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Will She Be Mine?

Subir Banerjee

_Everything is fair in love and war, _

but the question still remains…

Will She Be Mine?

(Book ONE of Series- With Bosses Like These)

Copyright © 2016 Subir Banerjee

All rights reserved.

Om Namah Shivay

To Ma and Babi,

Who always allowed freedom,

and taught me the value of hope

DISCLAIMER

This novel is a work of fiction and the names, characters, places and incidents in it exist only in its pages and are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

CHAPTER ONE

Upon my selection to MSIT, one of the country’s erstwhile Ma Saraswati Institute of Technology colleges, happy friends and jealous ones alike congratulated our family. It was the opportunity of a lifetime to study engineering at a prestigious college and they wanted to take a closer peek at the boy who had just made it, who they never considered intelligent enough to make the cut, yet who’d sailed through.

Father felt proud at being congratulated but I felt somewhat sad at the prospect of living in a hostel far away from the comforts of home. After the initial euphoria at my selection, I grew morose as the date of my departure neared. Kanpur was situated nearly five hundred kilometers away from Delhi, where I lived- or a distance of over three hundred miles- requiring an overnight journey by train, the cheaper mode of transport in India. As I sat by myself one day, mother eyed me silently for a long time, sensing the mixed state of my mind.

“All eyes are on you,” she observed at length, in a somber philosophical tone. “Great achievements come at a cost and they generate great expectations.”

“Perhaps I should have chosen to study at MSIT Delhi,” I said, referring to the MSIT college located in Delhi, not far from our house. “I could have still studied at an MSIT college- but stayed home.”

“You did try, but didn’t get the subject of your choice here,” she reminded dryly.

“Maybe I was wrong in being choosy about my major. I should have taken whatever engineering discipline they offered.”

“At times one must be choosy. Don’t have regrets,” she said firmly. “Learn to look ahead, instead of moving in the reverse direction like this country.”

“But, Ma-”

“It’s natural to feel homesick, Rajat, but don’t encourage the feeling beyond a point. It’ll eventually pass away.”

I fell silent. She was right in her way, but wasn’t aware of the extent of my crush on our neighbor’s pretty daughter. Honestly, more than homesickness, I was sad at the prospect of going away far from her. She was the girl of my dreams. When I retired each night, it was with thoughts of her, and when I woke in the mornings, it was with the enthusiasm of exploring new ways to be near her through the day. I loved everything about her, starting with her name, Shalini. It had such a musical flavor to it. One could almost sing it.

I thought of the happy times I’d spent with her the last few years. She’d sometimes pop up at our door to ask help with her school assignments. In retrospect, when I thought about it, her visits to seek academic help or my occasional visits to her house to say hello, seemed the extent of my romance so far. I felt like a hopeless underachiever. Secretly I’d wait for her visits, hoping she’d run into newer difficulties in mathematics or physics each day, requiring my help.

However superficial our contact and dry the content of our conversation, it was a pleasure to ruminate on those memories and think of her beautiful face and fabulous figure as she leaned to ask a point or ran a pretty finger along the line of text in her book, glancing at me once in a while to make sure I understood where her difficulty lay.

“Which song is your favorite?” I asked once, keeping her book aside.

“Shall I think about it and tell you later, RK?” she said sweetly with the hint of a smile, picking up her book again and promptly placing it back in my hands, leaving me wondering if the gesture was indicative of her seriousness to indeed introspect about her favorite song later or just a hint for me to stop acting cozy with her.

She had a way of looking deep into my eyes that always left me feeling flustered. Like a gallant knight I’d explain her trigonometry and calculus, and later also statics and dynamics in physics, but always rued the quick passage of time with her.

“Shalini, it’s important to relax the mind to concentrate it,” I advised on another of her visits. “That will help you understand complex topics fairly easily. It’s a technique you should learn.”

I smiled at her benevolently, waiting for her to ask questions so that we could spend some time discussing yoga. I had been planning such a digression from her boring books for a while and looked up hopefully. There was actually a nice book on the topic I’d seen at a nearby bookstore which I could gift her if she showed interest. It was important to sit together and discuss topics other than physics and math to get to know each other better, so that she could experience the same yearning that I felt for her.

She nodded, giving me some hope, but her next words floored me. “I realize I eat into your precious time with my stupid queries,” she said in a tone of guilt, and gathered her books. “Shall I come around some other time, if you’re too busy now?”

“Hey, you misunderstood me,” I squeaked, snatching her books back. “Sit down, sit down- I’m not busy at all.”

“Sure, RK?” she asked with a smile, the guilt gone.

“Sure, sure.”

She sat down and quickly opened her textbook again. Had her sense of guilt been real, I wondered, or was it a hint for me to shelve other topics and focus on her studies? Was she smarter than I thought? It was the same each time- no sooner would I guide her out of her academic difficulties, she promptly returned home, instead of sitting and chatting with me as I dreamed.

I was confident we could find sufficient common topics for discussion if we sat together long enough without her textbooks. But she seemed to avoid such encounters politely. I found her haste to return home quite unromantic and hoped in due course of time she’d realize just how much I appreciated her curves, her nearness and rosy cheeks, and how desperately I wanted to hold her close, and smother her with kisses. The very thought was so gratifying!

Since she was a couple of years my junior, I decided she perhaps needed more time to understand the adult feelings coursing my blood, and gave her the benefit of doubt. It was possible she too felt something for me, but was too young to articulate her feelings. She’d learn if I persisted. I just needed some patience.

I’d been fond of writing short stories during my high school years where I wrote for the school magazine. As testimony to my editorial prowess I’d penned a few lyrics in the form of a song about the future of our love as well, though none ever saw that poem or suspected anything of what went on in my turbulent heart. I never published it in the school magazine, but often read the song to myself in my pensive moments.

I have loved you, More than I could show,

Whether awake or asleep, Wherever I go,

I think of you, and only, only you…

You make up my dreams, and my heartbeats,

Every moment I think of only you…

With a thudding heart I mustered sufficient courage to show her the song’s lyrics one day.

She glanced at my efforts and nodded. “Quite good.”

I swallowed nervously. Fantastic! She’d finally understood what went on in my heart without reacting adversely! Was it a tacit sign of approval from her side? Emboldened, I decided to speak my heart out.

“Shalini, do you know how long it took to write this poem? Can you imagine the intensity of the feelings it conveys?”

She seemed preoccupied in turning the leaves of my collection of writings, and didn’t hear me, but I felt elated to note her interest. We had finally found a topic of common interest.

“I forget the author’s name,” she said at length, as if trying to remember, and flipped the pages back to my song where we had started. “You must be really fond of poems to copy down the entire thing. I recall seeing this somewhere, but forget the author’s name.”

I was flabbergasted. What did she mean she’d seen it somewhere else? Was I a plagiarist? Why should I copy down someone else’s works? Didn’t she sense the desperation in me, to hold her hands and talk of love?

“It’s original!” I exclaimed.

“It must be- but forgive me, I forget the author’s name. Rags is more interested in these things,” she added, referring to her kid sister. “You should check with her. She’d tell you.”

What was there to check? She could have asked me directly who the author was. After this I felt sheepish telling her that I was the hapless author. The moment of discovery, hope, exultation and love was gone. She had a way of stonewalling my efforts in ingenious ways each time. I suspected deep down she knew my intentions, but acted ignorant on purpose.

There’d be more opportunities later, I thought optimistically and let it go. Just as she and her sister were already aware of my interest in homeopathy, they’d gradually learn about my other interests as well- in painting, writing and music.

It might be boring to read poems written by someone else and connect with the author’s feelings, but music was different. One could identify immediately with good, melodious music. With the right timing and marketing, there was also good money in it- besides its share of fame. It was a career worth considering.

I had often tried composing melodies around my poems and lyrics, but it usually turned into a daunting task. I wondered how great musicians managed to churn out award winning songs year after year. On my part, I’d feel satisfied to compose music that had even a fraction of their appeal. I didn't have to be a genius- and realistically could never hope to become one- to sell my music for a living. It was worth broaching the topic with mother.

“Can’t I learn music formally?” I suggested to her a couple of days later, as the date for my departure to Kanpur neared.

She snorted. “And give up an opportunity to study at MSIT?” Her tone suggested I was mad.

“Well, there’s a small amount of gamble involved in any big achievement.”

“MSIT is your big achievement,” she reminded coldly in a tone of finality. “One big achievement at a time is sufficient. We’ve gambled enough.”

I nodded wearily. The realities of life in a middle class family insisted on dragging me back to boring studies all the time. Otherwise, besides satisfying my creative urge, pursuing music would have also kept me close to the girl of my dreams. Sometimes I felt I’d planned too many things with her in my mind, only to stand by helplessly to see each of my wishful dreams disintegrate.

Though I barely wished to leave the comforts of home and my love life behind to go to a different city for higher studies, I did eventually leave hearth and home to head for India’s premier engineering college, MSIT Kanpur, when the hour finally arrived. Apparently I was destined to become an MSITian.

The job industry favored MSITians, educated parents of prospective brides preferred MSITians, MSITians were supposed to be bright, brainy and successful in whatever they undertook- in general, in those days there was still significant respect for MSITians all around. I tried to convince myself that in some ways my migration to MSIT marked my upward mobility in society and status, so I was actually supposed to be moving forward in life.

But deep within I knew I was faking it and felt caught in a time warp, going through the motions of academic life in a daze, guided by some remote, unseen control, dragged forward against my will, to study complex subjects I didn’t care about.

“Always tread on the path of righteousness,” father advised solemnly when he accompanied me by train to drop me at my hostel at MSIT Kanpur.

I nodded disinterestedly, looking around my simple hostel room, wondering how I could stay away from my Shalini so far away.

“You’re beginning life as a solitary fighter away from home,” he continued sagely. “It won’t be easy to ignore the distractions and temptations of freedom from parental supervision. So keep reminding yourself of your goal. You’re here to study. Give it your best, son.”

I wanted to board the return train to Delhi along with him, but nodded silently, bored at the very thought of spending life in an unknown environment, as if in exile.

However, despite my tepid enthusiasm for higher studies away from home, life at MSIT wasn’t as gloomy. Gladly this particular MSIT wasn’t boringly all about studies. The ragging, contrary to my fears, turned out to be fairly stimulating intellectually and the fear and panic of being harassed by seniors gave way to the thrill of creative duel, where you pitted your wits against their weird sense of humor. After the first month of ragging, a grand party on freshers’ evening marked the onset of the real fun and freedom of being an MSITian.

I loved the movie weekends, the film festivals and the occasional movies on weekdays organized by the cultural secretary’s team. The movies were screened in a huge lecture hall, numbered 7, or L-7 as it was popularly called, on most weekdays and weekends, including the week just preceding the exams. Usually when the hero of a movie found himself in a weak position, with his back against the wall, struggling to cope with adversities, the hall would erupt with cheers of ‘fight, fight’. It was my first introduction to a philosophy of survival that I’d carry for the rest of my life.

The movies were a good way to live a virtual life, away from the pressures of boring assignments, tough exams and horrible grades. It was the time to freak out. In those days, this large lecture theater L-7 served the dual purpose of a classroom as well as auditorium. There were several other lecture rooms starting from L-1 which were quite big too, but none came close to L-7 in size. Apparently, many years later a much needed auditorium was actually built at this academic institute.

At college I naturally liked most things other than studies. I joined the photography club where I learned to wash film negatives in a darkroom and print photos, picked up lawn tennis, played table tennis, frolicked in the joy of spending late hours in the hostel canteens with friends- often up to 2 or 3 AM in the mornings- discussing philosophy, material goals and the yearnings of teens with the like minded, and occasionally also traveled over weekends to meet my grandparents in a nearby city called Lucknow when not visiting my parents in Delhi.

Lucknow was less than sixty miles away from Kanpur and involved a rickety bus ride of two hours or a journey of over an hour by train. I usually preferred Fridays once a month for my travel and boarded the evening train which ferried office goers between Kanpur and Lucknow.

Gradually, I started looking forward to the late night canteen sessions in the hostel. We called them _bullah _ sessions, where restless souls gabbed away with dreamy eyes for hours on topics passionately close to their hearts- girls, grades, creative urges, money, fame, or anything else riding the current wave.

What was irreconcilable was the passion with which my friends switched mental gears and tore into their lecture notes and textbooks after returning to their hostel rooms. I never understood how they could rapidly abandon, so dispassionately, the lingering taste of our wonderful discussions. I could never be like them. The canteen discussions would continue playing on my mind, more graphically than ever in the solitude of my room. I often took them to bed and sometimes into my dreams as well! Everything usually left a deep imprint on my psyche, including the pondies- as porn magazines were called by the boys- which frequently did rounds of the boys’ hostels. I was sometimes also blessed with uncensored dreams of the stuff I encountered while flipping through the pages of the adult magazines.

But most of the time I liked to sit back on my bed and think about my interactions with Shalini or how she had looked at me on a particular day and whether there was any deeper significance to her stare. It was a pleasure to let my mind run wild to the days of my past, right back into my schooldays.

Back then, in my school days of courtship with her, one could call me a mixed breed for I had many tastes but not the time or energy to pursue or do justice to any single one profitably. During my high school years till class 12th, I’d developed a fascination for oil painting, writing lyrics, and even composing some drab musical tunes which fell dismally short of my goal of aping my idol, R. D. Burman, besides looking up homeopathic remedies for ailments or studying religious scriptures once in a while. Ironically, formal higher education later tried breeding me into an engineer by profession. But for me there were enough reasons to think of myself as the century’s undiscovered wonder boy.

I daydreamed of achieving fame and glory someday in the not-so-distant future- without thought as to how I’d do it- and imagined how impressed my girl would be by any such rise in my stature. I often lay down in bed and thought about the brief chats I used to have with her and wondered if she thought about me too...

“Shalini, have you heard of Leonardo Da Vinci?” I remembered asking her on one occasion while solving a mathematics problem for her.

She nodded, waiting for me to go on.

“He was a genius from Italy, known as a Renaissance polymath?”

“What’s that?”

“He was a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, and scientist- practically everything one can think of. A mathematician, engineer, inventor, botanist, and writer too.”

“Wow.”

“It’s rare to find such a creative combination in one single person,” I said with pride, happy to share my stock of knowledge. She seemed impressed. “He was mainly renowned as a painter though.”

She nodded, picking up her book, without asking why I was telling her all this. Before she could flip it open, I quickly spoke up.

“I wish I was living in his time, painting by his side.” It was a broad hint to discuss my interest in painting, before moving on to my other interests- in music, writing, medicine and spirituality- and effectively show her how I was a polymath kind of person myself, hopefully with fame to follow me soon as well.

“You do come up with weird ideas, RK,” was her rejoinder, discouraging further discussion on the topic. “Don’t ever talk of going back into the past.”

I felt at a loss for words. How had I offended her? It was the last thing I’d imagined to do with my harmless comment. “I only meant that I’ve many of the same interests,” I explained timidly. “So-”

“Don’t misunderstand me, RK, but I’ve no interest in historical characters or history.”

“Well, I’ve no interest in history either,” I said hurriedly. “We’re on the same page regarding that. I was just trying to say I’ve many of the same interests.”

“I’m sure you have.” That was a rather unromantic way of looking at my rich skill-set. “I’ve an exam tomorrow,” she added ominously. “If you’re busy, I can go back home and try to manage things by myself.”

“No, no, Shalini, I’m not busy at all. I can never be busy for you.”

She looked at me with innocent eyes as if to ask if I was sure. I wanted to draw her close and kiss her. Who wanted to discuss history or my skills if she agreed to look at me like that every time we were together?

Her disinterest wasn’t difficult to fathom. Being a practical person, she tended to discard unproductive topics. Perhaps, by my very nature, I was too circumspect, approaching my goal in a roundabout way. Instead of telling her directly about the skills and qualities I possessed, I tried giving hints each time which she refused to take. I needed to develop more direct, effective ways of getting noticed, not just by her, but by others too. All my qualities were of no use if I remained unknown to the world. I was determined to not go by unnoticed like so many others.

While on the topic, I remembered with pride that once I had got an offer to paint for a foreign embassy in New Delhi. My parents were getting a couple of my oil paintings bound in gorgeous frames at a shop where an embassy official happened to catch a glimpse of my masterpieces. He asked them if I might agree to paint some of the walls at his embassy! I was away at college at the time, but when I later heard about the official’s offer from my parents, I felt happy and flattered.

You’d have guessed by now that I was never interested in studies, despite getting an opportunity to study at a premier engineering college like MSIT. So it might come as a surprise that my disinclination for higher studies stood on an edifice of excellent academic abilities demonstrated throughout my middle and high school years. I mostly obtained first rank in academics at elementary school, and later in senior school too, right through class 12. Not that I was intelligent or full of initiative. Just that- out of habit- I meticulously avoided doing things in a manner that would give others an opportunity to point fingers at me. So I did things assiduously, to the point of being extremely disciplined and conscious lest I got ridiculed. I applied this principle to my studies as well as sports. Somehow, the attitude helped me excel.

It wasn’t at night alone that I dreamed of Shalini. I dreamed about her during the lectures in daytime too, barely noticing my professors prance about on the podium explaining deep concepts. My sinking grades amply reflected my lack of attention span during the lectures and tutorial sessions.

I sometimes wondered how I’d live without her, if I ever had to. I remembered the recent past when I was in class 12, ready to pass out of senior school with a heart full of love for her. She was in class 10 at that time, not too young either. I occasionally wondered about the cold shoulder treatment she habitually gave me. Was a tenth grader really all that young to have adult feelings? If I could appreciate the curves in her figure two years back when I was myself a young lad in class 10, why didn’t she suspect anything of what went on in my mind and try to reciprocate when she herself reached class 10? I’d heard girls matured faster than boys. I could always help her if she faltered in her expressions, but she never showed any initiative.

The lack of responsiveness from her side left me with an uncomfortable feeling. I didn’t like dwelling on the possibility that she didn’t think of me romantically at all. Or worst still, she thought of someone else!

When I passed out of senior school, she was still struggling to cut through the boring academic quagmire of her 10th class board exams, with a couple more years of school life left. It would turn out to be a long wait. I’d require all my patience, I decided, because after school she’d enroll in a college and waste another three precious years, before I could hope to come close to realizing my dream of matrimony with her.

I remembered before I got admission into the engineering course at MSIT, my father sometimes encouraged me not to worry if I didn’t get an opportunity in life to study engineering. So long as I was able to give my best to whatever course of study I pursued after high school, I could still gain people’s respect. That did it. I gave my own spin to his advice.

I decided I’d try to win over Shalini’s respect and admiration by qualifying for admission to MSIT. Education at an MSIT was attractive to most and was the usual ambition for any girl her age, unless she was interested in studying medicine.

But she’d once told me she wasn’t interested in the medical profession. Obviously, that left engineering as the only other likely option, since in traditional middle class families in those days- and even now to an extent- it was usual to aspire for higher studies in either medicine or engineering. In that sense, an engineering degree at one of the five MSITs was the crest jewel of all engineering educations.

With that in mind I took the plunge and prepared for the Ma Saraswati Institute Entrance Exam for admission to the MSITs. I had to win. I’d realize years later that this was my first real fight , against my own lethargy, lack of self confidence and usually low motivation level. But even with such a low key mental makeup, I always had this streak of determination in me- that when I set my mind on something there was no stopping me.

Thus I sailed through the entrance exams and was selected to study at MSIT, albeit with a poor rank. That didn’t hurt me as much as the subsequent realization that despite so much hard labor on my part, Shalini wasn’t really interested in engineering or even impressed by my efforts! MSIT was just another college where some queer people studied and she couldn’t have cared less. She was more interested in pursuing commonplace commerce or economics whenever it was her turn to enter college…

Sighing I snapped back to the present and got up to drink water, looking at my watch by holding it against the light streaming in from the lamp post outside my dark hostel room. It was rather late but I couldn’t get to sleep, tormented by her thoughts. The rest of the hostel seemed dead asleep. It didn’t matter. I’d skip the first couple of lectures in the morning. It wasn’t the first time I’d be doing so. Contented, I went back to my thoughts of her.

I didn't blame her for not appreciating my selection to a grand college like MSIT. She was still too young, unaware of the worldly ways and academic centers of excellence- which was no cause for worry. Her future was safe, as I hoped to marry her and protect her.

Doubt assailed me momentarily. Would I ever become her husband? There were few signs in the present to indicate that. Was she really all that young or did she not care about me at all, about what I did in life and how I felt? I quickly brushed aside the dangerous thoughts and tried to catch some sleep, otherwise the next day I’d end up missing all the lectures till lunch.

I’d pinned too many hopes of my future life with her to consider other alternatives. I’d either live my life with her or die, I decided. There was simply no question of a third choice.

I often visited her house as a good neighbor during my breaks from college, much to my mother’s dislike. In contrast, her mother loved my visits and treated me to delicacies whenever I dropped by, sometimes prepared specially for me.

I suspected she looked forward to my visits somewhat, though over the years her fondness for me soured drastically. Whenever I visited their house before I lost her favor, she’d try to garner all my attention. During my visits to meet them, more often than not Shalini would be busy with something in the kitchen or browsing television channels, while I’d fidget around, trying to deal with her mother or sister, all the while hoping to catch her attention somewhere along.

Usually I’d sit on a chair, trying to divide my attention between her mother, or sister, or the nonsense on TV, and the attractiveness of Shalini’s figure as she sat down with a plate of snacks to watch a program.

I tried to strike small conversations, but she either ignored me or gave an absentminded nod once in a while, with a soft, heartwarming smile that always stole my heart, as she remained primarily absorbed in her television program. She apparently didn’t have difficulties with her studies anymore, though I offered my services on more occasion than one. I hoped her smile wasn’t the tolerant courtesy one usually reserved for a hired home tutor who’d been paid to drop by.

Her kid sister, Ragini, was more cooperative in comparison and invariably hijacked the interaction with me from her sister and mother. She’d seize my presence as an opportunity to bounce her singing skills off me. Engaging her in chatter was easier, though that wasn’t the purpose of my visits. I suspected she too waited, like her mother, for my visits, for musical reasons of her own.

Thus, I usually felt trapped between the mother and sister whenever I visited their house, but went all the same. How could I forget I’d spent restless days and weeks in the distant city of Kanpur planning my encounters with Shalini during my vacations? I couldn’t be shaken off so easily. It was important to sow the seeds over time. I realized it’d demand all my patience and determination in the face of her stony silence. Her father was usually more courteous whenever he was home during my visits, though he suspected nothing of my amorous intentions for his elder daughter.

Talking to the younger sibling, Ragini was a good way to justify my prolonged presence in their house, as she was way younger than me. Being Shalini’s kid sister, in a sense she was like my kid sister too. She wanted to become a singer and I’d cajole her along as she crooned and sometimes also ventured to say I’d compose the music for her albums in the distant future, casting hopeful sidelong glances at her elder sister once in a while. But even if Shalini heard, she didn’t show any interest in my musical abilities.

Ragini on the other hand would laugh heartily at my suggestions. Both sisters seemed poles apart. It was never clear to me whether the younger sibling laughed at my jokes or my musical skills. I considered my fledgling tunes and the boisterous accompaniment music I arranged on my small synthesizer keyboard, catchy. Whenever she broke out laughing it hurt me.

I took my music seriously. I might never become an R. D. Burman, but my melodies were sweet in their own way. However, in the end, it didn’t matter how the other members of that family behaved, so long as I got an opportunity to be near my Shalini. I was like a faithful dog, oblivious to all opposition to his devotion for his mistress. Kick me away, but I’d come back wagging my tail.

CHAPTER TWO

During one of my vacations home she evinced interest in my oil paintings that adorned the walls of our living room. I promptly took the opportunity to have her stand beside one of them and clicked her snapshot with an old camera, saying that I’d paint her portrait. I omitted to add that it would also enable me to carry her photograph in my wallet henceforth, allowing me to look at her whenever I wished.

I took my tubes of oil pastels and brushes to my hostel room after that lovely vacation, eager to paint her portrait. In our photography club, I developed the negative of the snapshot I had clicked and printed her photos in various sizes. The smallest one I carefully kept inside my wallet, while the biggest one, of an arbitrary size of 14 inches by 10, I used as the subject for my portrait. In this way I set about painting the masterpiece of my life on a canvas I bought from a local store in the college campus.

When I brought back the finished painting and showed it to her, I daresay she was impressed.

“It’s really nice, RK,” she said shyly.

“I spent a lot of time on it,” I enlightened her promptly. “Usually, I complete my paintings faster. But not this one.”

She blushed and kept staring at the painting for a long time. “You should have become a painter,” she ventured at length.

After briefly praising my skills and choice of subject, she left. I felt elated! Had I found a way to her heart at last? All women had some vanity hidden away somewhere that desired attention, adulation and gestures of love. One needed to possess the ability to recognize the secret switch, discover where that yearning lay hidden and bring it out in time. The right kindling ignited the fire. The rest was easy. I felt on a high.

She said I should have become a painter! Coming from a practical girl like her, I took it seriously and regretted chucking the opportunity to paint the walls of the foreign embassy. I should have chucked my engineering course instead. Anyway, by painting her portrait I seemed to have corrected some of my earlier lapses and gaucheness. It seemed like our love was headed in the right direction at last. She appeared quite pleased by my artistic effort.

I had no idea at that time that the rest of the journey wouldn’t be as easy. She simply refused to give any hint subsequently of how seriously she thought about me. At one point I was even tempted to pluck out my hair one at a time, and guess if ‘she loved me’, or, ‘loved me not’. Thankfully I never engaged in the futile exercise otherwise I might have gone bald at a pretty young age.

Since I thought a lot about my love life and grappled with its uncertainties, it was natural to take my daydreams and worries into my lectures as well. Bunking lectures altogether was easiest in case I stayed awake late into the night thinking of her, but if I happened to attend them, walking out of them midway was trickier, though the size of L-7 made it possible to slip out unnoticed, unlike the lectures scheduled in L-1 or L-2 or one of the other smaller L’s.

In L-7, the dais used by the professors for delivering their lectures faced seats arranged in ascending semi circular rows occupied by students. The seats were divided into sections with walkways in the aisles in between that led up a flight of stairs to the next level that was flanked by massive doors on either side. Beyond this there were further rows of seats ascending up to the projector room at the rear from where our movies were projected in the evenings after college hours. During the lectures, I usually preferred a seat nearer the first row of seats in the middle level, closer to the doors. It was at a fair distance from the professor’s podium and allowed me to walk out in the middle of the lecture unnoticed on most occasions.

One such day, as I got up absentmindedly in the middle of a lecture and started walking out of L-7, I heard the professor shriek.

“You there!”

My blood froze as I turned to face the dais.

“Yes, you!” he shouted. I swallowed. He was addressing me!

Standing in the midst of the huge hall with all eyes on me, I felt stripped to my skin.

“What do you take this place for?” he asked sarcastically. “Are you in a garden, taking a stroll by the moonlight?”

Snickers passed around till the professor glared at the crowd. Immediate silence followed. He turned back to me.

“Sorry, sir,” I stammered, my mind fast at work. “Actually I’ve a stomach upset,” I managed to say, passing a hand over my stomach.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve seen you walk out,” he retorted. “Do you consider yourself invisible that you can walk out at will? Stop lying and don’t come into these lectures if you don’t have the patience to sit through.”

I meekly walked back to my seat and hung my head low. Thankfully, he resumed the lecture without alluding to my lie of a stomach upset any further. To get caught or not depended on my destiny, I decided.

I gradually grew to believe in destiny in everything. Love too, among other things, simply happened by the same stroke of destiny. There was a place for everything in life and a time for it.

My time with Shalini had not yet come. I was prepared to wait, but how long? When would my time come? Would it come at all in this lifetime? How long would I have to wait to know? So many troublesome questions, so much uncertainty- but no answers!

One thing was certain though. At MSIT most of my homesickness was on her account. I missed her nearness, the glow of sunshine on her wavy brown hair, the hint of smile in her dark, expressive eyes, and her frequent appearance at our door to seek help with her assignments. Given a choice, I’d rather have spent my life solving her mathematics and physics problems than studying engineering to solve society’s problems or my family’s economic ones.

I felt quite Shalini-sick over time and gradually reduced my visits to Lucknow to see my grandparents whom I’d visited regularly earlier. Instead I preferred to go home to Delhi whenever I could, literally on each weekend, and sometimes extended my stay on some pretext or other to be close to her. In this way I ended up missing quite a few classes in college, and missed the better grades as well.

What I found annoying was people’s inquisitiveness about why I went home so frequently and their snide comments. One day as I stepped out of my hostel to go the central library one of my batch mates slapped my back jovially.

“Where to, RK?”

“I’m going to the lib to re-issue a book. Coming along?”

“You go ahead, I’ve to go somewhere else,” he said, adding with a grin, “I thought you were on your way to Delhi.”

“Why?”

He laughed. “Don’t you know? Whenever you step out of the hostel, the boys feel you’re on your way to Delhi. It’s become a kind of joke.”

The only distractions in my Shalini-sick life were the pranks I and PS shared. PS was my best friend as a freshman and we continued to be close for a long time. His name was actually Saurabh Pal. It was a decent name which I’d abbreviated and flipped around to make it PS.

One winter night in hall 2, which was one of the undergraduate hostels at MSIT Kanpur meant for the first and second year students, on our way to the dispenser kept outside the dining hall to fill drinking water into our bottles, I pointed out to him the row of bicycles parked in our dormitory between a pair of pillars.

“Do you think all the bikes would fall if I kicked the last one?” I asked.

“It’s like one of those tricky questions in Physics. These are usually tough to answer,” he said with a mischievous smile. “Perhaps we should find out?”

“I’m always ready,” I said with a nod.

“Then go ahead,” he prodded, looking up and down the dormitory surreptitiously.

I looked around too. It was very cold and the dormitory was empty at that time of the night. With the mid semester exams in progress, most boys were busy studying behind closed doors following dinner while some had gone to the central library.

“Be ready to run, before the boys start coming out of their rooms,” I cautioned. “There’ll be a big sound.”

“Don’t worry, just go ahead.”

I planted a hefty kick on the last cycle and made a dash for the next dormitory, aligned perpendicularly to ours. PS had already disappeared. I spotted him at a distance walking unconcerned and rushed to catch up. There was a generous sound of tumbling metal behind us as we walked the rest of the way to the water dispenser nonchalantly. On our way back after filling water into our bottles we noticed most of the doors in our dorm standing open, with boys busy extricating their bikes from beneath the pile. PS stopped near them uncertainly.

“Hey, I just remembered my bike is in that pile too,” he said with sudden realization.

“I know,” I said with a smile.

“You knew?” he asked suspiciously. “Where’s yours?”

“Oh, sometimes I can predict the future. So I took care to park mine in the other dorm today.”

He gave me a playful jab and I dutifully lent him a hand to fish out his bike.

But these were short-lived incidents, insufficient to offset the constant wear and tear of my mind that Shalini’s memories caused. My frequent visits to my parents were misunderstood by our neighbors and also my friends in college as a sign of my homesickness for my home and parents. I preferred to let them think that way. It saved uncomfortable explanations. They anyway had no business to know who lived in my neighborhood or for whom my heart throbbed day and night- though in my initial days I did confide to PS about how my heart was full of love for Shalini.

Why did love have to be so one sided, I sometimes wondered desolately? In this state of mind, it was difficult for me to enjoy my brother Sujat’s wedding or my sister Madubala’s, both of whom got married before I graduated out of MSIT. I went home on short vacations to attend their marriages, much like a reluctant outsider who is sometimes present at a function more out of a sense of duty than belonging.

Something deep within told me that I should have helped my father more sincerely, in terms of sharing his mental and physical burden, and the exertion surrounding the enormous preparation for the ceremonies. I should have also tried to ease my mother’s pains around the wedding arrangements. But I consoled myself that my college schedule and academic pressures didn’t permit me the luxury of fulfilling these responsibilities or running errands during the weddings at home.

I carried a few textbooks and lecture notes along to justify my lack of interest in the family celebrations, and ostentatiously dug into them to prepare for the mid semester exams lurking around the corner after the weddings, while keeping a stealthy eye out for Shalini’s movements- but she didn’t take much interest in the weddings either and mostly kept out of sight, to my utter dismay.

