From being a housewife whose cheery conversation and easy wit made her popular in her small circle of friends, Aarthi Varanasi would suddenly become the coolest mum in her children’s school. Starting off as a radio jockey at the age of 32, she became a film playback singer, a voiceover artist and emcee over the next few years.
Of Telugu origin and raised in Chennai, Aarthi is multilingual, and has found avenues for her vocal talent in both the Tamil and Telugu film industries.
Aarthi was married at 23, right after she had completed her postgraduation. She had her first child the following year, and the second two years after that. There was no time to work. The question of her Working had never been broached before or after marriage, and Aarthi had no time to think about it as long as her children were toddlers.
‘But once they started going to full-day school, I realized there is nothing for me to do besides just taking care of them, and I started questioning myself,’ she says, ‘What am I doing? Okay, agreed, I give them food, take care of them, make snacks for them when they come back, spend time with them. But other than that, for those eight hours when I had all the time in the world, what am I doing? Housework will always be there, whether the children are small, grown-up or married. But what am I doing for myself? I can sing well, lean talk well.’
Her entry into radio occurred by accident, in 2005. Just as Aarthi was wondering what she should do, Radio Mirchi announced an RJ hunt. She had always been a radio listener, and says she was inspired enough by popular RJs. ‘I wanted to be like them, but I had no clue how I was going to become like them.’
When the RJ hunt was announced, she saw an opportunity, but was hesitant. ‘At the first interview, I was asked to script an entire, twelve-link show. And I’d never written a single piece of dialogue in my life. Yes, I was a good orator, and I was involved in theatre in school and college, but I’d never done scripting per se. It was only after I wrote that script that I realized I could do this too—I could write well too.’
Even as she was discovering her own potential, other people sensed it. One of the RJs at Mirchi told her she was a natural, another gave her tips, and another taught her how to handle situations where things went wrong. She was selected as one of five finalists, the only woman to have made it as far. That was when she realized she had it in her to make a name for herself.
At this time, family support was a key factor. ‘In the last stage of the hunt, we had to do live shows, and that was at night, from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m., when there was no in-studio RJ. Imagine a husband coming back from a long day at work, and saying, ‘All right, you go, I’ll look after the kids.” If I didn’t have that support, I couldn’t have done it. So, I used to take a call-taxi in the middle of the night, while he looked after the children. It was so risky, now that I think of it. But I did it, because I so passionately wanted to do it, I so passionately wanted to make a mark on my own.’
When she lost out in the last round, one of the radio channel’s most popular RJs came up to her and said, ‘You should have won. I so badly wanted you in. You were brilliant.’ She was surprised, flattered and buoyed. Over the next year, she did get calls from the radio station every time there was a vacancy, but things didn’t work out. Timings had to be considered too. She had to make sure her work hours coincided with those of her children’s school.
‘I’d lost all hope. Then, the following year, one of my friends heard that Radio City was being launched and he called up immediately and told me to apply because they were looking for RJs,’ she says. ‘After the first round itself, my boss told me he saw a bright future for me, and that I was definitely in. That gave me a lot of confidence. He’s been in radio for so long, and he says something like that. So, I thought, I need to prove him right, I need to take it up.’
There was a rider, though. She would have to be at office from 7 a.m. to whatever time the work was done. Her boss told her that her family would have to forget she existed, for a month and a half. She would have to slog it out for the next forty-five days to get the station up and running, and only then could he offer her the job of an RJ.
‘I came back and told my husband and mother-in-law, “Look, I need your support. If you don’t help me, I will be missing out on one of the biggest opportunities of my life.” Seriously, not everybody will get a break like that. You’re married, you’re the mother of two, you’ve not worked anywhere, you’re almost a decade older than the other people applying, and out of nowhere you get a plum offer. My conviction had to he conveyed to them, and it was very difficult. I explained that this was something that I personally needed to do.’
Stepping back from her own specific case, Aarthi says reactions to an announcement of this sort could range from the supportive to hostile. When you marry early, especially in an arranged set-up, certain things are taken for granted. The bride’s new family doesn’t fully know her personality, and can’t guess at the ambitions she may nurse. No one can tell in which direction a woman of 23 will grow over the next few years. It could take her husband by surprise; it could even take her by surprise.
‘My husband supported me completely, but you will face a lot of criticism from some quarters. You need to put your foot down. Ultimately, this is your life, your reality, your career.
