Ranvir Singh Parmar
Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 114 in 2007.
The cubicles were made out of cheap cardboard, but were high enough that it was quite a task to see her.
I had already been straining my neck for several months in largely vain attempts to catch her attention. I did succeed at times to meet her eyes, but most other times my eyes could only manage to catch a tiny flock of her elegant hair, or if I was lucky, the wings of her butterfly hairclip. The pleasure of her sight was so immense I never attributed the consistent sprains in my neck to this endeavor. She was new in the office, and as most new people, shy, hesitant, and down-eyed. She hardly left her desk all day and even during the lunch I had never seen her in the canteen, or roaming around with other women colleagues. She took her lunch at her seat. The smell of her food as she opened her lunch-box with her delicate hands would ooze out of the cardboard boundaries of the cubicles and reach to me. My own tiffin would taste insipid in the presence of the appetizing smell from her side.
Our office was not modern where lunch was meant to be taken in teams. It was an old government building and the lunch meant the whole government machinery in the building would come to a halt for half an hour. Everyone would get up from their desks, yawning and stretching, rubbing their eyes, kicking their legs and rotating their necks, and make way to the several small restaurants and dhabas that have opened on the opposite side of the road to cater to our needs, everyone except the two of us. Being a bachelor I myself relied on those dhabas for my lunch, but in recent days in the hope the quietness of the lunch hour would bestow on me an opportunity to talk to her I had started to bring myself a tiffin. My favorite dhaba-walla, Gurnail, raised his hands in question from the other side of the road when I left for home in the evening, asking if there was anything the matter with me, or his food, and why I was not visiting his place anymore. I pointed to my watch, hinting I was getting late, but seeing the disappointment creep on his face I gave him a reassuring smile that meant I would visit him soon, and my taste buds still craved for his hot bharta and tandoori rotis. My tiffin was no replacement for Gurnail’s food, it was just a physical embodiment of the pain one is expected to undergo in love. I packed whatever I could manage to cook in my morning drowsiness – boiled noodles, rock hard toast, or the kill I managed out of an omelet.
During the lunch I stayed glued to my seat waiting for that rush of courage that would help me get up from my seat and visit Shikha – Sadhu, my beloved friend, supplied me with her name. The smell of biryani, kadhi chawaal, and bhindi would reach to me on different days in hope and expectation, and their appetizing familiarity would help me realize the woman was no angel, she relished the same food I did, and I required no grand strategy to approach her. I could adopt the same banal measures adopted by lovesick mortals for centuries. ‘Oh, you seem to like bhindi, it’s my favorite too’. ‘That bangle on your wrist, no the red one, yes, that’s it, you know my mother wears the same kind, exact design, amazing, isn’t it?’ This was enough to start a talk. But as the hours would die away, and the sun outside would become weak in front of the tinted glass windows, the reality of another wasted day would start to loom before me. It made me so restless that for several weeks my last one hour at office was not being spent catching up with the pending work, but making hard resolves for the next day, determining moves and rehearsing dialogues, looking at things from a new perspective.
I wasn’t such a pussy on all days. On some days I would get up from the chair, and feigning no excuse would look at her. The anger at her indifference would be clear in my eyes, and when she would look up I would scratch my chin like a roadside gunda, giving clear indication that her arrogance may do her harm one day; it was in her best interest to accept me. She would quickly divert her eyes and her jittery gestures would indicate that if in nothing else, at least I have succeeded in making her nervous.
I didn't know why she never left her office seat. It was not that she could not walk - in evenings she tiptoed out of the office door faster than the others, and never looked back, as if she was leaving behind some nightmare. The elegance of her walk was itself proof she was from a good family, and knew how to carry herself. There were other men who ogled her, and exchanged glances and smiles in appreciation of her sensuous figure. But like me, everyone else was also afraid to talk to her. I was also sure it commonly surprised us all how a woman could look so straight while walking, and no left, no right, never ever. Even our boss appeared interested in her, but he didn’t enter the space of her cubicle, like he did with everyone else - barging his sickly attire into other people’s private space without any apology.
