As far as days went, he had been through better ones. It all started off with his more than usually vigorous sparring with his maid, Pushpatai. She had committed two cardinal sins at one go. She boiled his Brazilian coffee chicory mix, in a, get this, pot on the gas stove. Secondly, she had put his Egyptian cotton sheets, into the washer dryer.
Now, hours later in the train, he could still remember the tone of the conversation and how his blood had boiled at her cavalier attitude.
Him: Pushpatai, this is it. You have one last strike. Mess up once again and you’re taking your last salary from me. I don’t care what your circumstances are. I don’t need you messing up my coffee and my clothes.
Pushpatai: Really? And you really think I am hankering to work for someone like you, who cribs more than the standard issue mother-in-law? Get this straight. I work for you. I do stuff you can’t even visualize yourself doing, no matter how many scented candles you light up and frown at. Yes, I realize that is what you do. I asked my grandkid. Secondly, you can’t give me notice! I am giving you notice. I won’t be dusting your bookshelves, until further notice. Or, until you show me some respect!
Him: What? God! You have had a raise just the last month! Wasn’t that respectful enough for you? Stop holding me to ransom, or…
Pushpatai: Or what? Will you call up your mom wherever she lives and complain about me? Oh, I know! I know, why don’t you do what all good little boys do and ask her to get you married off, so you can have a little wifey, to do all your chores for you? In fact, I would love to spar with an equal for a change. Now, get out of this room. I have to clean the fans.
And with that, she banished him from his bedroom with his cup of vile tasting coffee. He went through the motions of getting ready, hurt and bruised, since he knew, he was no match for her and no way was he going to call his mom to get him a wife.
So, it was back to the grind of the daily work day, which he loved otherwise. He loved being an associate architect with the new firm that had employed him. They were still at a nascent stage, business was still being developed and so was the company policy. He could see himself getting along and doing very well for himself. And making a few very personal dreams come true on the way.
When the call came, he knew who it was before even looking at the number. It had been an unspoken pact between the two of them since they met. They always spoke at night and before leaving for work during the day. R was the love of his life and they had met at a music concert in Pune, away from home, away from the city where he worked. It had been blissful and he never wanted it to end.
R: Hey, what’s up? I’m heading to the studio. And the ballet exercise workshops are going to start this weekend. So you have to be there for me, okay?
Him: You know I’ll be there. With packed lunch and coffee to go.
R: Um, not made by Pushpatai, I hope? The memory of the last cup she made me, still makes me scrunch up my face.
Him: Don’t do that to your lovely face. I like it just the way it is.
R (smugly): That I know. Sleepover at my place, tonight?
Him: There’s an office party for Christmas. I’m planning it so, probably will wind up late. But, you have me for the next three days.
R: Smart guys, giving you the job of planning. Seems like your personal fantasy come true. How many women did you beat down for the job?
Him: None, they were all too happy to delegate it to me. What is with women these days? They just don’t want to do anything mundane anymore.
R: Beats me. Though, knowing you, this party is going to be anything but mundane. Okay, pucker up. I just sent you a kiss on the phone. Love you, bye.
Him (smiling from ear to ear): Can’t pucker up. My lips are too busy smiling. Love you back.
So, that was it. The best way to make the world appear a better place for him. He waltzed in the golden glow of that conversation till the next station, where he got unceremoniously puked up by the train on to a platform seething with people. He stood for a moment, but remembered that the crowd would carry him along if he didn’t find his own way.
Twenty minutes later, the golden glow was all but gone when he was informed the petty cash wasn’t sufficient and he would have to get a contribution from the staff for the party. As easy as pulling teeth without anesthetic, if you didn’t know the correct pathway. Which in this case went directly from the admin, A, who was in her mid forties and a great fan of sex as a form of recreation. Rumor had it, almost all the young recruits had suffered a bout with her just because it made logistical sense.
However, when he approached A, he realized that although he had been around for almost a year, she had made no overtures to him at all. He frowned slightly at that. But, shrugged it off. She didn’t seem that discerning. But, you never knew. She welcomed him with a slightly wary glance.
Him: Okay, I needed to talk to you about the party fund. Are we sure, we can’t let petty cash take care of it? Maybe an advance from next month…
A: You know I can’t do that. I don’t have the authority.
Him: Oh, I don’t mean it that way. I just know that you are a hands on person, so I figured you could help…
A: Hmm, well. Okay, let’s see. Maybe I can figure something out. Just to be safe, I’m going to send out a mail to all to register with you, for a party and mention the fee. Will that help?
Him: See? I knew you could sort this out. Is there anything I can do for you? Any particular dish you like?
