Sunday, June 29, 2014
Different Ways By Nilanjana Chakraborty
Sadhana looked at Prem, “What do you mean by that?”
Prem sighed deeply and put his coffee mug on the center table and readjusted himself on the sofa to face her squarely. “What I mean is very plain, Sadhana. Just how do you suppose is this going to work out. We have a six-year-old son now, who needs his mom and I have a demanding job myself. Considering the circumstances, is going to Antarctica for one year that important to you?”
“You know I am a geologist, Prem. You also know how much effort and dedication I put in my work and what the academic world is all about. I thought that you appreciate my sense of identity that I derive from all this.”
“I do Sadhana, without a doubt, I do. In fact, it was your independent spirit and a zeal to strike it out on your own that attracted me to you in the first place. But that was a decade ago. You were a research student at that time and I was a budding software engineer, totally new in US. Things have changed now. We must acknowledge that. I have grown in my profession and currently run my own consultancy firm which is a lot more involving than a salaried job. And our son, Prasad is just six years old and still needs both of us around.”
Sadhana finished her coffee by now. She put the empty mug on the side table and turned back to resume the conversation. “I am aware of all that, Prem, and more. What do you think, this is all very easy for me? But the fact is that just as you have your commitments towards your profession, I have mine. I am a research scientist now, working with a group of other scientists who depend on me to do my job. We have obtained a lot of grant money from various sponsoring organizations over the last few years for our research and now it is time to pay them back with concrete results...by collecting real-life data and testing out our theories. And all this requires an Antarctic expedition, of which I too am a part. I already opted out of an earlier expedition, when Prasad was just two years old. But I cannot shy away now. And talking of Prasad's well-being, I want to set the right example for our son, even if it means that I have to leave him for a year.”
Prem threw up his hands in exasperation. “Always talking idealistic. What examples are you talking of, Sadhana? What does it matter that the group of scientists depend on you. Your own family also depend on you. Whom would you choose?
You are not a super-human. You also have your limitations, whether you like it or not. Everybody would understand that.”
Sadhana smiled and shook her head sadly. Then she sat up, “No, Prem. Nobody would understand that. When you, my own husband, are not trying to see my view of things, how do you think I can expect others to do so? You do not live on favors in this world, Prem, you have to earn your living. You talk of choosing between my profession and my family, now, when my profession demands some personal sacrifices. What motivated your choice when you married me? Did you simplistically assume that I would be the one to give up my job, when it came to it, just because I am a woman? I do not know the answers to these questions, Prem. I was always under the impression that you fully knew about my level of commitment to my studies and were aware of the amount of effort I put into them...working late nights, often missing meals, slogging for the last twelve years, being absorbed in the work – body, mind and soul. And I thought that you accepted me within this framework, for what I was. You see, I owe it to myself the most, to make this expedition happen.”
“And yes, it has everything to do with Prasad. I do not want my son to grow up thinking that one can hide behind personal excuses. I do not want my son growing up thinking that there are easy solutions to life's problems. I want him to know that his mom gave it her all to live up to her professional commitments, because she had started her family with that understanding in the first place. And I want my son to know that it is as OK for a woman to be ambitious as it is for a man to be so.”
Prem was looking at the floor now, absorbed in thought. He said, without looking up, “Ambition is a tricky word, Sadhana. It has been known to tear families apart and leave individuals utterly forlorn and unfulfilled at the end of the day.”
Sadhana was quick to reply, “Not if your ambition is based on dedication and scrupulous hard work and is motivated by your love for your dear ones.” She reached out for Prem and put her hand over his. “I love you, Prem, and our son, very much indeed.” They sat together like that for some time, silent and reflective. Then, she got up, stretched out a bit and added, “Besides, without ambition, there would be no progress and the world would not be as safe and comfortable as it is today.”
Prem looked at her, “Provided, you are able to raise a family and pass it on to the next generation. So, just how do you expect us to manage a whole year without you? Do you have a plan?”
