Abhay, freed at last from the celibate existence of textbooks, textbooks and more textbooks, had allowed himself to get plastered over four bottles of beer shared with his old school friend Mehli Batli, who extracted a promise from Abhay: “Eh sala Abhay, don’t go forgetting us and all that huh, when you become a boss man. Sala let only beer go to your head – not success.” The two had then squealed deliriously over that bit of punning, clenched hands and solemnly pledged eternal and indissoluble friendship.
As it happens with all rank holders from good worthwhile institutions, Abhay got a call. Not just a casual call, mind you, but one which told him that he was singled out for a special and exciting destiny. A destiny he had worked for, sweated for, slaved for - shirking the clarion call of his friends, steeling against the temptations of rocking his youth away at pubs and discotheques and other fashionable joints.
The call, from MgNomus & MgNomus, management consultants and corporate advisors to India’s largest, most progressive companies, was soft, persuasive and to the point: “Mr. Rajvanshi, we would be greatly interested in meeting you. Specifically, our President, Mr. Singhal, would like to discuss your possible induction in our company as Management Executive for Research and Restructuring.”
Abhay had to stop himself from passing out; his hands breathed sweat onto the old handset. He couldn’t be blamed really, for MgNomus and MgNomus were the heaviest paymasters in the country. It was common knowledge that they anticipated and influenced the growth of almost every high growth sector in Industry; to work for them was like being commissioned to the elite corps. There was no looking back now – commercially, professionally, or socially, Abhay had launched himself. Thank God for all the hard work. Thank God for the sense. Thank God for his mother’s offerings at her temples! Abhay agreed to an interview. “Yes, sooner the better, would be just fine.”
On a bright and sunny morning four days after the call, waiting at the bus-stop ten meters away from his home, Abhay was feeling powerful. Clutching in one hand the folder that held his degree certificates and his recommendation letters, he caressed his clean-shaven, baby-soft chin with his other hand and felt satisfied. Immediately, he got a whiff of Coolwater, the new Davidoff after-shave, which he had received as a gift from his proud, doting elder brother Pranay.
Pranay was Major Pranay. Being in the forces and a good twelve years elder to Abhay, he felt the fastest way to emphasize their bond, to emphasize the protectiveness of an elder sibling towards the younger one, was to be like a surrogate father showing the way towards the finer things of life. Earlier, in school, it had been records and books, and talk of new bands, and new writers, and new concepts and new girlfriends and new territories broached with old girlfriends, and old girlfriends dumped for new ones. It always left a good feeling in Abhay, who had grown up easier because he was tutored. Like this Coolwater; it was nice. Abhay hoped the fragrance had a reach. The interviewer should know he had taste. In addition to that, a degree, a rank and potential unfettered.
The sun shone forcefully on the people at the bus stop. Abhay could see the distress on their faces, the fatigue setting in, the profuse sweating and suffering. ‘The temperature must be around forty degrees,’ thought Abhay. It failed to dampen his enthusiasm, however. Out of scant else to do, he began to survey his co-passengers.
Heading the queue was a fat middle-age executive in a white shirt, a maroon tie, narrow black trousers and burgundy colored shoes. Each time he breathed, his cheeks filled out like a smoking dragon and gray patches of sweat appeared on his shirt. Abhay was thankful he didn’t sweat like that. Embarrassing. Worse still, to look that way: overweight and beaten. Abhay vowed he would never let himself look like that. He would make time, work out, keep himself fit and pleasant to the eye.
Next to the man were two fresh college girls in their late teens, smart, with laughing, dancing eyes, a continuous flow of excited prattle and a spirit that was contemptuously indifferent to the heat. One of the girls had a particularly interesting face and a figure to match. It was made sexier by what she wore: a rust colored top, which lifted and showed her navel - a sexy button hole embedded in a flattened belly - each time she laughed.
Abhay made it a point to catch this from the corner of his eye. That the girl was laughing to get his attention had not missed him. Abhay knew that girls found him attractive, and though this pleased him greatly, that particular morning he would rather fill his mind with thoughts of ambition and untold success, rather than flirtatious appreciation. After all, he was headed to Nariman Point, into one its erect skyscrapers, to the eighteenth floor, where he was to be interviewed by Joy Singhal, scourge of the corporate world, trailblazer for Indian industries, spokesperson for the Indian economy, and also President of MgNomus & MgNomus International.
