Crooning Techies: Sample Chapters

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Synopsis

Sara is a newbie in the corporate world. She is a naïve young lady. Heartbroken, betrayed, and burning desire to prove herself, she is ever so restless.
To fulfill her passion for being famous and popular she decided to participate in a reality show, against all odds by her family and her three besties Maliha, Sabeen and Hamna;
These four are as different as can be. They do have a few things in common.
Information technology as a career, F.R.I.E.N.D.S., brilliant academic record, a love for books, a liking for soulful music with meaningful lyrics, and a shared disgust towards society’s double standard for a daughter and daughter in law.
These four girls come from the middle-class family background. with a dream to make it big; in terms of money and a good reputation at their job. They did not know that things work differently in the corporate world. Unlike college, a mere talent does not suffice. Despite what they are taught, hard work is a quality that is looked down upon. And dedication has no value. How do they survive the pressure of staying atop of the fierce competition?
Read on to find the journey of these four fierce girls. And decide for yourself, to IT or not to IT.

Length: 275 pages

***

Preface 

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” 
― Muriel Rukeyser  

 

Let us get the basics out of the way – why and what. 

Why am I writing? 

Some of us are more sensitive to certain things than others. A few of us are very observant of our surroundings. Some people are more creative when it comes to a world of fantasy. 

Whatever are the reasons, we all have our stories. However, we hesitate to share those stories. Our deep-rooted insecurities forbid us from doing so. We fear that telling the stories will make us a topic of ridicule. We are scared that sharing our inner thoughts will make us vulnerable, and the cruel world around us will use it to exploit us. We are hesitant about what people will think. Or we are just plain lazy and think that it is not worth it. There are so many excuses to shield the inner voice. 

I, too, have stories. I started reading at a very young age, which only fuelled my imagination. As a young girl, I constructed a parallel universe in my head. That universe is ever expanding. It has a lot of characters. Each character is distinct, with their share of unique stories. Their stories need to be told. 

Four years ago, there was a stagnant phase in my professional life. I wanted to do something different. I started to work on this idea in March 2015. I wrote three or four pages of bullet-listed plot lines. Needless to say, other things soon became more important and the idea was abandoned. The idea kept coming back to haunt me and I continued to jot down my ideas. The more I thought about it, the more it sounded promising. I kept working on it. I had no plans to publish it. 

But now things have changed. I think it is time to shed all those inhibitions and go after the lifelong dream. Yes. I am going to tell these stories to the world. I am going to write. There is nothing to lose. It is worth trying. 

Like my blogs, the fiction I write has the same purpose – to highlight the little problems in people and society. These tiny bits, if taken care of, can make us all a better person; and thereby make this world a better place. 

And then last year, I met the founder of Sarbakaf Publications. They were venturing into the publishing world and wanted new ideas, new promising writers. They have published two novellas and a collection of ultra-short fiction. This idea, however, was most precious and therefore needed more nurturing. After around three and half years of working on this, I present it to you. 

 What am I writing? 

Let’s come to “What am I writing?” part of it.  

IT, short for Information Technology, is big in India. With its inception in 1967 and the sudden IT boom in the late ’90s, India is one of the leading IT services’ exporter. The IT sector not only contributed to the rapidly increasing GDP of the country but also led to massive employment generation. It currently employs nearly 10 million Indians. Thanks to IT, the living standards of the lower middle class has also improved. 

Millions of people are working in the IT industry. While almost all of them feel like they have fallen into a rut; and that they are living a dull, mundane and monotonous life; they all have their own unique journey. There is at least one aspect of their experience which is unique. There is at least one area that overlaps with someone else. They are similar, yet distinct. 

The novellas in the series revolve around women in the IT industry.  

What is their journey?  

What do they go through during various stages of their personal and professional lives?  

What is the path they want to travel?  

What is society’s perception of them?  

Is there any truth in people’s judgemental behaviour towards this profession?  

I am trying to answer those questions from a Muslim community point of view. Of course, these problems can be in any other walk of life, and any other religion. This, however, is the premise of this series. Indeed. This is going to be a series of novellas, each narrating a unique story, having a different protagonist, and a different set of challenges experienced. 

 Shabana Mukhtar 

***

Prologue 

The host of the evening, DJ Rahul announced. 

“Sara Chaudhary!” 

She stood there, frozen for a few moments, fighting hard to hold back the tears. Then she flashed her signature dimpled smile as she accepted the trophy from the chief guest. 

 ***

Chapter 0 – The Fantastic Fours 

August 2023 

It was a tenth-floor apartment. All drapes were pushed to the sides. The bright rays of sunshine flooded the lounge. The thirty-something woman in the balcony inhaled the fresh air and set out her camera to capture the crystal blue sky and the pleasant spring weather.  

Maliha Momin was dressed in a blue shirt and brown cotton pants. For five feet seven, her slender frame looked perfect. Her dark black lustrous locks were tied in a high pigtail that dangled right above her shoulder with her moves. She had wheatish complexion and full crimson lips. Her posture exuded confidence and her face had a perpetually empty expression. Some people mistook that as pride and arrogance. Others considered her to be unapproachable. Only a few understood her well and knew that once she smiled, her whole personality changed. 

