Standing Guard

“Beena, how much longer…” Gita was knocking impatiently on the bathroom door.

“Two more minutes please. I am wearing my clothes” Beena replied.

“Make it quick. I need to be at work early today. I should have told you. There is a special event going on in my office and all the security guards have been asked to come in two hours early” Gita explained.

“Oh, is it! By the way, did you speak to your Sir about me?”

“Yes, I did. But you’ll make two thousand a month less than your current job. You have to wait a year to get back to making twelve.”

“Yeah. But I have to stand the whole day in my current job!” Beena said as she cranked open the tin door of the bathroom.

Gita got into the bathroom saying, “Two thousand is a lot of money. Think about it, ok? Let’s talk about it in the evening. Bye then.”

Beena got back to her room and placed her soap in the sunny window sill and the wet towel on the window rail. She quickly combed her slickly oiled hair into a tight plait and wore her shoes. The shoes were custom issued along with her security dress. She was proud to wear the security dress. This was her ticket to dream. This was her family’s ticket to a better life. She felt reborn with her job and at home in Hyderabad.

Beena stepped out of her hostel and walked towards the bus stop, soaking in the morning sun. As she got into the bus, she saw two school girls sitting in the front row. How much she missed her sister, Roopa. Roopa was back home in their village Ramgarh near Cuttack, Orissa. Now in the 9th grade, Roopa always topped her class. Such a smart girl!

Roopa had often talked about being a doctor. Their mother was dismissive – she would be happy if Roopa also followed her sister and became a security guard. But what did mother know? She was a house help who did not know that dreams needed no permission. Beena encouraged Roopa’s dreams. What that entailed, Beena didn’t know yet. She must speak with Roopa’s headmaster when she went home for the holidays. She needed to know if they could afford that dream.

Mother worked her bones off in three houses. She would wash the dishes and clothes, sweep and mop the floor. The five hundred rupees she was paid for each house would go into buying groceries for the kitchen. Father, a truck driver always on the road, was infrequent in his visits home. He would bring in money when he was home but there was no telling with certainty when his next visit would be. From the money he gave, mother always saved some money in the trunk beneath her red silk saree.

Beena learned about the security jobs about a year ago through her neighbor Chittaranjan when he came back to Ramgarh for the puja holidays. Chittaranjan was a security guard and he would tell fascinating stories about his job and life in Hyderabad. There were four other boys from the village who hung on to his every word. They all aspired for that life.

They retraced Chittaranjan’s steps and enrolled for the short-term training program at the government institute. The counsellor at the institute was initially surprised that Beena did not want to take up dress making – a popular choice for most girls. Beena was clear that she did not want to work in a factory or in a domestic setting – she wanted to be out there and see the fascinating stories that Chittaranjan would tell them: the lights, sounds, and the pace of a big city.

As soon as they finished their training, Chittaranjan spoke to his security agency and got them jobs in Hyderabad. Beena’s mother was very apprehensive about Beena leaving but relented when Chittaranjan arranged for a working women’s hostel for her.  The pay was more than what she would have earned in Cuttack or even Bhubaneshwar.

The buildings in Hyderabad were expansive and impressive, like monuments to the earth and sky. She had seen such buildings only in the movies. Where she worked, there was a huge arch and a tinkling water fountain at the entry and ten super-fast lifts in the lobby to service the 15 floors.  She got a picture of herself in her uniform next to the fountain and sent it to her sister. Was Roopa excited?!

Beena got off the bus and started walking towards the building. She started her shift early, so there wasn’t much traffic yet. In a couple of hours, the building would be teeming with hundreds of employees. Some of them were just a few years older than her. She was 19 and she saw some 20 or 22-year-old boys and girls working in the offices. What did they study? What went right for them that they could sit and work? That they could sit in an airconditioned office, speak in English, use the sparkling restrooms, and dress so well? She wondered if she could join those ranks. It was a world that she wanted to be a part of. Was it too big a dream for her and more importantly, too late?

Beena logged in her attendance and reached her assigned spot next to the access-controlled turnstiles. Her job was to ensure that every person who was entering and leaving the building swiped their access cards and did not tailgate. She quickly realized that she didn’t even exist for most people walking right past her. But she would look forward to the people who made eye contact with her and smiled at her. It was a fairly easy job and she enjoyed observing people as they flowed in and out. Some walked in alone with their head buried into their phones, some came in groups chatting animatedly.  She kept herself busy mentally counting the number of people who walked in and observing the dressing styles of the fashionable ladies.

She was standing through all this, eight hours a day, and was painfully aware of her discomfort. She even felt dizzy on those three days of the month. Of course, she could take washroom breaks at the non-rush hour times. Sitting on the commode even for 5 minutes was such a relief. She marveled at how clean even the service restrooms were in this building. Every evening, she would plod to the bus stop praying for a seat to sit on.  Oh, if only prayer could soothe her pain.

One day, she mustered the courage to mention to her supervisor that she wanted a sitting job. “Wait for a year, you are still new to the job. Hardly three months since you joined? There is a waiting list for the sitting job and a waiting list even for your kind of job” he had said.  Beena knew of the security guards who stand in the sun and who just want to be able to stand in the shade to do their job.

Gita saw Beena’s pain. She worked as a security guard with another company. She spoke to her supervisor who was happy to onboard Beena as ‘reception security’ in a desk job, but the salary was the catch. Beena would have to take a two thousand rupees pay cut for at least a year.

Yes, two thousand rupees is a lot of money. From her pay of twelve thousand, Beena was spending five thousand on her hostel, food, and bus pass. She saved five hundred for petty expenses and left another five hundred in the bank account for emergency expenses. She was sending six thousand home. That six thousand was paying for Roopa’s tuition classes and gradual upgrades to their weather-beaten house. Her mother also recently quit working in one of the houses because of her health. And, there is Roopa’s dream of being a doctor. What could Beena do to balance her own comfort with the needs of her family?

As Beena walked back from the bus stop to her hostel, she remembered what she left behind and her own immeasurable faith in the future.  The future was made of dreams.

Dreams need to be pursued. Some dreams are pursued with passion, some need to be negotiated. Some dreams need trade-offs. Her trade off was going to be time. Beena knew she couldn’t bargain for a higher salary in a new job – but she could certainly work overtime. She would be sitting after all.

But what about her own aspirations? Could she work inside an office, like the young people working in the offices she was guarding?  Even in the humdrum of her job, she knew that her job was to guard dreams, her own included. It is in her dreams that she knew her true self.

Beena made up her mind. “One step at a time”, she whispered to herself as she climbed the stairs to her room.

 

*

Mamata Vegunta Singh

Mamata Vegunta Singh

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