Monday, October 11, 2010

By The Water Cooler

Yes, gasp no filmy title. But this is my entry for a contest being run by Parul Sharma (who writes the amazing blog Radio Parul and is author to two books Bringing Up Vasu and By the Water Cooler).BoldClick here for details.
And for all those out there who just want the regular " lyrics to popular song" title, let it be Mujh Sey Pehli Si Muhabbat Merey Mehboob Na Mang.

If you are into all things etymology, what a wonderful story behind the Urdu term daftar for the English office . It comes from the Arabic daftarun (account book), which in turn is derived from the Greek diphthera "skin, hide, piece of leather". (This, of course, is the reason why evil office managers in South Asia think its their dharma , their farz to have your hide every time the printer runs out of toner) .
I tried looking up for the English word roots for 'office' . I think it is something along the lines of Space of Solitary Confinement where humble serfs sprang upon and made popular the game Solitaire.

My first job while still in Year 12 kind of spoiled me for work later--it was recommending a list of (Pakistani) Punjabi movies for an Education without Literacy project. I did not speak a word of Punjabi when I began, but at the end of the two months I could recognize my Rahi from a Mahi-vey .I think it is also the reason why I continue to have a " healthy" body image rather than the Stick Insects who were watching Palthrow the same year. However that cant be my story for today as my TV room, an office space does not make.

Well this fun filmy job and visits to sarkari (government) offices and banks over the coming years were enough to put the fear of the Lord (and offices) in any young person. Could one only wear nylon salwar kameez and woolen cardigans to work? Was a nose pin and tu tu main main with the office clerk part of the job description? How many jumpers did I have to knit and oranges peel as part of the year end target? Could Butt saheb from the next cubicle really kill someone softly with his song Gulon May Rang Bharey? My most surreal encounter was asking one such specimen to 'process a certificate' as he irately fended me off with a 'We lost a match yesterday , all of us are still in depression and you want to indulge in this nonsense'.
A morose voice behind him then chimed "Kasmi Allah Pak ki not a sip of tea I can swallow".
" Oh and I , our candidate took up the challenge " I have not eaten anything since yesterday evening's samosa"

After a brief stint at a "Mr Right-(for) Now" kind of office, I did end up working for the kind of people one can reminisce about quite fondly. I realise I have spent over a decade looking back at that stage in my life compared to the twenty months I spent there! Has there ever been a pension plan for being somewhere in spirit ? This was a place which was truly part of the whole Guru-Shisksha experience and which provided a forum for me to unlearn all the horrible right-wingness that was part of my twenty-somethingness. I was lucky to find a mentor who is now part of the Significant Soul Sisters group I have going on for me and colleagues who have kept me alive in their oral histories (and I am very flattered to find out have compiled a list of what they say were all the witty lines I threw at them).

I have written elsewhere in this blog about telling Arhaan

"tales of working in Islamabad and escaping to the roof top to enjoy the winter sun and the cups of chai and stolen smokes for some. We would look down (both literally and figuratively) at the suited booted lipstick jungle of the corporate world next door. Im sure they made fun of us becharis who wore sneakers and behen ji clothes to work."

The office at one time was housed in one of the 1960s kothis Islamabad was famous for-- a sprawling bungalow that might once have hosted a family that would only read the newspaper Dawn at the breakfast table and couldnt live without their bed tea (or as some might remember it , the chota hazri). They went for evening walks and The Club for them was not something to bludgeon infidels attending New Year parties with. Like cities elsewhere in our part of the world these bungalows are now cash cows to house either the expats or the city's experts (on all that ails Pakistan). We did move out to a ' proper' office and I happily moved on to a grad program. But we all miss those days working in close quarters (and the servant quarters). We wondered what it would be like to revisit some day, for I think the owner's family moved back. I know I would have to move their shoes and suitcases as my cubicle was in someone's dressing room. There were also some poor souls who for all their strategic placing of photographs and posters on the tiled walls knew that their computer was where previously stood the bathroom sink. How would it be for them to knock on the door one day as exiles returning do at times . " This was my entire world once , you will say as you step in" we teased them. ""Here is where I deliberated on climate change and here on the changing demography".
" Woh sab tau theek hai" will squeak a voice at you, " but can you wait till I flush first?"

I moved on to work in other offices and other cities but like all smitten by the Great First Loves it was a case of Mujh Sey Pehli Si Muhabbat Merey Mehboob Na Mang.

And one winter morning I stood on a street in Melbourne as a sea of office workers poured out from the station. Waves of black streaming past me ashen faces in concentration. A grid of black and white newspapers readying to be unfurled by suits at caf├ęs and I asked myself 21 centuries of humanity and this is the best we can do? I didnt exactly throw away the office keys but I seriously questioned what I was doing with my life. And so I sit at my laptop every day from then on and try to find (and give) some answers.

Yes, I miss it some time. Like when I watch Ugly Betty and the excellent lines Marc and Amanda throw at each other. I miss having someone to exchange cutting chai lines with, I miss my Marc and having someone to bitch with (and why I am so thrilled that my blog introduced me to Parul). But Im hoping one day I can teach some of my Sarcasm with a Smiley Face to Arhaan. After all it is as KJo says All about Lovin Your Family. But sometimes and I repeat Sometimes you can be very lucky (as I was Once upon a Time in Islamabad) and it can be all about Loving Your Office as well.


  1. Wasn't this supposed to be a story? Or could it just be a post? Or did I get it all wrong?

  2. D...Let me answer. It can be a post or a story or an anecdote...fiction, non-fiction, we are not choosy, it needs to be based in an office, bas!

    Sorry aneela for butting in.

  3. Thanks for stopping by 'And Then'. Your comment really pepped me up on an otherwise grey day.

    I have known you only through comments on Popular Parul's blog (can we call her PoPa :)?) but I am now making my way through your archives and love your meandering and fresh style!

  4. Aneela! I bet you worked at SDPI at some point in your life. I did, in 2005-2006 as a measly RA, but your description of my days there is so apt that I will almost be heartbroken if you said you weren't there :)
    I don't think I have ever met you though :)

    p.s. Don't mind me, I'm just a lurker on your blog...who has been lurking for years...

  5. Omg...this was so lovely. Beautifully written with wisps of nostalgia clinging gently to every word. This is akin to a classic b'n'w movie by the master, Ray.

    Loved this, A, loved this.

  6. @Vini: well I think this is the start of a beautiful mutual admiration club

    @mercury: where else but sdpi, sweetheart? though Im wondering how we missed each other as I was presenting and chairing at the 2005 and 2006 SDC?

    @dipali and M4 : *blush*


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