“Come inside, Maliha! You can click the pictures later.” A raspy voice called her.  

She turned to look at the caller. A petite and voluptuous woman plopped herself on the lounge chair and threw her spectacles on the table. She was blessed with naturally pouty lips. She sported a pixie haircut that made her look younger. With pink complexion, arched eyebrows and smooth skin, Hamna Abbas looked every bit like the arrogant diva that she was. Her persona was quite unforgettable – not just for her looks, but for her temper too. One look at her face could tell about her cynic and sceptic attitude towards everything.  She took great pride in that. She was the eldest of the gang, age-wise, and experience-wise. 

A slim woman of average height was sprawling on the sofa like a lazy kitten. She wore a red top with blue jeans, which suited her dusky complexion. Her bushy lustrous locks were spread on the cushions, just like herself on the sofa. She smiled at Hamna’s commanding voice. Her cheeks dimpled as she smiled. She smiled a lot. Sara Choudhury was fully aware of her killer smile and its effects. After years of constant reminders that she resembled Deepika Padukone, she had finally acknowledged it. She had her reasons to act like a diva. 

Sabeen Ibrahim, nee Sabeen Ahmad, stood in the kitchen, overlooking the lounge. She wore a simple cotton salwar kameez. The cyan colour suited her wheatish complexion. She stood tall at five feet six inches. Her shiny dark brown hair was tied in a neat braid that ended right above her knees. Everything about her was just right. Her eyes were not too big or too small. Her nose was neither angular sharp nor thick like a potato. And she had the perfect hourglass figure. As she made tea and prepared some mid-afternoon snack, she quietly observed everyone and the surrounding. She did not look like much of a talker. For her, this was the best time to be. She liked to be a hostess. And currently, she was hosting three of her best friends – friends for almost twenty years. 

The mouth-watering aroma of potato wedges combined with the simmering tea filled the air. Hamna swallowed up the saliva visibly and audibly, before saying. 

“I still can’t believe that we have known each other for almost two decades.” 

“Did you say ‘almost two decades’? Is that true? Are we really that old now?” Sabeen wondered. 

“I know.” She elongated the ‘O’ for far too long. “I have given eighteen precious years of my life to this field. Can you believe it?” Hamna exclaimed.  

“Yep, you’re a survivor Hamna.” Sara complimented her. 

“Don’t forget, we have Sabeen, too. She also has a very successful spell in IT. How long has it been, Sabeen? Oh, that rhymed.”  

Hamna turned towards the kitchen to face Sabeen. 

“It did rhyme. For me, it has been seventeen years and counting.” 

“Wow!” Sara and Maliha said in unison. Maliha had joined Sara in the sofa. Sara was now resting her head in Maliha’s lap. They had been roomies after all. Their camaraderie was one notch higher than the other two girls. 

The gang of four had decided to meet after almost ten years. They stayed in touch through social media. They tried to catch up whenever they could. But it was becoming more and more difficult as they lived in four different countries… and four different continents. This was officially a get together where all four of them were present. 

“What about you, Maliha?” Hamna’s returned her attention to Maliha. 

“I quit when I was expecting Aliza. The last time I updated my resume, I had mentioned the ‘total experience’ as nine years and seven months. Five months short for ten years.” She replied with narrowed eyes, as though visualizing her resume. 

“That’s almost a decade then. Sara hadn’t completed two years before the Crooning Techies happened, am I right? That would mean that the four of us have a combined experience of roughly fifty years in IT. That’s something.” 

“Argh! IT.” Sara shivered. 

“Hey, don’t react like that. You were one of us.”  

Hamna snapped. Her short-tempered and hyper-reflexive nature never let a single remark go unanswered. 

“I am sorry. It’s just not my thing. I admire you guys a lot, though. I think it was impossible for me to continue any longer.”  

Sara made a poor attempt to make amends. This had no effect on Hamna. She was about to retort when Maliha spoke, almost like correcting Sara. “It always seems impossible unless it’s done.”  

“If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.” Sabeen quoted. 

“Are we playing favourite quotes about perseverance? I have one too. Champions keep playing until they get it right.” Hamna added. 

“Yep! The three of you have fought all odds. Sabeen and Hamna, I admire you both. You are still continuing. That shows your strength. I am a quitter.”  

Sara said proudly and leaned forward to grab another handful of Cheetos. As she did so, the neckline of her cowl neck top drooped a little; showing more than what she would have cared for.  

Hamna whistled. “Oh, my! Maliha, hand me your camera. Let me capture this. This will make for a good Instagram pic, what say?” She gestured towards Sara. 

Sara quickly got up and adjusted her cowl neck top, whose neckline was a little too deep. Maliha, as a reflex, moved her camera away from Hamna. 

“Really? you?” She pointed at Hamna’s short sleeved semi-transparent black top that could not do a good job of hiding her pink skin and red camisole. 

