I have a feeling a lot of you will identify with the man Neeraj Sharma once was.
He worked long hours in the office, travelling for weeks at a stretch, often outside India. He never had time for household chores, let alone to check on the status of his own fixed deposits and insurance premiums.
Days before Neeraj got married in 1995, his boss wanted to extend a business trip to Dhaka. When his father turned 60, Neeraj missed the party; he was in Vietnam. After his son was born 10 years ago, he took one day off.
As Neeraj wrote me in an email this week: “My body and mind had been hijacked by my employers.”
But while his son was still a baby—and thankfully while his mother and father were still alive so they could be appreciated as adults and fellow parents—Neeraj Sharma came home. And so did his work.
Last week, I told you the tale of a 30-year-old mother who works from home. That column and this one continue a discussion I began around Valentine’s Day with the penning of a love letter to the Indian husbands who support their ambitious wives. The letter sparked many of you to demand more concrete and practical solutions—or a carbon copy of my partner. Here’s another suggestion: Cut this column out and make the workaholic in your life read it. Maybe your in-laws, too.
Neeraj will be the first to tell you that he’s no gourmet cook and that his wife Archana can dress Shantanu much faster than he. Neeraj doesn’t remember family birthdays or anniversaries, doesn’t direct the servants and their duties. But he can tell riveting bedtime stories and juggle clients’ demands amid his son’s (usually to play cricket). He has mastered standing in a queue at the bank or the store with a precocious son in tow, one who likes to recite his father’s ATM code aloud. When Neeraj’s parents were alive, he set up an office next to his father’s. When his father was sick and bedridden, Neeraj bought a laptop and continued to work alongside him until the very end. The work, though, was secondary.
But in the beginning, the trigger for the transformation was baby Shantanu. Like the countless babies born in India, he had two working parents: Archana, who worked for a Swedish company, and Neeraj, who worked in pharmaceuticals.
Their quandary was typical: They didn’t want maids to raise their son. They also wanted to keep working. Their initial solution also was typical, at least in India: to rely on extended family. But the eventual compromise they made with each other and their own careers strikes me as unique and progressive: Archana returned to work and Neeraj switched his job profile to work from home—and take on the responsibilities of primary caregiver and of running the household.
And so Shantanu Sharma became the coveted baton in the relay race of work and family. Neeraj watched him in the morning, followed by Neeraj’s father, a physician who closed clinic early to make it home. At 1pm, Neeraj’s mother, a schoolteacher, arrived and took over until Archana returned.
In the meantime, Neeraj’s new career, as an essay counsellor to business school applicants, flourished. While working from home or starting a home-based business might mean a pay cut for some, Neeraj says he hasn’t had to; he charges about Rs25,000 per application.
When Shantanu got older, Archana accepted a job at the European Commission as a secretary to the ambassador-head of delegation, leaving at 8:30am and returning at 6:30pm. In between, her in-laws encouraged her to pursue a master’s degree in English. She recalls her father-in-law bringing her tea as she studied.
The household’s balance was thrown off in 2001, when Neeraj’s mother died, then again in 2004, when his father died. Neeraj said he had no desire to return to long, inflexible days away from the family.
“Once I got into it, I thought this is the only way to go,” Neeraj told me this week, as we sat in the living room of his house in Saket, which is under construction. As with raising his son, Neeraj refuses to outsource, overseeing procurement and labour, too.
The couple skips work functions and parties that don’t allow children. They don’t watch movies that Shantanu can’t, so that means lots of Dhoom 2 and Mission Impossible 3.
While in some ways, the Sharmas’ struggle reflects modern and middle-class India’s, Neeraj said he simply relies on the examples of his late parents, who fought their own battles raising children, careers and gender expectations.
“Many people spend a lifetime looking for their gods,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to spend a substantial part of my life talking to and learning from my gods.”
The couple is expecting their next child in May. As with the first, though, they don’t really know what to expect, but say they’ll manage somehow.
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