His behavior, among others, was also noticed by Sadhu, who was eager to share it with me.
I met him outside the office. He was standing next to his parked scooter and smoking. The leaves of yellow gulmohar under where he was standing were scattered around his feet. I parked my bike next to his scooter and lit a fag. ‘Why aren’t you going home?’ I asked.
‘Neelu doesn’t let me smoke in the house, she says I’ll stuff my kids' lungs with my habit-fair enough-but if I go to the balcony my neighbor makes a big fuss that I am sending the smoke on his side; he sounds as if it’s some bloody ISI’s plot. What should one do? I thought I’ll smoke a couple here; where are you heading?’
‘Any Progress?’ he asked, struggling to control a smile.
I shook my hand, pretending I didn’t notice his amusement at my situation. ‘You better should,’ he said. ‘I saw the pig offering to give her a lift today- ’
‘But she comes in her own car,’ I protested.
‘Today she didn’t.’
‘You keep a good eye on everyone,’ I said, not pleased with the news, and rather annoyed at its light delivery.
‘For my friends,’ he answered.
I finished the cigarette, and sending the butt amongst the leaves of the Gulmohar took my leave. Sadhu remained standing and placed another cigarette in his mouth, ‘Last,’ he said, when I raised my eyebrows at him. I started the bike. As I speeded away Sadhu shouted behind my back, ‘don’t worry, she refused to get in his car. She just walked away to the bus stop.’
His assurance did no great benefit to me. I reached home in a heavy mood, and didn’t switch on the television for my daily show of Vikram Baitaal–it was an old series being first shown in television when I was a child, but was once again being played by a channel for the new generation. The show accompanied with a cup of tea was an amazing stress remover when I got home, but today the mere thought of spending my evening glued to the television made me sick. I didn’t cook any dinner and retreated to the bed when some daylight was still showing outside. I lay wondering what would happen if I didn’t go to the office tomorrow. Would she feel my absence? Would she get up from her desk and inquire about me, and would her hands shiver with restlessness when she would open the first file of the day?
As it turned out, the situation went very much the opposite. I was in the office on time the next day, whereas on her desk I saw another man was seated. I reached my desk and after securing my tiffin in the drawer peered at the man. The man was busy settling himself, placing his family album, pens, and other paraphernalia, carefully over the desk, and muttering a prayer as he did so. When he saw me looking, he stood up and wished me morning. This enraged me further. I scanned the room and not finding Shikha at another location turned an irritated stare back at the nervous figure in front of me. 'Why are you sitting here?' I asked.
'Sir, they told me it is my desk,' he said, pointing towards the managers' chambers.
'What about the person who was sitting here?' I asked.
'I don't know,' he said. 'It is my first day and–.'
'What about the drawers,' I snapped. 'Where have you put the stuff that was in there?'
'No, sir,' he said. 'I came one hour earlier and dusted everything. I have pasted new newspapers in the drawer. I didn't see anything.'
‘What do you mean you ‘dusted’?’ I said. ‘Wasn’t it clean already?’
‘It was, but…’
I sat down without acknowledging the man. I was so distressed that several minutes passed and I didn’t realize I was behind schedule. A short while later Mr. Hamid from Account's section arrived and patted on my shoulder. I looked up with a start. 'What, man?' he said. 'Dreaming in the afternoon; where is the file?'
'What file?' I snapped, unable to keep the irritation off my voice.
'Janab,’ he said, smiling. 'Bhushan's file. You didn't check it, I knew that.'
'I have,' I lied, 'I have already sent it through the peon to you. If you don't stay at your desk how are you supposed to receive things sent out to you.'
'Hey.' He looked at me in astonishment, but the smile stayed on his lips. Perhaps even he knew about Shikha. 'You yourself delayed in looking through the file and now you are accusing me, hun, smart chap.'