Maliha and Sabeen looked at each other, communicated through telepathy and smiled. 

“You ladies mind covering up a little?” Sabeen said politely, although she did not mean to be. She was the hostess. She had to pretend to be nice. She was the only one wearing a salwar kameez. She was undoubtedly most composed whenever she spoke. She was their unanimously approved leader of the gang. 

 “Sabeen you’ve not changed much over all these years. You look the same, you behave the same, and you even dress the same. Your clothing is simple… and elegant … and so… so Muslim.”  

“I take it as a compliment, whatever you meant,” Sabeen replied nonchalantly. Her indifference was what stood her apart from the crowd. 

“Of course, I mean it as a compliment. You used to decipher my words without having to explain a thing. And now you can’t even understand my compliment. Ah, how people change.” Hamna said in an accusatory tone, although the drama bit was overdone; giving her away. 

“There is nothing wrong with dressing like Muslims. I like it. It is practical, comfortable, and right. And I don’t have to change clothes for every Namaaz.”  

“And?” 

“And… nothing.” 

“I have a feeling there is more. What’s with the secrecy, Sabeen? We are all friends, friends who go back almost two decades.” Hamna said. She looked hurt. 

“Don’t try this trick with me. I know you only too well.” Sabeen dismissed.  

“Tell us, tell us.” They sang in a chorus. 

“Ibrahim gets a little bit… wild… if I dress up like that at home.” 

She blushed as she said those words. They hooted.  

“How do you dress up for office then?” 

“I usually… used to dressed western formal wears. But I am gradually moving to traditional clothing at work, too. All these years, I just excused that it is mandatory to wear western wear when you are abroad and that people will question you. Nobody objects. Nobody raises a question.” 

“But if we are completely covered, then it is okay, right?” 

Sabeen looked at Sara. There was no contempt, but something about the gaze told them that something was off. 

“That’s what I call ‘convenience’. Are you sure that a slim fit pair of jeans is more comfortable than a loose and soft patiyala salwar? Even if you are completely covered, you’re imitating the dressing of men, which is forbidden in Islam. Any reason you find to justify your clothing; is an excuse. I have been there and done that. But now I have realized that I was wrong. And it is never too late to correct your mistakes.” Sabeen talked in her usual soft but no-nonsense way. “No offence to you guys, but you should also consider this. So, we know each other for two decades?” She expertly manoeuvred the discussion away from her and back to the hot topic – the longevity of their friendship. 

“Ahnn… What are we going to do all day? Just sit here and do nothing? We are in Birmingham. Let’s go outside and do some sightseeing. I vote that we go and visit Cadbury town.” 

This was Maliha. She was crazy about creating lists and doing her homework before she visited any new place. She had a list of “must see places” in Birmingham, that she wanted to cross off. She liked to click photographs, a LOT. 

“And some shopping,” added Sara. 

“Yes, I also need to do some shopping.” Sabeen agreed. 

“You know women are identified by two things. Their incessant need to shop and….” Hamna paused; hoping one of them would finish her sentence. They did not. They watched her with a quizzing expression. 

“To talk.” Hamna augmented her sentence exasperatedly. She heard a mix of “Oh…”, “Yeah…” and “Right…”. She did not like this lukewarm response. She had expected some more excitement. Living her favourite quote of being persistent, she continued. 

“Ladies! We all have known each other for a long time now. Yet, we don’t know the complete stories. Let’s talk about our journey and how we came to be the fantastic four. And maybe throw some light on our individual experience as an IT professional.” 

“That sounds like a plan.”  

Sabeen was the first one to agree. 

“Who wants to start?” Maliha asked, hoping it wouldn’t be her. 

“I will go first. Mine will probably be the smallest.” Sara volunteered.  

***  

Chapter 1 – Longing for A Job & Loads of Money 

April 2009 

I sat in the ‘Office Wear’ section of the fully air-conditioned two floored garments shop – the infamous ‘Prem Cloth Store’ in the town.  The store was known for its unique collection and outrageous pricing. The clientele was therefore limited, yet loyal. One of the salesgirls was attending to me. When she eyed a member of the housekeeping staff, she motioned slightly. A few minutes later, a woman came with a tray, offering water and orange juice. I picked the orange juice, took a sip, nodded a wordless ‘thanks’ and returned my attention to the garments laid in front of me.  

The salesperson was bringing one pattern after the other. From each pattern that she offered, I chose one colour of my liking. Only after being satisfied with my selection, I moved to the next design. Within an hour, I had my own pile of ‘shortlisted’ clothes by my side. I was almost sure about what I needed to buy. I didn’t need to try them on. The store had a strict “no return, no exchange” policy.  I felt confident that they would be willing to accommodate me, just in case I changed my mind or found a defective piece. I was one of their loyal and regular customers for years. 

I stood in front of the mirror, held one of the dresses against me and checked my reflection with surveying eyes. The colour suited my complexion. The style was simple and elegant. I particularly liked the scarf that came with it. I handed it over to the salesgirl who had joined me in front of the counter. She quickly picked another one for me to check. The charade continued for all the selected dresses.  