Still standing, Sadhana said, “Of course I do. I have been expecting this since a couple of months now and have been talking to Bhavana about it. She was very supportive and encouraging and said I must go forward with the trip. In fact, she was more than willing to take charge of Prasad for the year in case you don't feel so confident. As you already know, we are both very close, she being my only sister. Her husband, Shantanu, simply adores Prasad, just as we are very fond of their two girls. They feel that Prasad can quite fit in for the year with their daughters, Neha and Shikha, who are currently nine and twelve years old. Besides, my parents live nearby in Mumbai and keep coming over to them at Pune quite often and shall be helping out too if the need so arises. I could have left Prasad with my parents too, but both Bhavana and myself did not want to burden them with care, at their age. You know what, Bhavana is even planning to talk to a good school there to arrange for Prasad's admission. It is early April now. I intend to prepare Prasad for all this before we make it to Pune in May to get him enrolled and comfortably settled for the year.”
Sadhana paused for a moment before she resumed, “As for you, I am sure you can manage on your own pretty well as you did when you had to go to Japan for six months on training just a year into our marriage, not to mention the numerous business trips you make every year”.
Prem finished off the rest of his coffee in one gulp and got up. He went and stood near the window, drawing the curtains aside to let the cool night-breeze in. Then he turned back to look at Sadhana, who was still standing there, waiting for his response. “It may sound all very mathematically correct, whatever plan you are proposing, but in reality I do not like the sound of it. Talking of favors, would you not be taking favors from your sister and her family if you leave Prasad with them? For that matter, my mother also loves Prasad. But she is in her late seventies and lives with my younger brother Jeetu and his wife Sudha, in Lucknow, as my father is no more. We have very good terms with my brother and his family too, but personally, I do not approve of sending our son away to live with relatives for a year, however intimate family ties we may have with them. Ever since you resumed attending your conferences within the last two years, we have somehow managed the couple of occasions when both of us had to go out of town, by sending Prasad over to stay with Brendon and Smita, who happen to be our close family friends of years and are in the academics themselves. Even so, these occasions lasted only for a day or two. One whole year is a totally different story, Sadhana!”
“In short, I do not want you to go. My Japan trip was a different matter altogether. I was at Tokyo all that time and not in some godforsaken place where no one can contact you; we did not have any child to take care of at that time; and you were in your final stage of doctoral research, deeply engrossed in writing your thesis and more than glad to have me out of the way, I can swear. However, things are quite different now. Life has moved on. I may be going on business trips from time to time but I still come home by the weekends, if not before.” He paused for breath before adding slowly, “I love you, baby. Look at us. This is the only child we shall ever have, given our busy lives. I do not want to miss out on a full year of his childhood.”
Sadhana went and stood beside Prem. “I understand your feelings darling, but you are unnecessarily getting defensive. And as for Bhavana, she is not doing any favors by taking Prasad in. She loves him. This is what family is all about. In fact, I had even suggested putting Prasad in a good boarding school in Delhi with my parents as his registered guardians. But she would listen to none of it. And I cannot deny that I would feel more comfortable with him staying with my sister than at a hostel. I mean, he is just six years old.”
“So, when I was talking about earning your living, I was not talking in absolute terms. Nothing is absolute in this world. One does have to depend on others in some form or the other and I am no exception. All that I am trying to say is that we must sincerely try to fulfill our precommitted obligations and take help wherever justified. I consider that taking help from family is justified by average standards as long as it is being offered willingly. However, nothing is finalized as yet regarding Prasad. I am still talking to you, am I not? You can have him here with you if you want it that way. We can make other arrangements – contact a crèche, appoint a suitable housekeeper, maybe. In fact, it would be the best solution possible if you two are able to continue together.”
“But please bear in mind that this conversation is not about justifying your Japan trip and the countless others you make on business errands. Neither am I trying to justify my decision. This is about making choices and living up to the responsibilities attached. I made a choice when I entered this profession. You made a choice when you married me with the full understanding that I would be continuing my research activities. We both made a choice when we went ahead with having a child in spite of our careers.”