'That's right,' I said. 'If you don't get back at your desk within one minute you won't get to see the file ever. I have instructed the peon to throw it into the garbage box if he fails to deliver it to you.'
'What a bastard you are?' Hamid said, shaking me from the shoulders, and returned back to his department to look for the peon, and the file, which actually lay lost somewhere in the mess of my desk.
Even Sadhu was of no use when I informed him of Shikha’s sudden disappearance. He was standing at his usual place under the gulmohar and smoking. 'May be on a holiday,' he said.
'Why would that ugly monkey sit on her desk then?' I said.
'Well,' he said. 'She may have left the job; don’t get so impatient. She may come back and may not – both things are not in your hands.'
I left him at that and drove back to the house. Perhaps I had waited too long. I looked back to those days when I had ample chance to walk around to her desk and tell her about my feelings for her, ask her if she would mind walking with me to the temple where we could get married. She may carry on with her work later. This task that had appeared so daunting now seemed so simple. It was just a matter of seconds, a minute perhaps, and I could have avoided this torture of her absence now I have to live with for life. I returned back to my dark house. The pinch of the place’s loneliness today struck me with double the force of the last day. No ‘Vikram Baitaal’ today as well. No Johnny Bravo. Fuck them all.
I didn’t care to switch on the light and collapsed on the couch. I felt like an old man, tired, feeble, sick to the bone, and sapped of energy as if it was drawn out from me in one quick pull from the injection, like blood, all of it. I was feeling thirsty, but didn’t know it was water I desired, wasn’t sure if it would make any difference to the sourness in my throat. After several moments I felt an itch for a drink. I got up, feeling once again cheerful at the thought of a brimmed beer mug with froth floating on top of it, and stormed out of the stuffy house. I lived in the first floor and on the way down I met Abhinav, my college buddy, hurriedly climbing the stairs to my flat. He wasn’t even looking up and his all attention seemed to have been taken up by stairs, which were tall and uncomfortable for an occasional user.
‘Where?’ I asked, holding his arm. Judging from his expression it was clear he was as pleased to see me as I was on his unexpected visit. ‘Were you coming to see me or…?’
‘Of course, man,’ he said, shaking hands. ‘Who else do I know in this building other than you? But I wasn’t expecting to meet you here. I thought, either you would be out somewhere, or inside the house, sleeping. I could not help pitying my knuckles that have already aged fifty years waking you up from your sleep.’
‘What’s the plan?’
'Well, I though let’s go for few drinks,' he said. ‘Where are you heading? Am I holding you?’
‘I am glad you are here,’ I said. ‘My throat too feels rough and spiky, and so is my whole body. Drink will do us both good.’
The world all of a sudden lost its dim colors and once again I felt excited at being alive. A night of drinks would no doubt drain my worries away. We agreed on Copper Chimney – an expensive bar, but one that offered a soothing environment, frothy beers, and roasted chicken to our taste with a supplementary minted chutney. Once seated next to a large window, I twisted my neck to ease out the tension that seemed to have become part of my existence the last few months. The waiter approached us without delay and Abhinay started his general enquiries about discounts and offers. This time I interrupted his investigation and proceeded to place an order. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said to Abhinay. ‘Let’s not worry about money today.’
After the first drink I started feeling light around the joints of my arms and legs, as if they have come loose and now floated some distance away from my body. It was the closest one could get to the feeling of the outer space. How would it feel to float in the dark some distance from the earth? A quiet blanketed on me; I felt like a silk curtain was let loose over me. I closed my eyes to hold this moment, let the curtain slide over me forever. I felt that all the tension and worries that were bugging me would ooze out of my meditative self if I would just keep my eyes closed, just maintain my quiet for a little long, ponder further deep into the darkness facing my eyes, drown myself in it. But all this was not possible with Abhinay in front. He snapped his fingers close to my face, forcing me to open my eyes. ‘You look dreamy,' he said.
'Being dreamy is good,’ I said. ‘Dreams are better than life.’