Both siblings in our family thus got married in quick succession- first my sister, followed by my brother. My sister's in-laws stayed at a nearby town, while my brother married into a business household in a distant city. After their marriage I was the only one who remained unmarried in our house, I thought with glee.

I dreamily thought about my turn to marry next, and pondered about my future with Shalini. She seemed too cold about my interest in her. Didn’t she have any reciprocal feelings for me? There was still a lot of time to plan my moves to make her my own instead of feeling ignored. Till I heard from her directly that she didn’t wish to marry me, I wouldn’t give up. I couldn’t afford to get bogged down by dismaying thoughts about a future without her. There was hope still. This was the only life I knew, and I couldn’t afford to miss any opportunity to make her my life partner.

Over time I had a suspicion my love story was getting too one sided. Did I alone harbor all the feelings of love? Did she feel nothing for me? Nothing short of an open admission of love from her side would satisfy me, or a clear denial that she wished to have nothing to do with me, in which case, of course, I’d die. I had to do something about the uncertainty urgently, otherwise spending the rest of my time in a distant hostel till my graduation would become impossible. Age old wisdom taught to fight poison with poison. The brave stood up against the brave, friends of the same feather flocked together, and so on. I too needed to work out a strategy.

Hence, to combat my tremendous pull for her, I hit upon a philandering strategy and let my eyes rove the college campus. If I could come close to another girl on the campus, it might balance the push and pull on my mind for Shalini, save me a few trips home and also allow me to focus better on my studies. Besides helping to make up for my sinking grades, it would also create in her mind a sense of uncertainty over the sudden lack of my seriousness for her. For a change, she might start chasing me instead. The thought was intoxicating- but unlikely, or at least unbelievable at the present.

Falling in love all over again, and finding a substitute for her right here in MSIT, was an exhilarating goal mixed with the melancholy of cheating on her. But was it cheating? It wasn’t, I decided. It was a strategy. She hadn’t committed anything to me yet. In a sense she’d invited her own misfortune and deserved it! She’d always acted oblivious of my feelings for her. As if I was dumb. My love for her had been a one way street so far for all practical purposes. It was time to change the game.

The girls’ hostel was a good place to hang out to achieve my objective. I was in for some disappointed though. On closer scrutiny, I found there were no lookers in my batch who took my fancy. To be fair, no girl compared in looks to my Shalini. The setback couldn’t shake me off so early and I decided to look a batch above or below to find the right girl. But disappointment was in store for me there too.

Gradually I came to the conclusion that lookers perhaps didn’t have enough gray matter to make it to an MSIT. Maybe that was an overstatement. I felt I shouldn’t generalize since I’d not seen all the girls in all batches. But it was true of my batch.

I did see a few pretty girls on the campus though and wondered. On chasing them I discovered them to be the daughters of some of our college professors. It was a dampener. I was already having trouble getting pass grades. This wasn’t the time to jeopardize them further by standing in different professors’ offices explaining what I was doing chasing their daughters.

If two such professors got together to discuss my amorous activities, I might be thrown right out of college! As a respite I turned my attention to sports. I and some of my friends launched ourselves into badminton. We played badminton on abandoned tennis courts, sprinkled with shrubs that had found their way out of the ground through cracks in the cemented surface- till one of us noticed that the adjacent badminton hall’s door seemed unlocked one day. Cautiously we sneaked in.

Wow! What an alluring sight the hall presented, with its sprawling courts. The gallery meant for the spectators was decked with rows of seats arranged on ascending layers of wide steps on one side of the courts. I shouted at the high ceiling to hear my voice’s echo. I fancied it sounded somewhat like Kishore Kumar’s, who sang many of R. D. Burman’s famous compositions. A couple of my friends followed suit, but their voices sounded gawky and awkward in comparison, I was sure.

Despite our find, we seldom got to play to our heart’s content on those courts. The inter college players often barged in and showed us the door. To our discomfiture we later learned that those indoor badminton courts and some of the better tennis courts outside were reserved for the institute players during certain time slots.

We were the orphaned general category for whom nothing was reserved or easy in life, in college, outside in society, in jobs or anywhere else. We were the ones with shrinking rights and nowhere to go. We were the classless, faceless category, shameful of our very existence- yet too dignified to unite and protest for equality or fight for what was rightfully ours.

We couldn’t even unite during elections to vote political parties out of power who insisted on enacting the English colonial power’s policy of dividing and ruling the nation on the basis of caste, creed and religion. It seemed like some of the nation’s present crop of divide-and-rule politicians had inspired policymakers within the precincts of pedigreed colleges like the MSITs as well, to orchestrate reservation policies to percolate down to mundane things like who played on which badminton or tennis courts.

At MSIT we were the undergraduates and called the postgraduate PhD students [‘phuddaas’. _]A couple of separate hostels were allotted to them. Halls 4 and 5 were the PG hostels during our time. As it was difficult to discern from external appearances as to which student was pursuing a PhD degree and who an M.Tech, we ended up calling all postgraduate students heading towards the PG hostels as _phuddaas.

One day in the hall 4 canteen, we came across a [phuddaa _]doing his PhD. He claimed his ambition was to use his degree and stamp of being an MSITian to find a wealthy father-in-law who’d let his educated son-in-law live in his own house, termed [_ghar jamai _]in the local lingo[, _]with the added license to squander his hard earned wealth. PS and I glanced at each other and hid our smiles as the guy ranted seriously about his dubious parasitic ambition.

Another wanted a heavy dowry from his in-laws when he married. He planned to qualify in the civil services exams and spend time at Mussorie to up his ante. I felt ashamed to think that people obtained admission to premier colleges like MSITs with such weird goals…

The undergraduates- especially those belonging to the first and second years- would sometimes stand in the dorms of hostel numbers 2 and 3- called Hall 2 and Hall 3- and jointly shout ' phuddaa, phuddaa ' while their victims dug their faces into their chins and hurried past to their hostel, hall 5. A good many of them aspired for selection to the IAS cadre, the country’s administrative services, and prepared for the allied UPSC entrance exams- called the civil services exams- using the well stocked MSIT library to good advantage for their mission.

“RK, forget if any of these phuddaas have ulterior motives in using our institute library or campus or hostels- some people carry ulterior motives throughout their lives,” my best friend, PS, occupying the room next to me in the hostel, once said upon entering my room, “Much as we’d like, we can’t abolish the IAS exams in our country, but we can at least try promoting better information sharing and issue based discussion in our college.” He paused for effect. “Shall we start a newsletter and try building a literary culture in the campus? What are your thoughts?”

I removed the headphones of the stereo cassette player from my ears to hear better what he was saying. I adjusted the pillow beneath my head and turned around to bring his face into better focus.

“You said about abolishing something?” I asked.

“Forget it. It’s not something that intelligent, honest people should waste time on. I came here to discuss a literary idea.”

He went on to repeat his desire to start a newsletter on the campus. It sounded like a great idea! I’d already written a few articles for my high school magazine before joining college and believed PS had somehow recognized my literary prowess.

I envisioned my name as an editor on the proposed newsletter (or co-editor since he too deserved some recognition for pioneering the idea). I imagined the introductory page of the newsletter reading like the casting on a movie screen in a cinema hall. Editor: Rajat Kumar, 3rd year, Aeronautical engineering. Shalini might like that. She’d already liked my paintings! Perhaps she admired offbeat pursuits. After my painting, she might like my editorial abilities too, and think of me as the big man at my college. Somehow, I could never keep her out of my mind while considering the good things in life, but she never seemed to think of me or tried to understand my pains.

“Which song is it?’ PS asked, indicating my music cassette player. Music pods and mp3 players were still not in vogue at that time. Portable music cassette players were more common among students. He sat down on the chair. “What I like is that at least you don’t use external speakers placed on top of earthen pitchers to amplify the volume, as some others do. I plug cotton into my ears whenever I hear their blast. They just don’t know the upper limit of volume. It’s nothing but terrible noise pollution.”

“It’s a Kishore Kumar song,” I replied to his query about the song I was listening to. “The music is S. D. Burman’s- Phoolon ke rang se, dil ki kalam se . It means- with the color of flowers, I write to you with my heart. It’s one of my favorites, besides another by his son, R. D. Burman, Badi Sooni Sooni Hai, or, my life is too lonely. These two songs amply sum up my own life.”

He laughed, but I frowned. I didn’t find anything funny in what I’d said and diverted his attention to the composer of the songs instead.

“RD’s father started composing the latter, but fell ill, so RD took over and completed it.”

I held out the headphone to him.

He placed them about his ears and nodded. “Good song- though I like Sehgal’s nasal tone better.” He handed the headphone back. “Anyway, put this aside. I came here to discuss something more important. There’s a lot of planning required if we agree to come out with a newsletter. It would be the first of its kind in this college.”

My heart missed a beat as a thought occurred. What stopped us from enlisting the services of a few girls from the girl’s hostel, or GH as we called it, for our proposed magazine? At that time we had one girl’s hostel. It would be fun. I mentioned as much to PS and the lusty guy’s eyes lit up. He promptly approved of the idea.

The more we discussed it, the better both of us liked the thought of starting a regular newsletter and promptly got cracking. It was our first stint at marketing an idea, finding sponsors to stand by our side and driving publicity. Besides helping us finance the newsletter from institute funds, the sponsors would also serve as a safety fender. They’d be props meant to take the hit if things backfired and missiles came our way. We needed to find some gullible, vain professors for the purpose.

My friend was brighter at these things. “Let’s start with Kramer’s wife,” he suggested. “She looks quite bored and might be a good means of passing our time too.”

Kramer was the nickname for Dr. Karam Chand who’d recently returned from USA to settle down in MSIT Kanpur. He boasted of a varied background. Smart academic credentials (read graduated in India, followed by a US stamp with a masters and a PhD in USA), worked in American companies for several years, developed a _desi _ American- also called Indo-American- accent that was neither here nor there, metamorphosed his surname to a mysterious Kramer from a respectable Karam Chand and finally returned to India, thoroughly disillusioned and confused with life.

His return to his birthplace wasn’t out of patriotism for the motherland, but owing to some problems with the mother of his would-be kids. By bringing her to India, he probably hoped to bring her to a state of motherhood before others abroad succeeded in achieving the same behind his back. I wondered with what hope he’d brought her to India. As if this country lacked lusty opportunists waiting to engage in adultery.

“She looks good,” I agreed. “Her presence would attract other professors to join our editorial committee too.”

“One professor, RK,” PS corrected patiently. “Who needs a crowd? You don’t want them in majority on our newsletter and take over control from us, do you? We’ll be the rulers,” he grinned, raising a thumb. “The newsletter’s our baby.”

I smiled and raised my thumb too. In this way we both started recruiting our first editorial board member, Sheila Chand. At the professor's house, I did most of the talking to her husband while PS ogled at her. Her husband had recently returned from the US and wanted to come across as a broadminded American who didn't mind his wife mixing socially in his absence- or presence- with other men.

“Got it,” he nodded magnanimously, trying to sound American, readily grasping our noble goals in setting up the newsletter to enlighten the institute’s student community, besides being a platform for exchange between the students and professors on pressing issues.

“Ma’am, our first meeting would be on Monday evening,” PS informed Sheila cordially, but his smile looked anything but innocent or academic. His voice sounded more like he was inviting her to his bedroom. The lecher did most of the talking to her while I stood aside to handle her decrepit, intrusive husband.

Monday was still 3 days away. But in the meantime, we found a nice, wet topic for our canteen conversations.

“I think they don’t get along too well together,” I surmised.

“Who could get along well with that lout,” PS agreed in an authoritative tone. “Half his head is bald from the front, the other half gray from behind,” he grimaced, referring to her husband. “Ugly from whichever angle you look at him.”

“I’m sure he’s as ugly beneath his clothes,” I added, trying to sound jovial like him.

“Wonder how the ugliest of the lot get the prettiest girls as wives. It seems to be an undiscovered social and biological law.” He winked. “You’re fortunate that way. You’ll have a pretty wife.”

“Why, I’m not ugly.”

“You mean you don’t want a pretty wife?”

“Shut up, I was referring to something else. You once told me I’m handsome,” I said.

“How do you know I wasn’t lying?”

It was difficult to match him in wits, but I tried anyway.

“Because in the same breath you also said your mother was a chaste lady, revered in the family for both her looks and religiosity. I took everything as the truth.”

He broke out laughing. “You rogue, you got me this time. Yes, I was telling the truth. You’re indeed handsome. Anyway, how did your looks spring into the discussion? We were discussing Kramer’s wife.”

“Let’s do something about her,” I responded enthusiastically. “She must be quite frustrated.”

“I swear! She must be. Her bald lout of a husband had the cheek to drag her from USA to this hellhole. I’m sure she’s feeling quite frust.Frust was how students referred to the feeling of sensual frustration. His eyes took on a lascivious gleam. “After meeting me and getting to know me better, I suppose she’ll despise him all the more.”

“After meeting us, you mean,” I protested, trying to match his sense of humor.

But he didn't laugh. "You know what I think, RK,” he said, sounding like a detective. “Possibly his wife had an affair in the US, otherwise- just think about it- why would a sane man want to return to this hellish country, leaving behind the comforts of the West."

I didn’t like his occasional reference to our nation as a hellish country. His eyes glistened dreamily as he referred to life in the US. But his mind was elsewhere as he looked at me with a naughty smile.

“RK, how’d you like to share your room with her for a night? Just think about it.” He swallowed with desire. “Let your imagination run wild.”

We both laughed and walked back to our rooms from the canteen, cherishing our suggestive conversation. But once back, he switched off his lurid mind with professional ease and dug into his books till late night, completing assignments, while I carried to my room memories of Sheila, imagining her in various states of undress.

My guilt transformed those images into Shalini. But Shalini was still to become a full blown woman. She’d not even acknowledged my hints or shown any signs that she reciprocated my tender feelings for her. I felt a little confused. Was I trying to teach her a lesson to bring her closer to me or was I cheating on her? I considered joining yoga classes for a few weeks to try and apply spiritual ideas for self control.

Our hiring for the newsletter kicked off well. We invited another bored person, an aging professor this time, Dr. Ranadey, to join our magazine’s editorial panel. He was a handicapped person who we felt would welcome the idea of getting into an attention grabbing role. We’d heard he had been popular in the college campus for his youthful dalliances with women long ago when he was younger and physically fitter, before being handicapped by an accident several years ago.

The accident had reduced him to a physical mess. Though his limbs were still intact, he’d developed a neurological problem that refused to subside. It left his limbs in a state of perennial quiver. He trembled as he walked and panted as he spoke. His hands trembled when he held a pen. He was incapable of much physical exertion.

He’d married twice, the second marriage with a widow coming after his accident, when his first wife deserted him due to his infirmities. Despite his frailties, he’d retained the desire to flirt. I was realizing that libido was a monster difficult to curb for those so inclined. It didn’t bother whether you could rise to do its bidding or fell by the side. It simply blinded your power of reasoning and drove you on relentlessly, often dragging people into a social and legal morass.

CHAPTER THREE

Overall Dr. Ranadey possessed the kind of personality that couldn’t refuse joining a magazine with a pretty young woman like Sheila on its panel. It didn’t take him long to decide on our request to join the editorial board.

“Of course!” he boomed.

Of course, even we’d been sure of his affirmative response. The bait was unavoidable. He was bound to join.

“When do we start?” he asked, eyes gleaming with enthusiasm.

He seemed more eager than us. Had he nothing better to do with his time, I wondered. I’d thought he was a senior professor with his hands full of work. Considering his broken down constitution I’d assumed him to be harmless compared to another professor who we heard had eloped with a colleague’s wife. But it seemed I was wrong. Captive in that fatigued, tottering frame still lurked a spirit which eyed women with the desire to enjoy.

PS exchanged glances with me as professor Ranadey said ‘of course’. Was he already drooling mentally over Sheila’s figure? I was sure he’d seen her at professors’ get together parties and made a mental note of her wares.

With his inclusion into our editorial team, it made four of us. Next we decided to hang around the girls’ hostels. This time we didn’t fair as well, both PS and I being too tongue tied to make inroads into the veritable harem we’d imagined to recruit. To complicate our miseries, on our second trip there, PS stumbled and fell while descending the staircase. The next morning he couldn’t get out of bed.

“Forget about recruiting girls,” he said irately. “Looks like I sprained my back badly from last night’s fall.”

“Don’t let wisdom desert you in the face of hardship,” I said solemnly, as I watched him take a deep breath, wincing with pain. Before he could retort, I quickly added, “Try taking a few steps.”

With my help he stood up, wincing again. After a few steps he straightened.

“Feeling better?’ I asked.

He nodded and limped over to his chair to sit down. As he straightened his legs he howled in pain again.

“Rhus Tox 200,” I prescribed with a professional air.

He stared at me for an explanation.

“It’s a homeopathic remedy,” I clarified. “Don’t worry, I’ve been reading the materia medica- which is like a bible in homeopathy- for several years now. I’m confident this medicine will help you.”

“But where would I get it?’ he asked. “I think I should go to the health center and get some pain killers instead.”

“Your choice- but if you want I could run to the college gate and get Rhus Tox for you from a shop there. Homeopathic medicine doesn’t cause undesirable side effects like allopathic medicine.”

Doubtfully, he nodded. Obviously the pain was too discomforting for him to undertake a trip to the institute hospital. I grabbed my bicycle and pedaled to the campus gate. When I returned to his room, he was writhing in pain and had lied down on the floor, unable to navigate the distance from the chair to his bed. I gave him a dose of Rhus Tox 200 and helped him to his bed before hurrying back to the gate to get Rhus Tox 30 and Hypericum 200 as well.

“So many medicines!” he shrieked when I showed him the new medicines.

“Shut up!” I retorted. “From now on, take these two medicines- Rhus Tox 30 and Hypericum 200- alternately every two hours till you feel 50 to 60 percent better. After that, stop both and switch back to Rhus Tox 200, which was the first medicine I gave. Don’t worry, I’m here to guide you how to take the medicines and also remind you when to take them.”

He remained doubtful and took the doses as if consuming poison, but after two days he had a big smile on his face when he knocked on my door.

“Dr. Kumar,” he grinned. “Perhaps you chose the wrong profession. I always felt you were not cut to be an engineer. Seems I was right.”

“What do you mean?” I asked with a frown. “I studied as hard as the rest of you to compete for selection to MSIT- not to be told I’m in the wrong profession.”

“Take it easy. Let me put it this way- I think you’re more qualified than the rest of us. You should have studied homeopathy medicine.” He noted the look of satisfaction on my countenance and continued appreciatively, “ Yaar, you prescribe like a professional doctor. Your medicine works so well! A formal degree can help you set up a roaring practice.”

I nodded, but didn’t see any point discussing the merits and demerits of my career, irrespective of whether it was medical or something else. Given a choice I’d have preferred pursuing music or painting for a living.

I changed the topic. “So, are we ready to head back to the girl’s hostel to complete our recruitment? Or has your fall from the staircase frightened you?”

“Of course not! We’ll go there again. We both believe in diversity, don’t we?”

“Can’t say about myself, but you’re an absolutely lusty goat who eyes only diversity.”

“Okay, okay, think whatever you like- but I’m only considering ways to make our magazine more successful. Otherwise, I have the highest regard for girls,” he said with a lurking smile that belied his words.

We finally managed to rope in a bespectacled girl doing her PhD, who seemed neglected by everyone else including the girls in her own hostel and turned pale whenever anyone looked at her. PS felt we shouldn’t overstaff our fledgling team, and firmly ended the hiring with an undergraduate boy from a junior batch.

One night as we stood in the dormitory discussing the next steps for our newsletter, it started raining.

“Let’s sit in one of our rooms to carry on the discussion further,” he suggested.

I nodded. “Before that, I’ll make a trip to the loo.”

“Me too.”

So we both headed to the restroom. After relieving ourselves we stood a moment in front of the washbasin’s mirror appraising our looks.

“Someone forgot his tube of toothpaste,” PS said, pointing to a big tube lying on the washbasin beside the tap. He took a peek outside at the dormitory and returned with a mischievous smile.

As if on cue, I caught on, and took a peek inside the shower cabins. There was no one. I looked at him in anticipation.

“Whatever you want to do, go about it quickly,” I prompted in an urgent tone, glancing over my shoulder. He hesitated for a moment. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep watch,” I prodded.

I stood in the doorway keeping an eye on the dormitory, and another on his antics. He quickly uncapped the tube of toothpaste and squeezing it merrily, began writing on the big mirror with the gushing paste, with the air of a professor writing with a piece of chalk on the blackboard in L-7. Finished, he turned around with a smug smile.

“Hey, you didn’t leave any for me,” I said ruefully, eyeing the empty tube, which he capped and kept carefully on the washbasin just as he’d found it.

“Next time would be your turn. At that time I’ll keep watch,” he promised and we returned from the loo happily.

He scripted the plan for the newsletter along with me, based on which both of us handpicked articles for it. Along with the two other students in the editorial board, we gathered statistics of gymkhana spend, departmental annual budgets, interviewed visiting professors on the campus and worked our asses off on all aspects of the publication.

We students did most of the hard work and running around while Dr. Ranadey and Sheila merely got together once in a while to review our articles and approved the readymade material simply because one was a professor and the other a professor’s wife.

“We got ourselves into this,” I told PS one evening. “Sheila is okay. She’s dumb but beautiful. I try holding her eyes whenever she looks my way. I think she too likes looking my way while talking.”

“Don’t live in dreams, RK,” he interrupted. “She looks your way, not at you. I’d call it looking through a person absent-mindedly. That’s a big difference. Possibly she also gazes at the playfield visible from the window behind your chair.”

“There’s no window behind my chair in the gymkhana, you lout.”

“Sorry, then she looks at the wall behind,” he said without batting an eyelid. “I feel bad some people have to struggle so hard. In my case, she looks at me directly. She values my views and tries to engage me in talking to her. I’ve noticed women like her never miss a man when one’s around.”

“Let’s ask her in our next meeting and clarify.”

“What do you mean?” he asked suspiciously.

“Whether she looks at the wall behind me or directly at you.”

“Are you crazy?”

“Yes, I’m crazy as well as determined enough to ask her that. After that she can use her judgment how to deal with you.”

He hurled a small writing pad at me, which I dodged.

“You got me wrong,” I said innocently. “I’ll tell her that since your fall from the staircase at the girls’ hostel, you regularly hallucinate, and it’s good to stay away from you during this period. Anyway,” I added quickly before he could issue a rejoinder. “She soothes our nerves in a heavy editing session. But Ranadey’s a jerk.”

“He’s a liability,” he nodded in ready agreement, his mind still searching for a suitable repartee to my jab.

“Shall we kick him out?”

“Who do we replace him with? Editing this newsletter is my only distraction. I can't compose music like you or dabble in medicines- but in my own way I too like being creative sometimes instead of burying my head in engineering books all the time. This magazine is my only outlet in that sense.”

I had no solution in sight. We were somehow trapped by the magazine and Ranadey’s imposing presence. “I find him quite irritating. We should have picked a junior professor, not an opinionated, senior one like him.”

“I felt a frail person like him would be fairly harmless,” he said thoughtfully. “I usually measure up a guy physically, assessing whether I can beat him in a fist fight if it ever comes to that.”

“You jerk, was that your criterion for picking the editorial board?”

“Well, only for the men. For the girls my criterion is obviously different,” he said with a lurid smile and we broke out laughing.

“Anyway, whatever gave Ranadey the idea that he’s the editor?” I asked, resuming our dialogue. “He keeps telling what to include in an edition and what to omit. We do all the hard work while he just sits there to enjoy Sheila’s company and approve.”

"Because he dare not disapprove- or there’d be no articles left to print," PS prophesied tiredly.

I’d realize later in life that most bosses were like Ranadey. They did little value add to your work, but duly approved it and tried to justify their superiority by picking on you. They dared not disapprove but had to show some reservations all the same, just to show their worthiness, and resist losing their relevance altogether.

Getting articles was tough enough in this academic institute. At this rate we’d soon have to fabricate news to fill the pages. The newsletter was slowly turning into a liability for us. Gradually, after the first edition was out, the girl left our editorial board, followed by the boy, both citing academic pressures. From that point onward we were left to do everything ourselves, with no more volunteers left. And that literally meant the two of us, me and PS.

We wrote the articles, edited them, incorporated the views of Ranadey and Sheila, ran to a city press by an institute bus to fetch the proofs and again ran back to submit the reviewed content for printing. Electronic publishing had still not caught on.

We consoled ourselves that we were the pioneers and so the initial grind seemed of titanic proportions. Finally, after the initial cranking and sputtering, nearly two decades later I noticed my alma mater had started publishing a regular electronic newsletter somewhere along. It was a solace to think our efforts hadn’t gone entirely in vain.

Though PS sometimes referred to our country as hellish, mostly he deplored the West, including the US, and ranted about patriotic values, as well as spoke of export quality desis, which was how he referred to Indians.

“Export quality?” I smiled upon first hearing the phrase.

He laughed. “Spread your antenna wider, RK. Just like select vegetables and fruits are grown with special care in countries like ours with the explicit purpose of exporting them to foreign countries, especially to the West, to earn money, families these days grow kids to send them abroad. The formula is simple. Be born in this nation, absorb her culture, have your roots here, but settle down abroad as soon as you get the chance and replant yourselves in new soil. I don’t know if it’s a kind of business, but these are the export quality desis I referred to.”

I chuckled at the description. “I’d never settle down abroad. In my opinion only third rate people do that.”

“Why?” he asked as if affronted.

“There are unspoken social undercurrents prevalent in the society there. They consider us invaders.”

“What do you mean?”

“From what I’ve heard, they don’t welcome the idea of colored people settling in their countries, despite their claims of being an equal opportunity employer and bla-bla.”

“But the day-to-day life there is much more systematic, cleaner ethically and comfortable. They don’t deny us any of that, though we’re outsiders.” He paused. “My sources of information are authentic.”

“As if mine aren’t. From what I know of social interactions there, one gradually becomes aware of their aloofness towards us, their condescending attitude and racial undertones,” I defended, but later assumed a more broadminded view. “In a way, it’s natural for them to feel frustrated. It’s a fact that we do take away their jobs. I might feel the same way if they came to our country and took away our jobs.”

“Not everyone’s like that.”

“There are exceptions everywhere, but I’d never settle down outside India.”

“Since neither you nor I have been there, you’re as right as me. Or as wrong.”

“Agreed. So let’s not bash our heads about life there.”

“Let’s drop the topic,” he agreed promptly.

“In my opinion, a few visits to the US for a few days at a time are fine, but no longer than that.”

“I agree,” was the prompt rejoinder. But he kept the discussion alive, wanting to have the last word. “Who’d want ABCDs anyway?”

I looked up with interest. “I suppose that’s another spin on being a desi?”

“You could call it that,” he replied enigmatically. “You know, RK, I think we should include some of these acronyms in our newsletter’s articles. This campus has a mixed community- the younger ones aspiring to go abroad to the US, while a few older ones returning to settle back here, for whatever reason- each disillusioned in his or her own way. The terminology might appeal to the readers.”

“What’s ABCD, by the way?”

“I thought you knew. American Born Confused Desi.”

“Is someone from your family settled there, who’s confused?” I asked with a straight face. “Who told you all this?”

“Actually, I heard from someone in your family who’s settled there,” he replied smugly.

“But I don’t have anyone from my family settled there?”

“You haven’t kept track, that’s all,” he said coolly. “Check at home about uncles and aunties and forgotten cousins. Some of them will turn up there. All Indians have a thread in the US. Those who don’t yet, will have one day.”

I smiled. “Anyway, who told you about ABCDs?”

“Unlike you, I don’t rush home every other weekend. I spend my time collaborating with senior students whenever I get a chance. Some of them share their experiences,” he replied dreamily. “RK, in general I love human psychology and am usually keen to observe how people change habits, why they turn greedy, when they start treating their parents as babysitters, as use-and-throw objects.”

I was impressed. He managed to sound quite philosophical at times and definitely artistic in his thoughts. When I mentioned this, he shook his head.

“I’ve no artistic quality, but I do admire your skills. I like your musical tunes,” he complimented. “It’s a rare ability. I sometimes feel you’re wasting your time studying engineering. You should have studied homeopathy or pursued music. Don’t you ever feel like that?”

“It doesn’t matter what I think. What else could I do?”

“Why?”

“I guess I lack the drive to do things independently,” I admitted. “It’s not enough to have talent. Otherwise, I’d have been painting at an embassy long ago. One should be able to present one’s skills to the world convincingly, taking appropriate risks at the right time. Otherwise, you’re absolutely right; who wants to study engineering? I always wanted to become a musician. It wasn’t a mere hobby like my other interests.”

“I love creativity in any form,” he said with unabashed admiration. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any special abilities. But I love music.” He looked at me seriously, “RK, if you ever get half a chance in life to sell your music for a living, grab it and just don’t look back. I’m sure you’ll not feel disappointed.”

It was a big compliment from a peer. Was my music really that good? It didn’t sound like he was kidding or pulling my leg. He really loved everything Indian, from [_desi _]food and [_desi _]clothes, to old style Indian singers like Sehgal, old monuments and traditions.

“Give me a moment, I’m going to the loo,” he said suddenly. “Will be back in a moment.”

“Wait, I’ll come along,” I called after him.

After relieving ourselves, as we stood at the washbasin to wash our hands, he pointed to another tube of toothpaste that someone had forgotten there.

“Your turn,” he offered generously. “Remember, these instances are becoming too frequent in F-mid,” he said in an undertone, referring to our hostel wing in hall 1 which was for third and fourth year students. “We must avoid further temptations in the future lest we become the prime suspects.”

I gave a crooked smile as I followed his finger to the tube. Without word, he took a step out of the restroom to watch the dormitory, while I made sure there was no one inside the shower cabins.

We winked at each other as I uncapped the tube of toothpaste and squeezed it generously all over the big mirror, before placing it back carefully on the washbasin just as I’d found it. With a satisfied laugh we headed back to my room to continue our discussion.

Inside my room he stopped dramatically at the mirror nailed to the wall with a small platform at its base to hold the comb, shaving kit, tooth brush and other such items.

“Where’s your toothpaste?” he asked innocently, scrutinizing the small platform.

I craned my neck over his shoulder to check for myself. Indeed, my tube of toothpaste was missing. I bent down to check the floor beneath, and then looked up as he giggled.

“What’s the matter?” I asked suspiciously.

He pointed a thumb in the direction of the restroom, breaking into a full blown laughter. “Didn’t you recognize your tube when you squeezed it so happily, dude?”

I got up and aimed a punch at him which he dodged.

“Don’t try the same stunt with my paste,” he warned, tears of laughter streaming down his eyes. “You already had your turn when you crashed my bicycle under the pile in hall 2 last year.”

I sighed and raised my hands. Life in F-wing of hall 1 was the best of my four years at MSIT Kanpur.

As our years of graduate study meandered to an end, I was surprised, and felt a little betrayed, when PS promptly gunned for a scholarship to the US upon graduation.

Most of my other friends too turned out to be more practical and grounded in reality than me. The various scholarships to the US colleges they obtained at graduation went to prove my point. They saw life as it was, while I meandered my way through heartbreaks, misguided spirituality and confused goals.

CHAPTER FOUR

After four years of rigorous study, when I graduated from MSIT with a marketing job in a company specializing in information technology, I gathered courage for the first time to spell out my years of yearning and proposed to Shalini. My heart was in my mouth as I expressed my desire with a lot of hope. Would she marry me? She was still grappling with her college and promptly said ‘no’.

I felt shattered and surprised. Our years of friendliness and bonding meant nothing to her! With just another year of college remaining she was certainly not as young anymore to not have thought of matrimony. Didn’t she have adult desires or were her adult feelings meant for somebody else?

I sank into an abyss. She had rejected me so casually. There was no point living without her. I felt betrayed and abandoned. My best friend had gone to the US for higher studies, while the person I wanted as my partner for life didn’t want me. Life would be unlivable after this. I dug out the song I’d penned in high school about the future of our love and sadly read the lyrics to myself.

I have loved you, More than I could show,

Whether awake or asleep, Wherever I go,

I think of you, and only, only you…

You make up my dreams, and my heartbeats,

Every moment I think of only you…

Never did I feel, till I saw you again

What Love could mean, Or Joy and Pain…

I added a few more lines and tried to infuse my numb mind with some hope. But there was none. I could die pining for her, but before that I had to be sure why she said no and whether she meant it permanently. I had to know her heart. Was there no hope for me? Something to live for?