“I agree that our lives have changed. However, adapting to change doesn't mean giving up on promises, but finding and choosing alternative solutions to challenges or making the best of a situation if you don’t have any alternatives available. I have no choice if I want to continue in this field. Surely you would not want me to sit at home just because we are not able to adapt ourselves to the situation.”
Prem turned away to look out of the window once again. “I think that you talk too much about commitments and choices. I prefer making decisions in spontaneous freedom. Is it that necessary for you to keep working at the University? Can’t you think of any other career, when it comes to this? Wouldn't that be an alternative solution, too?”
“That would be an alternative solution too, agreed. But you seem to be making it out as the only solution open for me. I expected a little more understanding from you, especially since you knew about my work before we married. I can and shall give up academics if the situation really demands it, even though I am not sure that I would be able to replace it by any other equally satisfying career because of my over specialization and the passion I share for my current calling. However, just now, it is not an emergency but a matter of willingness to go through some temporary inconvenience for the sake of attending to my duty. I do not see this as any reason to quit the University.” Sadhana kept looking at Prem in silence for sometime.
“Antarctica is a far cry from this campus township in Florida. With its hostile climate, coupled with the lack of supporting infrastructure, it has earned notoriety for claiming the life of many a scientist who went there. As far as I can see, an element of life and death emergency is very much present in this decision.” Prem quietly replied.
“That”, replied Sadhana, as she turned to pick up the empty coffee mugs, “is a chance we take every day, when we step out of our houses. There can be no end to speculating about the future, but in the end it is just that. Speculation. I agree that some professions have a higher level of occupational hazard attached to them. All the same, you have to go out to do your bit, be as careful as you can and hope for the best. It continues that way as long as you feel that the returns from your endeavors are commensurate with the risks implied.”
Before she left, she hung back near the door of the living room briefly, to conclude the conversation, “I think we have had enough discussion for the night. Why don't we retire for now and resume our discussion tomorrow, when you get back from work? It's quite late and I have to get up early as usual to have an hour with Prasad to go through his home-work before dropping him at the school.”
It was about eight, the next evening. Prem was sitting in the living room, staring abstractedly at the television. A bowl of crackers and an ashtray were kept beside the TV remote-control on the center table in front of him. He held a half-smoked cigar between his fingers, while his other arm was flung across the plush cushions. A wisp of cigar-smoke drifted about him, as he sat.
Sadhana entered the room carrying a bundle of journals and papers in her arm along with a small boy by her side. She placed her load on the table, and flopped back into a couch. The boy went to sit beside Prem and picking up the remote, started surfing the channels. Prem stubbed the remaining of his cigar in the ashtray and turned to put an arm around the boy. “How was your day, Prasad?”
“Alright, I guess”, Prasad replied, simultaneously reaching out for the crackers. Munching, he turned to his father, “I got an ‘A’ on my math test. Miss Emily gave me a candy for that. Then, we had some nice pepperoni pizza for lunch. And guess what, Dad? Susan has invited us to her birthday party next Saturday evening.” He then resumed watching his favorite cartoon on the TV.
Sadhana yawned in her couch as she swept the hair out of her face and proceeded to tie it up in a knot. “I had a heck of a day, for sure - thrashing out the finer details of my next research proposal, finally submitting that paper I had been working on to an online journal, picking up Prasad after school to drop him home, returning to my department to attend a meeting of the crew members of the proposed expedition, shopping for grocery before returning home, taking Prasad to his music lessons, visiting the library to look up some reference material I wanted, collecting Prasad from his music class and lastly taking him for some ice-cream before returning home. Phew!
“Yes dear, I know”, Prem smiled at her in acknowledgment and proceeded to strike Prasad’s head in silence, as the child leaned back against him and hoisted his legs on the sofa.
The family continued to watch the TV for some time. At about nine, Sadhana left for the kitchen and in another half an hour, she called out for dinner.
