It was Wednesday 3rd Aug 2016. CEO’s Personal Secretary Rajani madam called me on internal phone and asked me to meet Mr Atul Mishra, the new CEO at 4 pm sharp in his chamber. I became nervous, since though I have been known as a highly efficient PS in the Company, two months ago I had blotted my record with a silly but grave error. I had been warned and fined a day’s salary for that mistake by the previous CEO. Would this new 42 year old, who came to our Chennai hq from Mumbai office, known to be a strict fellow, show me the door?
“Please sit down, Mrs. Nandini” he welcomed me into his chamber with a benign smile. After initial formalities he came directly to the topic.
M: I have proposed to transfer you to my office as Special Assistant. You will have to do the bulk of the secretarial work. If appointed, your working hours will be 9 to 7, five days a week and quite often may extend a little more. You have to be around when there are corporate guests and official parties, even if it is late in the night or a Company holiday. And you may have to travel outside once in a while along with me when work demands it. (He paused)
I: ……. (I was relieved that he did not dismiss me from work but became alarmed on mention of ‘travel outside’. However, I did not react)
M: Your salary will get a quarterly jump of 9k from the current 40k/pm to reach 76k/pm in a year if your performance is good, may be faster if exceptionally good. Do you own a car?
I: No sir.
M: As SA to CEO you should come by car to maintain the prestige of the company. You will get a 6 lakh segment car and 40 L/pm fuel at company cost. The car will be in your name but mortgaged to the company. After 3 years of service, the mortgage will be cleared and it will be your property. You will have to drive it yourself or hire a chauffeur at your cost.
I: (A rare kind of happiness surged through me. 40k to 76k in one year! Company financed car with adequate fuel! For a middle class family like us with two children and aging in-laws, this would be a dream come true! But the long working hours and travelling outside would be a challenge. But I controlled my emotions since I knew such things would come with a ‘price tag’, so kept mum).
M: And, I heard that two months ago you did a blunder causing deep embarrassment to your current boss. And you were let off with a mild punishment by my predecessor.
I: (here it comes, I thought, suddenly perspiring with some fear) Sir,… I….I….. (I stammered)
M: Ok. Leave it aside, for the time being. I do agree that your traditional attire and hairdo are all highly graceful. But that is a shortcoming for ‘this’ job. I want my SA, PS etc. to be of international corporate class in looks, attire and practices. I will not impose those things on an elderly lady like Mrs. Rajani who will retire in two years. But a 37 year old energetic and efficient youngster like you has to adapt to changing requirements. So, you will have to cut your hair to a short boy cut with clippered back and sides. And you must wear high heeled footwear, a short dress well above your knees and trendy ear hangings. Do you smoke?
I: (horrified at what all he just told, I stammered) No.
M: Very good. Do you take alcoholic drinks once in a while?
I: (forlorn at what he is driving at) No.
M: You have to learn to take it once in a while, within limits. These are all needed to keep the prestige of my office high and connect well with clients and suppliers. I know that legally I am on a weak footing. So, you can accept it only if you are happy with the package. You have time till 12 noon on Monday to tell me yes or no. A ‘yes’ will make you my SA from 16th Tuesday. A ‘no’ will land you in our Bangalore office in the existing pay level on 1st of September.
I: (my! he is blackmailing!) Will I be allowed to wear bindi and nose stud? (I was surprised that my clear voice had returned. I am too religious to chuck these two).
M: Mmm.. yeah, you are right. You can have bindi and nose stud.
I: Thank you, sir. I will let you know on Monday.
I came out perspiring, a sense of fear showing in my eyes. As previously, Rajani madam put some courage in me to handle the situation. I walked back to my seat and pondered over what Mishra told me.
In two minds
When I got married to Dayashankar, an English lecturer in a local college, about 13 years ago I was already working in this company as a secretarial staff for about 1 year. My in-laws are traditional lower middle class people but like to improve our finances by a royal route. So when I wanted to quit the job after marriage, get children and look after the house, m-i-l convinced me not to. So I continued and got used to it. Based on my and Daya’s incomes we made commitments like a 3 bedroom apartment, scooters for him and myself, etc. Eventually I got two kids – a son and a daughter. So, there would be no looking back on the job front now. It was needed.