Pleased with the assortment of clothes, I announced. 

“That will be all for now. Could you quickly check these for me? I don’t want to come back if there is some defective item.” 

“Sure. Ma’am.” 

“If everything looks okay, please have them packed and billed.”  

I said and fetched my phone. It would be a while for her to check them for any damages, fold all the clothes nicely and have the bill ready. I had time to check my phone and enjoy the orange juice. 

When a bill of thirteen thousand eight hundred rupees was placed before me, I pulled a small wad of five-hundred-rupee notes and made the payment. In less than ninety minutes, I was down almost fourteen thousand rupees and had four heavy shopping bags with me. I placed a mental tick against ‘clothing’ in my mental to-do list. I was least bothered about the money. My concern was to get a pair of matching sandals to go with each of the ten dresses I had just purchased. Next stop: ‘Shoe Palace’. 

***  

I opened my eyes and sighed. When I had sprawled on the bare floor, the cold of the tiles felt rejuvenating against my skin. An hour and a daydream later, the tiles had turned warm and sweaty. I sat up, trying to shake the disappointment that overcame me very strongly.  

I strolled to the living area. My mother was sitting there stitching a button to abbu’s shirt. I picked up the newspaper and casually browsed through the vacancies, yet again.  

A few minutes later, I wiped the sweat off my face and tossed the newspaper away. I had finished looking for any vacancies that I could apply for. I found none. That left me with nothing to do. Nothing at all. I used the newspaper as a hand fan. It didn’t find me a job. At least it helped to slightly relieve the heat.  

We lived in a two-bedroom individual house. The roof was a concrete slab and there was nothing constructed on the top floor. It was a bare terrace, nothing to shield the hot rays of the sun. All the heat was absorbed directly by the walls. If we had a solar panel, we could’ve generated a lot of electricity.  The humidity added to the uneasiness of hot weather. I had felt the sun was virtually right above my head. Thanks to the frequent load shedding, the weather seemed much worse to handle than it was. I sat next to mother, closed my eyes and let my imagination loose – something I did very frequently these days. I wanted to continue my daydream from where I had left off. I wanted to shop for matching shoes. I wanted to be happy, by imagining that I can splurge all the money on all the things I wanted. Daydreaming cost nothing, and I had nothing better to do anyway. 

***  

I studied Master in Computer Applications (MCA) from Al Ameen College, Ernakulam. The exams were over about a month ago, although it felt like an eternity. I was eagerly awaiting the results. 

I had been an outstanding student throughout. My academic record was brilliant. I didn’t remember ever getting a second position in any class. All my report cards since first grade were neatly placed in a folder and that folder helped to refresh the sense of pride in me. MCA final year result meant the world to me. It could play an important role in getting me a job.  

Ah, the job!  

I belonged to a middle-class Muslim family from Ernakulam. In a family where most of my relatives lived off daily wages from various chores, it felt like a luxury that my father, Abid Chaudhary, had a decent regular job. My elder sisters Zara and Fara both graduated from arts. They chose to stay at home and didn’t want to pursue further education. I, Sara Chaudhary, was the third daughter of my parents – Abid and Fariha Chaudhary. The three of us were born two years apart. Faisal was born when I was three, and Daniyal was born when I was five.  

My parents gave us names that were phonetically too similar. That had few side effects. Firstly, my friend Ayesha frequently referred to us as the “Aara” sisters. Secondly, the three of us, especially Zara and myself were always confused as to who needed to answer when ammi called from the kitchen. Occasionally, we would use that as an excuse to not listen at all. Thirdly, our relatives had a hard time to remember which sister is which. Our parents had realized the problems much earlier. and hence my brother’s name was carefully chosen so the same confusion wouldn’t arise again. That worked out great. The only guy name I could think, to rhyme with our names, was Dara. I pictured a giant, muscular man with that name. I didn’t like the idea of having a little brother with name 

But hey, enough about names. What’s in the name, after all? 

All through my life, I saw my parents struggle to make ends meet. My father was earning a decent salary. It was not enough to cover even the basic needs for a family of seven – food, cloth, and shelter. A significant portion of the salary went in paying the rent. As we grew up, the fourth dimension, ‘education’ got added; making it all the more difficult for them to manage. 

Up until high school, there was no tuition fee. The only expense incurred on schooling was notebooks, uniforms, and a nominal examination fee twice a year. Books were not included in the expense, not for me anyway. It worked a bit differently in our house. Yes, there was a process. Zara got the new books. After her exams, ammi stored the books safely in her trunk. The trunk, that us sisters referred to as mom’s khazana (treasure), houses many precious things. The door to the treasure opened again after a year; when Fara got promoted to the same class. Again, the same routine was followed to store the books away. When my turn came, my ammi and sisters helped me to fix whatever damage was done, using adhesive tape. I sat and apply new attractive covers to get the feeling of new and fresh books. Zara was the eldest and therefore understood the financial situation better. She took care of the books as her life depended on it. Fara was a little careless. The books were in an okay condition when I got them.  

