If you take a black-and-red-striped Nataraj pencil and sharpen it manually with a cheap plastic sharpener, the shavings come out in curly pale brown strips with a scalloped edge, like an elegant sari with a colorful border. The genuine delight I experienced by this simple act had been missing from my previous experiences of sticking yellow number two pencils into the booming and bulky electric power sharpeners in the U.S. This is what I remember from my first day at work.
I did not have a hard time landing an interview but getting through the interview process was an interesting experience, to say the least. The interviews were typically Indian in form and content, notable because they lacked both. In one instance, by the end of the day, I had been asked almost every question that would be considered illegal in the U.S. My five-page curriculum vitae lay unread on the glass-topped heavy desks of distinguished-looking gentlemen who did not hesitate to ask me my age. “What does your husband do? Do you have children? Do you own or rent?” I was interrogated about every aspect of my personal life not listed on the CV, details that had little relevance to my previous work or future potential.
At this point I have to mention that I am not an IT person. My expertise does not lie in the computer industry, although I was gainfully employed by a large multinational company in California for over six years. As a person who left India right after college, I worried about what working life in India would be like.
In the Dec. 8, 2003 issue of Business Week, the cover story “The Rise of India” describes GE’s John F. Welch Technology Center in Bangalore. The authors point out the similarities between GE’s upstate New York R&D; facility to the one in Bangalore. My workplace is almost exactly identical. Right from the uniformed guard at the gate who waves me into the state-of-the-art laboratories, what struck me first was that once I entered the lobby of the building, there was no difference either in the ambience or the technology at my fingertips. If necessary, I could send emails to Singapore, teleconference with Europe, and videoconference with North America. Comfortably seated on my swiveling chair in a centrally air-conditioned office, it was easy to forget what country I was in. Of course, I continue to be surprised by the fact that all my colleagues are Indian and it’s Hindi pop music that is piped into the office areas! But what has stayed constant is that in India (as in the U.S.), I still continue to be the solitary female presence in the room at most meetings.
For me, one of the other pleasures of going to work is the formal dress code, which means salwar-kameez and saris for women. Dress pants are allowed but no jeans or t-shirts for both men and women. I thoroughly enjoy adding beautiful saris to my collection that actually get worn and worn out unlike the dozens of rich saris that stayed pristine for years in my dust-free closet in the U.S. My Indian clothes lay untouched, relegated to the back of the closet, unless I chose them for rare gatherings with fellow Indians. Here I stick the bindi on my forehead each morning, slip into comfy chappals and head out the door confident in clothes that complement my unmistakably Indian looks.
The subsidized cafeteria offers a vast spread for lunch, all vegetarian, and served in stainless-steel thalis, tumblers, and katoris. Seasonal fresh fruit is available daily but every so often there are gulab jamuns or laddoos to periodically indulge my sweet tooth. Best of all, there is saunf at the end of the meal. I am disappointed to find that the number of holidays in corporate India are no different from those in America, the only difference is that the holidays now coincide with the festivals that I celebrate.
People refer to each other formally, cognizant of titles and hierarchy. In the few months of working here I have been called “Dr. Nellore” more often than in the eight years since I earned the privilege to be referred by that prefix. “Please call me Ranjani,” I say repeatedly, but people persist in calling me Madam. Much as I dislike this title, I am glad they don’t call me Aunty. There is a strict pecking order at work. It takes me a while to get used to the enthusiastic office boy who brings me bottled water, swats mosquitoes, and single-handedly runs between departments as a specialized courier. However, there are certain other habits that are easier to acquire and I join my colleagues enthusiastically for numerous cups of chai and coffee that are supplied premixed with milk and sugar, without any reminders.
I have a five-day workweek that I religiously adhere to but the days are long. It is ironic that the reason I have to stay late most often is to conference with people in North America. With all the advanced technology, I wish someone would find a solution to ease meetings between people living in diametrically opposing time zones. In India, some of the standard perks offered by employers include amenities like residence telephone and mobile phones, effectively putting employees “on the job” for all hours of the day or night. At most offices, meetings are at moment’s notice and priorities change overnight. For an ambitious person, the prevailing atmosphere provides unlimited opportunities to succeed. For me the struggle has always been to find that elusive balance between home and work. It took me years to get to that point of equilibrium in the U.S. and now I have to start all over again.
Generally, face time is highly valued and it is discouraging to see output being measured by the number of hours you put in. There is one exception to this rule, though. On certain days, this exception to leave early can be invoked by anyone regardless of grade or title, as long as the primary condition is met: the Indian team is playing a cricket match somewhere in the world!
Ranjani Nellore, a former San Francisco Bay Area resident, now lives and writes in Hyderabad, India.