At the time of marriage, I had dense waist long hair which I normally wore in a nice single plait. My m-i-l was fond of my long thick braid and took pride in spending an hour every week in combing, oiling and braiding of my hair. A few years ago, when Daya suggested to me to get a bob cut like one of his female colleagues, m-i-l had shouted at him left and right. Now, if I tell her that I have to cut off my hair for a new job role, I wondered what she would say.
After Daya got his Ph.D. and became a Professor a few years ago, he picked up ‘social drinking’. M-i-l was very angry on this initially but f-i-l consoled her that sometimes these are helpful to socialise. After a year or so, she was confident that her son will not cross limits and stopped discouraging him from taking drinks. Daya on his part wanted me also to take a little of it whenever I accompanied him to parties, since he saw a few lady professors taking it. He complained to his mother of my constant refusal. She used to defend me saying “Why do you pressurise her? It is good that she refuses.”
But one day, when we were about to leave for a party, she told me “Nandini, if you like, take some drinks as Daya wishes. I will not object as long as it is within limits.” I was shocked at her change. I politely rejected it. So now if I say that the CEO wants me to take drinks, I was sure neither Daya nor m-i-l would object. But I did not want to take drinks.
With all these thoughts, I sat in my place and brooded over what Mishra told me. Saying ‘no’ will put me in Bangalore. Whole family shifting to Bangalore is out of question. I going there alone also is not possible. Quitting the job is no option at all with the mortgage on the apartment running for three more years. Nobody would give me a secretarial job in Chennai at 40k/pm. Maximum that I could expect was around 25k. Not an option at all.
Well, Mishra has caught me in a situation from where I could not wriggle out. But, if I opt to change as per his requirement, I would really come up professionally and my family would move into upper middle class status. Our apartment mortgage can be cleared within a year. Our plan to purchase a car in EMI can be happily dropped. But imagining myself with a boy cut, a short dress and a cup of whisky in my hand repulsed me like anything at that moment. With this confused mind, I returned home.
That evening I made some discrete enquiries with a few known contacts in Mumbai office about Mishra. All gave him a clean chit on his relations with women employees. So that is one big relief. Then I told my folks about the new offer from the CEO. M-i-l was initially very happy when I said about becoming SA to CEO and the added financial package.
But she became speechless for a while when I said about the need to cut my hair short, wear short trendy dress to office and learn to take drinks once in a while. So as expected, my husband said “What is the big deal, Nandini? It is a very good offer and I will be a proud husband of a modernised lady. Accept it happily.”
I was expecting m-i-l to hit the roof shouting things against Mishra and my company. And I was banking on her rejection to propel me to find a new job, lower income notwithstanding. But when she said “Nandini, I feel that it is good to accept this offer” I was shocked. I shot back “Amma, in our household it is taboo for women to cut their hair except may be for a vow. How can you or f-i-l permit it? And wearing those short revealing clothes, how out-of-place I will look! And taking drinks! I will be setting a bad example to the kids. And what will all the relatives and neighbours talk? I feel that I should quit this job and find a new one, even if I get less income.”
F-i-l, who rarely speaks, said “Nandini, what your m-i-l and Daya say is correct. Do not let go of this opportunity to make it big in your line. Cutting your hair short or wearing trendy clothes is a very small price for it. Now-a-days many corporate ladies take drinks once in a while. As long as you are in limits and it does not become an obsession, there is no harm, dear.” M-i-l with a benign smile caressed my head and said “Dear, you know that I have a weakness for money and status but in this case, as your f-i-l said, you will be making it big in your line by this change. Times are changing and we cannot stick to our old taboos. So I suggest that you happily agree to the package and enjoy the new life.”
Every time that I am in distress or doubt, my m-i-l’s loving caress clears it and makes me happy. This time also the same thing happened. Suddenly, I lost whatever inhibition that I had and hugged my m-i-l. I told her “Okay, amma. Since you are all okay with it, I will happily do it.” Having come out of confusion, I felt a rare surge of happiness in me.
I told them that Mishra wanted me to have a boy cut with back and sides machined close. Daya searched out and got a UK lady’s haircut video with Dom Barber where her back and sides are machined close. He preferred that style. It looked cute. I put it in my mobile. Now my mood was totally changed to a happy anticipation.