A (warily): No…
Him: Dessert, then?
A: I do like chocolate mousse.
A: I’ll get one, just for you.
He smiled genuinely warmly at her and was rewarded with one of her rare, non lecherous smiles. He chuckled as he walked away. It seemed her radar was pretty accurate.
The rest of it was pretty easy. The lists were drawn up, the goodies were chosen, cutlery, napkins, space, playlists for the music, the speakers, and so on. All he had to do was tell everyone to get their own booze, since that was not being provided. And then it happened. P, his partner on a fancy apartment hotel in the suburbs called in an absolute panic. Which was strange, since normally P was the calmest person he knew. But right now, all P did on the phone was blubber incoherently for a good five minutes, before he could get a word in.
Him: Okay, okay, P! Take a breath! I can’t understand you! Calm down.
P: I can’t! Oh, God! I’m having a heart attack, I think. My chest feels as if someone is sitting on it.
Him: That’s why I keep telling you not to eat chole bhature for lunch. All that gas has to find an outlet.
P: No, no! You can’t do this! You can’t tease me, now! In fact, you should be here, holding my hand and telling me it will be alright.
Him: P! You’re a veteran, my man! You don’t have a breakdown. You just keep going. Come on, now.
P: No! No, I can’t take it. It’s been done, you know. The master bath is done, as in done, every bloody bit of it is done. And now the guy’s wife is here, bitching about how it doesn’t look like something she saw in a washroom in Turkey. Blue and white handmade tiles! A fountain, for crying out loud! Just kill me, now.
Him: Okay, just relax. Just take it easy. This is going to get all better. I’m on my way there. Breathe and don’t pass out on me. Just focus and don’t say anything till I get there.
P: I can’t redo this! It’s under contract…
Him: Shh, I know, I know. We won’t redo anything, except her opinion of it. She will love it. Wait and see.
P: Okay, I’m going to eat a samosa to calm me down in the meantime. Please get here soon. Or you will be to blame for my calorie overload.
Him: Actually, that’s all coming back to haunt you. But, anyway, these are tough times. Go ahead. See you there.
Moving quickly, he organized his stuff to get to the other side of the city. He now had everything under control and just needed to pick up the cash which A would have collected from the staff. But, she wasn’t there when he reached her cubicle. She messaged him saying, she had to go out for an official lunch with the boss, and could he take the cash from the petty cash register and sign an acknowledgment slip? Which he did, when he realized that there was no way he would be able to pay for the party since he wouldn’t be there. Thinking fast, he caught hold of G, a new intern on the job. G was always ready to please and run errands and go beyond the line of duty. He hadn’t interacted with G much and didn’t think of him at all, except as someone who was doing his time in the trenches. Once G had paid his dues, they would probably get to know each other better.
Him: Hey, G. Got a moment?
G: Yes, sir?
Him: Come on, you don’t have to call me sir. You know my name. Okay, listen. I need a huge favour. Can you hold on to this bundle of cash for me? It’s from the petty cash box and I have to organize the Christmas bash with it. So, just, give it to the guys who come along with the stuff. And get receipts, all around. Okay?
Him: Appreciate it. Hey, we should have a drink, some time. Talk to you later, bye.
G: Actually, there was a call from S. His sister-in-law is coming into town today. He asked you to pick her up at the airport. Apparently, it’s a sudden trip and she’s got a kid with her.
Him: Oh, right. Okay. Listen, just send me the details and her number, too. Don’t call S for anything else after this. Just you and I are going to handle this, okay? Make us look good. Right? See ya.
G: The party, am I invited?
Him: Well, actually, it’s staff only, so…next time, maybe?
G : Oh, right.
As G walked away, he had the feeling the signoff was rather sullen. Strange. That seemed out of character. Anyway, since he had a load of work to do, he had to shut down the thoughts and get moving.
Three hours later, when he was done with the wife, the husband of said wife and P, all he wanted to do was go home, though he didn’t have that luxury yet. He had to call S’s sister-in-law. But, first, he had to check on the party planning. So, he called G. It was almost 6 pm.
G: Yeah, hello?
Him: Oh, hi! Hey, listen, this is the third time I called. Anything wrong? I mean, I hope everything is in control?
G: Oh, yeah, sure. In control.
Him: Hm? Sorry, didn’t quite catch that. Is everything in place? Is A back?
G: No, A isn’t back, and I don’t care if everything is in place.
Him: What? G, I can’t seem to hear you right. Should I call you back? Or can you not speak, right now?
G: I am speaking. Don’t you get it? I told you, I don’t care! About the party, the money, anything!