Gradually, the bus stop filled with people. They were joined by a young mother and her son, a four-year-old who looked like a perfect brat, frisky and disobedient. The son leaned his face against the bus stop railing. The mother explained that it was dirty. The boy continued doing so, eyeing his mother defiantly. She whacked him; not too hard, more as a deterrent. The boy threw a tantrum, sat on the road and hollered and shrieked. The mother attempted to drag him to his feet, the boy resisted. The mother tugged harder, the boy screamed louder. Everyone looked at them, and Abhay thought the mother looked tired – very tired and defeated. The heat didn’t help. Abhay too sweated a little. Around the forehead.
The mother changed her strategy. She tried to cajole the boy: promised him an ice cream, a vanilla and chocolate stick. He would get it once they reach home but right now he had to be a good boy. But he was having a good time, center stage.
An elderly Parsee gentleman had joined in. He wore a long black overcoat, old but neatly maintained and with large wooden buttons. On his nose sat a pair of thick, red frame glasses. The nose was a delight: large and ungainly, like an afterthought. The ears, too, were quite unusual: large and unashamed, with tufts of silvery hair popping out. The old man peered closely at a small book that he held: it was a racing book outlining contenders for the weekend derby. Quaint, thought Abhay. Quaint, how hopefully the man is studying the odds.
A bunch of rowdy, jostling, males had also joined in. They were around Abhay’s age, early twenties. They looked unemployed, not mindful of it either, in lose shirts, jeans with funny intimidating stickers and in chappals. Wastrels. Goondas. Layabouts. Abhay preferred not to look at them. It might provoke one of them, and the last thing he wanted was a quarrel – on the most significant day of his life.
Abhay turned and then saw him. A tall man, conspicuously tall, with a chiseled introverted face, a concave chest, bony hips and long never-ending legs. His hair was thinning and graying, because it was obviously dyed. The hair had been brushed to one side to camouflage a portion of bare scalp. The man had a huge boxy briefcase at his foot. It looked more like a trunk and made Abhay infer that he was a salesman.
The college girls had moved closer to Abhay. The one who fancied him began edging back the hair that fell over her face, revealing the smoothness of her cheeks and the sweetness of a young healthy mouth. Abhay looked, and felt the rush of a thrill, the elation of being admired. The girl turned towards him, an encouraging half-smile playing on her lips. Abhay looked away. He turned back to survey the salesman.
‘What a loser,’ thought Abhay. ‘What a born loser.’ He could tell from the way the man was dressed. A pale, beige-colored checked shirt; brown trousers, badly tailored; an old swashbuckling belt, with the gold on the buckle scraped off; a red tie with concentric circles of purple – ridiculous and screaming for attention; silver cuff links; and heavens!, as insult to injured eyes, green socks and black felt shoes, to clash violently with the brown trousers. Abhay looked at him long and shamelessly, and shuddered. What an absolute oddball. Must be one of those door-to-door salesguys. The kind who get doors slammed in their face. Abhay was willing to wager the salesman had a funny accent as well.
At that moment, Abhay became aware that there was sweat forming on his arms and that the sweat, in turn, was being transferred onto the file that he held. The file that was his everything: his life’s investment, his life’s work, his passport, his launching pad. That file – it held Abhay’s degree, his rank, and references – from well know faculty. Gently, almost motherly, Abhay removed his handkerchief and dabbed the sweat off the plastic covering. He then held the file firmly between two fingers: his thumb and first finger, and retreated to a less-exposed spot behind the bus stop.
This done, Abhay again looked at the salesman, convinced he was an abject and miserable failure. Twenty years from now he would still be dressed funny. He would still be carrying that weird trunk-like briefcase. Still be sweating – at the bus stop. Still be pleading – for a door to open – and to remain open. Abhay knew the type only too well.
It was a good half an hour before the bus arrived. Abhay was glad he had the sense to start out early though the journey wouldn’t take more than ten minutes. The bus was an express. It would breeze its way across the sea route and reach Nariman Point without any great interruption. It was always a pleasure to travel by that route, for the arched Marine Drive was made for quick commuting and you seldom had to worry about bottlenecks or traffic jams. Certainly not at that time of the day, when traffic whizzed at great speed and Bombay’s main artery set the pace for the work flow of the day.