“Want some more, Prasad?” Sadhana asked as she ladled out some chicken gravy on her rice. Prasad shook his head as Prem reached out for the water jug. “OK then. If you have finished your dinner, you may now go upstairs and read yourself to sleep. Remember that a nice picture storybook I got you the day before yesterday? It is kept in the top drawer of the side table by your bed.” Sadhana said, between mouthfuls.
“Why don’t you come too? It’s a lot more fun when you read to me.” Prasad looked at her expectantly.
“No beta, you go on. The sooner you learn to read yourself, the faster you can move on to more exciting books. Then you will see that it is more fun to read on your own. Besides, I want to talk to Daddy about something important.” Sadhana had finished by now and she rose to clear the table. Prasad got up too, deposited his plate in the kitchen sink and left to wash himself. “You know, I think our son is getting quite self-sufficient.” Prem observed. He too had finished and went over to prepare their usual after-dinner coffee. “So much the better for him.”
Sadhana looked at Prem, “What do you mean?” She kept down her coffee mug on the center table in the living room and turned towards Prem, tucking her legs under her, on the sofa.
“Yes, Sadhana. I have decided to sell my consultancy and take the year off. I shall get a very good price for it, I am sure. Enough to afford a reasonably comfortable living off the monthly interests alone, accruing from the sum if we put it in a bank. I may keep working on projects, but then I shall operate from home. This should solve all our problems. And once you return, I may restart another concern by investing a part of the principal again. You know our industry. It works out fine, this way.” Prem said.
“I don’t know how to thank you enough for your understanding, Prem and it takes a huge load off my chest. But all that I was asking of you was your understanding and support. The rest of the details can be managed...a full time, live-in housekeeper can be appointed to ensure that everything runs smoothly. A fellow geologist, who had to go out on a long field trip somewhere remote, had appointed one for her family when she was away, as her husband happened to have a traveling job. I can talk to her to find out more about this. Besides, you are generally home during the weekends, even when you do go out on business trips. I would request you to cut down on your traveling as far as possible, for the year in question. Beyond that, I never wanted you to sacrifice your career plans in order to support mine. Such decisions should not be taken under pressure, but of free will and I just hope that you are not being impulsive.” Sadhana still looked incredulous.
“No, Sadhana. Like you said, a job is a job. I cannot predict anything about my business obligations beforehand, that too for a whole year, which is quite some time. And I also do not want to send my son away from me, even if it is to your sister. So, I am not being impulsive. Let’s just say that I suddenly realized that I have only one wife, only one son and only one life to love you all.” Prem laughed. Then he became serious and said solemnly, “Remember Vivek? The tall, lanky fellow, who kept joking and laughing with us at the last get together of my consultancy-fellows? Well, this morning his wife died of cancer. She was diagnosed only a month ago in a very advanced condition.”
“What? That vivacious, lovely girl? She was there at the get together too. I remember her well. She had the most charming smile I had ever seen. Christie. That was her name, I think. Oh, I am so sorry.” Sadhana looked anguished.
“Yes... Christie. She was just twenty-nine. Vivek is completely crestfallen. All of us were with him the whole day until their family arrived. They have two kids. The elder one’s six and the younger one just two years old.” Prem paused. “That’s when it struck me. I mean, nobody knows about the future. So, I don’t think I have any right to stop you from pursuing your calling just in order to hold on to you. You already do enough for the family, as it is. God willing, I am sure that you will be back with me in no time. In the meantime, I can stay home with our son and watch him grow all I want. You go ahead and do your thing.”
Sadhana’s eyes were sparkling. The tears had welled up unbidden. She moved over to Prem and hugged him. “I knew that it would finally all work out, darling. I had full faith in you. After all, we are meant for each other. In fact, we are not complete without the other. It’s just that we have different views on life, but in the end it’s all the same.”
She slipped her hand through Prem’s, “Come, let’s walk our different ways together, hand in hand.”