The next day, Thursday, I told Mishra that I am accepting his offer and the conditions. I showed him the UK lady’s boy cut photo. He was all smiles and said “Yes, this is good. Get a cut like her – a real boy cut. And I want you to wear a dress like this (he showed me a photo) to office on most occasions. Saree only occasionally. You are to report here on Aug 16th Tuesday. By then be comfortable in your new dress, high heeled sandals and new hairdo. This Saturday the Company is giving me a welcome party as the new CEO. I will send invitation to you also. I will expect you take drinks in that party.” I agreed but requested to allow me to report on 17th since my folks would not agree to start the new role on a Tuesday. He agreed. The dress shown by him extended from the shoulder of the model to just middle of her thighs and the arms were fully open.
In the afternoon, my transfer paper and the acceptance letter with all the conditions were before me. It only mentioned in the undertaking that “I shall maintain a suitable hairstyle, proper attire and practices befitting the importance and prestige of the position I would be managing”. I happily signed the undertaking smiling at the things these simple words were hiding. Come 17th, I would be Special Assistant to CEO in a new avatar.
The first drink
That evening Daya initiated me to beer in a bar. And I was very happy that I chucked teetotalism so that I could enjoy a drink once in a while. At home, my f-i-l congratulated me on this change and m-i-l hugged me and said “Great change, dear. It will be all right. Do not worry. Enjoy life.” I was on cloud nine. Next day also, Daya took me to the bar and I sipped beer again. Now I really enjoyed it and looked forward to drink it in front of colleagues the next day.
Saturday, I went with my m-i-l and purchased readymade dresses and high heeled sandals of the type Mishra wanted. To complete the circuit I also purchased a pair of dark goggles. I joined the driving school also for a morning session and started learning driving on Saturday.
Saturday evening, in the party Mishra introduced me to his wife, Rukmini. To my great surprise she was the same Rukku who was my BA classmate. She had gone out of touch with me! We happily renewed our friendship. She was in a short bob haircut and looked very stylish. I asked her what that style is called. She said that it is called ‘inverted bob with nape shave and side undercut’. The hair came upto middle of her ear in the front, gradually becoming shorter towards the back. At the back, it had gone up to the occipital bone exposing a bald nape! The sides were also bald which could be seen only if the hair is lifted up. I liked the style. So I took a few snaps of it in different angles and also with the hair held up showing the clippered sides. But now I had to have a boy cut.
Rukku was happy that I had started drinking. At her insistence I drank whisky on that day which I liked very much. Mishra was very happy to see me drinking with his wife. Next day, Sunday I went to bar with Daya and tasted wine. I had happily ‘converted’ to a drinking female.
On Wednesday a young bob cut married girl, Akshata, 24, joined the company as my replacement. I taught all about my existing department and she picked it up fast. In the evening I took her to a restaurant and gave a small welcome treat to her. That way my friendship with the young colleague grew.
In a week’s time I had become comfortable in high heeled sandals and short one piece dress which I wore in my house every evening and moved around inside for a while.
Came Sunday 14th. My husband and I went to the barbershop. I carried the photo of the UK lady with her Dom Barber haircut. I showed it and told the barber to cut my hair like this. I told him to cut my braid as close to my head as possible.
He neatly combed it and braided it close to my head. I was gradually feeling more and more elated with my impending boy cut. With a pair of big scissors he started cutting my braid. I could see through the mirror shock, anger, surprise, etc. in the eyes of other customers. I gave a damn for that and started enjoying the cutting. Finally, the braid came off my head which my husband collected in a cover. I felt a big wave of happiness going through me.
Then the barber combed my remaining hair with a right parting which I requested. With comb and scissors he cut off long lengths to bring it to a rough boy cut shape. This took about ten minutes. Then he took a red coloured clippers in his hand and switched it on which started making humming noise. He bent my head down, gently pressed the teeth of the machine on my nape and started moving it up. The noise changed to one of cutting something, obviously my hair. The feeling of getting the hair cut so close to my scalp was really great. He repeated this several times on my nape which I could not see but only could feel. And I was feeling great.
Then he bent my head to left and ran that machine in front, behind and above my right ear to about 2 inches above my ear. Very small dark hair remained while longer portion was mowed off. The same thing was repeated on the left side also. The barber again took scissors and comb and cut the top hair a little shorter. I was really loving this new me – a veritable young boyish look. I was silently and happily giggling at the emerging new image of myself.