Him: What are you saying? G, please focus, I can’t handle this on top of everything else, right now.
G: Oh, right! What exactly are you handling, mister? The careful cut of your suit? Nah! Armani is doing that. Or Ralph bloody Lauren, for all I know. I mean, I don’t know how to tell brands, I never will be able to. I’m just always going to be a grunt who was hired out of Dharavi to a firm where people don’t remember my last name.
Him: G, we are what we make of ourselves, okay? I think this conversation is totally irrelevant, but I am going to humour you, since I know you are a good man.
G: Really! Is that why? Or because you can see that unless you sweet talk me right now, there is no hope in hell of getting back your party cash? I know, I know!
Him: What? Enough of this. Listen to me, you loser. I want you to get that money on my desk right now. Stop being a fool. Or this is going to escalate and you’ll be out on your ear.
G: Escalate, it seems! Into what, may I ask? I won’t give you your money, I won’t even come to that smelly office and I certainly won’t let you have a party.
Him: Listen to me, you piece of dinosaur turd! If you don’t listen to me, I am getting the police to your place, right away!
G: Dinosaur turd! Huh! You listen. You can’t find me, since I gave a false address at the office. So, call the police, sms them, whatsapp them, google them or put up a youtube channel if you want! You can’t find me. And I don’t want to be found.
Him: You can’t do this! You…this is illegal!
G: Don’t talk to me about illegal! My grandma was a bootlegger, when your ancestors were sucking their thumbs. My dad himself worked in a morgue and charged rent for illegal storage of bodies, my mom made ends meet by selling coupons to a washroom facility on the railway station, which was actually free and…
Him: I get it! I get it. You’re not coming back. Okay, listen. You’ve shot yourself in the foot with this one. You’re never coming back to the office, as you know. I’ll handle this. I’ll make up the difference and you know, no one will be the wiser. Not even A. I know how to do that, within the system. But what about you? Are you going to end up being just another delinquent who your family will talk about? Okay, now I want you to think, really hard. I’m not calling anyone, I’m not following you. You call me back in five. Do you want to get anywhere at all? If you do, do yourself a favour and call me back. Am I clear?
He hung up, before G had a chance to respond. He didn’t know if it was right to do this, or not. But he had to try it. G was right. Rubbed the wrong way, there would be nothing to stop him from running off. But given the diatribe, it seemed G was suffering and needed something apart from money. He next called up S’s sister-in-law’s number. S was top boss and resident great white shark at the firm. S was the one who went in guns blazing at the ultimate meeting and sold the deals. S didn’t like excuses, he didn’t like people who were trying, he wanted results. In short, S wasn’t the sort of guy you wanted to know what went wrong. You either didn’t want him to know you at all, or if he did know you, it should be for the best possible thing you’d ever done.
The call went through. And he heard a sweet female voice. Somehow, he had a feeling of déjà vu, when he heard her. What is it about certain people? You feel you know them before you’ve met and just like them for no particular reason.
Him: Hi, my name is M. I’m S’s colleague. I need to speak to V. Is this her?
V: Yes, V speaking. I’m sorry to bother you with this, but S said it was okay to ask you for help. He’s out of town for today.
Him: Oh, he mentioned me, did he?
V: Yes, he specifically mentioned you. By name.
Him: Wow. Uh, I’m supposed to pick you up at the airport, right? Can I…
V: Actually, I’ve left the airport. I’m in a taxi. If you could give me directions to the office and be there when I get there, it would be great. I’m not alone, you see.
Him: Yes, I heard you’re travelling with a child. Can I get you anything? Or you’ll be fine till you get to the office?
V: I should be fine. Just be there for us.
Him: Yes, of course.
He hung up, an incongruous grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. But, he was happy in the most basic way. S knew his name! And then, another call. This time from G.
G: I’m sorry…I didn’t know what to do. I just…I just am invisible. No one sees me, they don’t like me. They don’t want me around, they hate me.
Him: Whoa, hold on there. Okay, first of all, if you imagine that anyone is wasting any time, energy or thought on anything but their own career at the office, you are mistaken. No one cares. Nobody. Not even me and I think, I’m a nicer person than most. Okay, now listen up. I won’t be repeating this. Golden words and all that. Most men, don’t know brands. Get it?
G: Most men…? Oh.
Him: Yes, you see it now. Secondly, it doesn’t matter what brand you wear, as long as you know you’re amazing and the brand is good enough to clothe you. Call it arrogance, call it being an ***hole, or whatever, but, that’s what it is. So, lose that chip on your shoulder about Dharavi. Just remember that you can get me a leather bomber jacket when the dust settles down from this and you can afford it.