The bus came to the stop like a long awaited mirage, a vehicle of deliverance, and screeched to a halt, its tires winded by its own weight. People scrambled towards the entrance - rightfully so, for the bus was quite full, and everybody wanted to ensure a place. A surly conductor rang the bell harshly, impatiently, and urged the passengers to board quickly. He stood, legs astride, a self-appointed Goliath. The way he held the string that rang the bell spoke of power play. Well, to each his own whip, his scepter of power, thought Abhay as he politely waited his chance to board.
People jostled and pushed their way through, caring not for a lady with groceries, nor for the elderly Parsee gentleman who seemed a little panicky lest he be left behind. The rowdy males and the fat executive got into a bit of a tangle at the footboard; after a lot of screaming and pushing and accusations flying, they all managed to get in. As Abhay attempted to board, he felt a bony hand pull him back. It clutched him somewhere on the collarbone and increased his irritation. He looked behind, surprised. It was the salesman. He pulled Abhay behind, and pushed his way forward. Ruffled, but controlled, Abhay let him board, and then, just as he was about to let himself in, the salesman swung his boxy briefcase straight into Abhay’s knee, below the knee cap. The edge was sharp; Abhay winced and suppressed a swear word. What a fucking oaf, he thought as he pushed past the conductor.
The conductor rang the bell and the bus started off, even as the standing passengers nudged their way in, some pleading and polite, others hustling and bullying; each intent on finding his or her own niche. As Abhay made his way ahead, taking care to see that his file did not get crumpled, he encountered sweating bodies, sticky backs and damp sleeves. It will be just a matter of time, thought Abhay, before I can afford a car. Nothing too big or fancy. A Maruti or a Zen, bought under one of those hire-purchase schemes. No more buses, no more crowds, no more sweat and suffering with uncouth commuters. He looked around. The salesman was a little ahead of him Boy, was he sweating! Abhay wondered why the man did not use a handkerchief.
The bus turned onto Marine Drive and picked up speed; past Wilson college, past the Aquarium, and past the five gymkhanas where sprightly young boys trained at cricket, impervious to the sun and its hostile ways. Past three bus stops without stopping—the conductor rang the bell in quick succession, sending a message to the driver that there was no place. At the fourth stop, some people wanted to disembark; so the bus was forced to halt. One of them was seated right near Abhay; so swiftly he claimed the emptied place. His face was in line with the window now. Maybe he would get some breeze. That would serve to cool him, cheer him up, make him forget the smarting knee and the idiot salesman.
Abhay’s happiness was short-lived, for who should come and stand near him, a lanky, floundering shadow, but the salesman. Abhay looked up, hoping the man would sense his hostility, but it made no difference. The salesman looked down at Abhay impassively, his tie floating before Abhay’s face. Abhay winced and looked out the window, with the sole intention of avoiding the tie dangled shamelessly in his face. The bus raced along. Abhay waited for the wind on his face. He got only hot air. Not the ideal day for an interview, he thought.
As the traffic went past the Marine Drive Bridge, the bus slowed. A wedding procession had taken over the road. A cacophony of trumpets erupted, a drummer went mad on a big drum hung from his neck, and there was uproarious dancing by ladies in rich flowing saris and men in white kurta pajamas and gold-laced sandals. The groom smiled, a thin plastic smile, from between the flower garlands that flowed downwards from his turban. Crazy bastard, thought Abhay. Completely, undoubtedly demented - for getting married in this heat.
The noise from the procession blared. The man at the trombone blasted a shot straight into Abhay’s ear as the bus pulled up alongside. Crazy, thought Abhay. Crazy how anything goes, in the name of democracy. Noise pollution, hold-ups, inconvenience. Who is to complain? Who is to tell? Crazy country this. I could do with a foreign posting. It would be good to get out of this hellhole for a while. To some disciplined country – Singapore maybe--where civic sense is high, the standard of living is good and the system works for the people. Abhay wondered whether he would be able to wrangle a foreign posting from his would-be employers. He knew they encouraged exposure, as a policy, and that they had branches and business all round the world.