The entire state level syllabus was changed when Faisal was enrolled in the school. He got all new crispy books. I envied him. I also bullied him. I read all his books before him. To compensate, I also helped him in his homework and keeping his school stuff neat and clean.  

Since my elder sisters went to the same school, I never had a new uniform either. I hated it. I hated the faded colours, the worn-out look, and the ill-fitting of the tunic that ammi would refuse to alter – I hated every bit of it. I was a bright student. I excelled in academics as well as extracurricular activities. I interacted with teachers, and the headmistress quite often. I felt embarrassed about how I looked in the old uniforms. Nobody ever commented on it. It didn’t help reduce my embarrassment. In ninth grade when I was participating in a lot of inter-school competitions, ammi made me a new uniform.  

Ammi had a few craft skills on her. She could do everything from finest hand embroidery to beaded work to sewing women’s dresses. If time permitted, she could have been the best tailor on the block. However, she was content doing the dress designing just for the family. All our dresses were designed and sewn at home. That was one less expense in the domestic budget. Occasionally she would take orders from outside to make an extra buck. Any ‘extra’ expense came out of her savings. 

Being a boy, Faisal could not possibly wear our old uniforms. He also got new uniforms. Unlike his books, I could not bully him in this regard to try his new uniform first. Obviously 

I faced the not-so-evident, yet typical middle-child discrimination. Like all girls and women, I was crazy for dresses and shoes, but my cravings were one notch higher and bordered on being a little out of control. I never showed it to the world, though. 

After graduation, Fara and Zara stayed at home. They did everything in their capacity to help mom. They would help ammi in finishing her embroidery or take care of the household chores as ammi weaved delicate patterns with silk threads. As they had finished education, the next natural step was to find a suitable match for them. They both could be termed as pretty. My opinion was not biased with sisterly affection, as I loved to criticize things, people, EVERYTHING.  

They really were beautiful. They had a pinkish white complexion and dark curly hair. They were rather good-looking and had pleasant personalities. The entire family, including myself, was hoping to get suitors. To be honest, I had my doubts. Although there was no dowry system, it was assumed that the bride would bring “something”. Looking at our financial situation, the chances were slim. Sometimes I wondered if only good-looks and the ability to run a house was good enough to get a good groom or money overpowers every decision? 

I was the total opposite of my elder sisters. I was not very crafty. I wasn’t much into cooking or housekeeping either. Fara always cribbed that I was sort of a spoilt brat. I never agreed with that. I failed to fathom the brat part. Wasn’t that supposed to be used for rich kids? I agreed that I was treated a little differently in my family, owing to my academic and extracurricular achievements. If that account for being spoilt, I guess I could be called so, in a very strange manner. 

Unlike my sisters, I had a dusky complexion. My looks were that of a typical south Indian girl. I didn’t make that up. My classmates who belonged to the northern states of India had often given that, presumably, compliment. If having big black eyes and dark black straight hair qualified for a ‘typical South Indian’ girl, so be it. My dimples were perhaps my best feature. My friend Ayesha always said that I resembled Deepika Padukone. More like a shorter, less glamorous and less successful version of her. But I kept that thought to myself. I took her comments with a pinch of salt. I liked the compliment. But I never let it go to my head. In my little self-claimed ‘realistic’ head, I wasn’t a beauty queen, but I was not unfortunate-looking either. I was satisfied with how I looked. I had a velvety and sensuous voice. I always felt that even if a person does not look good, he or she should have a nice voice. I was trained in classical music at school, and I could sing passably.  

My satisfaction with myself ended there. I was blessed with a naturally nice voice but I only hummed softly, and only when I was home. The thought of singing in front of an audience gave me nervous sweat. I was slim. Correction, I was slightly underweight and my height of five feet one inch made me look frail. For me, looks never matter much, but to others, it did. I hated it when people sympathize with me. I had quite a few bizarre experiences in that regard. Strangers offering me food, auto-rickshaw drivers not charging me the fare, or just that stare… I looked either too weak or too poor. Whatever was the reason for the said special treatment I got, I hated it. 

 I was particularly unhappy with our financial background. I didn’t have much opportunity to do anything to change that aspect of my life, but I had high dreams. I was an outstanding student. I presumed I would have surely made a good employee, too. I wanted to conquer the world. I wanted my parents to stop worrying about money. I wanted to earn enough, so my sisters could be married off. I wanted to be able to afford the engineering fee for my brothers. I wanted to own a house. I wanted a luxurious lifestyle – a life where I would not have to look at the price tag before buying even the most necessary things. And getting a job would be the first step towards achieving my dreams. 

How badly I needed the job! 

***  

Chapter 2 – Does Being College Topper Ensure A Job Offer? 

May 2009 

One evening, my father came home a little later than usual. Mother was worried, although she didn’t show it. She quietly started to heat the food for abbu. I ran to the kitchen and brought a glass of water for him. I liked being the first one to offer water to people when they came home, whether it was family members or guests. I got some heartfelt prayers for that. The weather was hot even in the night.  