I busied myself composing a tune for the lyrics I had written. It was a way to keep myself occupied. Otherwise, life held no meaning without her. My composition would fulfill my need for her, and bring out the pathos of my lacerated heart, articulating feelings she refused to listen or understand. Maybe the song would impress her and encourage her to think about me more seriously.

The melody I composed for the lyrics started looking nicer with each passing day and I recorded it into our tape recorder. Beyond that there was little for me to do at the present. I made up my mind to learn music composition and arrangement in the future, and arrange a musical band around my melodies to make them sound spontaneous and rhythmic. If I could become half as popular as R. D. Burman, she might reconsider my proposal.

Somehow, my parents didn’t share my enthusiasm of embarking upon a new career in music, after grinding through four years of engineering. I explained that the campus job offer I’d landed was in the field of marketing, [_not _]engineering, so anyway my engineering education of four years would lack application. They ignored my rationale and waywardness without actively objecting. That’s something I shall always remember about them. They encouraged me when they could, but did not create an issue or stop me if they disagreed.

Considering their lack of encouragement to let me consider a formal course in music, I felt I needed to generate greater spontaneity in my musical rhythms and beats on my own, more than the automatic accompaniment presets of my small synthesizer keyboard allowed. I wanted to compose arrangements that listeners wouldn’t laugh at.

However, life was presently a burden. It was difficult to persist with my passion for music composition in the aftermath of Shalini’s rejection. There would be enough opportunities later in life if I lived, to become a proficient musician if I still wanted.

For the time being I took to spirituality to get away from the sorrow of her rejection and started chanting God’s names on [_tulsi _]beads that I started carrying around in a bead-bag slung about my neck. I ignored the queer looks I got from neighbors and relatives. Some snickered behind my back, some in front, but their snide comments were insufficient to penetrate my numb gloom. I chucked the marketing job offer that had come my way in the college campus recruitment. My parents were heartbroken but faced it boldly.

I visited nearby holy places, but couldn’t intrinsically enjoy the serene atmosphere there. My morose, lovelorn mind was elsewhere. I had a suspicion I was a sham in spirituality, regularly daydreaming of miracles that would unite me with Shalini in the future. With this clandestine purpose in mind I tried chanting God’s names.

After I entered the spiritual fold and hobnobbed with likeminded folks in pilgrimage places, I came across well versed academicians, educationists, businessman and people from literally all walks of life, compelled or convinced by their experiences to pursue spiritual tidings. There were some others who’d been conned by crafty monks to part with their money in the name of religion. There were all kinds who visited holy places. I wondered how many would persevere on the path they’d undertaken. How many were sincere seekers? And how many shams like me? How many had carried their material ambitions into the spiritual seclusion of these pilgrimage places out of sheer frustration, as I’d done?

After spending some time practicing spirituality at such places, I returned home to keep a furtive watch on her. I’d sometimes stealthily borrow my father’s old, secondhand car to drop her to college. Father’s office was close by and he usually walked down. In any case, his earnings were not so handsome as to pay for the cost of gas for driving even the short distance to office on a daily basis.

Alongside studying for her graduation in economics, Shalini was also preparing for KIM entrance exam to study MBA at one of the Kuber Institutes of Management and enrolled in a local training institute for the purpose. The summer would decide her fate, whether she got selected to an MBA course following her graduation or dropped the idea altogether to settle down- hopefully with me.

“Alright!” I said with exasperation as I drove her one evening to the training institute she’d enrolled in, to prepare for the KIM entrance exam. The heavy office traffic outside was in my favor. It allowed me to drive slowly, giving me sufficient time to resolve matters of the heart with her. “You refused my proposal once.”

“What do you mean by once?” she asked, apparently taken aback. “Isn’t once enough?”

But I wasn’t to be deterred so easily. “One day you'll marry someone- won't you?”

She regarded me silently, without replying. We had stopped at a traffic light and I was in no hurry to start.

“Won’t you marry someone?” I persisted, turning to her for comment.

But she kept listening impassively, without offering comment, leaving me to complete my sentence if I wished. I felt unsettled by her direct gaze. My heart skipped a beat at her nearness and beauty. For a moment I wanted to embrace her tightly.

“If you will marry someone- then why not marry me?" I said brightly, pouncing on what seemed like an obvious solution. “Why waste your time- and mine- in further studies? This is your final year at college. You’ll soon become a graduate. Isn’t it enough? Why study MBA after that and waste two more years?”

I was ready to head for a temple or marriage bureau right away- wherever she wanted- and marry her. But she appeared in no hurry to decide and neither seemed to share my vision or enthusiasm. Instead she sighed. Meanwhile the lights turned green, forcing me to move.

“Don’t sound like a beggar, RK,” was her prompt rejoinder. “Have some dignity. Just because you sometimes drive me to college in your father’s shabby car, don’t get ideas. Do you think the bribe is enough to secure a pretty girl’s ‘yes’?” She gazed at the traffic outside. “And don’t drive so slowly, RK. I’ll miss my first tutorial at this rate. These tutorial classes cost a lot of money, you know.”

"Driving you to college is not bribery. I just want to protect you from bad men. But you didn’t answer my question- what would you gain by doing an MBA?” I glanced at the darkening evening sky outside for ideas. “Men of lose character and morals are on the prowl everywhere these days. Don’t you read the newspapers? Women aren’t safe in our country.”

“Neither are men,” she returned dryly. “Nor kids. Or elders. Who can be safe in this land of crooks and traitors?” She looked at her watch. “RK, drive faster.”

“Anyway,” I said casually, trying to brush aside my mounting tension at her continued aloofness, and reluctantly pressed the gas. “You won’t be safe in a job.”

She sighed again. I could sense her interest slipping away. “I don't think like you, RK,” she said calmly. “We've to adjust to the world, instead of scurrying around scared. If there are bad men, there are tough women too. Tactfully- and with a little insight- anyone and any situation can be handled.”

My heart sank. The discussion wasn’t going as I’d planned. Before I could think of something else, she picked up her satchel and opened the door to get off. I had hardly noticed that we’d reached her training institute. I didn’t want her to leave yet and fought down my impulse to hold back her hand.

“I’d rather suggest you use your time to get your father’s shabby car repaired,” she said, glancing outside to catch sight of any of her course mates. “You seem to have a lot of time. Every joint in this rickety thing creaks. Goodbye.”

“Don’t call the car shabby,” I snapped irately, holding her hand at last, unwilling to let her go without listening to what I had to say. “At least my father has one. Your father doesn’t even own a car. Have you looked at him ride that noisy scooter of his? He can’t even balance himself properly. The scooter is a menace to everyone in our society.”

She fell back on her seat as I pulled in and smiled tolerantly as I went on ranting.

“It won’t be long before our neighbors start objecting. That lousy machine creates so much noise pollution that a nightclub is quieter in comparison. Every time he kicks the starter, it seems the scooter would fall apart.”

Her smile widened at my description and we both shared a laugh. I suspected her laugh was somewhat forced, but these moments were the happiest in my life. At least she had not objected to my pulling her back in.

“RK, you should know where to stop- or jokes become a drag. Your sense of humor could be better- especially after delaying me for my lecture,” was all she quipped finally, but refused to consider my renewed proposal for marriage or say ‘yes’. “Shall I go now? I’m already late.”

“Answer my question and you can go. What’s wrong if I want to marry a pretty girl?” I demanded.

“Nothing wrong, Romeo. But- have you thought about the other side- that the pretty girl might want a handsome man too?”

“Am I not handsome?” I asked with a sense of affront.

She gave me a once over and snorted. “You may fool my kid sister, but not me.”

“I’m handsome,” I insisted. “PS told me so.”

“Either he was a gay or he made an error in judgment.”

I fumed, glancing at myself in the car’s overhead rear view mirror. “What do you mean by ‘error in judgment’?”

“I’m not referring to looks, RK. Don’t get me wrong,” she said in a sincere tone, keeping a straight face. “But Rags is any day prettier than me. She’s also more interested in fine arts and philosophy. Your interests would match hers. Perhaps you should try proposing to her. You might need to wait though. She’s still not in high school.”

“Look, I’m not applying for a job. It’s a question of my marriage- and yours. Furthermore, Ragini’s your kid sister- more than half a dozen years my junior,” I pointed out. “She’s hardly my size.” I shook my head. “Love doesn't happen by your calculations, by studying a checklist- that we're compatible in our interests for fine arts, music and philosophy, so let's marry. No, dear. It’s a matter of the heart. I love you and want to marry you. That’s it. Period.”

But my protest fell on deaf ears. “I just dropped you a hint,” she said coolly. “I suspect Rags is interested in you too and she’s prettier than me any day. Might not be a bad idea actually. Just think about it when you’re alone. Now I’ve simply got to go.”

It wasn’t clear if the smile curving her lips was in jest or she was serious. She glanced at my watch and shrieked.

“My first lecture has already started!” She made another attempt to get out of the car, but I held her back tightly and took a deep breath. “Let me go, RK,” she protested. “Leave my hand, it hurts.”

“Not till I say my peace. Forget the lecture, it’s already started.”

“I’ll never come with you again,” she said annoyed. “This is supposed to be a crash course and each lecture is expensive. Besides that, I’ve got my final year exams to prepare for too. I don’t have the time for romance.” She turned to me grimly. “Anyway, spill what you have to say and let me go.”

I didn’t want a crowd to collect and spank me for trying to abduct a pretty girl, and released her hand. She looked away but didn’t leave the car. I cleared my throat, miserably aware I had to floor her with my next words somehow. It might be my last chance.

“Shalini, I don’t know if Ragini is prettier or not- but I love you, and honestly, don't care if you're not pretty.”

“Hey, wait a minute,” she turned around in her seat to object. “When did I say I’m not pretty?”

“You just said so.”

“I only said my sister’s prettier.”

“I thought-”

“Oh, shut up, you’re hopeless.”

“Of course, you’re pretty too,” I said immediately, trying to repair the damage. What had I done? I realized I had aggravated her resistance towards me and felt sheepish, and to make up added clumsily, “Otherwise, why’d I chase you?”

“I said shut up and go to hell.” She got off the car and banged the door shut before I could make further amends.

I rested my hands on the steering wheel and put down my head to weep. It was dark outside and darker inside my mind. The darkness outside had neon lights and dazzling billboards for company, but the despair within me had no source of solace. She had already missed a part of her first lecture. Why couldn’t she have forgone the rest and stayed back to understand my feelings? I sobbed uncontrollably and after a while got up as a passerby touched my shoulder. I looked up desolately. It was Shalini!

“Don’t cry,” she said softly. “I’ve been watching you for a while and couldn’t enter the class- but can’t hang around long either. Be a man. Try to be strong.”

“But-”

She shook her head. “Don’t say the same things again. Be professional.”

I felt piqued. “Who told you to stay back and console me?” I said in an irritated tone. “Go to your lecture. How does it matter if I cry or feel sad?”

“It matters, RK,” she said with a slight tremor in her tone. “I can’t bear to see you cry.”

I looked up hopefully. But the tremor soon vanished from her voice. Had I imagined it?

“Don’t cry for me,” she said firmly. “Why are you so attached? It’ll only hurt you. Put marriage out of your mind and try to get your life back on track.” She glanced over her shoulder at the entrance to her training class. “Bye for now, RK, I’ve really got to go or I’ll miss the second tutorial too.”

I’d literally adopted the renounced order of life in a place of pilgrimage after she first rejected my proposal the first time. For a brief span of time I’d been quite serious about spirituality. But after a while, I assumed God must be sufficiently impressed by my sincerity and would be eager to reciprocate. He’d feel compelled to oblige by uniting me with her.

So today I had renewed my proposal a second time, but immediately she had spurned my offer again. I was getting used to the heartbreak by now. A steely determination had started taking shape in my mind by now. I’d persevere till the end, till she said yes. There was nothing else in my life other than succeeding in love. That was the only way to get my life back on track. Through all the haze and storm, and deluge of tears and heartbreaks, I could see only one goal left in my life. Her! I was determined to get there.

I suppose it’s sometimes difficult to read a career conscious woman’s mind. Deep within, I still held hopes that she felt something for me, but the statistics seemed overwhelmingly against me so far.

It wasn’t long before Shalini passed her MBA selection exam successfully and disappeared for two years to Bangalore to complete her MBA at a prestigious KIM. Bangalore was like another planet, quite far from Delhi- separated by a distance of over 1500 miles. By train the journey from Delhi took close to two nights while it was almost three hours by air.

I returned to my spiritual haven in the nearby city of pilgrimage that I’d been frequenting. My renunciation was obviously incomplete. Over the next year I tried to time my visits home with her vacations but missed her twice. So I expressed a desire at home to travel to Bangalore for sightseeing. My father had been observing my meandering ways for a while, without voicing his concerns. But now he spoke up, sounding firm.

“Enough of chasing girls and spirituality,” he said ominously. Coming from him, I took it seriously. “The two don’t go well together. You’re obviously confused.”

I pursed my lips, thinking how I could explain to him that I wasn’t confused. I was madly in love. Love was such a wonderful, once in a lifetime, experience. How could one disown the feeling and walk away from it?

“I think it’s time your started working, Rajat,” he went on. “It’d help organize your life better. You’ve already wasted about two years since graduation.”

When I didn’t respond, he took it upon himself to apply to a few job vacancies on my behalf. He patiently tolerated my utter lack of seriousness about material life and went about fixing the damage as best as he could.

I waited with bated breath the day Shalini arrived from Bangalore after completing her MBA. Everyone else my age was already working but I kept waiting for her. A lot of water had flown down the Ganges River while I chased her unsuccessfully. During this time she’d not only completed her MBA from a prestigious institute, but also landed a fabulous job in Delhi.

On my part, I’d attended an interview for a government job last year to which my father had applied on my behalf. He’d all along been employed in government service himself and felt it safer to have his unpredictable, unstable son similarly employed, in the government sector. In those days joining government service was considered respectable and the jobs carried superannuation benefit too, which was later stopped for new joiners around the middle of the decade.

“If you complete a certain number of years in your job, you’d be eligible for a pension,” he explained.

I knew what was on his mind. He wasn’t sure how long his unstable son could carry on in a job before deciding to chuck it all of a sudden. So he was eager to see me in a job that carried security and post retirement benefits.

“But they don’t pay well,” I objected meekly.

“It’s better than getting nothing,” he replied pointedly. In a more encouraging tone he explained, “Government jobs may not be as bad as you think. Initially the salary seems low, but I’ve interacted with a lot of IAS officers- you know, the administrative services officers- in my jobs, and seen them prosper to the extent of buying two or three houses, sometimes more, besides owning good, new cars eventually. I don’t know how they manage it, but Rajat, if you can honestly make that kind of money in a government job then why not go for one with an open mind? Such a job should be your first priority, since these jobs also carry job security and a pension at the end.”

“But I never competed for IAS entrance exams. The job which you applied on my behalf is an ordinary government job, not IAS.”

“It’s not ordinary- it’s in the scientific cadre. You’d become a technocrat over time as you scale the heights of your profession.”

“Only to report to a dumb, arrogant administrator at the top who doesn’t understand science or technology, but makes the rules of the game all the same?”

“I wasn’t trying to compare technocrats with administrators when I referred to making good money in government jobs,” he clarified. “I’m aware there are always some unscrupulous people who make money, no matter where they work.”

“Now I’m confused.”

“Let me explain. Not everybody is unscrupulous or corrupt. Your salaries increase with seniority. By growing, if you get an opportunity to make that kind of honest money- with which to buy two or three houses and a few new cars- you shouldn’t overlook such opportunities. Some people also go on foreign assignments that catapult one’s savings further.”

I nodded, though still unclear of his rationale. He was a simple man who’d only seen others grow and make money to buy more houses than one, and imagined everyone else’s source of money to be as honest as his own. In his simple way, he wished similar success for his favorite son. I didn’t mind his advice despite my objections. It was enough to know that at heart he was honest and meant well.

“Have faith in your abilities,” he said in the end, unable to rationalize further. I didn’t persist in ripping apart his beliefs either. “Your interview took place for a good role in a progressive organization. If you get the job, it’ll be good for your career. Otherwise, after over two years of sitting idle at home, it might be difficult to land a respectable job.”

He had made a valid point this time. But my interview had taken place nearly a year ago, and I never heard back from the government organization after that. I’d mostly forgotten about it, aware that I had not fared too well at the interview. There had been nearly twenty interviewers on the panel and I had felt literally gang raped by the crowd. Even my ragging at college as a freshman had been milder in comparison.

Somehow I’d managed to live through the ordeal. After what I went through, I thought they owed me at least a rejection slip out of courtesy, but I got none. It was any day easier to break a wall with one’s head than expect courteous behavior from some employers in this country if they rejected you. Father applied to some other jobs too, but no one else called me for interview.

It didn’t matter. The good part was that Shalini was back in Delhi. She remained friendly with me and even agreed to accompany me to eating joints on some evenings or Sundays, though she never broached the topic of marriage from her side. When I raised it, she smiled disdainfully.

“You don’t give up, do you?”

“What’s wrong with marrying me?” I challenged.

“You don’t even earn, RK,” was all she commented finally. “What can I say? I do feel bad, but sometimes feel you’re emotionally unstable.”

That wasn’t a good assessment for a girl to have of her beau. She’d soon give up on me as hopeless if she thought that way. My days passed by in misery. After hearing her comment about my joblessness, I felt desperate to apply to a job that paid well. The IT industry seemed alluring in that sense, but I had a degree in aeronautical engineering, with no experience in software or IT. Did one’s major matter? My first job through our college’s campus recruitment had been in marketing, not in aeronautics, though I chucked that job away. It would have been lucrative, I thought ruefully. Would they rehire me if I went back? It seemed unlikely.

Somehow I’d botched up my career prospects royally and it didn’t look like I’d ever earn big in this life, while she was all set to roll in money, armed with an MBA degree from a premier management institute reputed the world over. She’d soon mingle in her own circle of similarly employed people, earning equally fabulously, and forget me completely. I had to fix the situation urgently and discussed with father about undergoing a couple of software trainings, something the market termed as certificate courses.

“Are those courses any good?” he asked doubtfully.

I had no idea. The newspapers were full of advertisements about certificate courses in software programming and networking tools, promising placements to all course participants in software companies. I needed the money and the self respect it would bring. I could always think about the appropriateness of the job later, as long as it was an honest means of earning a livelihood. Shalini’s comment about my joblessness weighed heavily on my mind. It was important to please her first. That was the top priority of the moment. Maybe she was just waiting for me to land a job before saying yes to my marriage proposal? I couldn’t wait to reach the milestone.

“We like to think of the placements promised by such courses as high paying jobs in big branded companies,” father said.

I nodded eagerly. It seemed he was finally catching on and ready to look at prospects my way.

“But for all you know, they might well be insignificant jobs at unknown workplaces,” he pointed out dryly, crashing my hopes. “How can you be sure of the value of such courses?”

I frankly had no idea and looked at him hopefully.

“Anyway,” he relented finally, since his son’s future at stake. “You’ve wasted almost three years since graduation. Let’s see if such a course works out for you. Go ahead and enroll in one. I’ll pay the fees.”

The institute I joined taught the C programming language to start with. The course instructor was faintly surprised to find an MSIT graduate, jobless for 3 years, seeking a paltry certificate course to bail himself out. I didn’t care what he thought as long as he delivered value and I got a job to please my Shalini. The course promised a brief training in the C++ programming language later along with a primer on networking fundamentals as well, but I never made it that far.

Well before we even started on the more advanced concepts of the C programming language, the government agency that had interviewed me over a year ago, responded. A thick letter arrived by courier one afternoon, within a month of my joining the computer programming course.

“They certainly send rejection letters in style,” I remarked disdainfully, noting the sender’s address as I grappled with the thick stapler pins to open the envelope.

Surprise! It was not a rejection slip, but my appointment letter! I’d given up the interview as a failure and my prospective employer as inefficient and discourteous, who didn’t bother to keep candidates posted on the developments after subjecting them to horrendous interviews that smacked of gang rape. But somehow, magically enough, they’d woken up to their folly and remembered me! After over a year of wait, they had sent my appointment letter! It meant I had not performed that badly at the interview.

“These organizations take us for granted,” I said to mother. “After a year they assume I’m still waiting for their offer. A year is a long time. As if anyone would remain unemployed for so long.”

“Aren’t you?” she pointed out archly. “You don’t have a job yet.”

“But I’m doing a very good programming course,” I defended lamely. “I can any day earn higher than the salary they’ve offered.”

“Don’t boast till you have something to show. Now, will you please call up your father and inform him about the offer?” she snorted, cutting short my daydreams. “At least he’d feel relieved and happy.”

He was. In fact, he was so delighted that he took a break from office that afternoon and rushed home to congratulate me. I wasn’t sure it was anything worth celebrating. The salary was paltry and my posting would be at Bangalore, which was so far from Delhi where my Shalini had recently returned to work.

I didn’t wish to leave Delhi at this juncture, so soon after her return. I had just started taking her out to eating joints on money borrowed from my parents and needed a little more time to warm her up to the idea of matrimony with me. I was certain she’d agree to my proposal this time.

She too had treated me to dinner on a couple of occasions, so it wasn’t one-sided any longer. I felt we were just beginning to cozy up to each other and needed to spend more time together. The irony was that my posting would be in Bangalore, a place she’d just vacated. Couldn’t we ever be near each other for long? I felt frustrated at my selection in the government job, though it was reputed to be one of the few productive government agencies across the country engaged in imaging and research, with over five thousand employees spread across three or four locations in the country.

My selectors were villains and spoilsports, I thought fuming. We had lengthy discussions at home why I shouldn’t go to Bangalore versus why I should go and join immediately. I wasn’t able to put up a sound defense and lost the case. Left with little choice, I packed my bags reluctantly. The sad part was that Shalini was traveling at that time and father felt I shouldn’t risk postponing my joining date at my new job, lest they move on to the next candidate in queue and drop me. I was unlikely to get another good job in this life if I didn’t take up this one on time.

So I reached Bangalore to join my first job. I couldn’t meet Shalini before leaving, though I managed to convey my departure schedule to her over phone. She didn’t sound in any way concerned or perturbed about my going away. I tried to reason with myself that she cared about me but was too busy to show it. Had she not had a soft corner for me, why would she have accompanied me occasionally to the eating joints after her office hours wehen she was in town?

I felt pretty homesick at Bangalore chiefly on account of missing her. This was my first job after a long barren patch of time and I was supposed to feel enthusiastic, but I hardly felt the part. Morosely, I took up a small room at a lodge near the railway station. During my first week at the workplace, I learned the secret behind my selection and the reason for the delay in sending me the offer. It seemed there had been some kind of hiring freeze due to which they were unable to make the offer earlier. There was another secret and this second one left me feeling proud.

The head of the interview panel, Ananthkrishnan, had favored me strongly owing to my MSIT credentials. He’d forcefully spoken in favor of recruiting me despite my joblessness of close to three years. He wanted to give a bright fresher a chance and several panel members had supported him. Since the position I was interviewed for fell in his department, as the head of the interview panel he overruled the few who objected, and hired me, albeit in a lower role, in a post unrecognized in any government gazette due to my inexperience, with the provision that I’d be promoted within a year to a post listed in a gazette, as per the organization’s processes- if I performed well. My subsequent promotions would come at four years or more, as per the existing government norms at that time.

It was the beginning of some heady years of job life for me. A degree from MSIT was the passport to success in this country. It seemed everyone wanted an MSITian on their rolls those days. An education at MSIT was still a struggle for the majority. Only a brainy few managed to qualify for it and I was one of those. The world recognized it and wanted to reward me.

Our professors had pampered us with this mindset while we were in college. At that time I had felt they were exaggerating pompously. Like scratching each others back to feel mutually good. However, I was wrong. Apparently, they had spoken with sound reason. The world seemed to lap up MSITians.

My office room, where I’d been provided a desk to sit, was located a little away from the common computer terminal room where I spent most of my time. My boss was a person named Indra Dwapayanan. He was a friendly guy willing to sit by my side patiently as I programmed at the computer terminal in FORTRAN, a language I picked up on the job.

The computer course I’d joined in Delhi did not teach FORTRAN, so I’d joined my first job as a literal novice in computer programming, since the programming language used by most scientists in this defence organization was exclusively FORTRAN.

In my first week at the office my boss took me to pay a courtesy visit to the head of the department, Ananthkrishnan, who had headed the interview panel that selected me. The guy looked gentle and kind, but I later learned I’d hardly ever interact with him for my day-to-day activities.

CHAPTER FIVE

What I initially took as Dwapayanan’s helpful patience to sit by my side for hours as I hammered the computer keys, turned out to be an irritant gradually. The guy was simply keeping an eye on me to make sure I didn’t shirk work. He might as well have perched on my shoulder to see what I was up to. Didn’t the guy have any other work?

“Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it,” one of the developers sharing my office room said. His name was Shenoy, a year my senior. There were two others in the room besides him. In this way, four of us shared a dingy office room, without air conditioning. I was the junior most among them. We all reported to the same boss.

Dwapayanan was lavish in his praise as he found me exceeding his expectations within no time. In the initial days he usually set me targets to complete in two or three days, but I always managed to deliver my work well before that.

“Take it easy, RK,” Shenoy cautioned one day. “This is the time you and your boss are getting to know each other. Each is testing the other’s boundaries. The more eagerness you display in delivering large workloads in a short period of time, the more he’ll saddle you with extra work. This is the time to set expectations. Show him a lower limit than you’re capable of, or you’ll have a tough time ahead.”

“What do you mean?”

“Start setting his expectations,” he explained, adding in clearer terms, “For example, if you can complete a task in two days, do it in four instead.”

“How can I knowingly mislead him? That would be cheating.”

Shenoy laughed and glanced at the others in the room. “How do you know who’s cheating whom?” he smiled. “I hope you learn before it’s too late- before he starts saddling you with everything that others leave behind. Presently, he’s cheating you by extracting more work than you get paid for. Do you think public sector or government jobs remunerate employees sufficiently? We’re the ones always cheated. So if you slow down, you wouldn’t be cheating anyone. You'd still justify the salary packet they pay you.”

His words did seem to make sense. I’ve always been amazed and impressed by the strong rationales accompanying the actions of both the wrongdoers as well as the righteous people. Each held their ground to justify actions, whether right or wrong.

“In return they’d still give you promotions after four years like the rest of us,” Shenoy continued, mistaking my silence for acquiescence. “On the other hand, if you work extra hard, you’d get no additional incentives or perks for your extra labor. You’d only be blamed for delays and be singled out for failures, besides spoiling your own work-life balance.”

“Shenoy is right, RK,” another occupant in the room, Natarajan, chipped in. “This is not the private sector. Here over zealousness and sincerity are the recipes for self destruction. Nothing is gained in this industry by proving you’re bright and intelligent. People don’t appreciate. They either exploit you or feel jealous and try to run you down. Either ways you lose. Why should you work extra, for no added incentive? You might as well give that time to your family and personal pursuits.”

This was an aspect of working life new to me. Mislead your boss otherwise he’d exploit you. It summarily implied that both sides needed to be cheats to an extent. The smarter of them would win. Was it an office or a den of cardsharps?

I shifted to a small rented house closer to the office soon after, during the second week of my stay in Bangalore. The landlord took me to a house agent’s office where I had to give my photograph and sign a form. On asking about the form, I was told it was a police verification form meant for tenants.

“Do I have to go to the police station?” I asked timidly. Somehow, I was wary of any dealings with the police in a new city. I’d heard many disparaging things about them, their arrogance, how they harassed people, extracted bribes and misbehaved in general. They were a menace to the very people they were duty-bound to protect and help.

“Not at all,” the house agent said with a gracious smile. “I’ll take care of everything, don’t worry.” He tossed an imaginary coin in the air. “We all know how most transactions in this country’s public offices are greased. You’ve nothing to worry about. Just sign the form where I tell you and I’ll take care of the rest.”

There seemed little choice. I’d heard of bribery before but had led a protected life at home so far. This was my first direct experience with these things firsthand. The maxim that stated that the payer of bribe was guiltier than the taker was wrong. If you didn't pay, the taker harassed you relentlessly on the strength of his official position, tormented you without qualms, caused you to miss critical milestones... till you found yourself so utterly helpless, and thoroughly fed up- that you complied.

One day Dwapayanan took me to the headquarters of our organization, which was located at the other end of town. He booked an official cab for the trip. It felt wonderful to watch the city of Bangalore during daytime from the interior of the car.

Of late I’d started feeling bored in office anyway. It was monotonous to spend the entire day in an air conditioned room in front of a computer terminal, day in and day out, or take breaks in between in a dingy, non air conditioned room that passed for my shared office space.

The office cab parked beneath the portico of the building at our destination and we disembarked. As we left the car and walked into the headquarter building, Dwapayanan winked indicating the cab.

“Do you know the qualification of the cab driver who drove us here?”

“What is it?”

“He’s an M.A.,” he replied as if sharing a top secret. “Holding a master’s degree.”

“Then he’s quite well qualified for a driver by our country’s standards,” I said with genuine admiration.

“Isn’t he? Imagine, an educated postgraduate drove us here. Despite his academic qualification he’s just managed a driver’s job,” he said with relish. “We live in a poor country, RK. These are the signs. At least, he earns something. There are others who aren’t as fortunate. Outside the polish of a few neighborhoods in a handful of big cities, there’s rot everywhere else. People struggle for even a meager livelihood.”

“It’s sad,” I replied ruefully. “Seeing others of their age prospering, buying gadgets, cars and houses, these people must harbor similar aspirations to do the same.”

“But they’d never earn that kind of money.”

“I once read in a scripture that any government which doesn’t control poverty digs its own grave eventually.”

“Why?”

“Poverty and hunger create unrest and instability in the population, which is dangerous for any society,” I replied, adding on a more patriotic note, “Our government should take steps to reduce the frustration of such people. They’re in majority. If the majority is pleased, they’d anyway vote back the same government to power every time, without requiring coalition compromises.”

He squeaked at my comment in his characteristic style when he wished to laugh at something he disapproved.

“Anyway, we were discussing something else,” he said, resuming from where he’d left off. “One needs to only speak nicely to the poor to keep them placated. Qualified drivers like these want to vent their frustrations with life to someone, that’s all. Just lend them a sympathetic ear.”

“That’s important to do as a fellow human being anyway,” I agreed.

“But give them just that much- your ear- nothing more,” he cautioned in a clever tone. “It’s enough to make them happy, to win them to your side. It’s an effective way to manage their frustration. After that, if you want to make a personal trip in the office cab on a holiday, they'd be only too happy to oblige, with none the wiser.” He smiled craftily.

I felt somewhat taken aback by his shallowness. He seemed like quite a senior officer but people’s miseries apparently meant nothing to him. He preferred to exploit their weaknesses for his own benefit, for something as petty as hitching free rides in official cars at the government’s expense.

I felt somewhat disappointed. A man’s educational degrees showed his academic prowess and qualifications, but his speech and dealings demonstrated his culture. Life for many like my boss- whether in government service or in the private sector or even politics- gradually became a journey of grab, grab and grab, and ignore, hurt and race hard- often beyond the limits of law. The usual mentality I encountered in society was that this is just the one life you knew, so misuse your position and accumulate in cash or kind while you had a chance, by hook or crook, and enjoy life to the hilt at all cost.

We soon reached the secretary’s room. The nameplate on the room’s door read Margabandhu. He was a powerful man, who was supposed to call the shots in policy making for our imaging agency. Dwapayanan introduced me to him with eloquent references to my intelligence, abilities and excellent quality of work, topping it with the fact that I was an MSITian. Margabandhu’s PA who’d stepped into the room for some work nodded in appreciation too. Everyone in the room looked impressed and I felt flattered to be the center of attraction. Emboldened by the flowery introduction, I asked Margabandhu if he had any plans to open offices in the north of the country where I belonged.

“In the north?” he asked.

He flashed an eerie smile at Dwapayanan. Instinctively I knew I’d asked the wrong question. He didn’t complete his response and instead called for coffee. I was gradually learning how popular coffee was in the south, just as tea was commonplace in the north.

