Juvenoia | My parents don’t know I worked alongside college

What happens when parents try to make a career decision for their child? A 24-year-old secretly worked at a cafe even as she fulfilled her parents’ wish to complete her master’s degree

I remember being an utterly befuddled teenager in the late-1990s. For a protracted period, I was unable to decide what path I wanted to take, consequently what to study in college, after finishing school. My parents wanted me to figure this out for myself; it was my life, they reasoned, so the decision and its consequence rested entirely on my (drooping) shoulders. I dilly-dallied between multiple options and often wished my parents would make my life easier by deciding for me, just like so many of my friends' and classmates' parents had. What could possibly go wrong if they made one more life decision for me, I thought, for after all they'd had 16 years of experience!

So it was fascinating to meet Atreyee Madhukalya. At 18, she moved from Guwahati to Bengaluru for a bachelor's degree. She enjoys political science and her plan, back in 2013, was to learn foreign languages in order to build a career as an interpreter. By the time she graduated though, she knew she wanted to become a chef. “My roommate and I used to cook our own meals. A friend then asked that I cook for her for a payment,” recalls Atreyee. “It was mostly basic Indian or basic Italian food, but my friend loved it. And I used to enjoy innovating with recipes, adding ingredients based on my understanding and that's when the thought to pursue cooking as a career took root.”

At first Atreyee thought this could be a side job along with being an interpreter, but over time, the desire to be a full-time chef grew deep. “After graduating, I applied and was accepted for a culinary course in Manipal University, but my parents were, and still are, dead against it. My father won't even hear about it,” she says. “He is a retired bureaucrat and wants me to get into administrative services. I would've pursued the culinary course but ended up enrolling for a master's in political science only because my parents were paying for it.”

So for the last two years, the 24-year-old has been walking the path that her parents have wanted her to tread while laying the ground to pursue her passion: food. “I suppose people in my generation are a lot more convinced about making their own career decisions,” says Atreyee. “Earlier, the imperative was to earn money. Now, it's not only about earning, but also about being happy with the work one does. I understand that it's tough to get into the food industry and that at least initially, without a culinary degree, it won't pay me too well, but am prepared to deal with that.”

Soon after the first year for the master's degree started, Atreyee managed to get a job at a cafe in Indiranagar. “I was very lucky that (cafe owner) Peter gave me a part-time job even though I had no skill,” she says. “He warned me that the kitchen had never had a woman employee and was entirely run by men, mostly migrant workers who were in the city to earn money.”

This precisely was her mother's nightmare – how would she fit in in a cramped work space manned and operated by men. Fortunately for Atreyee, her colleages were “very conscious about their language, their mannerisms and what-not”. “Initially, they'd apologise profusely even if they accidentally bumped into me. They were curious about why I'd come to work here and on slow days teach me how to chop, prep and cook.”

A typical day would start with college lectures in the morning after which she'd work the afternoon shift at the cafe and return home by 10-10.30 pm. The youngest of three sisters, Atreyee persisted with this routine for a year. “My friends were in awe and had new respect for me for juggling college and work,” she laughs. “But everyone works - am sure many students work while in college but we are not focussing on them. Besides, working while studying is common abroad. In fact, most students save up for college tuition by doing such gigs.” She is quick to clarify though that her motivation to work was to be able to learn how to cook in a professional set-up, and not driven by a financial need. “In fact I didn't save. It was my first job and I freely spent money on eating out, shopping and indulging. I was happy to spend my hard-earned money,” she says. “And I could never tell my dad not to send money because then he'd wonder how I was living.”

This is because she never told her Guwahati-based parents that she was working at a cafe after classes. “They still do not know - even though I'm done with college now,” says Atreyee. “My mom will faint and my dad is certain to wonder if the money he sent was insufficient. But more than anything, they wouldn't want me to compromise on academics.” This is why she stopped working when she was in her second year and had to focus on her MA dissertation. “That was a sad decision.”

Having put the pursuit of a master's degree behind, she now hopes to find employment at restaurants in either Bangalore or Delhi. A job in hand, she reasons, will not only add to her experience but also help persuade her parents to accept her decision. “I've already told my mother that I don't want to get into administrative services because then I'll be unhappy all my life and that'll be on them,” she says. “And just in case I don't end up making it as a chef, I'll work my way to being an interpreter.”

(Juvenoia is a fortnightly column that sneaks a peep into the minds of 'Indian millennials' – born after the liberalisation in India and before the first iPhone released. Mail: marisha@thegoodstate.com)

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