I was very clear about one thing—another four or five years down the line, when my children go to college or boarding school, if I look back and realize I’ve only raised my children and nothing else, that’s not going to give me much satisfaction. Yes, I will be happy that I’ve raised them well, and given them moral values and taught them tradition. But what have I done for myself? I didn’t want to be known as Kumar’s daughter and Ravi’s wife and Nilan and Pranav’s mother. Who am I? Who is Aarthi? What is her identity?’
When she found out she had no answer, she decided she had to go to work. Aarthi gave herself some time to figure out her strengths and weaknesses, and what she could do. Once she had made up her mind, Aarthi says, destiny helped her out. Her boss at Radio City was willing to schedule her hours so that she could leave by 4 p.m.
However, convincing her little children that their mother wasn’t going to be at home as much as they were used to was far more difficult than convincing her husband and in-laws.
‘Touch wood, I’ve been blessed with understanding children. They saw that I was really happy. Not that I was unhappy otherwise, but this was an altogether different rush. Of course, despite all this, there will be resistance. They were really small. You need to make them understand, to make them feel important, to make them feel responsible. So I would explain to them that if Amma goes to a job, she can do so much more for you all. I would ask their permission. It was never, “Amma is going out.” It was, “Kanna [darling], Amma has to go out, will you help Amma?” Every mother has to give the children that respect, show them you’re not doing this without consulting them. You need to be honest with them. They’re mature enough to understand. If you lie and say you’re doing this only for them, they will say they don’t want this, and rebel. I told them I was happier working. I would explain where I was going and why, and when I would come back, and whether there would be a delay, and if so, why. You shouldn’t hide anything from them.’
Despite all this, Aarthi had her share of tantrums and heartbreaks to deal with. When her son, who was just over five years old at the time, fell ill, he would cry and ask her to stay behind. Sometimes, they would stop by her office on the way back from school, hoping to pick her up. As an RJ, it wasn’t easy to take days off work—she not only had her dedicated listeners, but finding a stand-in was impossible. Ail the RJs were on contract, and came in only for the hours that their show covered.
At these times, you think, “Oh, my God, why did I do this? Is my job more important than my children? Is this money more important?” These things will occur to you. But you have to get past all those hurdles. It’s a very difficult balance, and it does put a lot of pressure on the person who’s doing it. When you work, to kill your guilt over not spending time with the children, sometimes you go overboard with getting gifts for them or giving in to their wants. That was something I did initially, and then I realized that I should not do it.’
The hardest part of going to work, as a mother, was understanding when the children really needed her, and when they were simply feeling insecure and needed reassurance. It’s a fine line to tread, Aarthi says, but it’s important to be strong and stick to one’s career.
‘But having said that, you should always keep in mind that the family is the base,’ she adds. The onus is on the mother to keep the family in harmony. ‘If you realize that you’re breaking your family harmony to work, there’s something wrong with you. You need to make sure you balance things. There will always be problems, and you need to figure out ways to handle them—what if you have an important meeting when one of the children is sick? At every stage, it is a challenge.’
There were times when she would give them medicine, rush to office, and call up every hour with instructions to whoever was at home. If her husband was in town, he would work out of home when the children took ill. If he was travelling, her mother-in-law would step in. Her parents also live in the same city, and so they could step in too.
‘Even so, you feel so guilty, so bad, thinking about your baby at home wanting you. You keep questioning yourself, asking if your need to have a life of your own is worth all this, asking whether your career is more important than your children. Abu need to grit your teeth and get past those weak moments.’
It helped that many of the other mothers at her children’s school were going back to work, too. Several had taken some years off work to look after their children. Some had gone right back to their jobs after a few months’ maternity leave. Soon, Aarthi’s children realized their mother had a cooler job than most.
‘They were so proud of me,’ she says fondly. ‘They told everyone in school about their mother being a radio jockey. Once, the Principal came up to me and told me she’d heard I was an RJ, and that’s so. cool.’
The children quickly settled into a routine of looking after themselves, under their grandmother’s supervision. If Aarthi wasn’t yet home when they came back from school, they would change their clothes, have their milk, and go out to play. If they had exams, she would often be pleasantly surprised to see them studying on their own.
‘And now, even when they’re ill, they ask me to go out if something comes up. They encourage me to do my own thing. Sometimes, they say, ‘Abu go, Amma, don’t think about us, you go for a holiday, enjoy yourself, you have a life of your own.” They’re very mature, and I think that comes when you give them that independence.’