As we all sipped coffee, my boss Dwapayanan obsequiously handed him a file containing documents and reports of his team and went over the itinerary of talks Margabandhu had planned over the next few weeks with his political bosses to justify defense spend on image research and exploration.

In that context, Margabandhu told my boss, without as much as glancing my way, “I’d strike out the cities in the northern part from my itinerary if I could. Who wants to travel up north to speak- but all the idiots who matter, sit up north. That’s the problem. One feels helpless sometimes.”

Dwapayanan laughed with a servile inflection and waited for him to continue.

“If I could, I’d wipe out a few places from the country’s map,” he added in a nasty tone, without looking at me.

I was shocked as he went on to name a few such places. Indirectly he answered my query about his plans to open new offices for the agency up north. Dwapayanan laughed in mirth again.

Later, on our way back to the office, Dwapayanan said cautiously, “Don't mind what he said, RK- he wasn’t serious about wiping out any place off the map. It was just his sense of humor. Otherwise, he’s quite patriotic, and believes in working for the betterment of all states in the country. He was simply joking.”

“Thanks for telling me that- otherwise I might have misunderstood,” I replied. “Anyway, nothing gets wiped out simply because of a maniac’s wishes.”

“RK, you shouldn’t talk like that about him! He’s the senior most bureaucrat in our organization, not a maniac.”

“I was only joking,” I said innocently. “Just like he was joking about wiping out places from the map.”

“Forget it.”

“That might be difficult,” I drawled, looking at him. “What if I was born in one of the places he named?”

“Were you born there?”

“Does it matter? Since senior people like you and he laughed at his joke, it must be alright, irrespective of where I was born- though I need some more time to appreciate how it was a joke, and from which angle.”

My boss remained silent. He evidently didn’t relish my effort to sound witty.

Our next few outings from office consisted of visiting his guide in the Institute of Science where he was pursuing his PhD.

“I’ll recommend you for a PhD the moment you’re a year old in our organization,” he said encouragingly as we entered his PhD guide’s department. “It would help you get further promotions smoothly.”

“My father says higher qualifications are usually good career building tools,” I responded in a positive tone.

“He’s right. I’d encourage you to start growing your network in the organization with my help. It’s important for career growth. Use me as much as you can- I won't mind.” As we neared the professor’s room, he added, “It’s important to know these college professors well. They occupy important positions in the panel of interviewers in some government departmental promotion committee, called DPC. Next year when I send you for your first DPC, I'll try to ensure that my guide, professor Ananthpurusham is on the panel.” He gave a lopsided smile. “Familiarity and relationships matter more than merit sometimes. Never think of it as lobbying as some people mistakenly say.”

By now I’d grown wary of what he said and didn’t take his carrot of doing my PhD too seriously. I’d noticed he had a way of making promises to achieve his own ends, and then breaking those promises without pangs or remorse once his objectives were achieved. The gift of gab enabled him to explain away everything glibly to his advantage and wiggle out of tight situations if any arose as an aftermath of his hasty utterances or questionable decisions.

Professor Ananthpurusham welcomed us into his spacious office cordially. As usual Dwapayanan introduced me with the choicest of praises. The professor gazed at me appreciatively and nodded. I felt like a big man again, though wary of the adulation by now. But the professor didn’t cut me down to size for being a northerner, as Margabandhu had done.

“I’ve suggested Rajat- or RK, as he prefers to be called- to get familiar with the level of research in the institute,” my boss suggested, looking for his buy in. “What do you think, sir?”

“I think it’s a good idea,” Dr. Ananthpurusham replied in a calm, mature voice, glancing at me from behind gold rimmed spectacles.

“He can come here sometimes and meet with the other research fellows,” my boss ventured casually.

The professor nodded.

After that they went into a discussion on my boss’s PhD thesis. I was left to stare out of the massive windows in the huge room and twiddle my thumbs. At one end of the professor’s room, a narrow passage led to an adjoining room where a couple of research students sat in front of huge monitors, busy typing, pausing once in a while to regard what they had typed, or stooped to refer some sheets lying on the table, before returning to typing intently again. Everything about the place looked big and overwhelming. And peaceful. I liked the place instinctively as it reminded me in some ways of my alma mater, MSIT Kanpur.

I thought about the carrot my boss had dangled, though somewhat warily. Getting a PhD to my credit sounded attractive if he had really meant it. Overall, office life wasn’t turning out too bad in this place. From a comfort perspective too, office wasn’t bad. Unlike home, the office always had an uninterrupted power supply to run the fans and air conditioners. At home- whether in Bangalore or at my father's house in Delhi- one ended up facing several hours of power outages daily. Miseries and miseries galore, at a physical level as well as mental. There was no charm in life for the common man in this country. Birth here seemed a kind of punishment for misdeeds committed in one’s past lives.

At my small rented accommodation in Bangalore I had so far not been able to afford a power backup solution in the form of an inverter or generator to run the ceiling fan and light of my solitary room during power outages. They called these regular outages load shedding. I called them loot shedding.

After more than fifty years of any country’s independence from foreign rule, if the rulers couldn’t provide uninterrupted electricity, clean water and security to its citizens, they had no moral right to rule.

Shortly after, Dwapayanan walked over to me and tapped me on the shoulder, breaking my reverie. “Let’s go.” His discussion with his guide was over.

Over the next few months, he initiated me into a few research topics at the institute under his professor’s guidance, who in turn pushed me beneath one of his research associates.

Overall, I found it hard to find fault with Dwapayanan. Notwithstanding his idiosyncrasies, he was actually helping my career. If things went well- which I was sure would- then next year he’d recommend me for PhD! I had never before been interested in higher studies, but higher qualifications seemed to beckon me. In retrospect, a PhD didn’t look like such a bad idea after all.

At graduation I had never tried securing a scholarship for MS or PhD to the US like many others in my batch, but here I seemed headed for a PhD anyway. Doing it in India seemed much more honorable, and dignified. My father would be definitely happy. Maybe, Shalini would be impressed too when I told her that I’d eventually transform into Dr. Rajat Kumar. Or would Dr. RK sound better? I mulled over the new name, but decided I’d continue to be RK for my friends, and perhaps Dr. Kumar for the rest of the world.

I felt like a big man already and enthusiastically started accompanying my boss during his sojourns to the research institute. The office had sponsored my boss for a PhD, so the trips from our office to the institute in official cabs had his boss’s sanction. I was keen to showcase my research abilities and intelligence and aggressively started solving the problems that came my way at the institute.

“Maybe, he can carry on with some of the work at our office,” my boss suggested at a later date, during one of his meetings with his guide, Ananthpurusham. “That way he can attend to both his office work as well as this.”

Thus it was agreed that I should spend more time at our office. As a result my outings from office would decline, which was a dampener. To pep up my enthusiasm, I was promoted to a gazetted post at the end of my first year in the job, as per the existing processes.

Our trips to the institute gradually reduced in frequency over time but I kept working diligently on the research topics my boss assigned. I soon turned into his blue-eyed boy and was given full access to the computer in his room.

In those days, in the 90’s, most employees who engaged in software development work in government organizations- barring very senior officials- did not have personal desktops or laptops. They worked on one of the many terminals arranged in long rows inside massive computer rooms, called terminal rooms, which were chilled like refrigerators. But I was especially favored by him to use the desktop kept in his room, much to the envy of some of my peers!

A lot thus happened in my first year at the office in terms of achievements, besides getting promoted, though the promotion brought a negligible hike in salary. I was restless to brag about my exploits to Shalini and wanted to go home on a vacation. She’d referred to my joblessness the last time I proposed. I was working in a job now, and also attracting generous appreciation from my boss.

Everything was going favorably. I now shared my simple father’s dreams more tangibly, of making it big in a government job someday, buy several houses and new cars, like some of the administrative services folks he’d mentioned, and wondered when the day would come. Perhaps it was indeed possible, though the salary levels seemed too low and the raises paltry, even at promotion. My next promotion would happen only four years later, as per government norms. Maybe, I’d get a better raise then.

Anyway, this was the right time to meet Shalini and renew our wedding dialogue. When I asked for a break to visit home, Dwapayanan readily approved my leaves. I couldn’t have asked for a better boss. Overall, my career seemed headed in the right direction.

Within a few days I found myself on a train to Delhi, daydreaming about the days ahead with Shalini. The click of metal snapped me out of my reverie in the crowded non-AC compartment. Flies buzzed around in the smelly confines near the urinal where my berth was located. Foul smell permeated the air. I ignored the inconvenience and fished out my ticket to offer for inspection to the ticket inspector. He ticked a row in his register, after matching my name and the ticket’s PNR number in his records and clicked his punching machine at the passenger sitting next to me.

“Is the training running on time?” I asked politely.

The inspector didn't as much as glance at me or bother to reply- as if I didn’t exist.

“We’re running two hours behind schedule,” a co-passenger replied helpfully.

I glanced at the inspector for corroboration but he neither confirmed the information as correct nor denied it. His mind was elsewhere. When I’d been smaller and traveled on trains with my family, I’d seen them behave similarly discourteously with my father too.

What they needed was better supervision and monitoring by their bosses. If arrogance or discourtesy was punished, and better behavior rewarded, I saw no reason why these people would continue behaving so boorishly. Since they were not corrected by their bosses in time, they sometimes ended up being spanked by their customers in the public, when the customers’ patience ran thin and snapped. They deserved it!

By now a group of passengers was clamoring for his attention. They had been trailing him for a long time to be allotted berths. The inspector took aside two of them and wrote out a receipt to each after they took the initiative of stuffing a few currency notes into his palm. Upon seeing this, the remaining standing people fished out notes as well, but they were late on the draw. ‘Sorry’ the inspector said and started to move on. He had no more vacant berths in the compartment to distribute, though he seemed to have the will.

“Won’t you collect the change?” I asked one of the two who’d stuffed currency notes into the inspector’s palm.

From where I sat, I could read the receipt in the passenger’s hand. It was for an amount less than what I’d seen him stuff into the inspector’s hand, and didn’t see the inspector return the change.

The man gave me an odd look. The inspector overheard and paused in his stride to give me a cold stare too, as if to say it was none of my business. A few of my co-passengers who overheard me, giggled.

I felt embarrassed and became silent. I’d just seen bribe at work and not been smart enough to recognize it. It seemed all the people in the compartment had been trained by crooked fathers or been born crooks themselves. I felt angry at them. Why did they accept wrongs and open the doors to further harassment? Their acceptance only empowered the wrongdoers further. I could never be shameless like them. Had we all got together on this occasion, had they supported my observation instead of snickering, I was sure the ticket inspector wouldn’t have dared to glare at me for objecting to the bribery or confidently got away with his theft. I kept to myself for the rest of the journey.

At the railway station at Delhi I grabbed an autorikshaw to reach home. Earlier I had mostly traveled by bus in this city, but today felt I needed to impress my neighbors in case someone watching the road especially from Shalini’s balcony saw me arrive[_. _]I might not be in a private sector job, but was nonetheless working in the area of software programming, which was an area much in demand in the market.

They needn't know I’d traveled in a non-AC compartment, but they should see me alight from a three wheeler autorikshaw. It was the sign of being able to pay for life’s comforts, howsoever small- in some ways an indication of growing prosperity. Had I been smarter I might have thought of hiring a taxi at the station to impress her further, but it didn’t occur to me to boast that far.

I reached home with flourish. However, no one saw me alight from the autorikshaw, so it was wasted money. Mother was delighted at my surprise visit. Father was at the office, being on the last leg of his job prior to retirement. My brother, Sujat, was in office too. His wife smiled at me. She was busy with her newborn.

Immediately I set about trying to find my heartthrob’s whereabouts. The year I’d spent away from her in Bangalore seemed like a decade. To my chagrin I learned she was traveling and her mother had no idea when she’d return, unless she was avoiding letting me know. As I sat in their house fidgeting under the stare of the grumpy woman who’d started withdrawing her favors from me, her father entered the house with a flustered look, carrying a packet in one hand.

“What’s the matter, uncle?” I asked, thankful for the distraction.

“Ragini’s very ill,” her mother answered coldly. “Our hands are quite full with her, so you might feel bored if you planned on staying here longer.”

Mr. Nanda shook his head. “No problem, son. You can sit.” He handed the packet in his hand to his wife, and turned to me. “How’s Bangalore?”

“Quite nice, uncle,” I replied courteously and looking around uncomfortably, summoned the courage to repeat my query about his elder daughter that his wife had earlier disposed off casually. “By the way, when’s Shalini back?”

“We’ve no idea, son. Her tours are always like that. Often she herself doesn’t know when she’d return.”

So his wife had not lied. The news was disheartening all the same, to have no inkling of her coordinates. I had so much to discuss with her. How would I spend my vacation without her? In this state of mind, I might as well share her parents’ concern for their younger daughter’s illness.

“What’s the matter with Ragini, uncle?”

“It’s been over four months that she’s running fever- always around 102F. We’ve visited three doctors in three different hospitals and repeated several blood as well as urine tests, besides X-rays as well. But everything’s normal.”

“Was she tested for malaria?”

“Everything, son,” Nanda replied in a forlorn voice. “Malaria, typhoid, everything. I guess we’ve covered most pathology tests.”

“How’s her appetite?”

“Normal. A doctor did suspect some problem with her spleen, but no medication by any doctor has helped so far. The fever has worsened, in fact.”

“Did they conduct an x-ray of her spleen?”

Shalini’s mother marched up. “Why are you asking all this?” she demanded rudely. “Do you think we’d have missed obvious investigations? Do you suppose we were waiting for your arrival to tell us what to do?”

“Hold it, Charu,” her husband said tiredly, and turned back to me. “We’re at our wits end, son. We don’t know where to go next.”

“Where’s she?” I asked.

“In the bedroom,” he replied.

I got up hesitantly. “Can I see her?”

“Sure,” he said. “She’d be only too happy to meet someone from outside the house.”

I fervently hoped I could suggest some homeopathy medicine that would help in her cure. It might move me up several notches in Shalini’s esteem.

Ragini flashed a big smile as I entered her room. “Shell’s traveling,” she said with a mischievous glint in her eyes. She referred to Shalini as ‘Shell’, while Shalini called her ‘Rags’.

“I know,” I replied. “How’re you feeling?”

“I think I’m dying,” she said in a low voice.

Her father’s troubled face creased further at her words.

“Rubbish! Don’t be silly,” I said, trying to sound hearty. “Tell me a few things. Do you have constant fever all the time or does it vary?”

“Mornings I’m mostly normal. The fever starts building towards evening, peaking to 101 or 102F around 8:30 or 9PM, before gradually falling to normal by dawn again.”

My mind was busy trying to match her symptoms with the homeopathic remedies I knew, but I didn’t have everything on my fingertips. I’d have to go home and study some of the medicines in details to match her symptoms with them, before arriving at the appropriate homeopathic remedy for her.

“Uncle, if I bring her some homeopathic medicines, would you let her have them?”

“Do you know a good doctor?” he asked hopefully.

“He’s a doctor himself,” Ragini said with a wan smile, aware of my interest in homeopathy, but her father took it as a playful jest from her side and continued looking at me.

I nodded. “Maybe. Let me see if I can help.”

I returned to their house the next day with a tiny bottle of China 200 pills.

“Give her four or five pills tonight, followed by another dose in the morning. After that wait to see if there’s any decline or change in the pattern of fever over the next couple of days.”

“What’s this medicine for?” her father asked.

“It’s homeopathic medicine and is supposed to treat symptomatically,” I said vaguely before vanishing.

Over the next two days her fever started falling, coming down to normal by the night of the second day. It was exciting to be able to control the course of long drawn illnesses with small, sweetened pills. I was in Delhi for a couple more days after that and her temperature continued to stay normal. Her father was elated and shared his joy with me. Her fever had subsided after over six months of wait and anguish. I was glad too, but felt a little dismayed on another account. There was no news of Shalini’s return yet.

I’d been hopeful of seeing her at close quarters after all this time. Her sister’s illness would have given us an opportunity to draw closer to each other, but her absence hosed my enthusiasm, washing the joy out of my entire vacation. I desperately waited each day with bated breath but she didn’t return while I was there.

Dejected I returned to Bangalore, back to be my boss’s bored, blue-eyed boy. It had been a wasted trip to Delhi, though I hoped Ragini and her father would recount my heroics in curing the younger sibling and Shalini would take note and get in touch with me.

CHAPTER SIX

One day Dwapayanan overheard me humming some tunes I’d composed and promptly showed his appreciation.

“How do you manage it, RK?” he asked with genuine admiration. “Must say you’re a genius. It’s not every man’s cup of tea to compose melodies.”

I felt flattered. It was a good feeling to be praised for my artistic abilities and be treated as a talented musician. At least he didn’t laugh like Shalini’s kid sister. I’d never forgive that girl. As my boss looked on with interest, I explained how composing melodies was a matter of inspiration and intuition. He nodded. Once there was a tune available, the next step, of generating an accompaniment, was made easier with the help of software that took care of the rhythm, tempo and scale of the music. He expressed his curiosity to know more.

“The musical arrangements are in MIDI format which is a compact, efficient way to manipulate the tempo, beat placement and other parameters of the song,” I explained further. “I match the rhythm and beats of the MIDI to my tune. But till one uses virtual studio instruments to play these compact MIDI arrangements, the performance doesn’t sound lifelike. It’s possible to do everything on a computer these days.”

“Sounds great! Where did you learn all this?”

“Mostly by reading books and sometimes by browsing the internet at public cafes,” I replied. “I want to try out some of these software products in more details after I buy my own computer.”

“RK, if you want you can install some of your music software on my desktop computer, I won’t mind,” he said in an encouraging, friendly tone. “You have my permission.”

Delighted, I downloaded a couple of freeware and installed them on his computer. But when I spoke to my father over phone the next time, he asked me to remove them immediately.

“Don’t do anything that can be considered ethically wrong,” he cautioned. “Remember that if you do something wrong in life, even unknowingly, you leave behind a trace of such wrongdoings, which can be misused against you later if you ever fall out of favor with your benefactor.”

I wanted to tell him that Dwapayanan didn’t seem like such a person, who’d penalize me vindictively if our relations ever soured, but checked myself. I’d found him to be a glib person, without conscience at times. Overall he seemed to have a soft corner for me, but those who knew him longer- like Shenoy- always cautioned me to be careful of him.

“Remove traces that point back to you the moment they come to your notice, Rajat,” father continued. “No matter who authorizes you, always use your own judgment whether the action is justified or not, right or wrong. In this case, I think your act of using his official computer for personal music compositions is not justified. How can you use office resources for personal pursuits?”

Perhaps he was right. My sense of right and wrong were not out of the world, but at my age it was easy to be misled by outsiders, otherwise I couldn’t be very wrong in my principles for they were not my original ones. I’d picked them up from father. I’d heard him praised by family folks, neighbors and his office colleagues alike.

Over time I came to realize what a straightforward, honest man he was, and how difficult it was to earn the title of gentleman from one’s peers, seniors and juniors alike. His earnings were made of pure sweat and salt, honest to the core, though meager. He couldn’t grow much career wise, naturally.

“Perhaps I made a mistake, father,” I admitted. “I’ll remove my music software from his PC.”

“Yes, do it early.”

“By the way, when did Shalini return? And how’s her sister?”

“She’s again down with fever. Seems the medicine you gave only worked for a week before the fever returned,” he replied. “They’re all quite worried in their family.”

He didn’t say anything about Shalini, so I wanted to ask again when she had returned from her tour. Since I’d also asked about Ragini in the same breath, he had responded only about the latter’s fever. I agreed that her fever was a genuine concern for her family and made a mental note to look up my homeopathic materia medica again, to find more appropriate remedies related to spleen and fever. There seemed no other visible symptoms. Father returned to the topic of my boss before I could ask about Shalini again.

“Your boss might be friendly, but don’t arm others unnecessarily.”

I went home thoughtfully after our chat, thinking about his advice. I didn’t quite follow his reasoning entirely, but promptly removed my personal software from Dwapayanan’s computer the next day. My boss was fast to notice.

“What happened, RK? Why did you remove them?””

“There’s no point, sir,” I replied casually. “I’m so busy with office work that I get no time to pursue personal interests. So I removed the software I installed.”

“Everything?”

“Everything.”

He didn’t say anything.

“He’s using you,” Shenoy told me later. “Just wait till he starts sharing his PhD thesis with you. You’d understand what I mean.”

Back at home, I consulted my homeopathy books to find remedies for fever with enlarged spleen. After narrowing down several remedies, I picked one as a likely candidate considering the paucity of symptoms. The next time when I called father I’d mention my medical research and ask him to convey the medicine’s name to Ragini’s father. I’d also take the opportunity to ask about Shalini.

It wasn’t long before Dwapayanan threw all caution to the winds and called me to his room to discuss his PhD thesis. The various programs I’d written over the last few months suddenly fell into place. They were all connected to his PhD. He’d simply used me for his personal advancement all the while! Even the work he assigned me in the office turned out to be connected to his PhD program. Though I had suspected it for a while, I had not been sure.

But now I was wild! I hadn’t done my own PhD or tried for a scholarship to the US out of ennui while this guy had the temerity to use me to do his own PhD! I realized why he always sat by my side at the computer terminal to keep an eye on things. That was his way of befriending me besides ensuring I picked up the basics of his PhD soundly before he entrusted me with more complex problems.

At that very moment I decided I’d look for a change of job. Such a boss would only use me for completing his own PhD, dangling promises of recommending me for my PhD the next year to keep me enticed, but would retract his assurances once he saw no further need for me on his PhD.

In the evening I discussed the matter with father. He agreed I should get away from such a boss at the earliest. He naturally advised me to apply to another government job, considering the relatively greater job security in government jobs and the pension benefits involved.

I didn’t ask him about Ragini’s fever or Shalini’s whereabouts lest I sound too obvious about my interest in her- though the state of my heart was no secret at home. I went to another payphone after dinner and dialed Shalini’s residence number from the kiosk. Cellphones were still in their infancy in those days and affordable only by the affluent few- of whom I wasn’t one. For the rest, it was still STD and local phone booths available on roadsides and at marketplaces.

To my dismay, Shalini’s father answered my call. I’d hoped Shalini would be around. She usually took the call when she was home. Had she not returned from her tour yet, or had she returned and gone on another one?

“Uncle, I heard from father that Ragini’s sick again?”

He sighed. “It’s a bad time for us, son. After you left, we consulted another doctor, this time from the PMO. A common friend referred us to him. He advised some rare blood tests usually associated with cancer. When I mentioned about a previous doctor’s doubts about spleen enlargement, he got an MRI done on Ragini.”

“What did the MRI show?”

“The spleen is only marginally enlarged- the PMO doctor doesn’t think it’s responsible for the fever. Seems it’s normal for some people to have a slightly larger spleen. Anyway, Ragini doesn’t complaint of any pain or discomfort in the abdomen.”

That was strange. I’d based my entire research on this slim evidence of spleen enlargement. I quickly ran through the other remedies in my mind that I’d studied but discarded them rapidly. My choice of [_Ferrum Arsenicum _]seemed sound enough. Before I could suggest the remedy to him, the line went dead.

I pursed my lips. Like so many other things, telephony too was hopeless in the country. I redialed his number. Almost instantly there was a click as the receiver lifted at the other end.

“Uncle, can you note down another remedy for Ragini?”

“Hello, Romeo.”

I was taken aback. It was Shalini! So sweet her voice sounded. I was hearing it after an eternity it seemed.

“Shalini?” I almost shouted.

“I heard you’d become a doctor,” was her mirthful rejoinder.

“What’s wrong if your sister recovers,” I retorted.

“I didn’t mean to make fun,” she clarified soberly. “We’re all quite worried. Father said how you tried with China 200 during your last visit.”

“Did Ragini tell everyone that I prescribed the medicines myself instead of consulting a doctor?”

“What’s wrong with that, RK?” she asked. “We both already know of your interest in homeopathy. Now our parents know as well.”

“Well, I’m trying my best.”

“Your medicine did seem to cure her- but only for a brief period. Then the stupid fever came back with the same intensity.”

“How’s she now? Is the pattern of the fever same?”

“Yes, the pattern is same. She’s weak, depressed- and we all believe- well, let me not say anything aloud over phone lest others in the house hear.”

“Are you all worried about cancer? Your father said the PMO doctor advised some tests related to cancer.”

“You got it.”

“Will you let me try another time?” I pressed hopefully. “I’ve been studying her case carefully for a while now. If she’s your sister, she’s my sister too.”

“Alright- but you’re not a doctor, RK. What can you do when top doctors are confused, medical tests are showing up to be normal. Even I suspect...” Her voice broke.

“I don’t know- but I don’t think it’s cancer,” I said, without any solid ground for thinking like that. Maybe I said it to make her feel better. “When we can’t explain a disease, it’s natural to be frightened and think of the worst. In her case, it’s weakening her progressively. She’s been sick for more than four months, I believe.”

“More than six. Anyway, what medicine do you want me to write down?”

“[_Ferrum Arsenicum _]6. Four pills in the morning, four at night. Try it for a week.”

“Thanks, RK,” she said with a sob. “We’ll definitely give it a try.”

My heart melted. She was actually weeping over the phone and sharing her grief with me. She considered me her own!

“Don’t cry, Shalini, otherwise I’ll cry too,” I said, letting my voice crack a bit on purpose, but quickly checked myself from faking it further as I felt cheap.

I wanted to stand there and talk to her all night. However, it wasn’t to be, as the phone booth’s owner knocked on my kiosk’s door before long, pointing to the building queue outside.

“Shalini, I’ll call back later to know about Ragini’s progress,” I promised. “There’s a crowd outside waiting for their turn. Bye for now.”

I felt relieved after talking to her, but also all the more lonely, wishing I was by her side to share her grief and tension in her hour of need. I wanted to apply for my next vacation immediately and rush to Delhi to be by her side.

The next day brought me back to the coldly formal atmosphere in office. I had to get out of this place fast. Father wanted me to apply to another government job. One of the drawbacks in government jobs was that staff applying to other government jobs had to route their application through their current boss as per the existing norms. In other words the boss always got to know of your plans to move out, where you applied and had an opportunity to throw a monkey wrench in your plans if he so wished.

Nonetheless, keeping my father’s advice in mind, I decided to switch to another government job, in an aeronautical agency and applied through my boss. He tried to dissuade me initially, but soon changed his tone and started encouraging me to make the switch instead. I was faintly surprised at the sudden change in his demeanor. Maybe I’d misunderstood the man.

“That aeronautical agency is promising,” he said. “The job would also align better with your bachelor’s qualification.”

Perhaps, the guy wasn’t so bad after all. A few weeks later I was called for interview. Before attending it I brushed up my knowledge on aeronautics. I did surprisingly well at the interview. My present stint at the imaging center had boosted my confidence to a healthy level.

As was usual in government job interviews, the panel of interviewers consisted of fifteen officials from different departments and government agencies. They primarily concentrated on my job responsibilities at the imaging center, but briefly touched upon my aeronautic basics acquired at graduation as well. I had done well to brush up my basics prior to the interview.

By the time we reached the end of my interview, broad smiles were passing around the interview table- a sure sign of my success and selection. I felt encouraged to ask the head of the panel, Thyagarajan, if I could know the result before leaving.

He smiled. “You're young and bright- and did well today. But nothing can be confirmed yet since we’ve to follow standard procedures before announcing the selection results. Things might be faster in the private sector, but don’t expect the same here. There are protocols to be observed and red tape to be loosened- however, let me see if I can help. Would you like to wait in the reception?”

So I waited in the reception for over an hour, but there was no news. When I checked up I was told by his PA to depart since the result couldn’t be shared with candidates so early.

I returned to my office in a hopeful mood. On the way I stopped over at a roadside kiosk to call up Shalini’s house, feeling high.

Her mother answered the phone gruffly. I wondered why she was always abrupt and rude with me. Whatever had happened to her? Earlier she used to behave so nicely with me.

“Hello Aunty, how’s Ragini?”

“The PMO doctor’s medicine has finally started working,” she informed. “Her fever’s peak has dropped to 100F.”

“That’s great news! By the way, where’s Shalini?”

“Where else at this hour, but at the office,” she replied smugly. “Aren’t you working?”

“Why shouldn’t I, Aunty?”

“Well, you seem to have a lot of time to call up our house at odd hours,” she replied discourteously. “I can hear the sound of traffic behind you. Where are you?”

“Oh, I just stepped out of the office to check on Ragini’s health.” Before she could hang up, I added, “I’ll call again tonight.”

I had to talk to Shalini. The good part was that she wasn’t traveling. Her mother had said she was in office. Thoughtfully I made my way back to my own office. Dwapayanan took me to lunch in the cafeteria and asked about the interview.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get selected,” he said in a kind voice. “Who was the head of your interview panel? If you want I can try contacting him to find out the result for you.”

I told him Thyagarajan’s name, but asked him not to call up the guy. I could afford to wait. The good part was that Dwapayanan had reconciled to my decision of leaving my job and there was a friendly atmosphere and bonhomie all around.

Till Shenoy called me aside after lunch.

“Guess what, RK?” he said mysteriously. “Our boss Dwapayanan has done it again. He’s been rather busy of late.”

I looked at him askance as he winked.

“While you were gone to the aeronautical agency, he was busy on the phone,” he informed. “I overheard him talking to someone called Thyagarajan.”

Thyagarajan? The head of my interview panel at the aeronautical agency?

“It was coffee break and most of the staff had gone down to the third floor for coffee,” Shenoy continued. “I noticed Dwapayanan missing and came back wondering if he was looking for me, since I had a deliverable to complete by afternoon.”

I sat back in my chair, waiting for him to go on. But I had a fairly good idea what he wanted to tell.

“What was he talking to Thyagarajan about?” I asked slowly.

“First a small background- Thyagarajan and Dwapayanan both hail from the same village.”

“How do you know?”

“I checked with one of my friends who works in the aeronautical agency,” he replied. “Both Thyagarajan and Dwapayanan belong to the same village and grew up together. In the south, these things matter a lot, you know.”

My heart kept sinking as he went on.

“Dwapayanan first confirmed if Thyagarajan was heading your interview panel. Then he told him you looked bright on the surface and mostly had witty replies too, but shirked your responsibilities when it came to getting the actual job done. And that you squabbled over each of your performance ratings. In short, he said you were a nuisance.”

“How could he say that? It’s a lie!”

“That’s not all. He said that as a result there were often missed schedules, escalations and loss, besides the accompanying embarrassment when he met his senior management.”

“How mean of him.”

“There’s more,” Shenoy said with relish. “He said he regretted the day he had hired you and would be happy if someone else took you off his hands. But he didn’t wish ill for Thyagarajan since their friendship went back a long way and told him to reject you, saying he’d planned something else to take care of you.”

That did it. Was this my reward for working diligently for two years at this place? It meant that when my boss inquired over lunch who’d headed the interview panel at the aeronautical agency, he’d simply been double checking to make sure he didn’t have to speak to anyone else there to reject me. Otherwise, he already knew who headed the panel and had left no stone unturned to sabotage my interview.

Seeing such a display of crab mentality of pulling the other person down, I was fairly confident I’d never prosper in these jobs, and wondered about the people father had mentioned in his jobs, who bought several houses and cars with salaries and perks that lagged the private sector by a vast margin. What was their actual source of income? Whatever it was, I wasn’t equipped to solve the nation’s problems. I had to worry about my own present job and get away from it fast.

I narrated the interview incident to my father that night. He said to be patient and wait for the result. It was possible Shenoy was jealous since I was in the boss’s good books and wanted to throw a wrench into our relationship by spreading false tales. I agreed to wait and watch before jumping to a conclusion.

After hanging up, I called up Shalini’s number. Her father answered the phone.

“How’re you, Rajat?” he said in a pleased tone. “Your medicine seems to be working fine this time, son.”

“I thought it was the PMO doctor’s medicine?”

“Who told you that? How can his medicine work? He never prescribed any. He just asked us to maintain a chart of Ragini’s fever for a month before reviewing the case for further course of action. We started your medicine before that.”

I remembered his wife’s claim to the contrary earlier in the day, but kept quiet, wondering why that woman was so mean towards me. She could have easily acknowledged my contribution instead of lying about someone else’s medicine doing the job. After all, I was helping her daughter, so she should have expressed gratitude.

