(A short story)




It was over a year now that Suhasini had been managing the home. Ever since her father had died, she had taken on the burden of earning and providing for her mother, her ten-year old brother and eight-year old sister. After her father’s death, everybody wondered how they would manage and people would say:


“It’s a pity the eldest child is a girl!” or


“After all, how is a young girl of eighteen going to feed four mouths?”


Suhasini was a timid girl, brought up in a middle-class Maharashtrian home. She had just passed her matriculation and completed a typing course. She felt extremely diffident, but there was no alternative. She would have to go to work.


Her father had worked in the same firm for twenty-five years and was loved and respected. So it was but natural, that when the firm offered her a job–in fact to take her father’s place–she accepted it with relief.


Her father had been a filing clerk at Jaykisondas & Co., but there was very little of the firm’s business that he did not know. He had grown into a right-hand man and was able to initiate the younger partners into the business. Besides himself, there were an old cashier and two young lady typists.


On her first day at work, she was called into the office of the partners. Both men were in their forties, dressed in silk shirts with solid gold studs, spotless fine mull dhoties and expensive tan slippers.


“Be seated,” said the senior partner, indicating a chair, “As you know, everyone here respected your late father. Even though he was in a humble position in the firm, he made himself indispensable. He was a very hard worker and never grumbled. We expect that you will try to follow his example to the best of your ability.”


He paused here, and surveyed her as if expecting some response. He noted her lack of make-up, her plain cotton sari and her modest long-sleeved blouse with approval. She continued to sit on the edge of her chair with her eyes downcast. This too, he approved of and continued:


“As I was saying, your father was a very good man, and we regret his loss deeply. Therefore, as a mark of our esteem and as an indication of our concern for his bereaved family, we have appointed you in his place, even though you are so young and inexperienced. The salary, all inclusive, will be Rs. 160 per month. This is many times more than you’re your father received at first, but considering the conditions of today, we think…..”


When Suhasini heard the amount, her mind started making quick calculations. Rent Rs. 30, School fees at least another Rs. 30. That would leave only Rs. 100 to live on. Not much, but may be if I can get a tuition or two, we will be able to manage. Regretfully she thought of how her father’s provident fund had dwindled during his many illnesses, until it was a mere two thousand rupees. This she kept deposited in a post office savings account. Not to be touched unless in a case of emergency.


She was recalled from her wool-gathering by the voice of the partner saying…”That is all.”


“I will do my best, and thank you, Sir,” she mumbled and rose from the chair.


As the swing door sprang into place behind her, the senior partner turned to the junior and remarked:


“She is a nice girl. Poor thing, to be left to shoulder the burden at so young an age. Quiet, modest and simple. Not like these modern working girls. Very cheeky some of them are!”


“Quite so, quite so!” answered the junior partner, while wildly searching for something on his desk. ‘Where had that draft gone?’ He hated having to draft all the letters. ‘When would the firm wake up and employ a stenographer? Someone able to handle correspondence independently would be best, of course!’ He thought.


In the outer office, Suhasini was learning the mysteries of filing from the old cashier. He and her father had joined the firm as young men, and therefore he had a special affection for her. The others too, tried to be kind to her and help her in all possible ways.


Sitting in the bus that evening going home, she decided that working was going to be less difficult than she had feared.


Being bright and alert, she soon mastered the filing system, and was then asked by the partners, if she would learn shorthand at the expense of the firm. They would increase her pay to Rs. 200 if she proved competent. She agreed and spent her evenings in learning shorthand.


She turned out to be very satisfactory and gained a speed of 120 words per minute in the minimum time. The partners were pleased. The junior one in particular, since she relieved him of a task he hated. The senior partner was happy that there was no necessity of squeezing an extra desk into the already limited office space. One of the typists helped her with the preliminary sorting of the letters for filing.


Suhasini felt that at last her life was falling into place. At home, she shook off her shyness, and revelled in her new position of provider. She became an autocrat. Nothing was done and no expenditure made, without consulting her and asking her permission. Her mother, owing to her financial helplessness, reluctantly relinquished her status as head of the family, and soon Suhasini’s word became law.


One day, when Suhasini was at home, her younger brother asked his mother, “Ai, may I go and play?”


“No, you may not. Sit down and revise your lessons.” Suhasini shouted from the inner room, exulting in her newly acquired authority.


Ai, let me go,” pleaded the boy, ignoring his sister’s words and not realizing the change of position.


“You heard what your sister said”, his mother replied Unhappily. She wondered why Suhasini was being so mean to him.


