We have this lady friend who was never free to come on an outing with the rest of the 'gang'. There was generally some relative staying over for a few days, or an impromptu party to be catered for, lunch boxes to be packed and sent over to the office or school at the eleventh hour (quite literally) in order to be warm and palatable at lunchtime, or an errand to be run because the others in the household were too caught up in their own affairs.
So old classmates' reunions, jaunts to the market, a leisurely lunch with a friend for no reason at all, taking in a movie that was much discussed - all this was not in her repertoire. She just had no time.
She had tried everything. She'd tried to emulate someone who did all the work herself early in the morning in order to never have to wait for the work to get done. She'd tried ordering the food from caterers for the frequent parties. She'd hired cooks to rapidly prepare the fare she'd planned on.
She'd tried to pile up all the errands and complete them on one day so that she'd have the rest of the week free. But try as she might, when I called and said, "We're visiting the exhibition this evening - are you game for it?" There'd be a long silence, then a volley of excuses until she bowed out. And I, thinking that perhaps she just didn't want the company I'd offered, eased myself off the scene.
Then recently I met her again - at an exhibition, of all places. There was a calm efficiency about her in contrast to the harried haste I'd seen in the days when I'd been in touch with her. And what's more, when she saw me, it was she who initiated the idea of an evening out, just a few lady friends together, scouring the annual handicrafts sale that we'd tried to drag her to so often in the past. Whatever she'd done to get a hold of her life, she'd succeeded. She looked calm, collected, confident and actually eager to spend time catching up on old times with her own friends as opposed to being a pivot for her family and its activities.
Where was the family, I asked. She laughed. "Very much here." And the kids? Gone away? "No, they too are still living at home!" Then what had happened? How had this transformation taken place?
"I got a job," she preened. "I go out to work - and I'm constantly amazed at how much easier my life has been since I took that step. True, there's one great rush in the morning but no one complains later in the day if a little something is dusty or the napkins don't match and the table settings are awry. I think only I noticed. As for hot and freshly cooked meals - it turns out that my conscience was the one that demanded all those unnecessary frills. The ones who carry the lunch boxes are so hungry by lunchtime that they're thankful for the taste of home cooked food - even if it's made the night before!"
How strange, I thought. One would expect that she'd be busier than ever now that she was going out to work in addition to managing her home, but actually, she discovered that it was a lot easier.
'Extras' that had been taken for granted earlier, like the prolonged and anytime weeks-long stays by friends and extended family were no longer in the book, and no one thought any less of her for it. They understood that she was busy and they couldn't impose on her time.
Without a murmur, her own family accepted the necessity of helping themselves from the kitchen and clearing the dishes, even washing up in turn. Casual visitors who'd been plied with food and drink in earlier times didn't get the same overdose of hospitality - and didn't expect it either!
As for her, her only regret was that she hadn't embarked on this revolutionary step a lot earlier!
Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.