“What did he wish to observe further for a month, uncle?” I asked. “Wasn’t your observation, all those blood tests, X-rays, MRIs and Ragini’s suffering of over six months, sufficient for him to diagnose the disease and prescribe medicines?”

“You’re absolutely right, Rajat. Sometimes I wonder how these doctors earn their degrees, and from where. Anyway,” he said, brushing aside the topic. “Do you think the fever will subside entirely this time? It’s declining at a slower rate compared to last time.”

“It’s better that way, uncle. Sudden changes are not good. What goes away slowly won’t come back fast either,” I said, trying to sound scientific as if discussing the laws of motion in physics. He didn’t know how to respond to my logic and kept silent. “Don’t worry, Uncle, she should recover this time. Is Shalini around?”

“She’s on tour, son. I’ll tell her you called when she returns.”

“When would she return?” I asked. So, her mother had lied that she was away in office- unless she had meant that her daughter was away in office in another city.

“That’s always difficult to guess. Often she herself doesn’t know.”

I’d already heard that before.

Returning home dejected, I mulled over my situation in the office. Father had said to be patient and wait for my interview’s result. It was indeed possible Shenoy was simply jealous since I was in the boss’s good books. But after a few weeks I got a rejection slip from the aeronautical agency.

Shenoy had been right. I decided at that time I’d never apply to a government job again. Otherwise my unscrupulous boss would always know where I was applying and try sabotaging my endeavor repeatedly. I considered the private sector instead. Maybe it would be better. The good thing about applying to jobs in the private sector was that I no longer needed to route my application through my boss. He’d never know where I applied. And what he didn’t know, he couldn’t sabotage.

So I started applying to jobs in the private sector with gusto. This was the way to beat him at his own game.

CHAPTER SEVEN

I felt bruised with my recent experiences in office, realizing how it felt to be stabbed in the back, when the boss you assumed good and helpful sabotaged your chances behind your back. However, the bad experience snapped me out of my complacency. In the first place I’d never wanted to work in a low salaried job anyway. But my father had insisted that joining a government organization was good for career security so I’d joined and Dwapayanan had succeeded in chaining me to my role by heaping generous praises which I lapped up naively. Since I had no other offers in hand at that time, or any other work experience, the job hadn’t been a bad deal to start my sagging career. But no more.

It was time to part ways. I didn't want to inform father of my intention to apply to jobs in the private sector. I finally decided it wouldn't matter to Shalini whether I remained plain and simple Rajat Kumar or became Dr. Rajat Kumar. If my MSIT qualification had failed to impress her, so would the prefix of a pompous Dr. added to my name after toiling through four to six years of hard academic labor to earn a degree in PhD. By that time there was also the risk of seeing her walk into someone else’s arms, which I simply couldn’t afford. The big question on my mind still remained the same- did she care about me?

Nursing my wounds of an unsuccessful love life, and the agony of being scathed in professional life in my very first job, I started applying to job vacancies in the private sector with mixed thoughts, and eventually landed my next job at an American office in Bangalore, Eleny, which was the offshore unit of a company manufacturing computers and operating system related software tools. With over sixty thousand employees worldwide it was enormous compared to my last organization which had had staff strength of just over five thousand.

The person who interviewed me was my first boss in the private sector, called Ramesh. The interview was interesting and typical of many such interviews taking place in the information technology industry. The first change I noted was there were usually only one or two interviewers at every stage of the interview process in the private IT sector, unlike the gang of nomads milling around in government interview boards.

However, interviews in a growing number of these private IT offices seldom judged a candidate’s competency. Some of these encounters were more of a tussle the interviewer waged with his own self to prove himself more capable than the candidate he was interviewing. Such hiring managers took the liberty to frame questions based on browsing the net or gleaning jargon from overhearing others, but had no way of judging if the candidate’s response was correct. Many such managers happened to be leaders in the industry.

“You graduated quite a few years back,” Ramesh pointed out as my decisive interview began. “Any particular reason why you didn't take up a job immediately after graduation? I notice from your resume you joined your first job only two years back, at the government imaging department- after three years of graduation.”

He had done the arithmetic well. I wanted to congratulate him on his mathematical ability, but focused on the question.

“There were personal reasons,” I replied, trying to calculate his level of curiosity. The question sounded more like an icebreaker. I’d come across similar innocuous queries in a couple of my other interviews too in the private companies so far. “You might have noticed I did get a coveted marketing job at the campus right after graduation. Also, as you rightly said, I’m presently working at a prestigious government agency for about two years.”

In other words I’m not jobless. He nodded idly, easily diverted by my claims. He muttered the name of the company that had offered me the marketing job at graduation and searched my resume for the name. The guy must be daft. There was just one job on my resume so far, the one at the government imaging center. One didn’t list offers in resumes, only showed tenures at the workplaces one had actually worked in.

His eyes were big and glistened with curiosity but I could detect little by way of understanding in them. It didn’t occur to him to ask why I didn’t join the marketing job I got at graduation or persist with my job at the government agency beyond a brief span of two years. Maybe he was simply not interested. His next question sounded equally aimless.

“Are you the only son?”

At first I felt lost. The question came out of the blue while I was engrossed in thinking how stupid he was. His query came a little early for an interview that had still not tested the candidate’s experience against the basic technical requirements specified in the job description.

“I’ve a brother, and also a sister. Both married,” I replied, trying to figure out the relevance, or direction, of his questions.

I would have liked to go on and rant about Shalini as well. Only she wasn’t a member of my family yet. From the present appearance of things, it was extremely difficult to predict when she’d become one, though I hoped she’d think of me more favorably if I succeeded in treating her sister well. I hoped there wouldn’t be another relapse of the stupid fever like the last time, undoing all my efforts.

“What does your brother do?”

Crap! What had my brother’s job to do with my prospective job?

“He works for a book publisher.”

"Oh," Ramesh said disdainfully with a touch of superior air as if to say 'poor guy mustn't be earning much'. "And your father- is he working too?"

Had we gathered to discuss my family tree? This guy needed to meet my family members one by one and check out their credentials for himself, about what each did, if he was so interested. He appeared more curious about their activities than in my abilities for performing the role we’d gathered to discuss. He seemed intent on whiling away time.

“Yes,” I nodded, not deeming it necessary to get into further details. “Do you have further questions?” I asked, clearing my throat, daring him to continue with his aimless quest. It didn’t seem the guy had the guts to take affront.

My question hung like a challenge in the silent room for an instant. Had I gone too far with my bravado? The question I’d asked usually fell in the domain of interviewers to ask the candidate towards the end of the interview after they were done.

“Oh, yes, yes,” he nodded vigorously. I was right. He showed no sense of affront. “Do you know the C language?” It seemed he’d suddenly remembered the technical requirements of the role for which I was being interviewed.

“Yes, I’ve done programming in it,” I replied casually.

That wasn’t entirely true. I’d read a few programs written in books and also typed out a few sitting in front of a shared computer terminal at the course I’d enrolled in Delhi prior to shifting to Bangalore. That was the extent of my knowledge in C. At my government job, I had mostly used FORTRAN for programming, but felt confident of grappling with any task thrown my way, in any programming language. The confidence was important. Looking at Ramesh’s face, it only multiplied. I had picked up FORTRAN on the job and would do it again with C if the need arose. First I had to get the job.

“Good,” he said in an undecided tone. After a few more ‘yes’, ‘no’ type of innocuous questions, he embarked upon telling me a little about the company hiring me. He spoke with an air as if his father had set up the company and bequeathed it to him on a silver platter. As an afterthought I decided even the most doting of fathers wouldn’t make such a mistake.

“Do you have a passport?” he asked at length, towards the end of the discussion.

I shook my head. “I never went for one as I didn’t want to go abroad for higher studies. That was the primary reason my friends at college got their passports made.”

“Well, in this office, we frequently travel to the US on work, on business visa mostly. I’d advise you to get your passport ready at the earliest.”

The outcome of the ‘interview’? He hired me! I couldn’t fathom the merit of his questions or how he divined my capabilities or lack of them from the number of kids my brother had, or how old my father was and whether I knew C. He didn’t challenge my knowledge of C at any time and took for granted whatever I claimed. Why did he hire me? There was no connection between his questions in the interview, the job description and my programming abilities.

I’d pegged him slightly wrong. Had it been his father’s company he might have worried a little about its losses and scrutinized candidates more closely. The scene was infinitely better. He had no worries. His work experience boasted of big brands like Eleny. The demand for resources was overpowering in the burgeoning IT industry in the country. He could simply walk into another job at will if things went bad for him at his present job.

Anyway, I was happy with the offered salary. It was three times what I got at the imaging center. In retrospect, I felt I’d been a beggar so far and felt bad for the rest of my friends who were still stuck in the rot in my previous organization.

Before I left the government organization, Dwapayanan threatened me in indirect terms that people who left defense organizations to work for private companies sometimes got slapped with breach of confidentiality law suites.

I laughed. “My aunty is in the union cabinet,” I said airily. “You must have heard of Mrs. Kumar?”

He wasn’t entirely sure whether to believe me or challenge me. Would an MSITian bluff? There was indeed a Mrs. Kumar in the union cabinet of ministers at that time, though she was in no way related to me. But he didn’t know that. He played it safe and tried a different approach.

“Private jobs have no security,” he said disdainfully. “If you stay with me, I promise to promote you every year. Your career growth under me will be unprecedented. Plus, you’d get a chance to do your PhD.”

I was unmoved by his promises. It was the government sector and even I wasn’t such a fool as to believe my boss could override all processes to promote me on an annual basis. It didn’t happen to someone like me who belonged to the general category. My first promotion after a year had been a provision allowed by the existing processes that Ananthkrishnan had foretold in advance when I joined, to move me from an ungazetted to a gazetted post. But it wasn’t an annual process to be repeated for every post. Anyway, Dwapayanan wasn’t about to give up. He proceeded to try from a different angle.

“Do you think we get no offers from the private sector?” he asked. “I personally receive feelers from private players from time to time, but I know of people smarter than either of us who lost their jobs without notice in the private sector.”

I had a faint smile in my eyes as he spoke. He was quick to detect the mirth on my face and intensified his attack.

“You’re not yet married. Think how embarrassing it would be for you if you got fired from a private job after marriage. It would hurt your family and parents and also embarrass you in the eyes of your in-laws. It’s difficult to live a life of uncertainty which the private sector presents.”

“I’ve no such fears,” I said at last with a carefree air, determined to thwart all his attempts to demoralize me. “The department I'm joining in the private company is headed by my maternal uncle- my mother's brother.”

He felt quite lost now. If he disbelieved me, it didn't show on his face. Suddenly the hardworking boy who finished his official assignments well in time claimed to possess powerful relatives at every place where it mattered- one of whom was in the union cabinet of ministers while another headed an organization in a private company. I hardly cared what he thought as long as I got away from him in one piece.

My college friend, Saurabh Pal, or PS as I called him, visited India around this time for his sister’s wedding. He had earlier written me a letter at my Delhi address which I asked father to read out over phone. It was still the age of snail mail. In his letter he provided me his father’s India phone number where he’d stay during the trip. I counted the days for his arrival and accordingly called him up a few days later.

It was a good get together, although over phone. His father stayed in Kolkata, close to the Eastern boundary of the country, whereas I was posted in Bangalore, closer to the southern tip. He could have flown down to meet me, but perhaps didn’t have the time, or feel the need. On the other hand I couldn’t afford a weeklong trip to visit him by train, since I couldn’t afford the faster mode of air travel. In India, train travel had always been by far cheaper than air, though it took over 24 hours to travel one way to where his father stayed compared to three hours by plane.

Among the other things we discussed, he proudly mentioned some of his escapades with women in the US as proof of his masculine prowess, starting with someone called Kathy. Only I seemed to be lagging behind on all fronts in life. I made a mental note. I had to pick up speed fast. We talked just once as he left India soon after, providing me with his US telephone number and also his email id. I didn’t have my personal email id yet, but had the option of creating a free id on the internet to keep in touch with friends like him. On his next trip to India he promised to meet me, wherever I happened to be. It was prohibitively expensive in those days to call the US from India, so he said not to worry. He’d call me from there whenever I got my own telephone.

I’d soon get one, I decided. It was time to move up the value chain in life. After serving my notice period at the imaging organization, I happily bid my colleagues good bye to join my ‘maternal uncle’ in the private sector. With a chuckle I wondered if my mother’s brother had ever seen the insides of an office. He was a farmer by profession.

It was my first opportunity to work in a multinational company. I remembered Shalini had started working at a multinational bank quite a while back. This was where the money lay, though I was way back in the queue.

My new office’s central hall was impressive and a refreshing change from my last job. In contrast to the dingy confines of my previous office, this one was entirely air conditioned and well lit, spread across four floors with a terrace at the top. The hall in each floor was divided into small cubicles less than 5 feet high. Each cubicle seated four. The managers had a row of differently sized cubicles to themselves, each seating one. Their cabins also had windows with hinges that could be opened to let in fresh air if one so desired.

This arrangement of traditional windows with hinges that could be opened to let in fresh air was something I never again saw in the other centrally air conditioned offices in my later years in the IT industry. The latter offices were all like tombs, though air conditioned. A quick lookup in the net reported modern offices to be precisely that- no better than airtight tombs, with sealed glass panes passing for windows, sometimes causing breathing problems to occupants who sat for prolonged hours, due to unclean air filters, clogged ducts and air exchangers.

I thus joined my first private sector job at Bangalore, but continued keeping tabs on Shalini as closely as I could. I called up her house shortly after and luckily she was at home to take my call this time.

“I heard Ragini’s better,” I said, keeping my fingers crossed.

“Her fever’s gone,” she replied to my delight. “Your medicine worked like a charm this time, doctor, though it took a while to act.”

“Anyway, better late than never. It’s a relief,” I said honestly, hoping the experience would promote me in her eyes. “I’ve good news too. I recently changed my job.”

“Joined a hospital this time, did you, doc?”

She sounded as if she was smiling upon hearing the news of my job hopping, possibly out of relief that she’d remain in Delhi, peacefully devoted to her job while I’d continue far away in Bangalore, messing up other people’s lives. She didn’t discuss her sister’s illness any further or my contribution to curing her. She didn’t ask why I had looked up my new job in Bangalore instead of scouting companies in Delhi. It seemed like she just didn’t care.

It was disheartening, unless I was imagining things. She’d said nothing explicitly to indicate her lack of interest in my activities, but somehow her careless attitude pulled me down. She didn’t even ask when I’d visit Delhi next or showed any eagerness to meet me. As far as she seemed concerned the episode of her sister’s illness was a closed chapter. She’d probably soon forget my role in the matter too.

I felt dismayed, reliving again the rejections I’d encountered at her hands when she turned down my various proposals for marriage. Nothing much seemed to have changed since then. Then what had she meant by saying I didn’t earn when I proposed to her the last time? I’d assumed it was a hint for me to start earning before proposing- that she was otherwise agreeable to my proposal, and would wait for me. I sighed. Maybe, I’d misunderstood. She wasn’t the waiting type, being too practical and worldly wise. There was no solution in sight to my hankering. Perhaps, it was time to put my hallucinations behind and try to get over her. She had rightly said outside her training institute that I shouldn’t cry over her- but I didn’t know how to do it in practice?

I sometimes suspected she was far too mature for me, and perhaps better grounded in reality too. She also got a fatter purse for her efforts at her banking job than I’d managed in either of my two jobs so far. Comparisons never cease with humans, especially the inane curiosity to know how much the other person earns. I considered it an uncivilized trait and usually restricted my curiosity to my boss's salary- when I deemed him less competent than me- which, unfortunately, was often the case.

At Bangalore, I pushed my way into crowded buses to reach my new workplace in the mornings. In the evenings, while returning from office, I didn’t mind the sweat. But the mornings got messy. I didn’t like reaching the office drenched, spending the next few hours in a sticky, wet shirt, waiting for it to dry in the air conditioned atmosphere.

Bangalore was slowly getting crammed with IT offices in the 90’s and started drawing hoards of workers from other states as well. At present, people from other countries also travel to this city for jobs. Like most other states, Bangalore’s masters never planned roads for the growing traffic. That way, modern cities in the country had a way of growing accidentally, without planning or foresight. At a certain point in any such city’s prosperity that flourishing companies brought, the rulers often took the opportunity to join hands with builders in a nexus to mint money in the name of development. Few thought of the masses beyond paying them lip service.

The result was miles of traffic jams and sweat. AC in the cars brought little respite. Such transient comforts were fast outlived by the perennial hardships. I once read in the newspaper of a businessman having a heart attack while waiting for his turn to clear the traffic lights. But I was young with no such fears. There was an entire future waiting for me.

Ramesh had told me during the interview to keep a passport ready, so I applied for one and learned that the application procedure included police verification at the address I resided.

On a Saturday, a policeman turned up and rang the doorbell at my apartment. When I opened the door, he stared at me from head to toe as if I was an entity from outer space.

“Rajat Kumar?” he asked at last.

I nodded, quickly flashing my driving license.

He turned it over and handed it back unimpressed. “It has a Delhi address,” he said as if it were a crime, and looked around. Then his gaze returned to rest on me superciliously, as though I was dumb and unintelligent to fail to understand his hints. “It’s sunny outside and I’m thirsty,” he said.

I moved aside courteously to let him enter. “Not too cold,” he cautioned as I went inside to fetch a glass of water.

I sat down after handing him the glass.

“So what if my DL was issued at Delhi, it’s my ID proof,” I pointed out, holding out my driving license for him to inspect again, but he didn’t bother.

It was a valid license, good for driving a car or scooter anywhere in the country. I had got it made when I drove my father’s car around. I also brought along the papers of my apartment’s rental lease and showed them to him.

“This is my proof of residence. I’ve been staying here for about two years.”

He glanced at the papers studiously. “This- and your DL- are documents issued at two different places- records of two different cities,” he concluded finally as if I was a trespasser belonging to another country. His tone suggested that I was somehow at a disadvantage.

I’d heard that if these junior, clerical cops raised any doubt in their verification report, the passport office wouldn’t issue you a passport, irrespective of the authenticity of your claim. Junior level, corrupt officials in public services had been vested with immense powers to harass and maul the general public whimsically, at will.

Was he hinting at a bribe? I was meeting such a cop for the first time and found his beggarly approach frustrating. Didn’t he get a salary?

“Who’s your boss?” I asked at length, with a view to throw a scare in him.

But he flashed a crooked, unconcerned smile. “Why do you wish to know about my boss? I’m here to verify your address, not discuss my boss.”

“I’ll talk to him whether my driving license and rental lease taken together aren’t sufficient id and address proofs for the purpose of my passport application.”

“Go ahead,” he said nonchalantly. “Some people learn the hard way.”

“What do you mean?”

“I'm helping you get an important official document made- your passport- with which you can travel to foreign countries and make a lot of money,” he said in an obliging tone. “I won't come around to verify your address every year, nor ask for a portion of your earnings like the government demands by way of income tax on an annual basis. This is a one time verification which would hold good for the period of validity of your passport.”

“I’m aware of all that. Can you get to the point?”

“I’ve not met a more miserly man,” he said, using the word ‘miserly’ as a substitute for ‘dumb’. “People are usually smarter.”

“Well, I’m dumb and miserly,” I said in an aggressive tone, challenging him to go on.

He cleared his throat, feeling a little uncomfortable by now with my stiff, unrelenting attitude. “If you apply through an agent or tout to get your passport made, they’d charge you thousands of rupees. Of course, they don’t pocket the bulk of that money. Most of it is distributed upstream as an incentive.”

“Upstream?”

“Forget it. At the end of the day you’d want the officials and clerks at the passport offices to process your application, won’t you?”

“Does some of that money travel up to the ministers too?”

“How can I tell you that? These are confidential things, which the general public in not supposed to know.” He fixed me with a knowledgeable stare. “Returning to touts- even if you go via them, this verification step with the police would still take place. Our demands are nowhere near that of the folks involved in processing your application later down the line.” He paused. “Did you apply for your passport through an agent?”

“No, I applied directly at the passport office.” I replied, staring at him coldly. “You’ve still not come to the point.”

“How straighter can I get?” he asked with a sneer. “If you applied directly at the passport office instead of routing your application through touts, you’re already saving a lot.”

“I’m not saving to fill your pockets,” I snapped.

“Usually, people express gratitude to us for getting their work done without hassles.”

“Firstly, you don't get the work done. Get that clear. People like you are an impediment to getting the work done. The passport office does the actual work and issues the passport. Anyway- how much is your gratitude worth?”

“Oh, I don’t take bribes,” he said as if taking affront. “I’m engaged in public service. But sometimes, out of gratitude and a feeling of brotherhood, people try to offer us about hundred bucks to buy sweets,” he added promptly. “You've spent so much time arguing over nothing. Just to save hundred measly bucks- without knowing that I don’t even accept bribes!”

I glared at him.

He shrugged “The choice is yours. I can only assure that there’ll be no delay from my side in your id and address verification.”

“I see.”

“However, since you’ve applied for your passport directly, the passport office employees might delay it from their side since you’ve not paid the touts their due.”

“What do you mean?”

“You might still get your passport if you're lucky,” he amended hurriedly. “That’s between you and them. But had you gone through an agent and paid the few thousand they demanded, you'd have definitely got your passport in time- may be earlier too. It’s not that passport officials accept bribes either. Don’t harbor such misconceptions. It’s demeaning to all of us public servant officials. We’re all honest to the core.”

“Got the message, now move ahead.”

“Well, the officials and clerks at the passport offices just try to help touts earn a livelihood- kind of philanthropy, you see- and if the touts offer them something in return out of gratitude, being pleased with them- well, that’s between them. You don’t call such things bribery. In comparison, I’ve demanded next to nothing.”

“So it’s all about being pleased and keeping others happy in return, without a question of bribes?”

“None at all. There’s no question of bribery.”

“Hundred bucks?”

“That’s all,” he smiled as if explaining something to a child. “Go to any other part of the country and you’d normally end up offering between a hundred to hundred fifty bucks,” he added shamelessly.

“And you don’t even accept bribes,” I said sarcastically. “If I’m pleased I pay. It keeps my conscience as well as yours clean since we’ve not acted corruptly and dabbled in bribery.”

“You pay on the lower side too. Don’t forget that. The amount might be higher in Delhi, where your driving license was made.”

“You’ve given me so many choices. Now I’ll give you a choice,” I replied coldly.

He looked up at my tone.

“My aunt is in the union cabinet of ministers,” I lied, using the same approach I’d adopted with Dwapayanan. All these crooks were the same in terms of their meanness and roguishness, and deserved the same treatment. “I can pursue this matter at a higher level and get you suspended for asking a bribe.”

“But I never asked a bribe. I already told you that. Seems you misunderstood.”

“I understood everything quite well. If I complain, automatically witnesses would materialize out of nowhere since she's a minister,” I continued, ignoring him. “You can look up her name in the list of ministers- ending with my surname, Kumar.”

He nodded. Everyone had heard of Mrs. Kumar. He waited for me to spell out the remaining choices.

“So you’ve the choice of giving a successful verification report without taking a bribe,” I said. “Or, I’ll pursue this at higher offices to get you suspended for asking a bribe and denying me a timely passport.”

“It doesn’t work that way, Mr. Kumar,” he said at last, finding back his voice. “You can’t threaten me.”

“One of us is definitely threatening the other,” I replied. “Shall we leave it to the higher authorities to decide who’s threatening whom? Or do you prefer to decide right away what you want to do?”

He was about to say something, but hesitated, noting the confidence in my tone, and chose to remain silent. Before leaving he made a note in the register he was carrying and turned to me with a sheepish smile.

“Remember, I didn’t ask a bribe. You misunderstood,” he re-emphasized and shrugged. “Whatever it was, as good citizens we should try to help each other, and forgive and forget.”

A few weeks later I received my passport. It was a big win. I narrated the incident to my father.

“It’s good news, but you shouldn’t have lied about your aunt being a cabinet minister,” was all he said. “It may also be risky at times to make such false claims.”

I wondered about that. Had I not lied, could I have obtained my passport as easily? On second thoughts, I felt that today I might have managed to frighten him by claiming I was a minister’s nephew, but the day wasn’t far when these people wouldn’t fear ministers either. I’d been plain lucky in that sense. Lies made many things easier in life, especially in a country overrun by thieves and criminals. What was wrong if my lie didn’t harm anybody?

But I thought again about what father had said. Maybe he did have a point. Besides being risky- in case someone reported me for masquerading or throwing around weight by claiming false connections- how did it matter whether I got a passport or traveled abroad? It was more important to keep my conscience intact and stay on the path of righteousness. The rewards for falsehoods were small and temporary.

Though I got my passport, I felt little joy at the prospect of possible foreign travel. Shalini’s rejection of my proposal and apparent aloofness over phone returned to haunt me with renewed vigor, refusing to subside. On and off it swamped me. It seemed no matter what I did, whether I drove her around during my trips to Delhi, or cured her sister or ran errands for their family, my status wouldn’t change. She’d continue to tolerate me till she wed someone else. It was beginning to look hopeless. Even I was prepared to admit it now.

Life felt dry like a desert without end. I felt drowsy in the mornings, often with no energy left to see the day through. The lethargy was dreary and insurmountable at times. I felt embarrassed to discuss my problem in the open or seek. Maybe, Shalini was not to blame. Perhaps my situation was the result of the subtle levels of mental harassment I was subjected to by my past and present bosses, on top of the raw wounds inflicted by her rejection.

I wondered if I should dive into my homeopathy books and self-prescribe a medicine for myself. I researched a remedy called Lycopodium but hesitated to try it. I’d read somewhere it could produce unexpected results and since it dealt with various internal organs and diseases, I was confused if I should risk taking it, lest it backfire.

I’d administered homeopathic medicines to others since my college days and seen them work successfully. While it might be difficult to view my own disease objectively, I was young and had time on my side. If I remained determined and patient there was no reason not to find a solution to buoy up my spirits.

When I got my first break from my new job at Eleny a few weeks before my annual appraisal, I hurried home, catching the first train out of Bangalore, eager to meet Shalini. I’d missed her during my last break home from Dwapayanan’s clutches but hoped to catch her home this time.

However, it turned out she was traveling again and I couldn’t meet her. It was quite disappointing. Was she always traveling? It had been a long time since I’d seen her. I’d seen no signs from her side to indicate she was in the least bit interested in continuing interaction with me. I returned to Bangalore heartbroken again.

She was too busy with her career to think of me. No one should fall in love with a career conscious woman, I thought. I felt like a drowning man who surfaced once in a while to suck in mouthfuls of air with the help of [_Aurum, _]before slipping into the dark depths again to choke and struggle.

To keep my mind engaged beyond office hours I downloaded some freeware from the internet to learn music sequencing. I didn’t tell my boss this time. It was the most productive use of my spare time. Others downloaded songs and videos on their office machines. I only downloaded freeware or trial software. They kept me busy, as I reveled in composing melodious tunes on songs I wrote around my unsuccessful love life.

I’d sit in office late into the evenings after finishing work and learn how to use MIDI arrangers and VST instruments in sequencers to compose musical arrangements. Like me other young people too sat late in the office but I found most watching videos downloaded from the internet or listening to streaming music. On a couple of PC’s I also caught sight of pornographic material as I made my way to the dispenser to drink water or the restroom to relieve myself. I usually ignored such people. Each had his own way of looking at life, but the growing depravity in the country’s young folks was nonetheless dismaying.

I worked on my music software diligently. The first of my tunes that I set to music was the song I’d written about my love for Shalini. It was around this time I also got into the habit of storing my musical creations on a personal USB drive.

After I’d settled into my job and made a few friends, I learned the truth behind my hiring more than a year later. Someone told me over lunch in the office cafeteria that my boss’s boss was an MSITian too, though not from my alma mater, MSIT Kanpur. I already knew as much. What I didn’t know was that he’d seen my resume, been impressed, short-listed me and desired to give me a break in the private sector. He knew the stuff MSITians were made of. It had been as simple as that. Ramesh had merely carried out his order to please him. That was the reason he’d not asked uncomfortable questions while interviewing me. It was his way of boss management. Do what the boss says to earn your rewards, without factoring in ethical considerations or personal prejudices.

I remembered again how professors had pampered us in college. One had even gone so far as to say, 'Once you've competed successfully in JEE against thousands of other aspirants for the two thousand odd seats in the five MSITs, you've proved yourself once and for all to the world. Remember this always- you've proved yourself once and for all in this life. You're a class apart.'

It was a heady feeling to be an MSITian. There had been only five MSITs at that time, ensuring quality education to the brightest students, unlike the manifold increase in their numbers now. Of late there was a trend to destroy the quality of these institutions by mindlessly increasing the number of MSITs and watering down the selection criteria, so that in the end MSIT graduates would be as mediocre as those who didn’t make it to the MSITs. This country had a way of degrading everything that spoke of quality.

I sympathized with Ramesh. He certainly wouldn’t be feeling heady about hiring me blindly, but he hoped to be rewarded by pleasing his boss. He worked for his boss, even if the boss’s decisions were wrong. In any case lady luck was on my side, whether their drivers to hire me were right or wrong. This job had come after a barren patch of meager salary at the imaging organization, enabling me to enter the better earning league. I wasn’t complaining.

My boss was the sneaky kind, but didn’t mess around with me openly. Things were slowly starting to fall into place. People like these rose in the management hierarchy by using boss management techniques. I was determined not to rise by blindly accepting a superior person’s decisions solely on the basis of his seniority to me.

The only solace was that my jobs paid me well progressively, though I realized later in life that they were sugarcoated pins. One didn’t need a prestigious MSIT degree or a degree from any other premier institute to go through crap jobs simply to earn money, just as I wouldn’t have needed one had I painted my way to fame or sold music successfully for a living. It would be so nice if such realizations dawned on us before we spent away a lifetime in futile pursuits, ultimately turning into hardened realists or frustrated defeatists.

Had I tried, I might have managed both things simultaneously- studied at college as well as painted at the embassy which offered me an opportunity to paint murals during my breaks from college. But I was never worldly wise, and gave up such opportunities too easily. More than once I thus walked away from the gateways leading to fame and fortune, the very things I always sought in the core of my heart. Somehow I was never able to strike the iron when it was hot. A painting career at nineteen may not only have brought me fame and money but would also have undoubtedly impressed my girl, besides scores of others...

Maybe, being perennially late on the scene of success reduced me into a one woman man- though it was something I never regretted. Shalini was the girl I loved through school and the girl I loved through college, and still loved madly, totally wrapped in her thoughts. She had the sweetest smile and the softest words, though on occasions she managed to speak unpalatable things, like when she rejected my proposals for marriage. But despite that I loved her insanely, even after I started work, though with the cringing suspicion that my ardent love affair was without a future.

CHAPTER EIGHT

In my first formal appraisal after over an year- since my first rating within in a quarter of my joining had been a default rating for new joiners- Ramesh gave me an average performance rating. The project had got canceled midway so at first glance his rating seemed fair enough- till I learned he’d given better ratings to a few others in the same project. I’d worked as hard as the rest of them and felt pissed off.

The rating reeked of partiality, possibly guided by his hidden animosity and jealousy of my credentials of belonging to the same fraternity of MSITians as his boss that had led to my recruitment. The project was canceled for everybody, the reason for cancellation being a change in the company's priorities- nothing I had a say in. I wasn’t even in sales. I was in the software maintenance department, called systems, working somewhere in the background. Then why was I singled out in the project to be given an average rating when my teammates got better?

I failed to control my urge to be outspoken and walked into his cubicle. Before locking horns with him I told a couple of peers in the team that I’d make him upgrade my rating. ‘Don’t get into a confrontation,’ one of them cautioned. ‘Remember, the boss is always right.’ Perhaps he had a point, but I simply had to know the reason behind the unjust rating or I wouldn’t be able to rest in peace. That was the problem with my conscience. Just as I couldn’t tolerate wrongs being done to others, I couldn’t tolerate wrongs meted out to me either.

“The problem lies in your communication,” Ramesh explained with a smirk. “You need to improve on that. But don’t worry,” he added quickly. “I’ll help you overcome some of it. We’ll put you through a few soft skill trainings. That should get you better grades the next time.”

“Is this an entertainment company or a media house?” I asked in a not-too-friendly tone.

“What do you mean?” he asked indignantly. He had reason to sound startled and looked confused at my belligerent mood.

