‘So, what do you do?’
“So, what do you do?” asked my first cousin’s wife’s sister’s husband’s father whilst he sipped on some lovely coffee that my wife had served. I almost spat out my coffee in surprise. It was the first time that I’d met this person, and this was the question that he chose to start off the conversation with.
“Umm…Well, I am an aspiring writer. I also do a bit of content writing for some websites. And some basic graphic designing too,” I reply. “I work from home, so I get to spend time with Rishi too,” I quickly add, pointing at my little one who’s busy in the corner, trying to uproot a potted plant. The only reason that I’d added that last statement about working from home, was to ensure that I wasn’t asked a follow-up “why” question. But that didn’t really work out.
“But, aren’t you an engineer? That too with a Master’s degree from abroad? And so many years of experience working in London? And you want to make a career in writing?” queries the man, seriousness oozing from his every word.
Flashing him a grin worthy of a toothpaste advert, I reply, “Yes, I am. And this is what I do!.” Though I sense that he is quite dissatisfied with my answer, he returns to reading the newspaper whilst I rush to stop my little one from uprooting another plant.
Here’s the thing. There’s absolutely nothing unusual in being asked what you do. It’s a perfectly normal question. But the disapproval that follows the announcement of your choice of an off-beat career path — well, that’s a phenomenon that I’ve only experienced in this magical society of ours. Not only does everyone demand to know your job status and position, but give an answer that’s deemed “unacceptable” to the traditional norms, and then you’re in for some free advice (or gyaan as I love to call it). But then again, it’s largely a question that’s been reserved for the Indian male. Womenfolk in our society are tackled a wee bit differently. With them, the conversation often starts with “Do you work?” followed by either a genuinely curious “Nice. Where?” or a “But why?” with a raised eyebrow. (For the record, I support a woman’s right to choose her career, whatever that may be. Not that my support is necessary, but just letting everyone know where I stand on this)
Before we go ahead, let me give you a bit of background information which may help you understand my situation. We recently relocated to India, after an eight-year stint in London. Back there, both my wife and I were employed in full-time professional jobs, worthy of our degrees and experience. And then our family plus 1’ed (you may use the term “bloomed”, and we decided to move back to India to be closer to family and help uphold our traditions and the rest. Naively, I also decided that this would be the best period in my three decades of mortal being, to follow my dreams and pursue a career that involved something I loved passionately (only maybe a tad less than my family of course) — Writing. Plus it would give me the added benefit, that I’d get to spend a rather sizeable portion of my time with my toddler son, helping him teach the tricks of the big, bad world. Which to be honest is a priceless advantage.
But of course, over the course of the past 10 months, I have had the pleasure of discovering that almost everyone who I’ve interacted with has an opinion to offer about why being a “work-from-home-dad” is not a real job. Starting with the distant relative who has previously never expressed an iota of interest in my wellbeing to my neighbors who suddenly deem it fit to be a serious problem that I never have to leave home for “work”. I for one, find it extremely fascinating that everyone (and I mean, everyone) in our society is really concerned about me not doing a “real job” (whatever that means). If you really believe that such people don’t exist, then do read on. Here are two examples of nosy lovely people I’ve had the unfortunate pleasure of discussing my “work” with.
As one of the 1200 residents in a rather large apartment enclave, there are times when I’m coerced into attending one of the many social functions held here. I for one, avoid these “social get-togethers” like plague. Not because I’m socially awkward or an introvert, both of which I may well be. Primarily because I can’t be bothered being asked another “So what do you do?” question. But then, there are times when you have to swallow your introverted-ness and “interact” with some of these unique people. During one such recent function, whilst I was calmly gobbling down my gajar-ka-halwa, a couple of elderly neighbors came up to me and started with the usual chitchat. Soon the conversation turned towards work, and I desperately looked around for my wife and son, so that we could leave before it was my turn. As fate would have it, the virtual dice rolled quickly, and it was soon my turn to answer the question. I politely gave them the same answer I had been giving for the past few months, and I was gifted the following familiar response — a raised eyebrow, a slight drop of the jaw and the great Indian head shake (all of which collectively, I am assuming, indicated their disapproval. The only thing missing was the “tut-tut” noise). On the positive side, this unexpected answer helped divert the discussion to the NaMos and RaGas of the political world, which helped me exit politely. As I walked away, I heard one of the “elderly neighbors” state “Bechara (poor fellow), he is a house husband!”. Probably with another shake of the head.
Another such unique encounter that I’ve had, has been with my ex-maid. I generalize of course, but the “gossipy” maid is another one of these species, whose curiosity knows no bounds. Armed with the advantage of working in several different flats and the benefits of sharing intimate household information with others of their kind, they are perhaps the most irksome of all. Especially since you know that you part with your hard earned money to employ them, and they’re happy to hang out your “intimate laundry” to dry, in full view of the public eye. But they’re also a species that most of us cannot do without, and hence imperative to our society in general. And my household is no exception. Though my interaction with our maid had been rather limited, I’d often noticed that she threw inquisitive glances at my screen when I was busy rattling away on my keyboard. So imagine my surprise one day, when she asked me quite seriously, “Kya, aap hamesha ghar par ho? Aap kaam pe nahi jaatey kya?” (which roughly translates as : Are you always at home? Do you not go to work?) As I sat there stumped by the audacity of the hired help in querying about my employment status, my little son came running up to me. She looked at me with the triumphant look of having figured the solution to complex mathematical calculation and said “Accha! Aap ghar baitkey baby ko sambhalthey ho!” (Right, so you’re a full time stay-at-home daddy). Needless to say, we found a less judgmental substitute in a matter of days. The only downside is that I am unable to walk past the maids’ lunch area (sadly, our paths cross on the way to collect my son from school) without most of them nodding their heads, as if I’m a disappointment to men everywhere.
I could probably go on and on about little anecdotes of “supposedly helpful” conversations that I’ve had with everyone who’s been sometimes confused, sometimes disapproving, sometimes even irked about my decision to pursue a different career. But the more I discuss it with others, the more I find that most people aren’t actually bothered with my job per se. It’s the fact that I’m always at home (they pretend to ignore the fact that I’m actually working) and have a little kid around that bothers them more. Whilst I agree that it isn’t the “accepted” norm for “men in our society” to opt for a career change which may not always make them the primary breadwinner of the family, I must confide that I’ve not always been one to conform to the “rules of the society”, so to speak. Add to the mix, a lovely wife who is happy for me to chase my dreams, and I can kind of understand why people in general are “seriously concerned” about my current “apparent predicament”. Of course predicament is a word they use freely and loosely.
As for me, I’m content. Why wouldn’t I be? After all, I can afford to sit in my balcony in the middle of the day, sipping my chai, whilst thinking about the next topic to write from my virtual calendar of content deadlines. All this whilst being well aware, that my choice of employment is currently one of the trending topics in our society. After all, if you’re being talked about, that means you’ve truly arrived on the world stage, isn’t it?
This was originally published as a guest post on rachnaparmar.com