Saturday, 16 January 2016

Short Story: WTF

‘wtf”, Ashok’s text message read and my heart sank.

‘listen there are others like you. i was only trying to help them,’ I texted back. However, it was too late, because when I gathered the courage to call Ashok thirty minutes later, he did not answer.

I logged in and deleted my facebook status update. Over fifteen people had liked it already.

I went back to bed and tried to sleep, but couldn’t. I watched a movie and later, as dawn broke, went for a run. I always feel good after a run and the shower made me feel even better. I forgot all about Ashok until the bell rang.

‘Come to the station right away,’ the policeman commanded, even as he looked at the plate of half eaten fried eggs.

The Circle Inspector waved Ashok’s note in my face. ‘Sandeep Kumar is responsible for my death,’ it stated cryptically.

‘Oh shit! He actually killed himself!’

‘What did you do?’ the Circle Inspector asked me in a not unkind voice. He was in his early fifties and had lots of grey hair. A man who had risen up through the ranks. This definitely wasn’t the first time someone committed suicide and left behind a note blaming someone else for his death.

I took a deep breath and said, ‘Ashok contacted me last night saying he wanted to talk to me. He said he felt suicidal.’

‘And then?’ They didn’t like the pause I took, but I needed to breathe before I could speak again.

‘I spoke to him for over an hour. Ashok had just lost his job and he is divorced. He thanked me at the end and that was it. I went to bed.’

‘So why’s he blaming you?’

‘I just don’t know.’

They kept me at the station for another hour and then let me go. ‘You must be available if we need you. Don’t leave the city till this case is closed.’

I humbly nodded.

Would they find out about that facebook status update, I wondered. Thankfully Ashok didn’t have many friends and I was sure we didn’t have facebook friends in common. That update had received fifteen likes, which meant at least fifteen had read it. Would any of them hear of Ashok’s suicide and inform the cops? I needn’t have worried since the cops knocked on my door later that evening and took me to the station once again.

‘We’re charging you for abetment,’ the Circle Inspector told me. Ashok’s brother was sitting across the table from him.

‘What did I do?’ I demanded.

Ashok’s brother wordlessly showed me his phone. It had a screenshot of my facebook update. ‘Talked a good friend out of committing suicide. So easy and feel so good.’

‘Get yourself a good lawyer. It shouldn’t be too difficult to convince the judge that you didn’t mean anything.’

‘Didn’t you know that Ashok would read your update?’ his brother tearfully demanded of me.

‘Sorry,’ I said and felt really stupid. ‘How did you see this update?’ I asked even as a constable indicated that I follow him. Ashok’s brother was not friends with me on facebook.

He hesitated. ‘Ashok had liked your update and so it appeared in my feed.’


Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Short Story: A Brief Encounter at the Lower Parel Peninsula Junction

Mumbai is notorious for its traffic jams and ever since I moved to this vibrant city six months ago, I’ve spent more time waiting at traffic signals than anywhere else outdoors. Today morning, on the way to office, while my Uber cab was waiting at the Lower Parel Peninsula junction for a red signal to disappear, my I-Phone lost its connectivity for a few seconds, sufficient time for me to observe that the black and yellow taxi which had drawn up along-side had a single occupant, a pretty woman. At first I thought she was in her early thirties, then I realised that she was a fair bit older than that. I glanced away and then made a semi-circular motion that allowed me to look at the woman again. She had applied her make-up with care, but was not well-off. Her clothes were neither stylish nor fashionable. Rather, the salwar and kameez were well-worn. A lower middle-class face. I quickly looked at her again, for the third time and decided that she was not pretty at all, rather, she had very average looks, even though she had obviously taken a lot of trouble to appear her best.

I smirked to myself. Probably a secretary or receptionist working for one of those run-of-the-mill outfits. I could picture her working for a paan chewing boss who sat on a sagging sofa and entertained guests with piping hot sugary tea served in small steel glasses, a plate full of greasy samosas dripping with oil, by the side.

I went back to my I-Phone and lazily flipped through Facebook. There were no new status updates and the two friends who had their birthdays had already been wished.

The traffic hadn’t moved and the woman and her taxi were still there. The woman stared straight ahead, as if she were craning her neck to look ahead. She appeared to be a bit nervous or even anxious, as if she were psyching herself for a tough day ahead. Why did she have to be worried as she headed for work? That she was headed towards an office, I had no doubt, since she looked as if she was on her regular commute and her black hand-bag had a well-worn look.