“Forget it,” I said. If he was obtuse, that was his problem. “Can you give me an instance of my weak communication?”

How could I forget my father’s teachings so early in the innings? Be upright, stand up for the right principles yourself and also help others abide by them, he often said. He never taught me diplomacy.

Hypocrisy and diplomacy went hand in hand. Pulling the mask off your boss’s face was not done. Think about it. How many masks can one rip apart in a society overrun by the corrupt minded or for that matter, how many masks can one rip off in a lifetime? One would have to recreate the entire planet earth to clean up everything and restart the wheel. Perhaps that was the reason God annihilated everything in His creation at regular intervals, I thought, recalling my scriptural readings from my spiritual days following graduation when Shalini had rejected my proposal for marriage. However through the years I did manage to rip the mask off quite a few of my bosses, much to their chagrin.

“Instances? Well, there have been some, but don’t worry. You’re not so weak.”

“Yet you penciled in the remark for my next boss to see.”

“Don’t worry, Rajat. For the foreseeable future I’ll remain your next boss too.”

“Then you’ll see the remark at the time of my next appraisal and remember.”

“What’s your problem, man?” he asked. “It’s not as serious as you’re making it out.”

“It’s wrong in principle- not a question of how serious or severe,” I replied bluntly. “I'll give you a few instances of my efficient communication skills since you're unable to give instances where I was poor. I gave a presentation on Visual C++, another on the communication APIs. Both were well received. I have good rapport with the team members, participated proactively in all the team meetings and played a major role in the recent offsite team building exercise. In the office I regularly did my tasks on time.”

He blinked but didn’t say anything. I could see his mental gear hard at work at the back of his shifty eyes, scrambling to find justifications.

“I can produce several other instances that go to show my good communication skills,” I continued. “You can talk to the project members and check about my communication abilities from them as well. The project got canceled for everybody. If others can get a better rating for less, why am I being penalized? That’s my question. I feel I’m being singled out.” I took a deep breath. “It certainly can’t be my communication. I won’t buy that.”

I pouted at him with a challenge in my eyes. He stared back mutely, daring me to take the next step.

“Will you strike out that remark and upgrade my rating?” I asked coldly at last.

“Sorry, we don’t work that way here. You have to accept your manager’s rating.”

“Even if I feel it’s wrong?”

“It’s not wrong,” he said in a stubborn tone. “If you insist on criticizing your rating without reason, you’ll lose out in the future.”

“Is that a threat?”

He didn’t reply.

“I’ve good reason to question it,” I said. “Just because you’re the boss doesn’t necessarily make everything right. You can’t do everything alone, which is the reason you need a team. A manager needs to take his team members along. He amounts to nothing without them.”

“Rajat, I think you’re unnecessarily creating an issue out of nothing.”

“I’m not,” I replied evenly. “You are. You said I’d lose out in the future because I questioned your rating. I don’t see what I stand to lose if I continue pursuing the issue further. That’s precisely what I’ll do, since I’m not satisfied with your explanation.”

I walked from his cubicle straight into his boss’s cabin. From where he sat he could see the direction I was headed and sat up at his desk to look as I opened the door to his boss’s office. The spring door closed behind me as I stepped inside so he couldn’t hear what went on inside after that.

After a couple of days he walked up to my desk with a sheepish smile. “How about coffee, Rajat?”

“You can call me RK,” I replied casually.

“Come, RK,” he said, passing a friendly arm around my shoulder to help me up from my chair. A few curious eyebrows popped up around us at the camaraderie as he walked me to the staircase.

We walked up to the terrace cafeteria in silence. As we carried our coffee mugs to occupy a table by the window, next to the terrace, he said nonchalantly, “I’ve upgraded your rating.”

“And the remark on poor communication?”

“Oh, you took that too seriously. I didn’t mean it really. I’ve expunged that as well.”

I didn't say anything but concluded he was a stupid, shameless and- at the same time- dangerous man with few qualms. He wasn’t straightforward. Such people should be dealt with carefully in life. In my view he shouldn't have penned down negative remarks about my communication in a formal report if he wasn’t serious about it in the first place. He was a manager and during my appraisal he’d been discussing the official appraisal with me, not an initial draft.

He didn’t deserve to be a manager. The basics were missing. Throughout my career I saw different versions of Ramesh at various levels of management, including lofty positions like that of VP and MD, who dressed up suavely, spoke glibly and had on opinion on almost every topic under the sun, but on closer scrutiny came across either as adults with undeveloped, juvenile faculties who refused to grow out of their nappies or criminals on parole, willing to repeat earlier crimes wantonly, and ready to make compromises or even back down if challenged. Even at this early stage of my career, the private sector was turning out little better than the public or government sector in terms of the quality of people and their principles and standards of ethics and morality.

“I’ve expunged the negative remarks,” he confirmed again, waiting for my reaction in case I’d not heard him the first time.

I nodded, sipping my coffee silently.

“I met Pads,” he mentioned nonchalantly. Pads was Padam Singh, his boss, the MSITian, under whose instruction he’d hired me and into whose room I’d barged after leaving his cabin the other day. “I suggested him to let me change your appraisal as you’re new to the private IT industry. He didn’t agree at first but I put my foot down. I insisted we needed to encourage you in your initial days here and do the best from our side to help you.”

He waited for me to call his bluff. When that didn’t happen, he continued with increased bravado. “Pads didn’t agree at first,” he said with renewed confidence, trying to sound convincing, “But I stuck to my guns.” He looked at me dubiously. When I still remained silent, he gushed out triumphantly. “I put my foot down.”

It was easy to see what must have transpired between the two and just who had put his foot down. The bluffer.

“Good,” I said approvingly.

He narrowed his eyes at my supercilious remark. It was not done telling your boss that. But I’d found a route to bypass him in times of distress and was in the know of his boss’s weakness for my credentials. Ramesh would always remain a foolish messenger for me. Fate had armed me well and I wasn’t lacking in brains to know when to use my ammo in the future.

A few months later, there was a massive restructuring in the company. This big US based multinational company that had manufactured computers for decades, took over another company. The merger resulted in many job losses in the US, while adding that many more in India. As a result, several senior engineers, including me, were suddenly catapulted to the posts of first line managers, reporting directly to Ramesh’s boss since the setup in India was small. I too became a busy man overnight. It wasn’t bad to be promoted in one’s second year without being required to perform.

The new managers underwent a few in-house trainings which brainwashed them that as managers they’d henceforth need to own up all decisions of the company they were asked to transmit down to their reports. They couldn’t just wash their hands off and tell the truth as it was, that ‘hey, I share your frustrations. Actually this isn’t my decision; it was thrust on me by our lousy superiors. We have a common enemy.’

At first I wasn’t too clear what these decisions were. I gradually realized that our bosses- and their bosses all the way up the pyramid- hid behind the skirts of lower rank managers for their arbitrary decisions on performance ratings, salary hikes, incentive bonuses or promotions. They spoke eloquently while addressing employee forums, but behind their backs screwed them up, divided the loot of profits between themselves in sales- and some of the key non-sales departmental heads to enlist their support- and after that guiltlessly pointed the rest of the employees to their direct managers as the culprits. The direct managers of those employees were thus saddled with the onerous task of defending lousy decisions they had no inkling about.

The next thing I knew, I was one of the managers delegated to transition a project from the US to the Bangalore center. I’d soon be on my way to the US, upon getting a business visa. I dashed off an email to my friend PS informing of my visit at the email id he had provided when he visited India for his sister’s wedding. This would be my first trip abroad and hopefully mark the beginning of a good third year in office. In this aspect, of traveling abroad, I’d be one up on Shalini. In those times it was still a big thing in Indian society in terms of respect and fame, to travel to the US. In many ways, it’s still considered a big achievement.

As I went over my final preparations for the US trip following the stamping of my passport with a US business visa, the intercom on my desk rang. The receptionist announced I had a visitor. It seemed a bit early for the foreign exchange- forex- agent to hand over my foreign currency and traveler's cheques, but I went down to check anyway. One never knew these days.

To my surprise, the visitor wasn’t the forex agent at all. It was Shalini! She was waiting in the reception area when I reached down. How come she was in Bangalore! Had she come to profess her love to me? To admit that she’d made a mistake by spurning my proposals? My heart skipped a beat as I approached her hopefully, though I was determined to remain wary. I wouldn’t propose another time till I was sure of her seriousness. I couldn’t endure another rejection at her hands.

“Surprises never cease, do they, RK?” she greeted happily.

I smiled happily too, secretly overjoyed, though still trying to divine the reason behind her sudden presence. It shouldn’t have surprised me to find her in Bangalore though, I thought in retrospect. She’d completed her MBA from the KIM center located in this very city a few years ago and was likely to have friends in the city. But knowing her practical approach to life, she’d have come here on a business visit rather than to meet friends or alumni. She wasn’t one to waste time and money on sentiments. Considering that, I felt she wouldn’t waste money on a trip to profess her love to me either. She must have come here on a business trip. Nonetheless, it was a heady feeling to realize that she’d found time out of her official schedule to meet me for the sake of old times.

“Didn’t hear from you for a while, RK. Been wondering what happened. Are you chasing other girls now?” she said casually as I walked up to her and offered my hand. Her jesting tone disrupted my thought process. “I don’t blame you. Might be a good idea to latch on to someone serious, who’s more interested in you. It’ll remove your itch for me.”

Itch? How could she talk like that, so heartlessly, as if it wasn’t enough to spurn my proposals? I’d already suffered a lot on her account, taken up spirituality after her rejection and had even chucked my first job offer at campus- lucrative by all standards- just to be near her. I’d practically ruined my career over her. After so much had happened, this was no way to speak to me, making jest of the intimate feelings of love I held sacred. But I remained silent. I usually felt tongue tied when she spoke in that dominating tone of hers.

She had never tried to understand me. Her objective behind visiting me today was gradually becoming apparent. She’d looked me up to while away her spare time between breaks in her official meetings, possibly to have fun at my expense. What did she mean by asking if I was chasing other girls? Like her mother did she also think of me as a vagabond?

“What can I do if girls insist on chasing me?” I replied tersely. “Not everyone’s as superior as you to rejects commonplace MSITians,” I added sarcastically, in case she’d missed the halo surrounding my prestigious qualification.

“I see,” she said simply, looking around the reception area carelessly. “Quite a backward looking office this is, isn’t it, Romeo?” She shook her head disapprovingly. “How can you work here? Being from MSIT, you should have bargained for something better. I feel bad for you.”

I was starting to feel irritated by now. “What brings you to Bangalore?” I asked brusquely to change the topic. “Are you here on a routine meeting or attending an interview?”

“We’ll come to that later,” she said with a glint in her eyes. “First I want to know how you’ve been. You didn’t even ask how I’ve been, or whether Rags finally recovered permanently from her fever or had another relapse like last time.” She pouted her lips. “’I thought your prestigious MSIT brain was usually alert and courteous about asking these simple questions, but you seem tongue-tied.”

“What do you mean?” I asked coldly, looking at my watch. Perhaps, it was time to say goodbye instead of enduring her barbs further. It didn’t have to be always her to reject me. Two could play the same game. “Shalini, let me be honest. It was good meeting you, but I've a busy day ahead and I can't afford to stand here gabbing the whole day,” I said a little rudely, and then remembered something else. “It’s unfortunate some people are ignorant of world class brands. I feel bad for them- but Eleny is actually a good place to work in. It’s not at all backward. And I'd soon travel to-.”

She giggled. “Hope you aren’t serious. You call this good?” she interrupted, looking around again like a connoisseur. “Anyway, even if it pains me to see you here, it’s good to see you happy. I always wanted you to become a man.”

I snorted as she turned away to fill a glass of water from the dispenser. What did she mean by that! Wasn’t I a man? An isolated instance when she caught me sobbing outside her MBA training center and told me to become a man, didn’t mean she could generalize it for life. I felt a rush of blood to my head and grabbed her by the shoulder, spinning her around, in the process spilling some water on her shirt.

“Look- you can't just walk in here and say anything you wish,” I said with rising inflection. “I think you've changed a lot, Shalini. You’re arrogant, just because you get paid well! All that money has gone to your head. The least you can do is show gratitude."

“For dropping me to college in your father’s rickety car?” she said without remorse and added an impish wink to worsen matters.

I felt a little confused. She didn’t sound serious or in a mood to fight despite my rudeness. She seemed to be pulling my leg, while I was overreacting. Was I being made to look like a fool? But past neglect from her side increased my frustration. I’d anyway worked myself up by now and felt compelled to carry through with the momentum I’d set up for me.

“Shut up!” I shouted, then looked around hastily and lowered my voice. “You’ve forgotten everything, but I haven’t. I hold all those memories dear. You forget how I helped with your mathematics problems and later physics as well. You couldn’t have managed without me. I might add that I laid the foundation for you to do better in your studies. I mentored you for a long time. You’re an MBA today and into a good job because I built the foundation for you.”

“You made me what I am,” she paraphrased simply. Had she spoken in jest again or actually acknowledged my support?

“Of course, I did! There’s no need to be sarcastic about it. Instead of being grateful, you’re just plain selfish and arrogant. I even considered your sister my own and treated her like a family member. She got cured when top doctors failed. But you’re ungrateful.”

“You’re simply upset, RK. But let your pent up frustrations rush out. You might feel better,” she said with a patient smile, then blinked mischievously again, unable to resist a dig. “What can I do if my father didn’t pay you for the tuition classes? We thought you were a good Samaritan helping a neighbor in need. Who would have known at that time that we had a wolf in disguise in our midst.”

“Wolf! Is that how you think of me?”

“No, but-”

“Is that the way to reciprocate my help? I wasn't a wolf- and it was not tuition!” I thundered. “I helped you because I...”

“You helped me because you- what? Why did you stop?”

“I didn’t stop,” I said, feeling stupid and confused.

“What’s wrong with you, RK? You’ve other girls chasing you, who understand your prestigious qualifications better than me. How does it matter what I say?”

I looked at her, unsure what to say. She stared back at me for a long moment, and then her eyes took on that familiar blaze I knew so well from our schooldays. Gone was the banter. With a pouting tilt of her chin, she looked at me deeply.

“I think I made a mistake coming here all the way. You’ll never change. Always the pompous person- thinking only of yourself.”

I felt a pang of regret. At the back of my mind I’d always wanted her to love me, but when confronted with the situation, suspected I was simply backward in these things, unable to read the signs even as they screamed at me to take note. Why didn’t she simplify things by just saying, ‘I love you’? Or had I misunderstood again?

“You’ll always remain dumb. Just a dumb, arrogant MSITian. An idiot. You fib when you say girls chase you! How can anybody fall for you except another idiot?”

She wasn’t fighting or arguing or even accusing me. It seemed I’d really misunderstood the purpose of her visit. Was my initial assessment right then, that she’d indeed come here to profess her love for me?

“Did I sound abusive?” I asked repentantly, my confusion refusing to subside. “But you didn’t spare me either,” I added sheepishly. Perhaps I’d overreacted to her teasing words and sounded ruder than I’d meant. “By the way, I don’t fib, whatever else I do.”

“Obviously, you fib. You said girls chase you. Isn’t that fibbing?”

“Why?”

“Who could be stupid like me?” she said with a sigh. My heart skipped a beat. Did she mean by that what I wanted her to mean? “We all make mistakes and I too made mine. It’s too late for me to change now. I guess I made my choice long ago and there’s no turning back now.”

I stared at her, unable to believe what I’d just heard. She had a way of moving fast, and paused to cast a long look at my crestfallen face.

“RK, how can you be an MSITian and yet be so dumb,” she repeated in exasperation. “You’re one of the dumbest creatures I’ve known, so I don’t know why I still love you.”

“Good,” I replied at last trying to muster some dignity into my voice.

“Is that how one responds when his girlfriend says ‘I love you’?”

I’d heard her right. She was no longer playing a game of wits. She’d said it loud and clear this time! It was too good to be true.

“Well, there was no need to be so dramatic about it,” I said, trying to justify my actions. “You could have said it right away after arriving, instead of fighting with me.”

“I never fought- you did,” she corrected firmly. “Wasn’t it obvious to you when you saw me in the reception why I came? Isn’t it unusual to find me in your office? Do I turn up here every other day?”

“Well, my first reaction was no different- that you came here to profess your love, maybe also propose to me- but I was afraid to trust my instinct after your previous rejections. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. It’s like winning a lottery. Why did you tease me about chasing girls and the office being shabby?”

“Your office [_is _]shabby,” she repeated stubbornly. “Even if it weren’t, can’t I tease you?”

“Yes- but haven’t you already teased me enough, for many years? My heart is lacerated. You’re supposed to make amends today by saying all the nice things that I always said to you before. It’s my turn to listen, and I won’t call you an idiot like you did.”

She had absolutely no ego problem with my demand. "Sorry, I shouldn’t have called you an idiot," she said simply. "I love you, RK, I really do. I always think about you and can’t live without you. Let me add that I don't chase other boys or think about any other man, like you chase other girls or think about them.” I winced but she ignored me. “I'm chaste as they come- even in this modern age. I was waiting all these years for you to land a decent, respectable job, grow in your own eyes and build up your self respect and dignity before proposing. But you never proposed again. What happened?”

“I thought you were not interested.”

“Are you blind to miss all the signs? Why would I keep meeting you after I got a job or visit eating joints and other places with you whenever we met in Delhi, if I wasn’t interested?”

It had really been a blunder to miss all those signs, though I’d occasionally suspected if those were not signs of her tender feelings, of her love for me.

“I expected you to call me after curing Rags and propose a last time.” Her eyes were moist. “You can’t imagine how bad I felt each time I rejected your proposal. But it was the only way to steady each of us in our careers before taking the plunge. Why didn’t you propose again, RK? I kept waiting. Does it look good for a girl to travel all the way to propose to her beau?”

“Frankly, I didn’t have the courage to try again,” I explained lamely. “Whenever I called your house, mostly your father answered the phone. Whenever I visited Delhi on vacation you were traveling. We hardly met after I left Delhi.”

“You’ve a habit of missing important things,” she said with a patient smile on her lips. “Did you pay attention to what I just said?”

“What?”

“I said- does it look good for a girl to travel all the way to propose to her beau?” She looked up brightly. “I’m here to propose, Romeo, in case it’s still not clear.” She looked me deep in the eye, leaving me nonplussed. “RK, will you marry me?”

I must say she had style. She’d restored my dignity, put me back on track into regular job life and kept intact the fire of love within her. Despite lofty qualifications and a high paying job, she’d retained the freshness of an adolescent alongside her maturity.

“RK, you appear absentminded. What are you thinking about?” She peered into my eyes. “Say something! I just proposed. At least I said ‘no’ when you proposed. Now it’s your turn to say something- ‘yes’ or ‘no’!”

“Sorry, I was thinking about office,” I admitted sheepishly.

“What a time to think of office when someone proposes to you!” she chided. “Ragini rightly describes you as an absentminded professor. Can you put your office out of your thoughts, please- and respond with a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’?”

“Sorry- yes, of course, I do want to marry you.”

“That sounds better.”

“It’s what I’ve been living for all these years. You know it better than anyone else,” I said with a gush of emotion. “Who wants to think of office? Actually I was feeling jittery about my first trip abroad, that’s all. I’m in the midst of preparing for it these days.”

She cocked her brow.

“I’ve been asked to transition a project from USA to India and would leave within two weeks,” I explained. “I guess the trip’s weighing heavily on my mind. I don’t want to go away so far from you just when I found you.”

“Think positive, RK. Career is important. I’ll always be there for you.”

I stared at her tongue-tied. She was saying all the nice things and all the right things today. Why hadn’t she said the same things a few years ago when I had first proposed? It might have transformed me into a different man altogether, full of energy, enthusiasm and confidence.

“I always knew deep in my heart that you loved me too,” I said happily. “You could have reciprocated my feelings long ago instead of making a dramatic dash to Bangalore. Can’t you take a simpler approach to life instead of teasing and harassing me all the time?”

“Teasing is a part of loving, dear,” she replied affectionately. “Now, stop looking worried. You’re not going to the US forever. I’ll not go anywhere. I’ll wait for you. Go and have a nice time. It’s a good place to visit.”

“Have you visited the US?” I asked somewhat surprised. “I thought you’d never been out of the country.”

“Oh, I went there a couple of months ago for a weeklong trip,” she shrugged. “Anyway, don’t be worried about your trip. They’re usually nice people there.”

“It’s just that I’m afraid of failure, Shalini,” I admitted. “I guess I’ve become a timid person and don’t feel confident of going to the US or taking up any new venture.”

“RK, don't think negatively or you’ll feel more pessimistic,” she said in an understanding tone. “It happens to all of us- we feel drained of confidence at some point or other in life. But everything turns out alright in the end if we persist with the right actions.”

How could I tell her I was afraid of failure on my US trip as I didn’t want to lose my job due to bad performance and her as a consequence? How could I forget that it was my joblessness that kept her away from me for so long? I couldn’t risk it again.

“If I ever fail, or lose my job, will you leave me?” I asked bluntly, raising the question uppermost in my mind.

She laughed. “Yes, I will, because I’m crazy. I’ve recently escaped from a lunatic asylum, you see. Didn’t you realize that when you saw me waiting in the reception?”

“Be serious, Shalini.”

“I am. Think for yourself,” she said. “Did I leave you when I got a job with a grand salary packet while you were still unemployed and struggling? On the flip side, do you love me because of my job? Will you leave me if I fail?”

“Of course not! Your job is the last thing on my mind.”

“Then how can it be any different for me? How can I leave you if you fail?” She looked at me silently. “I avoided you for so long for your own good. Even if we love each other it’s important to learn to live away from each other too.” Her eyes softened understandingly. “Feeling better or do I need to take an oath that I won’t leave you?”

I smiled sheepishly.

She sat down on the sofa, pulling me down beside her, and gazed at me with a demanding look. “I didn’t come all the way from Delhi to shed tears on your job or fear of failure on your US trip. Will you talk of better things or do you want me to go back?”

I took her hand apologetically and held her close. The receptionist looked up and smiled as our love story unfolded before her eyes.

“Don’t ever talk of going away again. It scares me,” I said sincerely. “I almost gave up hope and was passing my days feeling lost. There should never be any misunderstanding between us. We should always try to discuss things before jumping to conclusions.”

“Sermon over?” she asked, leaning back. “I’m here on a short trip. Aren’t there better things to talk? Maybe, go out somewhere and have coffee?”

“Sure, let me get my bag,” I said. “How long is your tour to Bangalore?”

“You’re jumping to conclusions all the time, lover boy.”

“Why?”

“I'm not in Bangalore on work.” She replied, a thousand watt smile lighting up her face. “I'm here on a personal trip- to meet you. Just you. Make a note of it again- just to meet you.”

It was too much to digest in a day. I’d been thinking that she wasn’t one to waste time and money on sentiments, and here she was, out to prove me wrong again. I hardly knew how to respond.

“We have so much to talk about,” she continued, speeding ahead. “We need to plan where we want to honeymoon- here or abroad? What milestones to cover before the marriage, plan a good time for it.” She looked up brightly. “RK, let’s sit somewhere outside, in a park or a restaurant, and discuss everything while we’re together. Don’t lose your opportunity, now that you have me in front of you,” she added, slipping back into her bantering tone. “These opportunities come seldom- as you might have realized by now, Romeo. Before you know, I might vanish on a tour again, without knowing when I’d be back.”

I smiled. It all sounded too good to be true. I surreptitiously pinched myself. Honeymoon? But the marriage would have to come first. The damn processes. We spoke sweet nothings for a while more, before I left her sitting in the reception and sped upstairs to get my bag. Pads, my new MSITian boss looked up in surprise as I passed the open door of his office room on my way out with my bag slung across my shoulder. I’d never left office so early.

“I’ve to go to the airport to see off a friend,” I said as he cocked an eyebrow. “So I’d be on half day’s leave today. Hope that’s okay.”

First I took her to a mall to do some shopping, where we exchanged gifts. She bought me an expensive shirt along with an aftershave lotion kit while I gifted her a fairly expensive coat and a skin care set. In the food court, we discussed our plans for matrimony over coffee and an assortment of snacks since she didn’t want a regular lunch, before I took her to the airport in the evening. Her visit was short and dashing, but purposeful- and very satisfying for me. It had given a new direction to my life. I’d always remember and cherish this day.

CHAPTER NINE

USA was a refreshing experience after the clutter, traffic mess, water logged roads and neighborhoods during rains and the perennial power outages back home. With gaping eyes I absorbed the sights. Clean and big, they had planned everything with space in mind. My own country looked cramped in comparison. In the US, the departmental stores were enormous and well lit, the highways broader, cleaner and better maintained, the huge car parking spaces often bigger than multiple football fields put together, residential areas designed systematically, without power outages, and taps gushed with water.

The town planning had obviously not been done overnight. Elected politicians or officials lower down the rung entrusted with tasks apparently didn’t shirk their responsibilities or pocket the funds meant for the nation’s development. At least, the governance in this land didn’t seem to have been entirely hijacked by shirkers, criminals and the mafia who extorted citizens, frightened and framed them wrongly with dire consequences if they protested and blatantly robbed the taxpayer’s money, comfortable in the knowledge that courts and judges were subservient to the government, under their draconian control and hence wouldn’t dare touch them. For a change, it was good to see a country whose political bosses were obviously not thieves and cheats with dictatorial tendencies who promoted the mafia in the guise of rogues and hooligans.

Most of the cleanliness and orderliness I saw in USA had been in existence for decades, so it might be easy for its own citizens to miss the streamlined orderliness since they were used to it. But to an outsider or casual visitor these things stood out. Tremendous foresight and vision these people must have had right from the onset! At least their basics were clear, of what citizens needed in their day-to-day lives and the government worked to provide such basic necessities like water, electricity and I heard even a maintenance allowance for those out of work. For a moment I didn’t blame my college mates for dashing to the US for higher studies and settling down there eventually. The place seemed worth it and for a moment I too felt tempted to relocate to this place.

Those entrusted with essential maintenance duties like clearing the snow off roads and parking places in the apartment complexes during winter, or those attending chance complaints of fallen electric poles in residential areas during storms and other such day-to-day activities essential for the smooth running of life, or rescuing lives and salvaging properties during emergencies precipitated by hurricanes and other calamities, did their duty instead of asking bribes from citizens to do the very things they were paid salaries to do.

I wondered though if they addressed the sufferings of the rich and the poor, or the whites and the colored, on an equal basis or the balance was loaded more in favor of the haves- the rich and the influential in society- while neglecting or attending to the others with lower priority.

However it was, I never heard of kids dying because of falling into manholes or pits dug by the Municipal Corporation or telecom companies or builders, as one got accustomed to reading in the newspapers back home or watching news bulletins on TV. In this country, human life seemed more valuable.

Along with the good things there were also some idiosyncrasies which appeared odd since I came from a different culture, but overall I found USA acceptable in terms of the basic standards of life and day-to-day ethics.

The buddy assigned to me at the parent US office took me out for a pizza during the first week of my stay. Very courteous folks. That was the first time I noticed the big waiting clock at a restaurant. I had to tell Shalini about it, though she might have already seen it during her visit to this country. The big clock showed the current time as your order time and another clock next to it, ahead by twenty minutes, showed the delivery time. Fanciful thinking. Later I noticed the trend catching up in some restaurants in India as well. The copycats. If it was done, worn or spoken in the US, it must be alright. You had to do it too.

At the end of a delightful pizza, I sat back figuring if I should offer to pay first. Or would he pay? After all, he’d suggested the pizza. In India, the one who took you out to eat paid up traditionally, not the guest. I decided to wait a few more moments before offering to pay up for both of us, when with a sudden burp he fished out a few one dollar bills and placed them on the tray. “My part,” he grunted.

I speedily counted the notes he’d placed on the tray. Exactly half the price of our pizza cost plus a little extra to cover a part of the tip. This brazen businesslike behavior was both new as well as surprising to me. I struggled with my wallet to disengage the other half of the payment and we left the restaurant as if nothing had happened.

Fool, I told myself. The miserly fool never suspected that I’d have paid the full price had he only held back a little more, and besides paying up, I’d have also given him the benefit of doubt for being a generous, thoughtful host who took me out instead of thinking of him as a hasty fool. It was one of those cultural things. His upbringing had made him smart enough to pay half the cost, but hadn’t made him smarter to wait a little more and eat the whole hog free.

“But the American way is better,” PS told me over phone that evening when he called, after hearing about my pizza experience. He was living in the bay region off the West Coast, while I was touring the East Coast. We’d kept in touch over email through which I’d sent him my hotel phone number. “You don’t have to fidget around wondering who’ll pay. No obligations.”

“And no love lost,” I commented. “Anyway, any news of Pankaj?” I asked about a common batch mate we both knew.

“No idea.”

Social networking sites were almost non-existent at that time and looking up a guy wasn’t as easy as it is today. PS and I would remain in touch as long as we didn’t change our email ids. After that it would be difficult to get back in touch, unless advancement in technology created other ways of perennially remaining in touch.

Pankaj was a drama enthusiast back at MSITK in our batch. He’d been fond of writing stories and often behaved dramatically even while discussing mundane topics. His eyes would fly apart or he’d roll them or issue an exaggerated laugh throwing back his neck, or look at you with brows drawn together as he tilted his head to a side, as if acting in a movie. We’d snicker behind his back at his antics; otherwise he belonged to our regular circle, closer to PS than to me.

“But Jitesh recently landed a job in the US,” he informed, referring to another common friend from MSIT Kanpur.

From what I remembered of Jitesh, he’d graduated in electrical engineering in our batch with excellent marks but preferred to stay back in India after getting employed in a high end EDA company in Noida. Like me, he never tried seeking a scholarship to the US after graduation for higher studies, so it was a surprise to hear he had arrived here to work after so many years of graduation.

“What happened suddenly? I thought he was a diehard patriot who’d never venture out of India,” I said. “What changed his mind?”

“You haven't heard him in recent times,” he replied with a snigger. “I talked to him recently. He sounded quite different- very bitter, actually. You wouldn’t believe it till you heard him yourself.”

“What did he say?”

“He said he’d never again set foot in that horrible, corrupt part of the world if he could,” PS said in a neutral tone, managing to keep any emotion out of his voice. “He wants to set fire to everything in his past.”

I was shocked. “What’s he so frustrated about?”

“He was pissed off on many counts, starting with regularly encountering lousy public offices which harass citizens over just about any service related issue year after year, with no end in sight- whether in electricity, phone, gas, water- you name it and they’re waiting to trouble you.”

“Maybe, he lacked the patience to deal with them. Otherwise, one doesn’t leave one’s country simply on these grounds.”

“Oh yes, one does! I don’t know how you’re still stuck there. You’ve great patience, otherwise a victim always feels frustrated, desperate to lash out and break free of the system that harassed him.”

“Victim?”

“I can’t recount all the things he said- it would take too long- but I’m convinced that so much frustration can drive any sane person to leave his country in desperation,” he explained. “He was a victim of road rage just before he left India- which proved to be the last nail in his coffin.”

“What happened?”

“At a toll plaza leading to Agra, a car standing in queue behind him honked to hurry up. Jitesh was waiting to collect his change at the window- not his fault. But the driver of the car behind him walked up and abused him. When Jitesh protested, a few of the driver’s cronies joined him and started kicking the car and windows, saying there was a political VIP in the car behind. Jitesh literally sped away from the place with his family, without collecting his change, otherwise…”

I nodded to myself. It was sad. Road rage incidents were on the rise, with no sign of abating. “That’s bad,” I offered.

“Horrible!” he corrected. “These hoodlums think they own the roads. Brush their car and they pounce on you, ready to kill you.”

“I know.”

“Even if they hit you from behind, it’s your fault, not theirs.”

I chuckled. “I heard there are road rage incidents in the US too.”

“Don’t laugh; they’re not as commonplace here.”

“Whatever happened was bad with Jitesh,” I admitted reluctantly. “Perhaps as a nation we’re adept at driving away all the good, capable people and retaining the bad ones.”

“The road rage was the icing on the top. Otherwise, he was already fed up of the frustrating life there. He said he developed blood pressure by just hearing and reading of scams and corruption on a daily basis, witnessing the general apathy of leaders which led to widespread shortfall of basic amenities like water, power, health all around, and everything else. The usual rot stemming from zero governance.”