Suddenly, his thoughts were interrupted. He felt a light dampness on his file, which was resting neatly on his lap, with his arm over it. He looked. Horror. Untold horror. Gaping, speechless horror. There were drops of water on it, a puddle of drops, small, but real. The drops were still coming: plip, plop, plip, plop. He looked up. The drops came from a lean, gaunt neck, trickling down, from a perspiring chest. The owner of the drops was unaware. It was the salesman. He had removed his tie, loosened his collar, and now he was sweating straight onto Abhay’s file, his distinguished degree. The worse was, the offender was blissfully unaware. He was holding onto a handgrip, which dangled from the ceiling of the bus. His face was resting against his hand, and, with the oscillating movement, he was almost dozing – whilst, whilst Abhay’s dignity was a-drowning! Abhay felt a choking, tumultuous rage that welled up, further and further, and then broke onto the sleeping man, the salesman.
With hard fingers, he prodded the sleeping man on his thigh. “Ganda, neech, besharam. Dirty, filthy, shameless swine,” he hissed. The man awoke startled. Abhay pointed to the puddle. “Sala, ganda karta hain. You have done such a dirty thing. Yeh kaun saaf karega? Who will clean this?” The man looked at the puddle and registered horror. More than that, he reddened with embarrassment. Abhay’s voice was loud with hostility, and some passengers turning started around to see what the commotion was. ‘Tu junglee hain, ekdum junglee. You are uncouth, absolutely uncouth,” spat Abhay. The man fumbled helplessly for a handkerchief, then realized he had none. He looked at Abhay pleadingly, but the boy was enraged. He had seen his adversary’s discomfort and wanted to pay him back in full – first, for superseding him in the queue; then, for the knee; most severely and definitely for defiling his degree.
Abhay railed on, calling the salesman names. Relentlessly, magically, he found the right words, which drove through and made the offender cringe and shrink. The salesman stammered out his apologies weakly: “Mafi, much mafi, bhool ho gayi. Apologies, many apologies; mistake happened.” It was amazing how thin and helpless his voice sounded and his face contorted as he spoke.
Curious passengers asked Abhay what had happened. In a loud, crushing voice, he exposed the salesman and his filthy deed, obviously the result of ‘a poor upbringing.’ The salesman squirmed, while the whole bus craned and heard the story. Passengers in the gangway stretched to see where the salesman had cast his insidious secretions, and yet the salesman sweated. This time into his shirt.
The conductor came up, clicking his stainless steel ticket puncher. The passengers thought he would sort out matters, but instead, in a loud, imperious voice, he urged the standees to move in front. Though he looked right at the salesman as he said this, it appeared as if he was only interested in filling up the bus. The salesman moved ahead, out of the line of fire. Yet Abhay went on muttering, “Pigs like this shouldn’t use public utilities. They should be trained first, before being let out of their homes.” The conductor, who was issuing tickets rapidly, shot Abhay a glance. It was a curious sort of a glance, as if he wanted to say something; then changed his mind.
The bus stopped, the salesman disembarked and disappeared into the morning crowd. The signal broke green and the bus started forward; its gears snorted their contempt onto the lesser vehicles and overtook them noisily.
Abhay tried to wash out the incident from his mind. He looked down at his file lovingly. He tried to think of pleasant things. How he would put forth his goals and objectives. How he believed in the future of restructuring. Lean teams. Dream teams. Corporate governance. Corporate brands. Accountability. Reinvention. It was a performance-linked world, and Abhay was to talk convincingly about it, till, till he talked himself into a position, a letter, and a package that would justify his self-willed exile.
His thoughts were interrupted by the jangling of the bell and the conductor’s shout, which heralded ‘Nariman Point.’ Hurriedly in a restored mood, Abhay went forward to the exit. He skipped off the dashboard, and into the hands of a waiting ticket collector. The collector, a dark bespectacled official, dressed in a light blue uniform and a dark blue cap, put his hand out for Abhay’s ticket. Abhay realized he had forgotten to buy one. In fact, he hadn’t been offered one. While he pleaded and protested with the ticket collector, and made up a case for his good upbringing, Abhay heard a voice from inside the bus: He was surprised at the vengeance it bore: “Sala, these rich spoilt kids, what do they think? They can get away with their nonsense. Fine him well, saab. Better still – take him to the lock-up. That will teach him a lesson.” Abhay did not see the owner of the voice, but he knew only too well where it came from.