Later that evening her little sister came dancing in, “Ai, please give me some money for channa,” she begged.


Again Suhasini’s harsh, arogant voice came from inside.


“You get plenty to eat, Lata. There is no need for channa. It will soon be dinner time!”


“Ai, you give it to me,” the child wheedled.


“It is I who provide the money in this house, Lata, and I have told you, No.”


Her mother winced. She looked at the faces of her two children and felt frustrated. Yet, she thought, if Suhasini should get angry, who would feed them? So she kept silent.


Suhasini came into the outer room and guiltily glanced at the sulky faces of the family. For a moment she felt very much alone, but almost immediately she was elated at having caused such an effect.


Little by little, the family grew away from her. Her mother approached her with diffidence. The children became morose and sullen when she was present.


One day her mother gathered up enough courage to confront her regarding the family budget.


“Days are becoming increasingly difficult, and in spite of all possible economy, Suhasini, I cannot meet the expenses. You know that I have no servant, and we are managing with the minimum of food and clothing. Lata has only two frocks apart from her school uniform and your brother Arvind has to make do with two pairs of shorts and two shirts. Both the children are growing and will soon need clothes. I have not been able to save anything from your pay. What are we going to do?”


“Why are you telling this to me?” asked Suhasini staring fiercely into her mother’s troubled eyes.


“Whom else have I?” asked her mother, looking at her pleadingly.


“You know that I do not fritter my money away on film shows or saris or eating in restaurants, mother! I only spend the minimum on myself. What do you expect me to do?”


Suhasini, I am a simple woman, and do not know much about worldly affairs. When your father was alive, my only cares were my family and God. Today things are different, and I have also had to learn much. Everybody tells me, that nowadays, girls who know shorthand and typing are earning Rs. 250 to Rs. 300. Can’t you try to get a better job?”


“A better job, mother! Do you know, that no jobs are available without influence? What influence or connections have we?”


Her mother lowered her head. “It must be as you say, I don’t know about these things. I am a poor ignorant woman. You know best, my child.”


Everything would have continued as before, if it had not been that Suhasini’s mother started telling friends and neighbours that Suhasini needed a better job, but was unable to get one.


It was not long after this that a friend dropped in. She asked for Suhasini and told her excitedly:


“I have good news for you. I have just seen a lovely advertisement for a job in today’s paper. Do have a look!”


She peered over her friend’s shoulder and read, ‘Secretary wanted. Knowing filing, shorthand and typing. Salary Rs. 350. Interview personally between 9.30 -12 noon...


“You will go and try, won’t you?”


“Thank you so much. Of course, I will” Suhasini said.


“You had better go tomorrow, these jobs get snapped up so fast. Well, I wish you luck! I have a feeling you will get it. I’ll call in tomorrow and hear the news.”


Suhasini’s mother came in beaming. “Kumud, if Suhasini gets this job, we will be very grateful to you. I was just telling your mother the other day, how difficult it is for us unless Suhasini earns more!”


“Oh, that’s all right, Ai! I’ll come and expect something sweet from you too, if she gets it.”


Next morning Suhasini dressed with care. She put fresh sweet-smelling jasmine in her hair. The advertisement was safe in her bag, and she started from home very confidently. By the time she reached the bus-stop, she was already beginning to change her mind. All the insecurity of starting in a new job filled her with uncertainty. “What if she were to get the job, and not pass the probationary period? Then she would be stranded. Wasn’t a job in hand better than two in the bush?” When she entered the office, and saw her nice secure desk, her mind was made up. She would not go for the interview. Having come to this decision she pushed all thought of it out of her mind and buried herself in her work.


Sitting in the bus on the way home, she wondered what she should tell the family. How could she say she hadn’t gone for interview? Better say she had, but wasn’t selected. No, no, would not do. What would they think of her? She would certainly fall in their estimation. May be it would be best to lie.


As she entered, her mother did not say anything, but the unspoken question was in her eyes.


Suhasini thought it would be best to get it over. She became expansive, and said with a smile, “Mother, I went for the new job. There were dozens of other applicants, but I and two other girls have been called again on Friday. Then they will test us and decide.”


Her mother heaved a sigh of relief. “Well, you have done your part. We shall just have to wait and see,” she replied.


Kumud called in as she had promised, and asked, “Did you get it?”


“I have to go and be tested on Friday”, Suhasini lied.


“Oh, I am sure you will pass! What was the office like? Nice?”