“Scams are worrisome, I agree. They can lick any country hollow.”

“That’s not all. What about the rampant friction in day-to-day life in literally every other aspect- power outages, broken roads, traffic mess, pollution, food adulteration, medical rackets, organ trade, rapes, murders, abduction of children, bribery in education? As if that’s not enough- what about the feeling of insult and repression the common man is subjected to regularly? It gets suffocating after a while, Jitesh said, and I absolutely agree. We need better officials and politicians for the taxes we pay. Sometimes I feel we’re very filthy.”

“Not all the country’s officials and politicians are like that.”

“Maybe not everyone- otherwise you too would have fled the country by now. But don’t defend, we all know how things are,” he observed with a chuckle. “The number of corrupt people there is only increasing.”

“Would coming to the US solve Jitesh’s problems?” I asked, instead of reacting to his tirade or going on the defensive.

“Why not? Life is cool here. In this country the common man can be sure of frictionless transactions at public offices, government offices and other places for his daily needs. Criminals and mafia have not yet taken over politics and governance fully. Day-to-day corruption and bribery is almost absent. It’s not crippling like it is in our country, which people would soon start calling the scam capital of the world. And as I said before, the quality of life here is good for Indians like us- excellent roads, great shops, uninterrupted power, inexpensive gas, water, phone and above all, safety.”

I felt rankled by his words, though at heart I knew he was right.

“Safety?” I said with scorn. “Back in India we keep reading of shooting incidents in US schools, colleges and marketplaces.”

“Those are sporadic incidents- fewer than in our country.”

“I hardly hear of shootouts in schools in India,” I countered.

“Maybe there are no shootouts in schools, but what about serial bomb blasts in marketplaces and streets, murders of elderly couples, robberies in residential houses in broad daylight even if the owner steps out briefly, hospital neglect and police apathy?” he said with vengeance. “RK, try reading up the world political scene. How many countries will you find where criminals are dealt with leniently and let off? Where criminals run for elections while in prison, and there is a nexus between some of the country’s political bosses and the mafia, and one hardly knows who among them is a traitor, neither does anybody have a clue whether the person offering the condolences after a calamity is genuinely remorseful or set up the ambush in the first place. I read online newspapers and pick up tidbits from my father when I talk to him, so I’m not entirely wrong- and you know it. What I said was just the tip of the list. Don’t compare the two countries, RK. You wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“I know rogues and hooligans are on the rise in our country, but not all politicians are bad,” I said lamely, feeling a bit of a hypocrite.

“It’s not a question of a few bad politicians or rulers- the whole bloody system is bad. A corrupt, rotten mentality is engulfing the entire nation like an epidemic.” He paused to see how it was going down with me, and then asked: “RK, you stay there, so you should be better aware of these things. I don’t need to tell you.”

“Everything seems frightening from a distance,” I said.

“Don’t give me that. I’ve been through it all myself; my parents go through it still. I might be a little out of touch lately, that’s all. The online versions of the newspapers do not always carry the amount of detail that local editions do. But I glean a lot of the information on current happenings from my father when we talk over phone, and I feel ashamed.”

I cleared my throat and took a deep breath.

“RK, tell me, has our country really become so bad?” he asked in the sincere tone of a seeker.

“What do you mean?” I asked in a small voice.

“Can any society and polity deteriorate so horribly? Can the political bosses of any country be so shameless? I sometimes feel scared to even plan a vacation there to meet my folks. Frankly, I feel like an outsider at times.”

He did speak like a foreigner. I didn’t wish to criticize my country in front of another countryman who’d settled abroad.

“No,” I replied at length. “India’s very good.”

“But Jitesh wasn’t lying. He’s not alone. Remember, I’ve grown up there too,” he said, gathering evidence to intensify his attack. “You know it’s all true, RK. You need to pay bribes to get just about anything done.”

I maintained a studious silence.

“They occasionally issue wrong, inflated electricity, water and other utility bills and taxes- maybe on purpose. You need to first pay, then protest, but if you’re willing to pay a bribe your experience might be radically different. If you protest, you’re silenced mercilessly. Isn’t the experience of the common man somewhat similar- and oppressive- like his experiences during the British times when foreigners ruled over us? Is this the progress we’ve made after more than fifty years of independence? It seems to me we’re slipping into regression and repression of the worst kind. I’m aware of very few countries where hooligans rule the roost to this degree.”

In a sense he was right. Nothing had changed since he had left the country. In fact things had only worsened. I wanted to tell him so, but ego and a sense of embarrassment tied down my tongue. Secretly though, I appreciated his candid observations.

I was surprised to see so much pent up venom still present in my countrymen who’d left home long ago to settle abroad. Did they feel so strongly about improving their motherland’s living conditions? Perhaps many of them would return if things improved noticeably? Were they really happy abroad or did they feel discriminated against, and looked for avenues to return to their motherland, but the degradation of social, political and moral values in every nook and corner there repulsed them and kept them at bay?

“The sad part is the same householder bears the brunt of paying the income taxes as well as bribes,” he continued. “My father sounds quite frustrated at times, but at his age he has no choice. Most feel doomed. As a nation we seem impotent to control any of the rot. It’s difficult to find many countries where the leaders, who are the country’s political bosses, lack the will to bring about constructive reforms.” He sighed. “Anywhere in the world, if the regime is only busy plundering the nation to fill its own pockets, how can that nation ever make progress?”

He was actually right. I wished we were still in college, in our canteen, where I could come out in support of some of his arguments.

“I sometimes wonder what our elected representatives do to justify their term of five years,” he went on. “There should be an objective criterion to terminate their tenure before time, based on six monthly reviews, by general referendum for non-performance, instead of prolonging their term by voting among elected representatives of similar traits and taints who worry more about retaining their chairs and clout and misusing powers than the common man’s problems they were elected to solve.” He paused to check on me. “Hello? Are you still there, RK?”

I gave a low cough to indicate I was listening. “Some of those running the show might be bad, but don’t call the country bad due to that,” I said. “A country is what its people make it, what its leaders make it.”

“A few leaders cannot make an entire nation corrupt unless the mentality is widely prevalent and receptive to corruption. Whether it’s politics or business or day-to-day affairs of the common man- there are liars all around, lacking in ethics, constantly on the lookout for opportunities to cheat. The element of fear which creates hesitation in a person contemplating criminal activities is entirely missing. People openly flout the norms.”

“The common man learns by watching the leaders. For decades they’ve seen them neglect duty, indulge in corruption and witnessed how easily they get away every time. By the way, PS,” I asked quietly, shifting gear. “When you got a bad grade in college, what did you usually do?”

He was nonplussed by the sudden change in topic. “Bad grade? Why?”

“I remember you once got two out of thirty in a mid semester exam in thermodynamics.”

“That’s right,” he said dubiously.

“What did you do after that- do you remember?”

“Obviously I studied hard. Why?”

“That’s right, I too remember. You studied everyday, every night, till you got a ‘B’ grade in thermo. You even skipped dinner sometimes or ate skimpily, just to rush back to your books. You sacrificed your other comforts and sometimes your hunger. Why? Because you wanted to set right what had gone wrong,” I said. “You didn’t leave the college, saying it’s bad or chuck your books as useless on getting poor marks. You corrected what had gone wrong, and got good marks the next time. In my opinion Jitesh has just chucked his books. He’s run away from the college.”

He trashed my reasoning immediately. “I don’t think it’s a good example, RK,” he said. “The realities of life are much harsher than exam grades in mid sem exams. Jitesh would have simply made his own life and that of his family miserable had he continued there. Society wouldn’t have improved. The loss wouldn’t be any politician’s or official’s, it would be Jitesh’s alone and no one would turn around to bail him out in his time of crisis.”

“Put that way, a common citizen has no power in any country.”

“Don’t generalize. Advanced civilizations don’t exploit their citizens. In our case, as a nation we like to exploit a person’s helplessness instead of bailing him out. In an advanced civilization, if an upright person protests against injustices meted out to him, the state doesn’t turn against him to silence him. In comparison, what do you see in our country? Aren’t we a nation of sadists? Do logic, rationale, and reasoning work in our country? It’s like jungle rule where might is right- goonda raj all the way, where it’s not a crime for the unruly and the powerful to steal and kill, but a crime for the honest, common man to point fingers at such thieves and murderers.”

“I admit there is criminalization of politics and unchecked lawlessness in the society, but it’s easy to settle down here and criticize one’s own country from a distance. The US might seem good during peaceful times, but during a crisis or widespread natural emergency, I’m sure you’d find them discriminating against the poor and the outsiders while prioritizing whom to save first. The mentality of those corrupted with power can’t be very different anywhere in the world- though I agree that during peaceful times, instances of discrimination can be ignored without feeling deprived or penalized since the comforts, facilities and benefits outnumber the other negative experiences. But you’d need to snap out of the illusion of material comforts and bias to acknowledge the truth of my statements.”

“You have no grounds to say that, but I’m justified in laying bare the facts of my birthplace. I’m not criticizing.”

“However you may term it, it doesn’t lessen the problems your parents, uncles, aunties, cousins, and friends face back home. Most would continue residing there. Someone has to face it. They’re the helpless ones who face it everyday. What kind of a person would leave them stranded and settle down abroad instead of remaining by their side in their times of need? It’s not the time for criticism, but the time for action.”

“Talk in practical terms, yaar. What can anyone do?”

“Plenty. First, we’ve to stop talking in practical terms. We need to be impractical and sacrifice our comforts to make a better country for our children. Simply criticizing wrongs is not being practical. It’ll not remove them. Subhash Chandra Bose brought freedom to our country once. He's not around to bring it a second time. We must do it this time. I don’t hold a grudge against the West for being advanced, but against ourselves for not trying to create a similar environment back home, though we’ve some of the brightest brains anywhere. We settle abroad and pride ourselves in winning accolades for our achievements and making other countries prosperous- but when it comes to discussing our own country we simply sit over a mug of beer in the evenings and criticize it like outsiders and distance ourselves from it.”

For a change, he sat back to listen without interrupting.

“If we feel governance in the country is pathetic, offices are thriving with corrupt officials, there’s inefficiency and rot in an increasing number of politicians and leaders, law keeping officials and public servants- the answer doesn’t lie in running away, but facing it. We MSITians are supposed to be brainy. Can’t we try to get together to rescue the country for once? It would be the achievement of a lifetime in our temporary, uncertain lives.”

“It’s easier said than done. What can a handful of us do?”

“Why is it difficult? If a handful of our freedom fighters could fight against colonial rule with fewer technologies, don’t we stand a better chance with today’s modernization and facilities and funds? It’s a question of the masses coming together in peaceful protest. Some of the better politicians might join our cause too. But to bring the masses together a few of us have to lead the way. In this way we could combine to form a peaceful, civilian army to counter all evil rulers. They might imprison us, throw teargas bombs at us, even throw actual bombs to kill us- but how many can they maim or kill or imprison if the entire nation rises as one?”

“Maybe also stop paying taxes in protest?” he suggested out of interest, but quickly withdrew his support. “I still think the whole idea is impractical.”

“Why? In Subhash Bose’s time, initially they didn’t think of him as practical either. They thought he had foolishly chucked away an excellent professional career to dirty his hands in the freedom struggle. But later everyone acknowledged his tremendous contribution.”

“It all sounds easy to plan. But what can a citizen do alone?”

“Plenty. We first need to unite and agree on the purpose. After that we can thrash out the details of how to free the country from the corrupt and criminal minded. If peaceful methods don't work, if democratic methods fail, then we should pray for the rise of a capable, noble minded dictator for the good of the country- instead of giving up.”

He laughed. “RK, that’s far fetched! You’ve got carried away. Stop living in dreams.”

“At least, I dream,” I replied dryly. “So long as I dream, I stay alive- and keep the chances alive that our country might become a better place to live in someday in the future. If more and more people dream like me, and we take to the streets peacefully with our dreams, the momentum can sweep aside the most powerful, corrupt rulers anywhere in the world.”

“It sounds somewhat philosophical. Had you said abolishing or banning the administrative services would ameliorate the nation’s joint pains besides making the administrative structure less arrogant and more effective and accountable, it might have sounded more practical.”

“Why single out the administrative services? There are instances of honest administrative officers too, who take up cudgels against unfair practices.”

“But such people are transferred as soon as they initiate a probe against a corrupt politician or his relative. Dealing with some of the rulers or sometimes the non-ruling political bosses too, is like dealing with the mafia. RK, I admit there are always exceptions everywhere and there might be good administrative officers too,” he said in a more reasonable voice. “However, in general, any sane citizen knows that lobbying for positions of power and wealth to ensure lifelong employment by capturing key positions in tribunals and other public bodies after retirement, has long removed the focus of administrative services officials from actual public welfare and administration.”

I nodded, agreeing for a change. “They retire from official service at sixty, join one of the many tribunals or commissions to work for another five years, then sometimes join an industry or public initiative as chairman for another few years and so on.”

“They go on perennially milking the nation for personal prosperity,” he said testily. “An overwhelming attack by blood sucking crabs can bring any country to its knees, hollowing it from within. We’re already down to our knees in that sense. Will the country never get respite from scheming, divisive, corrupt people?”

“Definitely- but the respite will come late. It’s like a marriage vow- till death do us part.”

We laughed.

“PS, lobbying is a national pastime for us,” I pointed out. “But it’s not restricted to the government sector. I’ve seen a lot of it in the private industry too. If you work in the industry there, you’ll know. Pick up the newspaper, and you’ll read of it on a daily basis- not only in politics or the government sector, but also in the corporate world and elsewhere.”

“Sad.”

“Quite a few politicians who win votes or posts, spend their time daily calculating how to prolong their stay in power, lobbying for support, with little knowledge- or interest- about the country’s problems or administration.”

“I know. Shallow people, whose knowledge borders on illiteracy, but who win votes on the basis of manipulation, rigging, or roguishness, depend on sycophantic officials to fill their time in office. They depend on administrative services officials to play a supporting role. Naturally, some of the more opportunistic officers use these situations to their advantage and guide- or should I say misguide- the misdirected among the politicians to favor themselves and their own brethren.” Disgust filled his tone. “It’s a tall order to fix manipulative, unscrupulous lobbyists- whether political or bureaucratic, by any means, when the rot is so overwhelmingly widespread and deep rooted.”

“I wouldn’t say there are no means. Dictatorship is one such means if all else fails.”

“To stem the rot?” he asked with innate curiosity. “I’m not sure about the effectiveness of a peaceful uprising, but do you really think a dictator might be a solution to our problems?”

“Maybe. Actually, if you think about it, PS, there are many peaceful ways to achieve the same objective if people have the will. What matters in the end- whether achieved through peaceful protests or dictatorship- is to establish a politically stable system, instead of continuing to live under old, garrulous grandfathers and grandmothers who tell lies to the population instead of retreating to spiritual havens or narrating bedtime stories to their grandchildren.”

He laughed. “I agree that there should be an upper age limit for the top political posts in any country and also in each state.”

“In the olden days, kings who were many times more capable than most of our current crop of leaders, voluntarily abnegated their powers by the age of fifty or even earlier, and bequeathed their kingdoms to capable successors.”

“Not necessarily,” he said in a tone of disagreement. “Sometimes they bequeathed their kingdoms to their legal heirs- sons, grandsons or someone else in the family. That’s where inefficiencies and corruption started in society. In some ways, they started the disgusting cycle of dynastic rule- though the good part was that kings abnegated their powers at the age of fifty or earlier. That was the only part healthy.”

“Why can’t we have the same healthy practice still, without perpetuating dynastic rule?” I asked. “In present times, if our national or state offices retire employees between sixty to sixty five years of age and private companies retire employees- including MDs and CEOs- at sixty, by what stretch of imagination can we hope that any politician at the age of seventy or eighty would be productive or strategic enough to guide a much more complex affair like the governance of a country?”

“Absolutely,” he said amicably. “Those are precisely my thoughts.” He sighed reminiscently. “RK, do you recall we used to discuss similar things in the canteen at night in college? I’m so glad you came to USA. We’re able to relive those discussions. We must talk every day on phone while you’re here.”

“Good idea.”

“I agree about retiring everyone, including leaders at sixty or sixty five. In our primary and secondary school days we heard how at old age people usually became garrulous and talked rubbish. But if you notice, when elderly people speak at public forums, they don’t sound so garrulous. Do you know why?”

“Because they read speeches prepared by administrative officers or advisors?” I asked. “Otherwise, normally one would expect them to be garrulous.”

“You got it! The fact that they need to read from prepared speeches- besides giving the speech itself a false ring- also shows their low level of commitment and involvement in the country’s problems. Most of them don’t know enough, nor have sufficient passion for welfare work or upliftment, to speak extempore. It’s difficult to expect good governance out of such people. But that doesn’t mean we need dictators.”

“We do. In fact, if we’d been younger, I might have proposed you to become one, with me as your assistant,” I said playfully, though I honestly meant my suggestion to an extent. At least he appreciated human pain and social administration better than many others I knew. “I always felt you had that administrative edge,” I added honestly.

“I’m flattered, and glad that you didn’t miss it,” he said happily, before turning thoughtful again. “I’m still unable to swallow the bit about dictatorship. How can having a dictator be called ‘going forward’?”

“Why not?”

“Dictatorships lead to dynastic rule, which isn’t desirable. Their only interest in ruling is to loot the country and enjoy on a personal level. They paralyze judicial processes and terrorize judges if they go against them, and overall try to perpetuate their own rule and that of their progeny and grand offspring. Such dynasties only increase the common man’s plights and plunge the nation into doom. They create horrific conditions that force citizens to either flee the country or worship them as idols.”

“I told you there are many ways to achieve the same goal. Having a dictator is just one of them. But why are you so allergic to the idea of installing a dictator? If you really think about it, aren’t we still living under dictators in many ways, ruled by people who don’t have the welfare of the country in mind? Presently multiple dictators oppress us. I’m proposing one instead.”

“Hmm.” he laughed. “You may have a point there. Considered that way, it would definitely be an improvement over our present state of affairs.”

“Correct. Some of the better monarchs in history were dictators too. They were well respected in their times and are still remembered today for all the good reasons.”

“Well, I do agree that the depravity in our society cannot be corrected by any political party by simply adopting legislative processes, policies or defining amendments that are restricted to paper and ultimately misused out of disrespect,” he said. “We already have enough laws, but lack implementation miserably- in a cancerous way. We don’t need more laws. A plethora of laws without implementation merely creates avenues for corruption.”

“Only a dictator can trash all traditional processes that have been misused to cause political and ethical rot and restart the wheel. Like God does at the end of each cycle of creation when everything degrades irrevocably without any hope of correction. He destroys the creation periodically after millions of years and then recreates everything with absolute cleanliness in terms of morals and ethics.”

“Well, the manner in which you’ve put things, you’ve got me thinking! Though millions of years are too long to wait for God.” He sighed. “We had a good chat, RK. It’s rejuvenating and refreshing to hear such stuff after so many years of college. I sometimes miss you and our canteen discussions.”

“Only difference is- I'm serious.”

“Do you think I’m not?” he almost snarled. Perhaps my choice of words had been blunt. He didn’t like it. His next words drowned out the bonhomie we had just established. “RK, I- and many others like me- have relocated here not due to the material comforts of life alone. You should remove any such misunderstanding from your mind.”

“What do you mean?”

“At first glance, it’s true that many people from around the world are attracted to this country for its material comforts and the opportunity to earn dollars, with lesser competition. But can you deny the smiles, the courtesies, the simplicity of day-to-day transactions, and the general peace of mind one gets here to pursue what the heart wants? I know you’ve not lived here for long, but speak to those who have and they’ll tell you.”

“PS, I don’t deny that this country is highly developed. Those smiles and courtesies are a part of being developed and they’re meant for everyone during happy, peaceful times- without going into whether they are forced for some or effortless for all. But, don’t you find them aloof towards outsiders, especially to us colored people, beyond the initial courtesies and smiles? Don’t you miss your own country, and your own people?”

“After a certain point in life, there’s no one you can call your own,” he said in a detached, philosophical tone. “I’ve experienced the humiliation of living in our country and don’t want to go back there and endure more of it.”

“What are you referring to?”

“We like to think of ourselves as dignified people, willing to pay respect to others- but we also expect others to treat us in like manner. In our country that doesn’t happen. Our officials treat everybody as fugitives, to be penalized over everything. Are we terrorists or thieves or murderers, to be treated like that? The abject governance inspires no hope for improvement in the foreseeable future.”

“Actual criminals are sometimes treated better,” I agreed. “The mentality at the top percolates down to everyone below, starting from the pubic officials down to the local traders and shopkeepers.”

“Exactly. Whether you go to the regional transport office to register a secondhand car, or visit a gas company’s outlet for a connection to get a cylinder of gas, or approach the electricity office to get your power bill corrected, or call up the helpline of a private telephony company to contest an inflated bill or protest the addition of chargeable services on the sly- they speak rudely to you, humiliate you, take you for a ride. Not all of us want to pay bribes. In general, most of our countrymen don’t have any respect for their fellow countrymen.”

“How do you know they have such respect for you here?”

“I agree that they may not respect immigrants and settlers here either- but the big difference is that they don’t show it on their face, they don’t necessarily talk rudely to you on your face, they don’t deny you your rights in day-to-day transactions because you’re colored, they don’t harass you or deny what is yours by right.” He paused for effect, as if prodding me to agree. I kept silent, refusing to be browbeaten into submission, though I admitted to myself that he had a valid point. “And remember- most importantly- they’re not even our own countrymen. We’re taking away their jobs, so some of their aloofness and anger is understandable. Despite that, the smiles I encounter here in public life in a month are more than what I encountered in our own country in a decade. Doesn’t that convey volumes? I wish our own people back home were half as polite.”

“You might have a point there,” I admitted reluctantly, breaking my reservation at last.

“I’m glad you admit it. One can’t deny the truth. I lead a respectable life here, which I can’t lead as easily or effortlessly there. It’s not that we don’t miss our country- so it’s a compromise you might say, to stay here for such a long stretch of time, and eventually settle down. But it’s a compromise I’d be willing to repeat, given another chance. In fact, given another chance, I’d like to be born here.”

CHAPTER TEN

One morning I got this grand idea of calling up Shalini’s house from USA. I’d already emailed her my hotel phone number but she neither replied to my email nor called me up on the hotel number.

Desis - as PS referred to our countrymen- usually got impressed when their acquaintances traveled to the USA. Any association with the whites- or _firangs _ as they were known in the local lingo- in Europe, USA or Australia, usually set tongues drooling in our country. A call from here should prod her in the right direction regarding the possibilities in life with me, though I considered her much better than the drooling majority. Since she’d herself visited USA recently, my advantage of one-upmanship was gone.

Though she’d already proposed to me, she had hardly kept in touch after that besides ignoring my attempts to communicate with her. Somewhere within I had started feeling insecure again- and would always feel like that- till we actually got married.

With trembling fingers I dialed her number on the press button phone from office. Usually she answered the phone when she was home, otherwise her younger sister, Ragini did. Today, neither picked the phone.

“Shalini’s not home,” it was her mother who finally answered gruffly. “Where are you calling from? Your voice has a delay.”

“I’m in the USA, aunty,” I replied hopefully. “There’s nine and a half hours of difference in time zone between the East Coast where I’m currently located and India.”

“Aren’t you working?”

“Why, Aunty? What else am I doing in the US?”

“I just thought.”

It was irritating that she always considered me idle. Granted that I’d been without a job for a while after graduation, but that was by choice. I was chasing her daughter at the time.

“When is Shalini back?” I asked.

“No idea,” she replied in a callous tone.

That was rather unhelpful, not divulging when the girl would be back, nor inviting me to try again later. I could never figure out what that woman had against me. Initially she’d always seemed so happy whenever I visited their house. On a few occasions she’d even cooked delicacies for me when I visited. Everything seemed like a dream now.

But over time, she’d evidently been displeased by my growing interest in her daughter and that had transformed her from a friend into a foe. I was amazed how people underwent such change. She’d become a rude woman, always brusque with me. Before I could ask further questions, she hung up!

I poignantly recalled happier times when she’d welcome me to their house. She’d raise her arms to tidy her hair behind her back as she spoke to me. PS had coached me in college that it was the sign of a woman who’d fallen for someone and wanted to develop the relationship deeper.

It was disgusting to think of her falling for me, the prospective son-in-law, in a physical sense. Even if she’d been unaware of my matrimonial intentions for her daughter earlier, she should have welcomed my interest in her daughter when she came to know of it later. I suspected Shalini had informed her by now that we intended to marry, which might explain her abrupt rudeness. It was sickening for me to think of a motherly woman in an intimate way. I admitted she did have a good figure and the other good wares that went along, and like her daughters was pretty too, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself around to think of her in any manner other than motherly.

She’d suspected my more-than-friendly interest in her daughter for long and disapproved. Quite natural for a woman who wanted me for herself, behind her husband's back. With the decision taken that I’d wed Shalini, her unholy dreams would have crashed for good if her daughter had informed her of her plans- which I was sure she had- turning her permanently against me. Not that it mattered in the long run. She couldn't bring disharmony to my family. I’d live with her daughter in a different house after marriage, not with her.

Stubbornly, I called again an hour later. It was 8:30 in the morning on the East Coast. That would be like 11 in the night in India. Shalini would have returned home by now. She couldn’t remain out of the house any longer on a working day.

Her father answered the phone this time. He was more courteous and provided the complete information. “Shalini’s gone to visit her aunt, Rajat,” he informed. “If you call tomorrow, she should be back.”

Great! I could hardly focus on my work the rest of the day as I waited on tenterhooks for the next morning. I reached office early the next morning and called her at 7:30 AM sharp. That would be like 10 in the evening in India. She answered the phone this time.

“Heard you couldn’t sleep last night, RK,” she said in her tantalizing, casual way.

I hunted for words, and fumbled. “I slept fine, otherwise how could I reach office so early.”

“You mean you’re calling from the office?”

“Yes…”

“Hang up immediately. It’s unethical, RK. Use your money to call me later from outside the office. You earn well enough now to be able to afford personal calls.”

“But I have permission,” I explained lamely.

“Don’t fib. You have physical access to the phone, that’s all, not the permission to make personal long distance calls to India whenever you want to talk about love. Remember I also work in an office, RK, which happens to be a US multinational company too, so I know how the system works. Office would allow you perhaps a call or two to your family in India after you land in USA and maybe another in case of an emergency when you’re on a trip abroad. That’s all. This is neither.”

“Hey, don’t drop the line,” I shrieked. “Okay, I’ll call you at the same time tomorrow with my money. No more misuse of office resources. But you didn’t answer my emails,” I reminded, hoping to justify my call from the office.

She didn't bother to explain why she hadn't responded to my emails, and simply said, “I'm busy and don't have so much time like you in office. Enough for today- hang up now, Romeo.”

That was my introduction to ethical behavior in the office. Beneath her hood of beauty lay something more than a successful businesswoman. Her words had sounded so similar to my father’s. He’d taught me ethical values too but somewhere along greed and miserliness and the innate urge to misuse opportunities when nobody watched had claimed me like most other unscrupulous victims. It was so easy to talk against corruption, but easier to fall prey to greed and lust once out of earshot and away from prying eyes.

I fell prey to misusing the office phone and had Shalini not checked me in a timely manner, over the years the jackpot might have magnified in size and I might have ended up like the other thieves of the corporate world who dressed suavely in a suit and tie, spoke the choicest English words, occupied senior positions, but hoodwinked the company to embezzle funds on the sly.

I called up our departmental secretary immediately after Shalini disconnected the line and asked how to pay for the few calls to India I’d made from the office since the calls had been personal in nature. She guided me on the process, and before hanging up complemented me:

“You’re one of the few, I daresay the first Indian in my experience, who’s offered to pay up for personal calls made on the sly.”

I wanted to object to her use of the word ‘sly’, but felt embarrassed by what she’d said about the rest of the Indians and quickly put down the intercom. She was actually right about making such calls on the sly. They evidently kept track of the telephone calls on a monthly or weekly basis, though they usually didn’t launch an official investigation for everything. How stupid of me. They obviously kept track.

What an impression they must have formed of us desis! We talked of lofty value systems and criticized corruption, but lost little chance to engage in the same activities ourselves according to the size of the opportunity available. So when I called up Shalini the next morning from a public kiosk I felt proud and clean.

“From the office again?” she demanded.

“No! I’m on my way to the office, calling from a roadside kiosk,” I replied hurriedly, holding the mouthpiece pointed towards the road in the hope that she’d hear the bustling traffic outside.

I didn’t want her to remember the episode when the time of reckoning came for her to officially tie the knot with her groom. I still considered myself in the fray for a hopeful marriage berth, since she’d herself proposed the last time. That trip to Bangalore seemed like it had taken place a hundred years ago, in a dream. She seemed to have entirely forgotten about it and I’d started having nightmares, harboring doubts of late whether she’d finally marry me. She seemed to have grown aloof again, and hardly took pains to stay in touch. If I too stopped contacting her, we stood to lose each other for good. Did she want that?

“Are you getting bored there?” she asked. “You called me up three times in two days- during office hours.”

“Missing you would be more appropriate,” I replied defensively.

“Grow up, RK.”

“But I love you, Shalini,” I said hurriedly, before she could interrupt. “You said we’d marry. I can’t wait. I miss you a lot.”

“We can talk about all that later,” she said without enthusiasm. What had happened to her? “I’m right now in the middle of an investment report I’m preparing for a presentation to the management tomorrow. Shall we talk some other day, RK? I’m busy right now.”

“But-”

“I gather you don’t have much pressing work in office, so you should be able to call me again tomorrow. Okay?”

“Of course,” I managed to sound casual but it broke my heart. I hoped she’d ponder over our discussion and understand my desperate state of mind.

Sometimes I felt she was outright dumb to miss all the love signs I threw her way. She was wasting her time pursuing official chores and in the process missing all the beautiful things in life. Either that- or, she was plain not interested in me anymore and before long would realize her mistake of proposing to me. Did she remember her trip to Bangalore to profess her love? Would she really pursue her matrimonial interests? How romantic and un-Shalini like she’d acted during that trip.

After office that evening I went to a departmental store and roamed around with a roving eye, trying to identify available women. It would serve her right if I had an affair during my trip, like the encounters PS had described. I might find a Kathy too. Unfortunately, I’d not been brought up that way and soon lost my way. Resigned, I returned to my hotel room alone. I wondered how she’d react if I did find a woman and brought her to my room to spend the night. Well, I’d failed to find a woman tonight, but this didn’t have to be my last attempt.

I couldn’t help wondering if Shalini had found someone smart and dashing at her office. She was beautiful and smart herself, and many would fall for her. She earned a handsome salary too, which would attract a lot of other suitors. In any case, she was obviously ignoring me.

I returned from USA, and then went there again. And again. The novelty of the wide roads, slick furnished apartments and slicker hotels soon wore off. The plush carpets in the hotels, deep mattresses and select furniture in the suites, the dingy smell of bread and snacks permeating the breakfast hall- everything started appearing drab after a while, to be taken for granted, even to a middle class person like me from a developing nation steeped in debt. The lure of shopping for electronic gadgets and perfumes at the malls faded too. I was getting fed up with my travel routine and staying away from Shalini. It seemed so many ages had passed since she had proposed marriage. At least a few years had definitely passed.

“When do we marry?” I asked her in exasperation on one of my subsequent trips from Bangalore to Delhi.

“The day you get a job in Delhi,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone, as if it was a forgone conclusion. At least she didn’t say ‘no’. It seemed our marriage was still on, though I found it difficult to believe her seriousness.

In any case, it was a new hurdle. “Why didn’t you say so before? And what’s wrong with Bangalore? You’ve lived there too when you studied MBA.”

“There’s nothing wrong with Bangalore. But we can’t keep going back and forth in India between different states.”

“Why? It’s all within the same country.”

“Do you really feel like that? I feel each state behaves like a different country here. At the rate our rulers are dividing up the country creating newer, smaller states, I wouldn’t be surprised if indeed we became many different countries eventually- regressing back to our ancient, divided history once again.”

I nodded silently. She did have a point, the way the political scenario was panning out.

“If you register and pay road tax for a car in Delhi and take it to Bangalore, the RTO’s office would harass you to transfer the registration to their state,” she continued. “I feel disgusted at the thought of people asking bribes.”