‘Not all,’ Abhinay said. ‘What if you are falling down the cliff in your dream? Or, or, being chased by a ferocious tiger, hun? Will you consider it better than this life–’ Abhinay gestured towards the beer–‘I don’t think so.’
‘I was talking of daydreams,’ I said. ‘Dreams that you can control–’
Abhinay dismissed my argument with an impatient ‘nah’. ‘That’s utter crap, full crap,’ he said. ‘What’ the point, tell me, what’s the point of a dream if you can control it? You are drunk, friend.’
I wanted to tell him about Shikha. He was a good friend and a nice person; but I wasn't sure if he would understand my feelings. Even if he did understand he could not offer me anything other than his sympathy–if Sadhu was of no help to unearth her whereabouts, Abhinay was hopeless. Still after an hour of drinking, as my limbs were no longer mine; as the world had changed into a new, more colorful, clothes; as the beer washed away the last bit of hesitation with its lightening currents, I started speaking about Shikha.
The world around me began to blur and stretch; people sitting at the adjacent tables receded deeper into their own worlds, taking with them their crockery, their glitter, their laughter. The light bulbs on the walls turned in their sockets and the sockets themselves circled the room, but there was no break to what I was saying. I spoke like a child informing his mother about a happening in the school, full of innocence, full of expectation for an elixir. Abhinay, in spite of his obvious drunken state listened carefully without speaking, and gave his head very long nods, maybe out of drowsiness, or perhaps in order to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. 'What's special about her?' he asked in the end.
This was one thing I hadn’t given a serious thought. She was a normal girl the likes of which one sees on a daily basis on the roads, inside cafes, bus stops, everywhere. There were several women like Shikha in my office–young women dressed in saris and salwaar kameezes and jeans. In a way these young women were all the same–smiling and conniving in a way men so felt pain at being excluded. There was nothing special about any of them, except that Shikha was aloof, silent, and mysterious. I had tried to penetrate the web of her thoughts by listening to her moments opposite my cubicle. I had discovered nothing elusive. No, there was nothing special about her, and yet there was something special about the sensation of the web she had woven around herself, and my desire to be a part of that web, penetrate it without tearing through.
‘Did she come to collect her stuff, I mean, her stuff, things?’ Abhinay asked. He ordered another beer despite my discouragement. His eyes looked shrunk as if he was in some deep pain, or pleasure, and he had to struggle to keep his head straight on his shoulders.
‘No clue,’ I said.
‘She may have, ah, carried her things the last time, ah, you saw her,’ he said. ‘You remember or are you drunk?’
‘I am not drunk, you are.’
‘Her things,’ he persisted.
‘Not possible,’ I said. ‘I saw her leaving the last day; she carried nothing unusual, just her usual purse. I saw her things on the table when I left, her coffee cup, writing pad, and pen, some other stuff as well, everything was there, and in the morning some other person was sitting at her desk.’
‘Well,’ Abhinay said. ‘Let’s look at the bottom line, nothing but the bottom line, the bottom line is she is a secluded personality, forgive me, but she is a hermit kind, you know, my dad kind, if we look at my dad–’
‘Let’s go,’ I said. ‘It’s time to call it evening.’
Back in my college days after an evening of drinks I would walk on the streets till I sobered enough to return to my house and face my parents. I and my friends would walk around the city roads, singing to wandering cows, talking to the moon, kicking at pebbles and an occasional dog, and feeling we were having the best time a human could possibly have. At times we would stop to break the windows of the parked cars, and sometimes ripped the seats of scooters and bikes inside out. We would visit the houses of our teachers and shout abuse from outside, leave written messages in praise of their daughters’ rack, and then run, pushing each other, laughing and crying, dizzy with joy, afraid of getting caught. That was a time; the feeling of recklessness, always staying so close to the verge of destruction and rampage, and not wanting anything more in life other than living through that moment, second to second.