I looked at the woman again. There was a tenaciousness about her that was attractive. Even her clothes showed a bit of fighting spirit. They were not new and were faded, but had been maintained well. The handbag was neither branded nor new, but it could have been taken anywhere without embarrassment. It wasn’t tacky and didn’t have a cheap look either, though I was sure that the woman hadn’t bust her bank in order to buy it. A fighter, she had obviously worked hard to raise above her social settings. I could imagine her struggling with her English while studying at a suburban arts college close to her home, her hard work helping her acquire greater fluency as she progressed. The woman herself was an example of how something which is average can be shown to be much better than it is. A quick glance would mark her out to be a beautiful woman. Her hair was tied up in a loose, but elegant ponytail and her make-up was immaculate, neither pan-cake like nor too light. I looked at her again and decided that she was actually quite attractive.

The traffic showed signs of starting to move. I saw that the woman was rolling down her window. Was she planning to buy something from one of the loitering children selling trinkets? No, she was asking me something, the fingers of her palm half-turned in the universal sign for a question, her lovely lips forming an O. Was it me? Yes, the woman was definitely looking at me and saying something. Did she require directions?

I too rolled down my window with a smile. Should I ask the woman for her name and number once I had answered her question, whatever it might be?

The woman said something short and sharp once again. The traffic was starting to move.

‘What?’ I asked

‘Why are you staring at me so much, you nasty @#$%?’

I was dumbfounded. I hadn’t been staring at her at all. Actually I had been, but it was not the sort of staring which required to be penalised. I was at a loss for words. I quickly turned around in my seat and looked straight. My driver, a man fairly younger than me, gave me a nastier look without a hint of any sympathy. My heart was beating fast. To be accused of something so cheap and downmarket was not the best way to start the day, was it? I hazarded one last look. The former object of my affections was looking straight ahead, annoyance writ large on her face.

Why had I stared at that woman so much? I hadn’t even found her particularly attractive after the second glance. I had done so because I found her to be curiously different. If she had been someone from my class, an attractive upper middle-class woman on the way to office, I would have looked at her surreptitiously. A quick glance, followed by a circular movement that would allow me a second view for a few nanoseconds. It would never have been more than that. Did I stare at this woman so intensely because I was sure she was not from the upper classes and hence someone who would be tolerant of masculine stares? I just don’t know, except that these days, while commuting by cab I am a lot more circumspect when I look at women, any woman.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Short Story: The Exit

‘Could you please give me another 30 mins?’ Radha asked her with exquisite politeness.

Pratiksha frowned with annoyance, and muttered ‘okay’. As if she had a choice.

‘You have the forms I sent you, right?’ she asked Radha, but Radha had already disconnected.

Time seemed to stand still. Everyone was busy working, with occasional eruptions of laughter or office banter. Everyone ignored her. Once she smiled at one of Ahmed’s jokes and slightly turned her head in the hope of connecting with someone, but no one met her eyes.

Someone clapped her gently on the back. ‘All the best Pratiksha. Keep in touch.’ It was Simoné. Of all people.

‘You’re off early?’ She so wanted to slap Simoné’s fat ass.

‘I need to. School play.’

Why not? Boss would have so benevolently assented when Simoné asked her for permission to leave early, in her usual simpering way.

‘You keep in touch, okay?’ Simoné repeated and started to walk away fast, her expensive shoes making a tiny pitter-patter sound, as if the school play would not start if she didn’t make it on time.

‘Of course Simoné. I will,’ Pratiksha called after Simoné, speaking louder than required. The extra volume did have some effect. Two of her colleagues moved their necks a bit. She would never keep in touch with Simoné, of course. Simoné had done more to mess up her life at Harvey’s than anyone else, except Boss of course.

She decided to get herself another coffee, even though Boss’s cabin was on the way. She made it safely to the orange and brown monster, but on her way back, Cappuccino in hand, she was spotted. Pratiksha wanted to ignore the wave which beckoned her inside. I’ll come back later to say goodbye, but right now, I’d like to enjoy my coffee in peace, before it gets cold, she wanted to say. She opened the door gently and went inside. How could a working cabin be so spick and span?

‘I’m going to miss you so much.’ Pratiksha tried not to stare at Boss’s bright pink lipstick, but failed, as she had failed many times in the past. Should she tell Boss before she finally left that the lipstick was two shades too bright and made her look silly? Sort of like a middle-aged whore. If only she could bring herself to say that, she was sure that Boss’s painted mouth would go agape like a gold fish and it would be so funny!

‘I’m going to miss you too Ma’am. In fact, I will miss everyone here.’ Pratiksha’s voice almost sounded sincere.

Boss gave her a knowing smile and adjusted a wispy tendril of perfectly dyed hair which was out of place. ‘Always remember what I told you. Attention to detail. If you get that right, you will go places.’

I am not a fucking twenty seven year old to be told that, Pratiksha wanted to scream. She had been, for all practical purposes, number two in the department, being not so much younger than Boss.

‘Yes Ma’am,’ she said.

‘You’ll be there for the house warming, right?’

‘Of course. I so want to see your new flat. Everyone’s been raving about it.’

