Memory of a conversation

How women navigate male-dominated working spaces


You are a memory to me. From so long ago, when corridors were home to long hours of anguish, cloaked in a layer of make-up. Everyday, a layer went up my face-- a light layer, light enough for one to touch and shatter it all the way to my skin. No one tried and that’s a different matter altogether.

But yes, those were days when the corridors were a passage to so many emotions. Always, there is that memory of my own stilettos thumping the metal base of the bridge that connected our two buildings, as I crossed over from one side to the other. Sometimes, during those walks, I caught sight of you in the parking lot, standing next to one of your cubicle mates. Men in those cubicles seemed to have a thing for long, unkempt hair. I used to wonder at the confidence with which you and your colleagues wore your hair past the nape-- so comfortable around your temples.

I suppose, looking back, I can now tell you that I have always been so fascinated by the rare male ability to shift between the feminine and the masculine. It intrigued me to watch you all, so lost in conversations over tea and smoke. It seemed like you shifted in gender fluidity in those moments, one moment becoming the coy girl who tucks a strand behind the ear and the other moment, something else while crossing over to a more masculine territory of occupying public space in such a way, as only men do in our part of the world.

I used to wonder what men talked about in those circles that appeared so exclusive to them. There was an air of spirituality too, that you all embodied as a group-- almost cultish, loaded with self-importance.

Women rarely appeared the same way in that public space provided to us all as co-workers.

When women gathered, we had our own share of work and fun and other things to discuss. I recall that politics was a topic as common as fashion and family troubles, but who really keeps an account of these conversations women have, no?

Read also: Of anger and love, Pratibha Tuladhar

One time, Anna and I sat in the cafeteria, trying to think of the goofiest Bollywood numbers and rapped the table top to the songs. We might have made a spectacle of ourselves. Anna and I when together were sometimes a spectacle, you know? Sometimes, we were just muffled voices, discussing intently love and heartbreak. It still seems to always make up the biggest chunk of our conversations-- men who will not let you love them.

So many memories in that cafeteria.

In one such memory, you are wearing a chequered shirt, a gangly youngie, almost a teenager. R and I have just finished breakfast and you pull a chair and invite yourself to sit. We start talking. I can’t remember about what. But we can’t stop talking and R starts to get antsy and left out. You know how it is when you are experiencing a high from being able to speak your exact mind and can’t stop talking? That is how we are that morning in my memory. Eventually, R ends up leaving and we stay back, talking.

Timi sanga kura garerai pugdaina malai, you say. The very Nepali way of saying I can’t get enough of you.

I have been trying to look back at that memory, wondering what it might have been that we discussed that morning. Like they say, it is never the words but the essence of the conversation that stays with us. It is just the memory of you now, you sitting across me exuding the same enthusiasm for the conversation as me, until more people start crowing the cafeteria, casting us side glances-- what is a woman doing talking to a young lad in a space filled with caffeine and smoke? Not a conventional pair by any means. But the glances, also reminding us to go back to our computers. It is the single memory I have of you.

I have been trying to dig up my old memories, combing through the dust settled over those days to recall what you looked like in those years and what we discussed during those hard-to-abandon conversations. So many layers have gathered over them now-- so many years, so much water flown under the bridge.

I suppose those other conversations you had with your male friends that I so envied, must have been not very different from the ones you and I had. Yet, by the grace of being a woman, I was visually ostracised by the crowds around us-- Cougar, they mouthed as they walked past us.

Yet, I am filled with utter longing today. I have been wishing we still went to work in a big office together where we ran into one another at tea breaks and tapped into stray conversations, lingering a little longer than schedules allowed, discussing telescopes and bands.

That was some kind of freedom, you know? I have always thought conversations are freedom and that is why people have them. Because in them, you are free to navigate worlds in your mind and outside, that would otherwise be forbidden to tread, especially for women. In words, we find places to go, hands to touch and faces to hold in sight that are otherwise never in our share.

I am sitting here in the drab brown and white of my room, imagining the colours one can traverse in conversations. Right now, I am hoping a woman like me, will be allowed conversations by a world that is made up of men like you.

Suburban Tales is a monthly column in Nepali Times based on real people (with some names changed) in Pratibha’s life.

Read more: A walk in the memory, Pratibha Tuladhar

Pratibha Tuladhar