Since moving to Chandigarh from Delhi I had lost touch with most of my friends, except a few like Abhinay. With him I felt I was revisiting the old college days. We repeated the actions of our college days to relive those moments. That day too we didn’t head home any time soon and kept driving around the city, evading cops by taking shortcuts, and when we did reach my place in the end Abhinay expressed a desire for betel leaf. ‘Ik paan ho jaye,’ he said.
My legs were sapped of their strength after a long exhausting day. The pleasant intoxication phase had long abated, taken over by an extreme sluggishness and drowsiness. I wanted to collapse right at the stairs to my flat and sleep. I would have put up some excuse if earlier in the day Abhinay hadn’t been nice enough to listen to my troubles, and considering such long nods he gave to his head, anyone could have been pleased at such attention. Still I proposed to walk to the paan-walla, or paan-wali–the proprietor of the betel shop was a woman–as surely there would be cops around that area.
The roads were deserted as we made our way towards the small betel shop situated in a deserted part of the nearby market. The old woman opened her shop way past midnight, long after the other shops had closed down. There were no street lights around that part, and the old woman with her tiny lamp looked like someone stranded on an island, awaiting rescue. For some reason it pleased me to talk to her, look inside her shed where she kept her paraphernalia for delicious paans in neat order. The lady was voluble and whenever I visited her she asked me all sort of questions regarding my life; not that I thought it was out of any interest but it just pleased her to have someone around to pass her hours, and also provided her with a sense of security. Though, the last one she declined. ‘Oh, no beta,’ she said, when I asked her if she got scared sometimes. ‘What could anyone get out of me? These betel leaves, let someone steal them if it gives him happiness in life’
When we reached her shop the old woman was quick to notice we were drunk. 'You men are all same,' she said. 'I never understand what pleasure is there in staggering on the roads at this hour.'
Abhinay went to her and pinched her cheeks, saying, 'Take few sips with me, mai,' he said. 'And you will dance all the way to your home.'
'Get off me, you scoundrel,' mai said, reaching for her stick, her only defense against hooligans, robbers, and the harmless likes of Abhinay. 'I will make you dance all the way till moon.'
Then she looked at me and smiled. 'Your friend had little too much today,' she said. 'Take him home or he will get himself arrested.'
'You are with us, mai,' I said. 'What have we to fear?'
Mai made two sweet pans from the betel leaves she picked from a pool of water where other betel leaves were floating like in a pond, with only tortoises and lilies missing. Her wrinkled hands moved dexterously as she applied white katha on two leaves and placed them side by side on a clean board. I loved watching her old face as she loaded the leaves with areca nut, cardamom, grated coconut, and various candies; she looked up to meet my eyes as she added extra gulukand on one leaf, and sprayed both leaves with a colorful sugary powder. She folded the leaves in one swift motion of her hands in a triangular shape and secured the pernicious structures with cloves. She handed the extra sweet leaf to me. ‘Give this other one to your drunken friend,’ she said.
The thick leaves left our mouths speechless for several minutes. The ingredients mixed and released themselves into one sweet river, and blessed our tongues and throats with a blissful experience.
'Now,' the mai said, when I paid her, 'tell me why have you been roaming at this hour?'
'We just came to see you, mai,' I said.
She shook her head sadly, and said, 'No one comes to see me anymore except these stars. No one.'
I was touched by the lost look on her face. All of a sudden I wished to confide in her the troubles that were unsettling me.
'Mai,' I said. But I could not make myself mention Shikha, and instead said, 'Why are you so sad?'
'What is there to be happy about?' she said.
'There is,' Abhinay said, stumbling forward, his mouth red with dye. 'Your paan.' Mai once again reached for her stick as Abhinay attempted to leave a ‘red kiss’ on her cheek.
The next day I returned the smile of the man who now sat in place of Shikha. He looked nervous, and his face showed he hadn't yet recovered from my previous day's harshness, and so I felt compelled to apologize for ‘being in a rush yesterday’, a pleasant substitute for ‘being so rash’. 'Not at all, sir,' he said.