‘I wish I hadn’t got carried away. I’m totally broke.’

‘I’m sure it’s all worth it.’

Pratiksha’s mobile rang. ‘It’s Radha. For my exit interview. It was supposed to have been twenty minutes ago.’

‘HR is always like that. They are so slow and inefficient.’

Hopefully they would be civilised and hear her out, Pratiksha hoped. Radha had been involved in her recruitment and she ought to remember some of the promises made when she was poached from her previous job.

‘Tell them all that you think is relevant. It will be useful for everyone, including me.’

‘Of course Ma’am, but I’ve already told you whatever I had to say.’ Pratiksha walked out quickly clutching her lukewarm Cappuccino.

Radha had brought someone else with her, which was unusual. Wasn’t an exit interview meant to be a one-on-one thing, something like a confession in a Catholic church? Pratiksha tried to imagine Simoné at confession, kneeling and blurting out her sins to a potbellied clergyman and it made her smile. Radha smiled back.

‘This is Selvi, she will do your exit interview. I have this meeting I cannot get out of.’ Radha practically ran away before Pratiksha could say a word.

What the fuck? Selvi looked as if she were still in college. What was the message being conveyed to her by having her exit interview taken by someone so junior? That whatever she had to say would be ignored?

Selvi gave her an encouraging smile and took out a sheaf of forms. ‘I’ve gone through your responses. Shall we start?’ Who the hell gave Selvi the right to sound so confident, especially when she had such a pronounced south Indian accent and was so young?

‘You’ve written that you felt suffocated on account of the way you were treated by your boss. Did you say this directly to your boss?’

‘Yes I did. Smothered was the word I used, not suffocated.’

‘Yes, yes, but did you tell her that?’


‘And what was the response?’

Boss had smiled at that. ‘I had already put in my papers, so it didn’t matter. Also, I think Mandira felt threatened by me and so she made my life miserable.’

‘Why didn’t you discuss it with her before putting in your papers? It may have made a difference.’

‘I don’t think so.’

Why do you, Selvi’s lips formed the words, but she didn’t. Instead she started to read from the forms which Pratiksha had completed.

‘Mandira has a patronising attitude towards everyone in the department. She micro-manages things and there is little freedom while executing. She refuses to differentiate between someone with five years’ experience and someone with fifteen. She encourages everyone to call her Ma’am or Boss even though the rest of the organisation is on a first name basis. There is no proper hierarchy within the department and everyone directly reports to Mandira. She used to get my reportees to ignore me and talk to her directly. Later she took away my assistants and made me do a lot of junior level work.’

‘Hmm, but everyone likes her.’ Selvi gave her an odd look. Why are you an exception? The unspoken words hung in the air like an accusation.

Pratiksha smiled. There was a lot more she could have written, but now she was glad she didn’t. What a waste!

‘I wish you had discussed all this beforehand. It would have’

‘Never mind. I’m sure you’ll pass on my feedback to Mandira and the CEO.’

‘Of course.’ What on earth would that achieve? Selvi seemed to wonder.

She got back to her work area and to an air of expectancy.

‘She’s here,’ Ahmed shouted.

Someone picked up the phone and said ‘Ma’am, she’s back.’

Boss came marching in, carrying a large box, gift wrapped in pink.

‘Did you think we would let you go just like that?’ Boss demanded.

It matches the colour of your lipstick, Pratiksha wanted to say.

‘So how long have you been with us?’ Boss enquired.

‘Almost two years.’ Everyone else was a long-timer. Boss herself had been with the organisation for over twenty years.

‘Times flies,’ Boss said. Everyone nodded.

Ahmed came close and whispered in her ear. ‘Boss really liked you. She hates to see you leave. If you change your mind even now.’ Pratiksha gave Ahmed an incredulous look.

Boss is so sweet, even after Pratiksha said so many things to her face, she’s giving her a farewell gift, they all seemed to be thinking.

Take a deep breath, deep, deep breath, she told herself. This too shall pass. And it did.

‘We’ll see you next week at the house warming,’ they told her in turns. Pratiksha kept nodding, though she was pretty sure that she wouldn’t go.

Finally it was over and she walked out, clutching a box with her personal effects. Ahmed came running after her.

‘Listen, you’re attending the house warming next week, aren’t you?’

‘Yes of course. Definitely.’ One more white lie didn’t matter. They wouldn’t miss her.

‘We’re pooling in money to buy Boss a gift. You want to contribute?’ Ahmed had a playful smile on his face.

If she was planning to attend the house warming, she would want to contribute, wouldn’t she? On the other hand, if she was planning to bunk, she wouldn’t.

‘Of course. This is so convenient. I was wondering what I could get her. Pooling is such a good idea. Pratiksha parted with two crisp thousand rupees notes that were still warm from the ATM and walked away quickly before Ahmed or anyone else could make any other demand on her.