? Hey, that’s so cool!”
Malini gasped imagining how her father would react were he mistaken for a Sindhi.
“Let me explain,” she said stiffly.
“I am not Ramanmalani! Ottapalam is our native place. Sethuraman is my father’s name and Malini is my name, hence “Ottapalam Sethuraman Malini” or “O. S. Malini”, for short. I have never heard a word of Sindhi in all my life. We speak Tamil at home. Both my parents are Tamilians. We have lived in Bengaluru for decades. My father works for……”
“Got it! That’s fascinating but we don’t want your life story, sweetie,” said Ms. Bomji, rolling her big eyes heaven wards. The kind of fresh recruits they got these days! She had to admit though that with her delicate features, expressive doe-like eyes and full figure, Malini could become a knock out with better grooming and an improved dress sense.
“I’ll give you another form. Fill it out properly this time. We have well-defined processes here. ‘Malini O. Sethuraman’ and not Otty –whatever. You can make an affidavit to change your name later,” said Miss. Bomji sternly.
Malini returned home that evening with mixed feelings. Most of them seemed to be so different from her. In the lunch break, a pretty girl had asked her politely, “Ma’am, can we choose our preferred bus route? When will we get back our original certificates?” She realized with horror that she had been mistaken for one of the administrative staff! Had her joy on joining this BPO been short-lived? Would they reward only the dumb but beautiful like the classy Ms Bomji? Would she have been better off in a public-sector bank as recommended by her father?
Only time would tell.
## Part II will be posted on Tuesday, January 24, 2017!