'Ravi,' I said.
'Ravi,' he said. 'I am Pushkar.'
'Welcome to the office.'
We shook hands.
'Thanks,’ he said. ‘You were asking about someone yesterday. Did you meet him?'
'Her,' I said correcting. 'I mean, it’s a woman, my colleague, friend...' He looked in my eyes and I felt at loss of words for a second. 'She didn't tell me she was leaving the job.'
'Your friend?' he said with a smile.
'Yes,' I said. ‘Well, you know women; she was angry with me on something, and she didn’t care to tell me she was leaving the job–’
I couldn’t finish as our manager walked into the hall at that time throwing us a sharp look, which this time I didn’t hesitate to return. He disappeared into his cabin, and by the time I looked back Pushkar had disappeared from view. He was already seated on his desk and shuffling through the sheets nervously. Rat. I regretted smiling at him and again felt an urge to scold him. I sat down fuming with anger. Such peoples’ cowardice encouraged bosses to roam around as if they own this bloody world. People like him would not hesitate to prostrate themselves on the bosses' feet to cajole them for special favors. It was because of them the seniors believed their rudeness towards juniors is justified. The bosses think receiving wishes from subordinates is their birthright, and also believed it right not to acknowledge them. The bosses would themselves enjoy long lunch breaks, golf on weekends, and bungalows with swimming pools, Jacuzzis, gyms, and spa rooms. Their equally bastard wives would roam around laden with gold, and their children would wear Nike boots and get convent educations. All by putting at stake the lives of their juniors who they would burden with so much work that our weekends and holidays would pass catching up. The terror of these rich fat leeches extended far beyond the walls of this office, into the lives of the miserable people like Pushkar, who they insulted on a daily basis, and not only them, but the innocent wives and children of such people, who had never heard of Cleopatra Milk bath sessions and Nike, and only knew their beloved is withering away in front of their very eyes, under the burden of his neck-breaking work and constant humiliation.
I could not concentrate on work. I felt agitated thinking about my manager and his lavish lifestyle, and wondered if God would give me a chance to punch these good-for-nothings on their faces. After two hours my agitation reached to a level I could no longer sit at my place. My heart thumped with a vigor I felt as if I had run a marathon, and the sweat on my forehead surely added to that effect. I got up and made my way to the manager's cabin. His name was Shekhar Mehta. He surely had designs on Shikha; he visited her cubicle far too often than was needed and talked to her in low whispers. Maybe she had left the office to escape his harassment. I would surely kill him if that turned out to be the case. Even Sadhu informed me he had seen Mehta offering a lift to Shikha, which the respected lady rightly refused.
The peon sitting outside Mehta's room stood up as I approached the cabin door and nodded his head in respect. The poor guy, I thought, had to dance to the tune of Mehta’s bell. Mehta’s gold studded fingers would press the button on his desk without a single regard that the bell was fixed above the poor man’s head, and what all chemical imbalances its perpetual intimidating sound would be resulting in the man’s cardiac distress. These thoughts further drove me mad, and when the peon made a move to go inside to inquire if Mehta was free to see me, I placed a hand on the man’s shoulder.
'Don't worry,' I said. 'I am going in even if he is busy.'
The peon gave a smile as if he had heard some joke, and disregarding my hand made a move to go in. I kept my grip on his shoulder. ‘I told you don't worry,’ I said. ‘I don't need his permission to visit him. He doesn't take my permission to come to my place, does he?' The peon shook his head like a small boy who was questioned by his teacher; poor man. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, and after patting his shoulder went in.
Mehta was talking over the phone. His smile fell from his face when he saw me walk over to his table. He pressed his back on the chair and circled it away from me towards the window. I grabbed the chair opposite him and sat down. He stayed on the phone for another five minutes. I waited patiently, giving him another minute, and another, and just before I decided to snatch the phone from his hand, he thumped the receiver down. ‘Yes?’ he said, looking down at his files. I didn’t answer and he was compelled to look at me. ‘What is it?’ he said. ‘There is peon outside. You can send the message through him.’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘I can, but not all messages.’
