I remember my first day at the workplace. Do you?
I was a student then. Bored stiff of my post graduate classes I took up a part- time job after college. The ‘office’ was located at a residence in a leafy area of south Chennai. As I walked in to the first floor I saw a loose collection of desks and chairs, lots of paper and stacks of reading material. An assorted group of women were behind the desks. One had her feet over the desk, a cigarette hanging from her fingers. She looked up, a twinkle in her eye and a curl to her lip. There was another with a tea glass in her hand circling what I thought was coconut water. A whiff in the air told me it was spirit and it was two in the afternoon. There was a cheerful elder lady and a bearded boss man. The official jhola guy was flopped on his desk, his nose buried in newspapers of the day.He periodically yelled a comment or passed information to the elder lady in adjoining room. The gang seemed bohemian, clever and fun. I was bitten. (No, I hate gin. Ditto cigarettes, but I was hooked to their sense of wit and openness and warmth).
Amitabh Bachchan famously recalled staring his work life as a boxwallah in Calcutta in the late 1960s. As opposed to the Rabindra sangeet and poetry loving babu, the boxwallah was a new breed then. Satyajit Ray’s film Jana Aranya dealt with the questionable morals of the world of peddlers and new age businesses and salesmanship evocatively. Over time the boxwallah acquired sheen in popular imagination. He wore a suit and carried a box with a handle for his commercial activities, most often sales. He was known to unwind with a drink and smoke at Park Street’s tony joints and catch those crooning dames, Pam Crain or Usha Iyer, cut the rug to some jazz by Louis Banks and Braz Gonsalves.
Soon unemployment and disgruntlement made way for angst ridden heroes in the Indian cinema of that era. If he had a job the hero would most often have a noble calling. He would be a doctor, a police officer, pilot, teacher- upright and committed. The working class hero worked in the industries and factories and his honest sweat and labour would be challenged by cruel, rich bosses. The first office relationship I watched with interest was an early K.Balachander work, Iru Kodugal of a secretary’s entanglement with his boss lady.
The hero, especially in Bollywood fancy fairy tale dramas lost that work ethos in the 1990s. He lived in a never- never land where colleges looked out of comic strips like Riverdale, and the hero was vulgarly rich, rode in Lamborginis and lived in castles on Scottish moorlands. His life was about family and seeking romantic love.
As India’s economic progress soared, the last decade witnessed a boom in IT and BPO sector, with MNCs bringing in a bit of spit and polish and money. A new generation began to see the office as an important space in the graph of getting a life. It wasn’t just a brick and mortar place for carrying on the business of livelihood, but it wasn’t snug as home. It was a jungle when fresh graduates and wet-behind-the-ears geeks, noobs and dorks or what you will found their niche or felt outwitted by the more intelligent of the species. Office romances bloomed, marriages broke as high pressure and career fulfilment sought its prices, infidelity and climbing the corporate ladder for a few favours became part of office grapevines. Colleagues became friends, turned foes, laughed, cried and swore enmity and plotted new ventures and retirement plans.
Perhaps it’s a reflection of how much the office matters in our lives, fulfilling issues that are monetary and those of self-worth that the workplace and a man’s place in it has come to be discussed in novels and in cinema of late again. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August spoke of the modern babu’s ennui in the late 1980s and it remains a comic masterpiece. In recent times a rash of popular fiction by IIM and other B School graduates have made it to bestseller lists in India. Married but Available from HR professional Abhijit Bhaduri is about a middle class professional who begins his work life in a small town and gets a few growing up lessons in work and women. Dork:The Incredible Adventures of Robert ‘Einstein’ Varghese, is a funny tale of a business process analyst in a Mumbai firm who sails through his first year at work with alarming naiveté and moronic arrogance. Nirupama Surbramaniam’s Keep the Change is a whatchamacalit- romance, chick lit- about a prissy Tamil chartered accountant from Chennai who enters the stuffy world of international banking in Mumbai and gets frisky as well and ayyo, amma, chi, gets kissed by the office rake.
Unlike the hugely popular television series The Office, Indian TV with its obsession with reality shows and dancing and singing contests and mega serials on suffering women, has no time for the office or its inhabitants.
Cinema however is turning the spotlight on the office and work culture. Both Rocket Singh and Karthik Calling Karthik have done just that. The two films have made a good job of the worms that turn, losers who learn to win, nasty bosses and slimeball colleagues, randy geeks, snarky managers, loopy sloggers and smoky female colleagues.
An interesting trend- looking at the office and its people.
Perhaps the jungle beckons?