Have you been suffering from low cubicle self-esteem lately? Feeling crushed and demotivated by struggling to make ends meet each month? Often feel like giving it all up, packing your meagre things, retiring to a low-rent one-bedroom apartment somewhere in Matheran, and becoming a writer of semi-erotic fiction novels targeted at middle-aged women?
We’ve all been there. We’ve all done that.
But recently I’ve discovered something else that may be of some therapeutic value: ask your elderly relatives what they were once paid for a living. Chances are that your pittance of a pay package will seem Jindal-like in comparison.
Earlier this week, I was in Chandigarh to meet some extended family on the missus’ side. The missus’ octogenarian grandmother has been ill lately. Usually, a pocket dynamo of a person, she is now spending increasing amounts of time in bed. Everyone is getting quite concerned.
So, I decided to lure her out of bed with some conversation. “Tell me Beegee (grandmother),” I said, nudging her into the courtyard for an evening walk, “tell me stories about Pakistan. How was it during the partition…”
Beegee, who had been subdued since running a light fever on Saturday night, suddenly roared into action. More than a woman, this one.
Suddenly she was standing on her own, refusing to lean on anyone, looking into the Chandigarh sky in the distance and recounting tales, many of them quite moving, of being smuggled across the border in trucks and being fed by a series of gurudwaras on both sides of the border before she and her husband eventually moved into the basement of a cinema hall in Shimla.
“You know how much salary he used to make when he joined UCO Bank?” Beegee asked. “Rs.118 a month.”
I was mentally prepared for some minuscule figure. But the reality of it was still… unsettling. With these means—and they’d lost almost all of their savings and land when they fled from Renala Khurd, around 110km from Lahore, in Pakistan—they managed to educate several children, build a small house in Chandigarh and then get all those strapping Punjabi lads and lasses married off well.
How Beegee, I implored, how did you cope with just 118 bucks a month? What did you spend it on?
“Ah ah ah ah,” Beegee chuckled toothlessly, “ah ah ah. Staying alive bete. Staying alive.”
Later that night, after her walk, she was lying in bed thinking quietly. And then she turned to me. “My husband, before he died, used to lie there and wonder. He used to say: ‘How did we build this house? How did we manage all this?’”
Two days later I got a frantic phone call from a friend.
“Listen I’ve sent you a salary break-up. New job. Can you quickly see if it makes sense? How much will the take home be?”
I immediately did what any self-respecting cubiclist in India does when faced with a such a dilemma: I downloaded the latest tax calculator spreadsheet from www.ynithya.com, I punched in the salary details from the break-up, calculated approximate tax deductions and take-home amount, and I conveyed the same to my friend. But as if I had done it all mentally.
It was a significant amount of money each month. Almost six figures in our Indian money.
Yet, my friend sounded most distraught. “Do you think this is good enough? Should I ask for more? I mean, I will get at least four or five lakhs in bonus this year if I stay here without moving. They should adjust for that also, no? The thieves!”
And all the while I was thinking: Bloody malcontent fellow! Somebody should bundle you into a truck, drive you to Renala Khurd, and throw you out with nothing in your possession except the clothes on your back, Rs.118 in your pocket and a large sticker on your back that says “American Filmmaker”.
But, of course, my friend is only being utterly professional about compensation. And justifiably so. I wouldn’t work for free. And neither should you. I would never, ever tell you to dismiss the topic of compensation as an irrelevance.
However, talking to some veterans does help put some of our daily crises in perspectives. If nothing else it gave me the notion that while we always want as much as we can get, we are capable of coping with a lot less than we already have. So life is not all bad, is it?
And if even this talk-to-pensioners approach brings you no succour, then there is still one sliver of hope.
Twenty or 25 years from now, when you’re sitting at home with your wonderful, Ikea-visiting, Starbucks-drinking grandchildren, you can tell them that once upon a time, in the past, when cars still ran on petrol, and when Apple was still a popular brand, you once had to make ends meet with just Rs.36 lakh per annum. As the kids faint in awe, you can revel in the glory.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at pleasures and perils of corporate life. To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/cubiclenama