He picked up his pen and started writing on one of the files. ‘What’s the issue?’ he said.
‘I need your attention,’ I said.
‘You have my attention,’ Mehta hissed. ‘Is it about holidays?’
‘Hh,’ I said, and gave a laugh. ‘I don’t need anyone’s permission for that.’
‘Is it?’ Mehta said. He placed the pen down and looked at me in the eyes. It unsettled me to see he wasn’t at all intimidated by my behavior, and rather it was me who was feeling a bit nervous.
'I need to know about the woman who sits…sat in front of me,' I said. ‘Shikha.’
Mehta raised his eyebrows. 'What for?' he asked.
'She borrowed a cassette from me and she didn't return it back,' I said.
'Kishore Kumar–golden jubilee collection, if the information helps you. My mother's,' I added for emphasis.
'Why did you give her the cassette?' he said.
‘There is no ‘why’ to that,’ I said.
‘I can’t go behind people collecting your stuff,’ he said. He snapped the file closed and picked up another from the stack. ‘Now if you will please excuse me.’
‘I am not asking you to take a run-around for me,’ I said, unable to keep the anger out of my voice. ‘I just want to know her address or phone number, that’s it; you would have something on your record. I would visit her and collect the cassette myself.’
A smile came over the man’s face. Had he seen through my lie. ‘She has left for Australia with her father,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, I don’t know what she did with your cassette, left it here, or carried it for the Kangaroos to listen.’ He began laughing, pleased with his joke. ‘Kishore da may help her befriend Kangaroos; you have to buy a new one for your mother.’ The news of her departure hit me like a meteorite, but I let the shock quietly slip away. Mehta was still smiling, and I began to feel sick. He made an attempt to show he knew of my intentions towards her, he knew how much I liked her, and was amused I had dared so. It appeared he was saying that was what happens to the low-ranking people who attempt at anything not assigned by their seniors.
‘Why?’ I found myself asking.
‘Shouldn’t you be concentrating on your work,’ he said.
‘Shouldn’t you?’ I said.
The smile vanished from his face, and in a dramatic show of annoyance a frown replaced it, slowly, meticulously, taking over his features like a mask. ‘What do you mean?’ he said
‘You should concentrate on your work as well,’ I said.
‘You look under some kind of shock,’ he said, ignoring my comment. ‘You can go home if you are not feeling well.’
‘I think you didn’t hear,’ I said. ‘You should concentrate on your work as well instead of offering lifts to decent women.’
Mehta stood up from his chair, breathing noisily, and pointed his finger towards the door. ‘How dare you? Get out of here at once. Get out before it gets ugly.’
‘That’s a shame, isn’t it,’ I said, remaining seated.
‘Get out,’ he shouted at the top of his pitch. ‘Don’t you ever show me your face again. Get out or I’ll throw you out myself.’
‘Try it,’ I said. I got up and grabbed his tie. Mehta began pressing on the bell vigorously, and the peon came running in. ‘Throw this bastard out,’ he shouted to the peon. ‘You are fired,’ he said to me. ‘You see what I will do to you, love bird.’ I pushed him back and he fell on his chair. ‘I will hand you to the police,’ he said, regaining his balance. He picked up the phone and started dialing. ‘Wait right there. Rampal, what are you waiting for, fool, grab him.’
The peon remained frozen at his place, uncertain of his action. The man knew me longer than he knew Mehta. I knew he would never manhandle me. I winked at him as I went out of the cabin. There was sweat all over my face. I was dying to get out of the stuffy building into the open air. I stopped to collect my things from the desk, and walked out of the hall, out of the building, and crossed the road to Gurnail’s dhaba. Gurnail saw me coming and came out with folded hands and a wide smile. I knew after Shikha if anything I would miss from of this office would be this poor man’s bharta and tandoori rotis.