I never thought I’d learn anything from him. And yet, he taught me more about feminism than all your supposedly ‘modern’ men combined.
I had the privilege of working in the same office as he did. I say ‘privilege’ and it was a privilege, though my position was, on paper, the better one. You see, I used to work as a copywriter in an advertising agency, and he was a cut-and-paste artist in the studio. Now a cut-and-paste artist isn’t even an employee, he’s on contract, and this contract gets renewed every three months or six months or something. It’s almost like his job is being equated with manual labor, in the otherwise glamorous field of advertising.
Not only was he a mere cut-and-paste artist, he was also elderly. He oiled his hair, which was totally white, and dressed in traditional clothes … a dhoti and kurta, in the young hipster, jeans-jacket, suited-booted ambiance. Most people didn’t notice him till they needed his deft fingers to work on a spoilt artwork, and even when they were getting the work done, I don’t think they ever really saw the man.
I noticed him only because I was new and had nobody to eat lunch with, on my first day in office. I was the only one who carried a ‘dabba’ (tiffin-box) to work, in the entire creative department. The other copywriters and visualisers all trooped to the nearby coffee shop, every day, for lunch.
Seeing me sitting there alone, he strolled over, from his table in the studio.
“Good afternoon,” he said.
“Good afternoon,” I replied.
“Come and join me for lunch,” he smiled. “Bring your tiffin.”
Hesitantly, I picked up my dabba and followed him to his table. He pulled up a chair for me, sat down himself, and opened his dabba. Immediately, a wonderful aroma enveloped me. I couldn’t help it — I sneaked a peek at what he was carrying for lunch.
He saw my furtive glance and guffawed. Leaning over, he opened my dabba, placed the lid next to the box, and, using his spoon, scooped out a generous portion of his lunch and put it into my dabba-lid, now used as a plate. Not quite sure what to do, I picked up my spoon and likewise shared some of my lunch with him.
He smiled again, I reciprocated, and we started eating, each beginning by sampling the others’ offering.
“This is so tasty,” I blurted. Indeed, the mixed vegetable was about the best thing I’d ever eaten.
“My wife is a good cook. She doesn’t like to cut vegetables, so that job falls on me, but she is the best cook ever. See, those days, mothers taught their daughters to cook. Now times have changed. My teenage daughter won’t even enter the kitchen. You know, the other day, her mother tried to show her some of our herbs and spices and things, and tell her what they are useful for … she just looked at each one like it was a bottle of poison!”
“You cut vegetables?” Once again, I was blurting.
“Yes, yes. What to do, in the morning rush, it becomes one more thing, but if your wife doesn’t like something, you have to do it, don’t you, for her sake? Here, why are you frowning like that? Have I said something to offend you?”
I shook my head quickly. “No, no. I was just thinking — not many men would chop vegetables because their wife didn’t like to. I mean, they’d force her to, or they’d get a maid or something.”
“Force? I don’t believe in forcing. Who said chopping vegetables is only the wife’s work, or the maid’s? Why can’t the husband do it? This fried-rice is very good. You made it? You know how to cook?”
I blushed. “No. I don’t know how to cook. The maid made it.”
“Ha ha, you writers. My daughter is also an aspiring writer. At first I thought, I’d like her to be a Doctor, but then I decided to let her choose her own path. Do you know, at this young age, she has already had an article accepted by the New York Times. She did a piece about travelling by train through South India, and they loved it. They want her to cover some more destinations, too. She must be packing a suitcase as we speak, to work on that assignment. It was good I didn’t force her to become a Doctor. She’s so happy now.”
I was gaping at him. “You allow your teenage daughter to go alone by train, throughout South India?”
“My dear, are you the old man, or am I?” he asked genially, through a mouthful of fried rice. “See, times have changed. We have to be part of this revolution. I would let my daughter go alone to the jungle, if she wanted to. Mind you, she does go to the movie theater alone and there’s not much difference, is there, between a jungle and a movie theater?”
“But what if something …”
“Happens to her? That’s where being a sensible parent comes in. I told her, go where you want, do what you want, but don’t get into trouble. She has been learning karate since the age of four, nobody would dare do anything to her. She looks like a little doll, but she’s tough. And I trust her otherwise. I know my wife and I have brought her up well enough, no need to keep her locked up.”
We ate the rest of our meal in silence. As my colleagues walked back from their posh lunch, they raised their eyebrows, noticing my humble lunch companion. I didn’t care. To me, a man who cheerfully cut vegetables because his wife disliked the task, and gave his daughter so much freedom while ensuring she was protected, was indeed a hero, whatever the rest of the world might think.