Then, the barber took the machine again, removed the plastic piece on its teeth and bent my head to the left. He placed the teeth of the machine in front of my right ear and moved it up to an inch above the top of the ear making it bald! Another great feeling! He continued this above and behind the ear, on the nape and on the left side. Then he merged the different portions neatly with comb and the machine. Oh! An excellent boy cut with clippered back and sides resulted. He dusted me and we went out with the cut braid after paying just 70 rupees. I would drop the braid in Tirupati hair hundi during our next visit there.
After coming back home, taking bath and doing puja I was in a highly elated mood. Oh! If a boy cut is so refreshing and looks so beautiful even with saree, why not more women of my age do it, I thought. And caressing my own sandpapery nape gives me such nice feelings! My f-i-l, m-i-l, husband and even my mischievous children had genuine appreciation for my new look haircut. My m-i-l happily embraced me caressing my bald nape. I wore the short dress which the company provided to me, the long ear hangings and goggles just for trial. Yes! I did get a great westernised corporate look and giggled at it. Later in the evening, I wore a saree, went to a bar with my husband and celebrated by consuming whisky. I started loving this type of life!
On Monday, my driving instructor could not recognise me. And he giggled and I joined him in the giggle. In my office on Tuesday, everybody happily welcomed me with my new appearance. I still wore saree only. I met Mishra briefly and told him that I am ready with all his requirements. He really appreciated my ‘machine boy cut’ as he called it and told me to renew it once a month as it really looked fine on me.
On Wednesday, I went to office with my new short dress, long ear hangings, high heeled sandals, goggles and boy cut on my scooter. I assumed charge as the SA to CEO. Rajani madam told me all things that I needed to know. By the end of the day, I was fully in control of all things assigned to me. Mishra was very happy with my getup and first day performance. He insisted that I go to his house that evening to celebrate. At his house, I had sweets, snacks and whisky along with Mishra and Rukku.
To office in my own car
A month passed. I got my haircut again on the first Sunday of September, just three weeks after the first one. At my request the bald portion was taken about quarter inch higher and it looked super. Two weeks later my DL test was done and I passed in the first attempt. I informed Mishra of getting the DL. A choice of vehicles was given to me as promised. I selected the petrol version of Tata Tiago which came within the allocated budget of 6 lakhs. All my folks were very happy. I started going to office in the car from 1st of October.
Mishra appreciated my performance very much and I got the promised raise to 76k/pm in six months instead of 1 year. I attended several parties on Friday and Saturday nights. On all those occasions, the guests were very happy that I also joined them in taking whisky or beer or rum, etc. I have gone to Mumbai and Delhi with him for official work a few times. On all those occasions, his behaviour was fully above board.
My f-i-l and m-i-l became very happy that our home had a sort of turnaround and thanked me for having achieved it with my sacrifice. I told them that there was no sacrifice but a positive change of life style. It is a double benefit – I entered a new joyous world of short hair, short dress, drinks and car driving while the family’s finances improved. The mortgage on our apartment would be cleared in ten months. The car had increased our status.
Every first Sunday or second Sunday in some cases, I got the barbershop boy cut and every time it was a joyous experience to feel the clippers peel off my hair from the back and sides. Like this, a year passed and Mishra became very respectful of my secretarial abilities. Many senior division heads in the company were jealous of the CEO and wanted my services. As for me, my previous image of a traditional woman was gone for good.
All in all, m-i-l was very happy that a conservative girl with traditional attire like me became a bold, non-teetotaller modern lady with short boy cut and short dresses. Previously she used to be embarrassed when some people used to rake up the social drinking of her son. But now, she herself proudly flaunts ‘You see my daughter-in-law. She has grown up in the corporate world as a much sought after PS. She looks so fine in her mod short hair and she even enjoys drinks in a responsible way.’ I am proud of her support. Like this three happy and eventful years have passed by.
So, except on and around festivals and some occasions, I enjoy drinks once or twice a week in corporate parties or with my husband or friends in a bar. And a nice and short clipper boy cut once a month in the barbershop. Today, I am a proud, modern, clipper boy cut, non-teetotaller corporate lady.