However, Aarthi warns that independence is a tricky thing. Children can easily misuse their freedom, and all working mothers need to be wary of it.’ You have to know what’s happening in their lives, and for this, you have to be more their friend than their mother.’ However tired a working mother is, she has to make time to exchange stories with her children at the end of the day.
Sorting out her family’s routine was only one of the demands of going back to work. Aarthi, at 32, was joining an industry which was dominated by people right out of college. Tamil radio is closely linked to the film industry, and RJs regularly interview film personalities. Often, they become friends. Many young people see this as an opportunity to enter the film world, as singers as well as actors, and are willing to work for lower salaries than older people. Besides, radio is seen as a vibrant, peppy medium that should stay young. Some radio channels don’t hire RJs who are over 25.
‘Luckily in my case, Radio City only looked at my voice and talent, not my age, my career graph, or how many children I had,’ she says, ‘I was honest about it. But I was only told that p would have to work long hours, and that I would need to relate to my audience. Everything else was cool.’
She made an effort to think like the audience. She would speak to the teenagers she knew. She did her homework. She followed comedy channels so that she could keep up with the latest catchphrases and punchlines in cinema. She would read the papers and browse the internet to keep herself updated on what the trends were.
‘The most important thing is to Compartmentalize your life. You’re a mother at home. When you come to work, you’re an RJ and your job is to make your listeners relate to you, to make sense to them. I never worried about whether I was too old for the job, and I had the sort of ambience at work that helped me feel young. My colleagues and I would’ have so much fun, we would do the sort of crazy stuff you do back in college, but at the same time we’d work hard and make sure we got good results.’
The other issue Aarthi had to deal with was the disparity between her salary and those of her friends from school and college, who had married later than she had, or not married yet.
‘On the flipside, that was one of the things that got me thinking about going back to work,’ she says. ‘But initially, it was difficult.’ She had to tell herself to keep the faith, to realize that in a few months, she would grow, and she would get her salary hikes, and that she would make money from the allied fields her job gave her access to-—playback singing and emceeing.
‘But whatever your starting salary is* you feel so good just being able to swipe your own credit card and buying yourself or your children something when you’re out shopping, without having to consult your husband. That financial independence gives you a lot of confidence. And I tell you, people treat you with more respect when you’re a working woman. I think it’s a lot of bullshit when people say they don’t set store by it. When you lose your “housewife” tag, people are scared to say some things, they hesitate to be rude.’
And, for herself, the satisfaction of doing something in addition to cooking and running a house is something that can’t be expressed in words, Aarthi says. ‘Being a good wife and mother is a very difficult job. And to have a life apart from that, in which you’re not just making money, but also exposing your own talent, it gives you a big thrill. That is a feeling nobody can take away from you. You feel younger, you feel more energetic. The other day, I met someone who asked how old my kids are, and she was shocked when I said they’re 14 and 12. She was like, “I thought you’d have one 4- or 5-year- old. This is amazing!”’
Her Santoor moments aside, Aarthi feels working has also taught her to get over a certain mindset that makes women feel they belong with their children. ‘We’re born like that, it’s deeply embedded in us, and we not only put family first, we feel constantly guilty when we’re not at home. Of late, I see some women who put themselves first, or give themselves as much importance, at least. But why do you think there are so many women who give up their careers, after a few years, when their children are entering their teens? There are so many software professionals who stop working because the children need their mothers’ attention. Of course, there are certain circumstances
which can lead you to make that decision, and it should be respected. But my point is that it sometimes doesn’t occur to us that we’re entitled to lives of our own.’
Aarthi stresses that women, even if they marry young, should not be limited by husband, family and children. ‘Marriage is not the be-all and end-all of life. Some women think family is their life. You need to think beyond. The minute you draw boundaries for yourself, the minute you’re satisfied whit your life, you’re not going to grow. You should never be satisfied. You should be dissatisfied, in the sense you should have your own targets, and you should aim at constantly outgrowing yourself, let alone others. You compete with others at a later stage; first, you have to compete with yourself and not be the same. You need to evolve, to change. Who I was ten years ago, I can’t be now. What mistakes I made ten years ago, I can’t make now.’
It was this thought that made Aarthi decide that she wouldn’t give up working, as she had done ten years earlier in order to get married. And now, as her children listen to the songs she has sung, and her friends know her not just as ‘Mrs Varanasi’ but as ‘RJ Aarthi’, she knows she made the right decision in reinventing herself.