“It’s a lovely office. Fully air-conditioned, and I will be sitting with the boss. He is a very nice man, and asked me so many questions.


“Like what?” interrupted Kumud.


Suhasini was at a loss, but her quick wit came to her aid, and she answered, practically without a noticeable pause, “Like, how old are you? Why are you working? How much experience have you….and lots more, I can’t remember.”


“No way out, but to wait till Friday, I suppose,” Kumud said. “I will pray for you in the meantime, really I will.”


When Friday came round, Suhasini had almost made up her mind to tell her people that she failed in the test, but again her pride and position in the home would be in jeopardy, she thought. So she told her mother that she was appointed as from the following month. She said she had resigned from her present post, and that, though the partners were very sorry to lose her, they would not stand in her light.


The children crowded round her, and mother smiled as she rarely did of late. Once again she felt the warmth and love of the family surrounding her.


Little Lata came shyly forward and asked, “Will you buy me a white nylon frock like Usha’s, Tai, when you get your first pay?”


“Why, of course I will, Lata. With my very first pay’” laughed and pretended to be merry, but a weight descended to the pit of her stomach and she turned very pale.


Arvind was not far behind his sister, and he too came up to her and asked with a shame-faced look, “And a pair of long trousers for me? Woollen ones? If not with your first pay Suhasini, then in time for my birthday?”


“Why, Arvind, you are only eleven. Long trousers already?” she replied, noting with a heavy heart, how considerate he was trying to be.


Balu is only ten, Tai, and he was given a pair,” he blustered and hung his head.


“Of course, I will, Arvind, I was only teasing you.” Again she felt a leaden and hollow feeling, as fear began to clutch at her. How was she going to face them?


“Now, Arvind, Lata, can’t you see how tired your sister is? Stop worrying her this minute! Suhasini, you look so pale! Aren’t you feeling well?”


“I’m alright, mother, really I am”, she replied.


There was comparative peace for the next few days, and Suhasini was growing calmer as she prayed for a plausible way out. On the wall hung a large calendar, and the children were crossing off the days until the starting date of her new job. It was a daily ordeal for her when she heard them rushing to see who would get there first and cross off another day.


A few days before the end of the month, she told her mother that she was going to her new office to pick up her letter of appointment, as they had not sent it to her as promised. She had decided that she would implant a doubt in her mother’s mind, for time was running out, and she would have to think of a reason for not taking the fictitious new job. All that day she pondered on the problem, and was inattentive at her work. The old cashier looked at her doubtfully.


“Aren’t you well, my child? What is troubling you? You look ill, I think you should ask for leave and go home!”


“No Kaka, really I am quite well. Just a bit tired, that’s all!”


By evening, when it was time to go home, she had found a solution. She felt miserable, and when she got home, her mother immediately saw that something had gone wrong.


“What has happened, my child. Why are you looking so exhausted?”


“It’s just that I can’t accept the new job,” Suhasini said. “Mother, they have made it impossible for me to do so!


“How can that be, child? They selected you!”


“I went there today, as I told you I would, and asked to see the manager. I said I had called since I had not received the letter of appointment up till now. He said, that, through oversight, it had not been sent, and he would give it me right away.” She paused breathlessly, as she continued to tell her well-memorized lie.


“As he was looking for it on his table, mother, he asked me whether I would go out with him to the cinema. It would have to be the night show, since he had an important meeting earlier that evening. I was stunned, and told him that I was not accustomed to going out so late at night. He pretended to be surprised, and said that he expected his secretary to go out with him wherever he went, adding that his last secretary had always done so.”


Suhasini was gratefully remembering the story that a colleague in her office had told her about an interview for a similar job.


“I said that I was a girl from an orthodox Hindu family, and I would not be able to do so. Then, he asked, how would I travel with him, when he went on tour? He said that he had no idea that a girl who had been to an English medium school would be so narrow-minded. I said that travelling was not listed among my duties, and that if I were expected to do so, I was afraid that, being from a conservative family, I could not accept the job.”


Suhasini looked at the sad face of her mother as she finished her story, and then at those of her brother and sister, who were trying hard to conceal their disappointment and their shattered dreams of a new nylon frock and a pair of long trousers–woollen.


The tension and strain of the past month and the weight of the burden she carried became too great, and bursting into tears, she buried her face in her mother’s lap and sobbed as she used to do when she was a little girl.


“I did right, didn’t I, mother?” she asked through her sobs.


“Of course you did, my child”, her mother said reassuringly stroking her hair, and looking blankly out of the door into the darkness beyond.