“You’re very late today,” I noted as he sipped water. 

“I met Mr Ashraf on the way. He has heard people talking about MCA final year results getting declared tomorrow. Her daughter is with you if I remember. You should…” 

I wasn’t listening any further. I grabbed my pouch which had a couple of twenty rupees notes. On its lucky day, it would contain hundred-rupee notes too. I asked Daniyal to come with me and almost literally ran off to the PCO to talk to Ayesha Ashraf, my best friend, my only friend. I would have gone to her place if it wasn’t this late. PCO was almost deserted and I didn’t have to wait for my turn. I dialled nervously. 

“Hello?” 

“Hello aunty, this is Sara. Can I talk to Ayesha, please?” 

“Ayesha…” 

Her ammi yelled without covering the mouthpiece. I had to move the receiver away from my ears. It would have ruined my eardrum. I heard the receiver getting passed. 

“Ayesha, there are results tomorrow.” 

“Sara, there are results tomorrow.” 

We said simultaneously. 

“Jinx! Is it true though? It can’t be this early. I think it is a rumour. Let’s just go to the college to confirm, just in case,” she suggested.  

“Sure. I will come to your house,” I agreed.  

“Okay.”  

“See you then.” 

I hung up and checked the duration – fifty-four seconds. I was looking at my watch and counting seconds. Even though it was only a local call, even one second after a minute would have cost me another rupee. I didn’t want that. 

***  

In the rush to hang up before the next minute, I hadn’t finalized the time. I assumed it would be our regular college time at ten o’clock. I was at Ayesha’s around nine thirty. Ayesha was eating breakfast. She looked half-asleep. 

“Oh, you are already here. What time do we leave?” 

“The usual time I assume. Why aren’t you ready yet?” 

“Relax. Results are announced after eleven. We have plenty of time. Come, eat breakfast.” 

She invited me, and I joined her. It would be a sin to say no to Aloo Paratha. 

When we got to the college around noon, everyone from peon to the lab attendant to the head of the department started congratulating me. Our department was small and didn’t have a lot of students so they remembered everyone. The congratulations were for the result. I was the university topper with eighty-seven per cent. I felt elated. I was one step closer to my dream. By next month or so, I would have a job. 

***  

Being from a small city and a small college, my college had no campus placements. Ernakulam had a few IT companies, but vacancies were scarce. I went to every drive-in or walk-in that I heard of. I had no luck. I was losing hope. Whenever I came from a placement event, my eyes were full of tears, my heart full of anger. I would resign to a corner. Abbu would sit me down and remind me to be content in whatever Allah has planned for us. I nodded and inside, I kept complaining to Him for not granting me what I so desperately wished for. 

It had been one month and four days after the results. Yes, I kept count. People might think I was crazy. I had nothing better to do, except marking days in the calendar and looking for vacancies in the newspaper. I was still jobless. I had numerous plans for earning money as soon as college was over. All those plans were down the drain. I was thinking sourly when there was a knock on the door. I dragged myself and opened the door. I was happy to see Ayesha standing outside.  

“Ayesha… It is so good to see you.” I mumbled and gestured her to get inside. 

She started to talk the moment she set foot inside. “I have good news for you. There is a walk-in for Trivandrum. You should apply.” 

“Is it open for MCA?” I asked, ignoring the flutter in my stomach. Any possibility of a job used to have that effect on me. We walked to my room… I mean the room that was shared among the three of us girls. 

“Yes. Why would I come running if it wasn’t?” 

She sat on the corner of the bed and made a face. Most of the big companies recruiting freshers allowed only Bachelor of Engineering aka BE or Bachelor of Technology aka B.Tech. students. MCA and MSc (Master of Science) were of little value. Occasionally, and, surprisingly, the walk-in was open for all. 

 “I see. You’re not applying I assume. Since it’s in…” I stopped mid-sentence.  

She got the drift and replied, “I’m not.” 

Ayesha was not very career oriented. Of course, she would have loved a job. Her household was not very different from mine, except her family had a total of four and mine had seven. 

However, being the eldest daughter, she wanted and needed to be home. If she sought a job, it would only be in Ernakulam.  

“Where did you hear about this?” I asked as I brought a bowl of homemade laddoo and a glass of water for her. 

“I’ve asked Farhan to search for openings and walk-in whenever he gets time. He is sitting in the net café these days.” 

I was speechless for a moment, my eyes watering instantly. What did I do to deserve such a nice good friend? She knew my desperation for getting a job. And even though it wasn’t in her interest, she tried to help me as much. 

“No crying. Get up. We’re going to the net café to apply online.” 

Off we went to the net café and patiently waited for our turn. I verified the news on their website and applied online.  

Once the job application was submitted, Ayesha checked her emails. Farhan was in charge and our fifteen minutes charges were waved off. I took Ayesha to the chaat shop. We shared a plate of bhelpuri. Then we went about window shopping. We were pretending that I would surely be selected this time. We were choosing all the clothes I would buy once I got the job. Then Ayesha sponsored a glass of lemonade.  

