I had, meanwhile, started to work on a project, thanks to my ex boss from almost 12 years ago, whom I stayed in touch off and on and who was almost like an elder sister to me. It was a project on assessing the Training Needs of one of the departments of a newly formed state in India known for its natural beauty. My friend was a part of a consultancy group which had no HR expertise. I agreed to be on board for the lack of anything better to do and because the project seemed interesting enough.
The project officially started off by my going to a beautiful hill station to sign the MoU. I was told to take the night train and I would be met at the Nizamuddin railway station by officials from the Consultancy, including Mr. J, the CEO. The journey to the beautiful hill station was uneventful, except for the time I stared outside into the black night, being unable to sleep while snorers hit the high notes.
The next day was a long day of presentations. And it was a day when I got reintroduced to the white-towelled chair. I remember seeing these chairs in the early days of my career and in the later days of my schooling, when I would have to meet bureaucrats for various projects. The white-towelled chair of the babu –in-charge chair greeted me wherever I went. And 12 years down the line, it was still there. The IAS officer we were meeting had his chair covered in a white towel. I stared at it and it stared back at cockily. I was wondering why they never get out of their towel covered time wrap since the late nineties? Can someone tell them how ugly those chairs look? How, in the sweep of a towel, they immediately bring the overall aesthetics of the room to sub-zero levels?
Anyways, the towelled chairs were not the highlight of the trip. The highlight of the trip happened on the way back from the little slice of heaven and in the next couple of days after that. The CEO, Mr. J seemed very interested in understanding the various nuances of HR from me. Now I should have guessed then, that Mr. J’s interest in me extended beyond his curiosity for HR. But in spite of growing up in Calcutta, where girls are regularly pinched on the bottom by men in buses trains and all other public spaces, I should have known better. After some amount of small talk and medium talk and large talk on the night train, we part ways, with me promising to give my best for the project and for the consulting group. We had also discussed the state of my marriage, with Mr. J already having heard from the grapevine that I was going through “a rough patch”. I had meanwhile taken up the morally superior position of not lying when asked about my “patch”. I am not a good liar, and as much as I tried, could not lie well enough to turn the dry, rocky and totally parched patch into a lush green one. The ‘don’t ask don’t tell policy’ was modified a bit by me to become the ‘if asked, don’t not tell’. So, when Mr. J asked about my husband, I told him we were about to be separated soon, even though we had the rather strange living arrangement of living under the same roof. Mr J told me I was very brave and the matter ended there.
But it didn’t really. In his mind, I was an available woman and could be propositioned to. Perceptions don’t change much, even though we are well into the 21st century. A woman without the protection of a husband is seen as fair game. I get a text next day about how unforgettable I was…. my flawless skin, my rosy lips the unruly lock of my hair. I don’t reply to the text. It was followed up, after a couple of days with a job offer. To head the office in Delhi. I was stunned. And between a rock and a hard place. I needed the job. I desperately needed it. He was even willing to match my salary. I was in such a dilemma. Here was a job offer that was staring me in the face, but I could not take it up.
What would I be expected to do? Would I be expected to sleep with him? Would I be expected to be a walk over, agreeing to every decision he took? What would it entail? Would I be able to look at my colleagues in the eye and pretend I was offered the job only because Mr. J was super impressed with me?
My dad was incredulous and wasn’t satisfied with my answer of I just can’t. My friend A was extremely amused. “What an ass. By giving you such clear signals that he liked you, he made sure that you couldn’t take up the job.”
Maybe realists would call my actions equally asinine, but I just couldn’t take up the job. I had decided to take the road less travelled by. I had decided to blaze my own trail and not back down in the face of any kind of pressure. I would be damned if I were to fall into a ditch and not reach the end of the road I had chosen.