G (silent now): Hmm.
Him: Here’s what we are going to do. You are going to take whatever you have left, of the cash and get to…how much do you have, anyway?
G: Four. I…I bought liquor and some weed with the rest.
Him: Wow! Well, I hope it’s worth it. Anyway…
G: No, I know a guy. I can sell it back, and recover…
Him: Don’t bother. That’s precisely what gets people into trouble. You’ll pay it back, gradually. For now, listen to me. Can we contact the party planner and get the stuff in?
G: I already called. They’ve given the stuff away, since there was no payment.
Him: Good boy! Okay, what else did you find out?
G: I can’t get any caterer to help me out, because it’s way too last minute.
Him: Hmm, okay, so we have to do something else. Get a restaurant name, from the online food directories near our office and have them to deliver a set meal. I will send you the details of how many and so on, at once. And get back to office. You’re supervising this party, now. Arrange for the booze, by sending a message on the whatsapp group for the office. We aren’t providing any drinks inhouse. Clear?
G: Yeah, okay. What about the difference?
Him: Let me know the restaurant details and I will pay online. Sorry, I can’t get screwed twice in the same day. You catch my drift, right?
G (chuckling): Yes. I will see you, after your holiday.
Him: Yes, please. I don’t want to hear from you except if someone dies and in that case, I think your dad would be a better person to call.
G(wryly): I’m never going to live that down, am I?
Him: Not with me! See you. Take care.
He hung up as the taxi pulled into the office lobby. He climbed out and saw a lady with a three or four year old getting out of a cool cab. He reached them and helped to unload the bags. There were only two, surprisingly light for a woman travelling. And then he turned to say hello to V.
Him: Hi, I’m M. We spoke on the phone.
V: Hi. I’m V and this is my daughter, B. Say hello, darling?
Him (quickly, since B seemed about to pout into tears): No, that’s okay! Give it some time. I guess, she’s tired.
V: That makes two of us.
Him: Let’s get you settled. This way.
He led V into the waiting room at the lobby. She was fussing around for the next few moments with the kid. And he idly noticed, the kid looked nothing like her. In fact, she… The moment the realization struck, he was nervous. He didn’t want to make any wrong moves and yet, the moment seemed ripe for a faux pas of the first order. V looked at him, perhaps sensing his change of mood. She smiled slightly and made a light comment about the weather. M excused himself and headed to the washroom. He was there for a while. Since by his own admission the day hadn’t begun so well, he wasn’t expecting it to get any easier, now. But, this was showing promise of turning into a giant mess.
He walked out. V was holding his phone. She handed it to him and said, a guy had called him. He dialed, at once.
R: Sweetie! I called, but some lady took the call and said you were away. What’s going on?
Him: Oh, not much, usual. Listen, what did you say to her?
R: To her? Nothing, just hi, can I speak to you and so on. Why?
Him: Well, it turns out, I may be in a bit of a situation here. I…any advice?
R: From me? No! I have no idea what it is and I trust you to figure it out. Okay? Love you. Call me when you get home.
R: Ouch! Ditto? Bye.
M hung up, smiling and turned to see V looking at him, quite seriously. She seemed about to say something and M was glad when she didn’t. She looked at the picture her kid was drawing and was asking her questions. There were three figures on the page, a stick man, a stick woman with a bun at the back of her head and a stick kid, clinging to both their hands. The figures were labeled, S, V and B.
V: I guess, you can see, I’m not his sister-in-law.
M: You don’t have to explain that, not to me at least.
V: I know that. But, you know, I just have the feeling, we can talk.
M: Sure, sure. But, pardon my saying this, I’d rather not know the details.
V (laughing): I wasn’t about to provide them. But I am not worried, if S said you’re discreet it means you are.
M: He said that? Oh, God. I don’t know whether to be happy or horrified. Anyway, please don’t tell him I said that.
V: I won’t. You don’t tell sharks things like that.
Just then, G entered the lobby with a set meal for V and a dessert for the baby. M watched, with a happy smile, as he took on the job of host with ease. He didn’t mind the deferential look G gave him. He knew it wouldn’t last too long. Eventually, G would forget and move on.
For the rest of the evening, V and M sat in a companionable silence. There was nothing to be said. At the end of their wait, S arrived in an impossibly shiny car, swept V up and directed a look at M which said, “Thanks for this.” M nodded graciously. When they had left, he walked out of the office into the now deeply dark night. He wasn’t going back to the place where he lived. He was going to go over to the place he and R called home.