“Who says you need money for everything? We can extract our share of fun in whatever economic way we can.” 

Ayesha spoke as she sipped from the glass. I looked at her affectionately. I was amazed by her ability to bring a positive angle to everything. I did agree with her. For once. 

I came back home and handed over the remaining eighty rupees to Zara. I had borrowed a hundred from her. She’s surprised to see the amount but says nothing. 

Abbu was asking for you.” 

“Yes. I need to talk to him too.” 

Abbu, we need to go to Trivandrum. There is a walk-in.” 

“When? I’ll get the tickets.” 

Abbu rarely showed any emotions. I wondered how he felt about me. Was he proud of my achievements? Did he want me to get a job? Or did he think me of being too over-emotional, and short-tempered to work? Was he worried about the additional expenses caused? I settled on the last one.  

***

Chapter 3 – Going The Extra Mile 

Mid-June 2009 

Since it was a last-minute reservation, we had to settle for a train that departed ten minutes past midnight. The train reached Trivandrum early morning. We had no relatives in Trivandrum; therefore, we stayed at the station until the daylight broke. In the meantime, we ate breakfast. Ammi had packed some parathas for us. Then I headed for the washrooms, and waited in the queue, feeling disgusted with the smell. I felt that I may throw up, but I stayed put. I was determined to get bathed and changed into new salwar kameez for the interview. I was ready before seven thirty. 

“We should leave early. We don’t know this city. We don’t know how far the company is from here.” 

Abbu told me as I put my clothes in the bag. 

“Right. We can’t afford to get late.” 

We were not the only ones with that thought. When we reached there around eight forty-five, a sizable crowd was already present. It was more than sizable. I expected around a thousand candidates. The existing gathering looked a little a thousand and more were joining by the minute. Perhaps, only half of them are candidates, and the rest are accompanying – just like abbu is accompanying me. I consoled myself.  

There were two offices of the company in close vicinity and there was a lot of confusion as to where the interviews were to be held. The website only mentioned the location of its office premises. It didn’t specify which building. The crowd was tentatively gathered in front of the building on the left.  

“There are no interviews here. Go to B wing.” One of the security guards yelled at us.  

Ahnn. The premise on the left side would, therefore, be A-wing. I checked the printout again. Nothing. The website page did not mention anything in this regard. As we walked towards B wing (the building on right), the security guards barked the same statement and asked us to go back. The same back-and-forth continued four times. The candidates along with their relatives were losing their patience with each episode of ‘not here, go there’. There was a limit and the limit was crossed.  

“What is this crap?”  

I heard somebody shouting. It came from near the security bench of A-wing. I was sort of in the middle of the crowd, just to make sure that whichever venue was finalized, I would not be at the tail end of the queue. That angry retort was followed by some more shouting and muffled noises. 

“Call the goddamn HR or admin and tell us about the exact venue of the interview. Or simply announce that we should leave. What kind of company is this?”  

The same voice was heard again. Everyone, including me, had a strange feeling about this. While we echoed the sentiments, nobody wanted any disturbance to be caused by such aggressive behaviour. We were there for interviews. What if they cancelled the whole event? 

The yelling seemed to have worked though. After much chaos, we were asked to fall in line near A-wing. By the time people fell in an endless-queue, the size attendees had nearly tripled. A usual sense of tension and apprehension started to build within me, the kind you get before anything big and anticipatory.  

We were in a random queue. My golden rule on such events was to form an alliance. It helped to shake off the nervousness and sometimes I would come to know about more options, more vacancies through these allies. I searched for prospects, as I stood in the queue. There was a girl in a hijab. She smiled at me. And I smiled back. She murmured something to the girl next to her. They walked to the back of the queue to join me. Nobody objected. They moved back. There would have been a quarrel if I had moved to them. 

“Hi,” I greeted. 

“Hello, I am Gul, from Kochi.” The girl in hijab introduced herself.  

“I am Sara, from Ernakulam.” 

I introduced equally briefly and looked at Gul’s friend expectantly. 

“I am Divya. I am also from Kochi. Where are you staying?” 

Oh. Small talks. 

“Ummm… We travelled last night and reached only this morning. We stayed at the station and came directly for the interview.” I replied.  

“Oh! That must be hectic. I am staying at my relative’s place for a day.” She told me. She looked like a talkative person. 

“It is hectic. I had no option. We have no relatives or friends here.” 

As I said those words, I instinctively looked around to locate abbu. The guardians had extracted themselves from the candidates and had chosen a relatively shady area under the trees as their den – to wait and keep an eye on their children or siblings. My father was quietly standing in one corner.  I noticed that other guardians tried to talk to him. He would smile, and nod, and contribute his two words to the conversation. Abbu had always been a shy person and a man of few words. 

The HR department had to bring out microphones and loudspeakers to make them heard. They opened the gate to the vast garden area. And all hell broke loose. The education and sophistication went out of the window. The graduates and postgraduates broke out from their respective queues and ran towards the gate. The sprinting was maddening. They were rushing as if they were handing over offer letters to people reaching early.  

Divya had moved quickly to the head of the queue. The two of us held back a little. Who would want to be a victim of this stampede? After a couple of minutes, as we walked inside, we spotted a sandal. The owner probably wanted to join the crowd even if she had one bare foot. 

There were a couple of pens and hankies too. Oh my god, what have we come to? I looked at Gul in horror. Gul was laughing at the situation. I was surprised she had the guts to laugh, but I could not stop smiling as she shook with laughter. We were a few steps short to join the crowd when we heard the announcement. 

“Guys, we have around three thousand candidates here. And we need your cooperation to make this drive successful.” 

I narrowed my eyes to see who was talking. A lanky guy clads in a grey T-shirt and faded jeans spoke in the microphone and the loudspeakers magnified his voice. Despite his frail looks, his voice was powerful. However, it failed to leave an impact on the crowd. After repeated attempts at calming us down, the security guards started doing lathi charge to scare the crowd. It had an adverse effect. Some guys started shouting. The walk-in drive, within moments, resembled a political rally.  

The sun was blazing upon us. Even if it wasn’t, three thousand angry people cramped in one ground would’ve caused the temperature to increase.  I thanked almighty, that it wasn’t raining or humid that day. For about two minutes, which felt more like twenty, their efforts to calm the crazy lot bore some fruit and people started to listen to the announcement.  

“We will be conducting written tests in every meeting room. We will take a batch of two hundred candidates at a time. Others are requested to wait here. Please bear with us. We are just serious about this recruitment event as you are.” 

I did quick math. A batch of two hundred and a crowd of three thousand, that meant a total of fifteen batches. Even if the written test was for one hour, it didn’t seem possible to accommodate all of us within the day. And what were the chances of getting selected? One in three thousand. I chose to not think about it much. Let them work out the logistics. Not everybody felt the same way, though. After the maddening show in the ground and the announcement, some people started to leave.  I knew the math was against me but going back was not an option, not since I came all the way from Ernakulam just for the event. 

For the next two hours, we waited. We observed a batch of roughly fifty or sixty candidates going inside at an interval of fifteen minutes. We kept moving from one place to another for a cool shady place to sit. We could see more and more employees coming to the office. I guessed that the HR was also overwhelmed by the attendance and had brought in additional forces to help with the drive-in.  

There were thousands of us waiting outside and as each batch went in, it almost made no difference; as the remaining crowd was still quite large. It seemed unrealistic that our turn would come at that rate. We were getting anxious. Gul was the first one to give up and suggested leaving. As if on cue, we heard the squeaking sound of the iron door sliding behind us. There were two young men holding a wad of papers. They summoned us inside. We didn’t know that part of the campus was also part of their company. We were directed towards the cafeteria.  

“Please be seated. We are getting the question paper printed. We will start with the written test shortly. In the meantime, you can help yourself with food. The test may go on well into lunch time.” 

I imagined having to print three thousand copies of the ten pages long question paper. Sigh! Talk about saving trees. Neither of us was hungry. We sat their quietly, feeling a tad bit better. Finally, the written test was conducted. We finished around two thirty and are asked to wait. With one step done, I had regained some composure. 

My first reaction was to look for abbu, who was nowhere to be seen. Gul, my temporary friend, had a cell phone. As did her father. Lucky girl! She called her father. Gul’s father, Uncle Ahmad was with abbu. Fathers are like that. They probably saw us together and decided to get together, too. How else would I have located my abbu in this crowd? I chose to not think about it.  

“We have a break until the results are announced. Did you eat?” Gul and I asked in one voice.  

Gul had some money on her. Abbu handed me a hundred rupees note. I watched it closely. I was determined not going to spend that on food surely. I and Gul walked to the nearest food stall and I was surprised by the outrageous pricing. I decided to miss the meal. Gul insisted. And we decided to share a masala dosa1. It saved me some money and gave me a little energy to survive through the remainder of the day. 

*** 

After one hour, they announced the shortlisted candidates for group discussion. Our names were there. I had never felt so victorious in my life. Before going in for a group discussion, I asked Uncle Ahmad and Gul to help us coordinate if needed. They both laughed. It was not needed. It was sort of unsaid protocol. Nonetheless, I was obligated to the request. 

The next step was a blur, but I sailed through the group discussion. As did Gul. 

The clock now says five p.m. Luckily Gul was with me and she had spoken to her father, informing about us being safe and waiting. As fathers, they were bound to be worried. 

I was called in for the interview at six o’clock. I remembered nothing of it, as my blood sugar dropped lower and lower. When I came out Gul was not there. I panicked but another girl told me that Gul had gone in for an interview. By that time, the crowd was reduced to a couple of hundreds of candidates, and people who accompanied them. 

Another round of wait that lasted for an hour and a half, the HR folks came out with a couple of sheets of paper. All of us stood up in anticipation. The results were about to be announced.  

***  

You can buy the book here. Or, email me for a review copy.

Shabana Mukhtar

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