“I agree that there should be a single- one time- registration of cars and payment of taxes in our country. Otherwise, what’s the use of being a single country? Each state might as well have been a country if you’re asked to pay the same taxes in multiple states. If something as vital as income tax or as common as telephone is accessible by an individual over online portals these days, then ownership rights of cars should be editable online too with regard to change of the owner’s address and issuance of new number plates.”

She gave a brief nod. “Anyway, car transfer is just one small issue, there are scores of others, besides the ethnic divide that makes you feel that there are so many countries nestled in one,” she said in a flustered voice. “I sometimes feel it’s easier to relocate to USA than to a different state in India.” She considered my crestfallen face and softened her tone. “Of course, we could marry there as well, but let’s leave all these arguments aside.” She turned up her beautiful face and said sweetly, “I request you to come down to Delhi, please. For my sake. Can’t I ask such a small favor from you?”

My heart melted at her child-like request and I quickly nodded. She held up her hand before I could start daydreaming.

“But I need some more time, you see- to settle down into my job and responsibilities.”

“How long does one need to settle into a job?” I asked. “You’ve been at your job for several years already. Why do you need more time?”

“Everything will become clear later, baby- some things simply take time. I've set myself certain goals, you see.”

“So?”

“Well, as I said, some goals take time to fulfill.”

“What if I get a job in Delhi next week?” I challenged.

“Then we marry next week. I’m known to be true to my word,” she announced regally.

I took her assurance at face value and plunged right away into a job hunt after returning to Bangalore. From one US company manufacturing computers I landed into another there, called Dynamic Machines or DM for short, with the condition from my side that I’d join the company only if posted at Delhi. DM was primarily into manufacturing hardware but I joined their global software services organization. The company was one of the largest in the world, with hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide. It had more than seventy thousand employees in India itself, with the bulk of them in software maintenance and global software services.

Padam Singh tried hard to retain me back in Eleny. He spoke to his HR partner to offer me an irresistible retention package with a promotion too, but I had set my mind on DM already. It was more important for me to go to Delhi.

DM’s job offer didn’t promote me from a first line to a second manager. I continued at DM at the same level that I’d attained at Eleny, that of a first line manager. It was a small sacrifice for me to make such a lateral movement without promotion during my change over from Eleny to DM since I was posted to Delhi. The posting was crucial. My new employer, Dynamic Machines, was a big company headquartered in the US, with sprawling offices in multiple locations in India and hardly minded such a trivial condition from my side.

Interestingly, my boss’s boss hired me and allowed me to operate from Delhi much to my immediate boss’s dislike. Jayanth Oisa, my immediate boss at DM, was unable to voice his dissent openly. In the south, that’s how they spelt names. Jayant in the north assumes a trailing ‘h’ to become Jayanth if he’s a southerner.

“The trailing ‘h’ in the names here differentiates them from the same names without ‘h’ up north,” my MSITian boss, Padam Singh or Pads had once explained during a tête-à-tête. “I don’t think there’s any other connotation to the extra ‘h’.”

“I realized that,” I said in prompt agreement. “Someone I know suggested the trailing ‘h’ used here might stand for ‘holy’ because of the strong religious culture prevalent in these parts.”

He gave an odd smile but said nothing. In retrospect I recalled that someone had also cautioned me when I first went to Bangalore that some other biases might be prevalent there too. Though I didn’t believe in such things I remained wary. I might not believe in it, but that wouldn’t stop others from practicing it if they were so conditioned.

Apart from such considerations, I’d already given my immediate boss at DM, Jayanth added ammunition to plot against me by directly reaching an agreement with his boss during my interview to post me at Delhi. Well, I didn't care. What mattered was that I’d be near Shalini again. I could handle other situations later as they arose. For the present I had the support of Sadhana, his boss and didn't look any further. I was on my way to Delhi- to Shalini and our marriage!

Shalini was the first person I called from Bangalore to inform about the offer from DM. But she avoided taking my call. Whenever I called her at home I mostly ended up talking to Ragini and learned about the various singing competitions she’d participated in college. I was hardly interested in her singing career but to keep the conversation going, ended up telling her how I had myself learned a bit of music composition on the computer.

“What a waste of talent, RK,” she remarked on one of my calls. “You should leave your job and take the plunge to publish music CDs instead.” As an afterthought she added, “Actually you might become a good doctor too. Everyone in our family remembers how you treated me. We’d given up hope that I’d ever recover. My fever didn’t seem to subside. I still remember the name of the medicine you prescribed- Ferrum Arsenicum.”

Did she take me for a fool to chuck a golden career after obtaining foothold in the high paying IT industry, following a long period of internal confusion? Now- when everything had started falling into place and I was hopefully about to marry the girl of my dreams- this girl was suggesting I leave my job and pursue a musical or medical career. Her mother didn’t take me seriously either, always thinking I was out of job. What did that family take me for? Was I a clown?

“Just curious, did your mother finally appreciate how I cured your fever?” I asked.

There was silence at her end.

“Anyway,” I said quickly. “Forget it. When is Shalini back?”

“She’s not gone anywhere. Why did you ask?”

“Then why doesn’t she answer my calls?”

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” she said casually. “Okay, I’ll ask her to call you back.”

But Shalini didn’t call me. By now I’d bought a cellphone and shared the number with her over email. She already had a cellphone of her own but for some reason never shared the number with me, citing official reasons, otherwise I’d have sent her a sms too. On one of my recent trips to the US I had also purchased an expensive video camera. I could hardly wait to film her.

My matrimonial situation looked discouraging however. Earlier it used to always be Shalini or her father who answered the phone when I called. Of late, whenever I called to talk to her, I was almost sure Ragini would answer the line, and invariably she did. She’d ask about my computer music composition as if I had nothing better to do with my time! I humored her along, but always ended up feeling unsure if she was the one actually humoring me.

At last the day came when I jumped on the first flight to Delhi after getting my posting letter from DM. Earlier I used to travel by trains, and felt good to note my rapid upward climb in financial and social status, though I couldn’t dwell for long on these achievements in my present frame of mind. I was restless to meet Shalini. Matters of the heart could never progress satisfactorily over phone. Face to face I’d resolve every last confusion and uncertainty and also get her cellphone number. Who wanted to call up her house phone and talk to everyone else but her?

I was determined to fix a date for our wedding. It had been the single most, burning ambition of my life so far. As my cab reached home, I peered eagerly at her house hoping to catch sight of her. But the blinds were drawn and there was no one on the balcony.

It was late in the evening when I reached as I’d taken the last business flight out of Bangalore. I had little choice but to wait till the next day before ringing her doorbell. But I couldn’t ring her doorbell the next day as I had to leave early the next morning to locate my Gurgaon office.

On my first day in the office I learned that most offices in Gurgaon were powered by builders with privately owned diesel generator sets for the majority of the time. Power supply was extremely erratic. Often power supply remained disrupted for hours together.

The electricity power situation was absolutely dismal in the city. There were often up to twenty hours of power outages in domestic houses. I was glad I stayed in Delhi, though there too the summers saw several hours of power outages every day. Fortunately father had installed an inverter in the house that managed to provide power to run two tube lights and a fan for four to six hours in the event of a power outage. But it was inadequate to fight the insurmountable summer heat. If the situation in modern cities was so dismal, I wondered how pathetic it was in lesser known cities and villages. The citizens were quite powerless in this country in every sense of the word.

In this way my initial days in Delhi passed quickly, beyond my control. Soon, it was a week since I’d landed, but Shalini continued ignoring my emails. I had even dropped her a couple before starting from Bangalore and several more since my arrival in Delhi. I reminded her of her promise to marry me the day I landed in Delhi. But she didn’t answer any of those. Wasn’t she receiving them? By any chance was the spam filter of her office network hyperactive and diverting my emails to her spam or trash folder?

I was at my wits’ end, left with no idea other than keeping on trying her residence phone to take a chance. I didn’t want to land at her doorstep yet, only to be turned away by her mother. So I started getting up early in the mornings and furtively peeped out of our balcony to keep a watch on her house and the road below. Finally I was rewarded one day. I saw her drive out in a car to office. So she’d purchased a car. Strange that she didn’t mention it when we discussed about shifting and re-registering cars from one state to another. Ironically, my father had sold his old, shuddering second hand car just sometime ago before it capsized or hurt anyone. But this car was shining and appeared new.

I noted the time she drove out in the mornings and repeated the exercise of peeking everyday from our balcony to confirm that she left at the same time daily. I brought out my new video camera and filmed her clandestinely. But I didn’t repeat the exercise as it didn’t seem right shooting furtively from my balcony. Should I perhaps wait for her near her car the next day? But I decided to keep myself out of sight. First I had to be sure what was going on in her mind.

Finally she answered the phone herself one evening. Her opening words floored me.

“RK, don’t send emails to my office account. It’s not meant for personal emails.”

So she’d seen my mails. I stopped breathing and the silence was audible to her over the line.

“Someone can read those emails- the system administrators or our mail staff,” she explained in a softer tone. Well, she did seem to have some sympathy left for me. I wondered if I should feel overwhelmed or agitated.

“I think you’re avoiding me, Shalini,” I accused at last.

“I've been rather busy,” she replied with a sincere ring. “I'm sorry, RK, I really am. I read all your emails and have been meaning to reply, but simply couldn't manage. My workplace is chaotic. You've got to be there to believe it. I keep dashing from one meeting room to another- when I'm in town. On the other days I'm traveling all across the country. Being in sales can be quite hectic at times.” She paused as if to consult her watch. “But why are you calling over phone. You're right next door. Why don't you just step in?”

I felt flattered by the invitation. There still seemed some hope left for me. But I shook my head. She’d read my emails. Had she noted what I’d written regarding her promise to marry me the day I landed a job in Delhi? I found it hard to believe that she could be so busy as to find no time to reply.

“I'll come- later,” I replied skeptically, assuming a busy air. “We've some serious things to resolve before that. You've been avoiding replying to my-”

“Don’t talk like that. You sound ominous,” she interrupted. “Didn’t I take your call today?”

“I should feel flattered, I suppose,” I said sarcastically.

“You’re angry, Romeo.”

“I’ve joined the Gurgaon office of Dynamic Machines quite a while back. Do you remember your promise if I landed a job in Delhi?”

She giggled. “No- shall we talk about it later? I'll call you the next time, don't worry,” she said abruptly and dropped the line before I could remember to ask for her cellphone number.

I felt cheated. She didn’t remember anything or maybe she remembered everything but was feigning amnesia on purpose! On top of that she had the cheek to giggle!

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Only I seemed to remember her promises. How stupid of me. It wouldn’t be surprising to hear some day that she was engaged to someone else. Between us there had been no formal commitment. We never got engaged. Even if we had been, engagements could always be broken. If marriages could be annulled in the modern world, engagements were small fry in comparison.

It would serve her right if I could switch loyalty likewise and go out with another woman. But I’d already tried that several times and failed. I felt trapped in a quagmire, thoroughly hooked to her. Why did one’s mind stick so overwhelmingly to a girl’s thoughts to the exclusion of everything else in life? I felt like a fly stuck to the deposit of honey at the mouth of a bottle containing the amber liquid, trying to escape. There seemed no easy way out.

The weeks dragged into a month. I wasn’t sure if I’d done right by opting for a Delhi posting. In the process I’d only alienated my boss Jayanth Oisa in my new job. In the first place I shouldn’t have quit Eleny, I thought in retrospect. Padam Singh, my boss there, had wanted to promote me as a retention incentive besides hiking up my salary fabulously. I should have gone for it instead of jumping into DM to ferry my way to Delhi. Nothing seemed to be working out right. I needed a break soon, otherwise I’d go mad.

It was time to get back to my homeopathy remedy Aurum Metallicum with a vengeance. It did no good after an initial respite. But I was desperate, and changed to a higher potency of 200. I’d read long back that mental diseases usually responded better to the 200th potency or higher. I needed to keep afloat at all cost. My mental prostration was deepening at an alarming pace.

In this way the weeks passed by slowly. I felt utterly alone in this big, modern city of fast cars, flashy houses, rumbling, polluting generators and spectacular malls, and could hardly put my mind to my new job or my new boss’s barbs. The long, tiring commute from Delhi to Gurgaon took its toll too, on my physical as well as mental reserves, demolishing me bit by bit.

Jayanth demanded that I remain online on chat on my laptop all the time during office hours. My project team was in Bangalore and I was building up a small team at the new Gurgaon office. He’d ping me on chat randomly. It was easy to figure out his strategy. A prompt response from me told him I was at my desk. The fool took it to mean I was on the job as well. Being physically present at the desk didn’t mean I was also on the job, but that was the fool’s method of placing me under surveillance. I might be browsing shopping websites or checking personal mail for all he knew.

Sometimes, such bosses make you feel like cheating the company. You want to get even with your boss and in the process mistake the company’s resources to be the boss's- just like they too forgot that they were merely employees like you and behaved like colonial owners instead, mistaking you to be their personal slaves. I felt like harming the project by neglecting it, as it meant hitting back at the boss, but quickly quashed such thoughts in the bud. My father had taught me to be conscientious, no matter how much the pressure or provocation to act otherwise. Unfortunately my father had not met devils like these in his office otherwise he might have taught me a bit of diplomacy as well.

The last few weeks had been like a nightmare, with no energy or enthusiasm for any activity. Gradually more than two months had passed since my arrival in Delhi. I plodded through my days, feeling listless. I’d wake up in the mornings unrefreshed. The daytime at the office would pass drowsily. It was getting progressively hopeless.

One night as I watched the movie on her on my handycam that I had shot from my balcony, I felt so angry that I flung the handycam away, breaking it. I felt no remorse for my act. Memories were no good till I was authorized to own them. I’d never buy a camera again!

To worsen things, my boss put me through a training program on software quality at a hotel. I felt stuck from morning to evening, looking at meaningless slide shows and hearing nonsense as the speaker shabbily explained software engineering processes. I couldn’t concentrate. My mind was elsewhere, thinking of Shalini.

When I first arrived at my office in Gurgaon, I’d noted with excitement that her office lay in the close vicinity. If she’d not been so heartless I might have taken an auto once in a while during lunch break to reach her office, but gradually felt devoid of any desire to meet her after her obvious avoidance tactics.

I’d been perhaps better off pursuing spirituality and made a mistake by jumping into material life. She was too fast for me. I no longer prided myself in being an intelligent, smart MSITian. She was much smarter.

I repeated the higher potency of [_Aurum _]again. The effect of the earlier dose had worn off too soon. Maybe I’d picked the wrong medicine for my ailment. At this rate I might never find the correct remedy to treat myself in time. Why was it so difficult to treat oneself, or was it my inexperience with medicine? After all, I wasn’t a qualified doctor by profession.

It was a struggle to plod through the day, so great was my mental prostration. I realized I wouldn’t be able to carry on like this for long. Wearily, I returned to office after the training program on quality processes ended and spent an aimless hour doing little, keeping an eye on my watch.

When she’d proposed to me in Bangalore I’d assumed I’d never need any medicinal remedy to buoy up my spirits again. Absentmindedly I glanced out of the window of my high-rise office building, feeling tempted for a moment. How would it feel to jump down from this height? Would it end all suffering? Wondering, I picked up my laptop when office broke, and make my way down to the office cab. It was time to go home.

I tried diverting my mind into lurid thoughts to get a breather. Frustrated I decided I’d chase Shalini’s mother and enjoy her. I had an open offer there. Shalini deserved it. But the thought was nauseating. Life looked bleak and meaningless without her. I flagged an autorikshaw but it was unable to come close to me as a car swerved and almost hit it as it ground to a halt on the curb just in front of the autorikshaw. Today was simply not my day.

It might be much simpler to end my life and get done with the repeated misery. I should have jumped off the building today, giving in to my fleeting temptation. Thoughtfully, I glanced up at the high-rise building again, wondering if I should go back upstairs and find a way to the terrace, or postpone it for another day. The commotion created by the autorikshaw driver diverted my attention.

He angrily got out of his vehicle and started abusing the car. It was a big, luxurious car one usually saw in the movies. Its door opened and the driver emerged. It was Shalini! She waved at me frantically. I didn’t recall seeing this car from my apartment’s balcony. This one was much bigger and spacious in comparison and looked sparkling new. How many did she have? As she tried to convince the autorikshaw driver that she wasn’t at fault, I forgot about climbing to the terrace of my office building to jump off it and rushed to the curbside instead. It seemed I was destined to live for some more time.

I pacified the autorikshaw driver and paid him some money before he could create further ruckus. He went away murmuring something unpalatable about women driving cars in peak traffic.

“RK!” Shalini shouted. “Get in, quick!”

She never did give much choice or maybe I never dared ask for one as long as there was an opportunity to be near her. The evening office traffic had started piling up behind her stationary vehicle. Hot engines of scores of cars snarled as horns blared all around. I quickly jumped beside her and urged her to start.

“You’ve managed to create quite a traffic jam,” I pointed out.

“Sorry about that- but thanks. You arrived on time.”

“Did you hit his autorikshaw by any chance? I wasn’t paying attention.”

“No. Forget him,” she said in her characteristic manner. “By the way, I bought this car only today- it’s my second car,” she announced happily, holding the steering wheel proudly in her hands. “Will take me some time to get used to it. It’s quite big and unmanageable.”

Sensing the commotion outside, she quickly shifted the car into gear and eased away from the curb. The din fell away as she pressed the gas.

“It’s good,” I said in a subdued voice, turning around to look at the luxurious interior.

Earlier, I’d seen such magnificent cars only from outside, from a distance, as others drove past. It seemed like sacrilege to even touch such cars with one’s dirty hands to feel the sheen of the glossy metal- and here she was driving one! It was really quite big and spacious. She was having difficulty maneuvering it in the busy traffic. It meant that the car I’d seen her drive from my balcony was her first one. I didn't even know when she’d bought that.

“You bought it today?” I asked dumbly.

“Correct! I bought it today and you’re the first one to see it and get a joyride. I drove straight down to your office after getting the keys. Rags couldn’t make it as I sent her somewhere else,” she added, referring to her sister.

Her arrival had infused the air with energy and exuberance. I felt touched to be the first person she’d remembered after buying her new car and also somewhat guilty for harboring amorous thoughts about her mother.

“Where are we going?” I asked at last as she pulled into a deserted road and hit the gas hard. The car purred like a mountain cat and leaped forward powerfully.

“Don’t disturb me. This beast’s difficult to manage. I shouldn’t hit anybody on my first day out with it. There’s still time. I’ll explain everything later.”

“There’s still time for what?”

“Before the marriage bureau closes. The clerk at the marriage court might be around still.” She glanced into the rearview mirror overhead before leaving her lane to overtake the car in front. “I know we’re a little late- but Rags is holding fort. I sent her there.” A frown entered her eyes as she braked hard to avoid hitting a car that suddenly slowed down in front of her. “One can't plan anything these days because of the damn traffic.”

Why was Ragini waiting at the marriage bureau? Things were moving too fast. I just failed to understand Shalini’s way of thinking or her approach to life.

“Is Ragini marrying?” I asked cautiously. “Why did you send her there?”

She glanced at me momentarily but kept driving without replying.

“Whose marriage is it?” I repeated.

“Obviously ours. You do seem to ask odd questions sometimes.” She tilted her head towards me. “I’m known to be true to my word. Didn’t I say so before?”

Obviously. I should have guessed it was our marriage, even without asking had I been in the right frame of mind.

“Watch out!” I gasped as she nearly hit a scooter. She quickly turned her head back to the traffic ahead. “Ours!” I exclaimed as the news sank in. It was indeed news! “But you never told me.”

“What was there to tell, RK? We've discussed it so many times before. What was there to add?” she asked, as if it was a foregone conclusion that we’d marry today. “Isn't that the reason you shifted from Bangalore to take up a job here- because I said we'd marry the day you landed in Delhi?” As I gaped at her, she smiled with a blink of her eyes. “Now will you shut up and let me concentrate on my driving? You talk too much and sometimes- I’m sorry to say- it’s mostly rubbish.”

“That’s okay- but it’s kind of sudden.”

“Why sudden? I’ve a promise to keep. You reminded me so many times after landing in Delhi. You filled up my official mailbox with mails.”

“But-”

“Look here, RK. Make up your mind. You’ve wanted to marry me for a decade and proposed half a dozen times already. Now when I’m ready, you call it sudden. Didn’t I travel all the way to Bangalore to propose myself, even if it was a few years back? Wasn’t marriage the next logical step? We’re already late.”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry things took longer than we expected. You arrived in Delhi a few months ago, but I was actually waiting for this car. It was one of the goals I’d set myself. Before marrying, I wanted to buy a big car.”

We drove on in silence for a while.

“By sudden I meant we should marry in the traditional way,” I stammered at last, courageously breaking the silence.

“A traditional wedding would be too time consuming- and risky. Court marriage would be fastest.”

I didn't know whether to laugh or feel panicky. What would my parents- especially father- think if they heard I’d run away to marry? Was this her way of giving me a surprise? Well I didn't mind being hijacked, but I thought of our families. What would they think? Otherwise my life's dream was about to come true and there was nothing for me to complain. Wasn't this what I’d wanted all along?

“What about witnesses?”

“I told you Rags is already there at the marriage bureau. Besides her, I’ve also asked an office colleague to be present.”

“You could have at least informed me earlier, Shalini. After all, it’s my marriage too. Don’t you think you’ve taken me for granted? We’re equals in love.”

“Cut out those melodramatic dialogues. I kept ringing you the whole of yesterday and again today, but you didn’t answer the phone. What could I do?”

I didn’t venture a reply, thinking about my utter restlessness of the last few days.

“So I decided to reach your office today when office broke for the day, to catch you on your way out,” she continued. “I took so many pains, but you didn’t even answer your phone all these days. Why, RK?”

I sighed, feeling defensive. “I was in a quality training at a hotel. Only returned after lunch to the office today. Did you try my phone after lunch?”

“I also left you voice mail several times.”

“I didn’t check my voice mail,” I replied sheepishly, omitting to add how directionless I’d been over the last few days. “But you could have called me on my cellphone. I’ve one now and also sent you the number over email.”

“Sorry dear, I’m not as well organized as you, to copy phone numbers from emails to my cellphone. You should have texted me.”

“How could I? You never shared your cellphone number. Why, may I ask?”

She gave a sheepish but sweet smile. “If I had, you’d have troubled me all the time in office. Can you think of anything else but me?”

I stared at her fondly. She was aware of the intensity with which I loved her, and yet appeared to be aloof and acted so unconcerned at times, almost difficult to get.

“You’re right, I can’t think of anything but you,” I admitted honestly.

“Don’t worry; I’ll give you my cellphone number today. Guess I can’t avoid it anymore,” she said with an impish look. “O boy, am I glad I found you at the car park,” she added happily, blushing faintly. “Or we might have got delayed further and missed the marriage clerk altogether despite so much planning.”

“I’m glad too, or you may never have found me.”

She slowed down the car. “What do you mean?”

“I was so sad when you avoided taking my calls that I wondered if jumping from my office window would end all seuffering. I considered the thought closely today.”

“What!” She drew the car to a side of the road and stopped. “I’m sorry if you thought I was ignoring you, RK. I’m really sorry I hurt you. I didn’t even realize it.” She shook her head as if to clear a daze. “Don’t think like an idiot again, about ending life. What’s there to think so negatively? Am I not in front of you? And see, we’re going to our marriage. There’s so much excitement all around. How can you feel gray? Cheer up!”

Despite myself, I smiled. I was indeed an idiot as she’d lovingly said.

“I care only for you and will always be by your side wherever you go, whenever you need me,” she added in a loving tone as she fidgeted with the steering of the stationary car. “You should start understanding and realizing this, RK. Do you know what your problem is?”

“What?”

“You’re too focused on physical nearness. The moment you don’t see me or hear from me, you tend to break down.”

I thought about it. Maybe she was right.

“Become stronger mentally,” she added. “I’m always there for you even if I’m not physically around. Always remember that.”

She wiped the tear coursing down my cheek while I stopped her eyes from flooding. I’d never imagined she could be emotional, my little business woman. Then she resumed driving and soon we reached the court.

Ragini flashed a huge smile as I emerged from the car while Shalini resumed her businesslike front.

“Rags, did you speak to the priest not to leave?” she asked her sister. “And the registrar? I hope he’s still around?”

Ragini nodded. “He is, but there was no priest here. I brought one from a nearby temple.”

Shalini smiled at me proudly. “Isn’t she smart? And resourceful?”

Ragini held up her hand to interrupt the joking. She was clutching a camera in her hand. With a pang I remembered the expensive video camera I’d purchased in America. Had I known about my wedding, I’d not have damaged it, I thought ruefully.

“Let me finish,” Ragini said. “I spoke to the registrar about the delay and he agreed to wait. Any day a bribe is more attractive to these officials than their regular salary.” She paused to look from me to her sister. “But you’re both quite late, beyond sane limits. I called Shell’s cellphone but there was no response. What happened?”

“I was driving with full concentration. It’s difficult to manage such a big car in the traffic and answer the phone at the same time. I forgot my hands-free device at home today,” Shalini explained, turning to regard her new car proudly. Her sister patted the car and peaked inside with relish, going around it admiringly.

“Wow!” was all she said finally. “Amazing car!” She turned to her sister excitedly. “This calls for a joyride!”

“Later, on another day,” Shalini said promptly. “Today, only RK gets joyrides. By the way, have you told the registrar we’ve arrived?”

“Not yet. I think he’ll demand a further bribe since you’re late,” she said, consulting her watch, and then catching sight of me, winked. “I don’t mind the bribe but I guess this means I’d remain a bachelor for life.”

“Why?” I asked suspiciously.

“Because I’m marrying you,” Shalini explained with a laugh, pinching me. “Didn’t you understand her meaning? There’s still time for you to decide.”

“Decide what?”

“Well, she’s prettier, in a flirting mood, and ready- and we’re standing right in front of the marriage bureau,” she replied in a mirthful tone. “Take your pick now- which sister do you want?”

Ragini broke out laughing.

“Stop pulling my leg,” I said annoyed. “You both are crazy, speaking whatever comes to mind. How can you talk like that on a solemn occasion?”

“Father calls us headstrong,” Ragini said helpfully at which her sister laughed again. “You called us crazy. In a way you both are right.”

“Stop it, Rags,” Shalini admonished. “He’s in no mood for all this.”

I’d been walking in a dream so far, led by Shalini. But my mind had struggled all along to make sense of the sequence of events and the rapid developments taking place in my life.

“What happened?” Shalini asked, seeing my steps falter. Her colleague from the office had joined us by this time.

“This should be done properly,” I insisted, choosing to put my foot down at last. “This is the first marriage in your family,” I said. “Only your sister is present. On my side it’s okay, as it’s not the first marriage in our family. My brother Sujat is already married and so is my sister, Madhubala. Both were married with traditional pomp. I think we should go the traditional way too. Let it be time consuming. I’m in no great hurry.”

“Aren’t you?” she asked with a glint in her eyes, but I ignored her mischievous look.

“This might not be the right time for a traditional wedding. Mother would oppose the marriage if she hears who the groom is,” Ragini confided. “Father is anyway busy with the cops. We had a burglary recently and are facing harassment over recovering our own things which we lost in the robbery.”

“Why?” I asked, unaware of the burglary. I did remember mother saying something about a burglary taking place in the neighborhood recently. Had she been referring to the Nanda household?

“Oh, it’s the usual story of incompetent, corrupt goons in every state,” Shalini said jovially. “It’s nothing unique about a particular city’s police force. They’re the same everywhere, from north to south and east to west.”

“They’re all citizens of this land,” I said in agreement. “But what happened at your place?”

“We were all away at our respective chores during the day. Someone possible kept tabs on us and took the opportunity to burgle the house while we were away.”

“Do you keep a lot of cash in the house?”

“Thanks to her,” Ragini nodded towards her sister. “Mother has told many of our neighbors about her rich daughter’s high salary and ambitious plans to buy a house soon, and the big car she’d booked. She already had one car. Word about affluence travels fast. The maidservant might have overheard mother or maybe someone else did and decided to act.”

“But who’s harassing you folks?”

“Forget it, RK,” Shalini interrupted, brushing the topic aside. “We’re here to celebrate something good today, not discuss corrupt officials.”

“Did the police say something?”

“They can only think of different ways to harass citizens they’re appointed to protect and help. Sometimes I feel we should outsource our governance back to the British. They were better- at least on the administrative front.”

“The sub-inspector who visits our house frequently in connection with the theft has made an offer to father,” Ragini revealed. “He wants a fifty-fifty split for recovering the booty. He explained it’s not a bribe though.”

“That’s preposterous!” I found it diabolical in a way. “How can he make such a demand? Wonder why all these people never call it a bribe.”

“Grow up, baby,” Shalini said. “I thought you knew their modus operandi. You should if you're an inhabitant of this land, an educated, intelligent one at that. You should know your rights as a citizen. This is one of those rights- what you can expect from the police force and those who employ them.”

“Assume me to be dumb and elaborate a little, please,” I said testily. There was frankly much for me to learn in terms of practical encounters with corrupt people.

“Doesn’t it ever occur to you that gangs sometimes operate in neighborhoods with somebody’s permission? When cops receive a complaint, they often have an idea which gang might have committed the robbery and hence are able to quickly retrieve the booty- but, for a price sometimes.”

“Horrendous. I did hear of such things before but never believed,” I said. “It sounds like a joke.”

“What did you imagine- that they’re a force of bright, intelligent people who can sniff and locate the criminal at will? Many of them are simply crooks in disguise, dulled by corruption. How can they think? They don't investigate to find out who robbed your house. They sometimes know in advance who’ll do it,” she said.

I felt dazed. “So the next time I see a patrol car going past my house, it might mean they’re keeping tabs on residential houses to note which owners have stepped out- to relay the information to their unofficial friends, so that we find the house burgled on our return?”

Brushing back a strand of hair from her forehead Shalini took a deep breath. “Discussing any such topic is like opening a Pandora’s Box. Let’s leave it for later. Do you have anything further to say regarding the marriage arrangements?”

“Well- for us, this is our only marriage,” I repeated firmly. “I still think we need to do it the proper traditional way. At the minimum, our parents should be present. It’s an occasion for celebration. There's nothing to hide.”

“ You're right about everything- only my parents don't think that way,” she replied. “Neither are they so broadminded. You already heard what Rags said. If my mother knew who I was marrying she’d think of ingenious ways to stall our marriage and cancel it. You don't know her properly yet. So for the time being, this is the only way if you want to marry me anytime soon. We got to be street smart, baby!” she winked. “For the same reason, my surname would continue to remain Nanda for some more time till we're at peace with everyone on either side of the family divide.”

“And, Shalini Nanda, I suppose you’d also continue staying with your parents?” I threw up my hands. “If nothing will change, what’s the use of such a marriage?”

“A lot of use. First you’ll stop pestering me to marry you and your broken heart will mend. Second, I’ll move out of my father’s house this weekend,” she revealed. “My parents are okay with that.” She paused dramatically. “As a result, the best change for is that you can move in with me.”

Move in with her! The thought was exhilarating, and intoxicating. I’d always wanted that. Here was an open invitation to realize my dream. Of course, as husband and wife it was natural to live together, but I found it too good to believe. My fortune was at last changing for the better! Ragini clarified the situation further.

“Both your jobs are in Gurgaon, not really in Delhi. That’s a fair distance to travel in the kind of traffic jams we have. So Shalini has decided to shift to Gurgaon this Saturday. Everyone in the house is okay with that.”

“That’s another reason why I’ve been so busy and couldn’t return your calls,” Shalini added.

I stared at her dumbly.

“I was busy with real estate brokers looking at houses on most evenings after office and on weekends as well,” she explained. “A house takes times to finalize. So you see I haven’t wasted my time.”

I nodded. Renting a house was much quicker these days, but the trips to see the prospective houses were time consuming nonetheless. You wanted to look at the house yourself before entering into a rental lease. I had myself talked to my parents about moving to Gurgaon to save travel time and energy. All the pieces started falling into place now. I looked at her brightly. She’d thought of everything beforehand and was so well organized regarding her approach to life. She was all the [Aurum Metallicum _]I’d[ _]ever need in this life.

“Satisfied now?” She asked. “At peace? Have I answered all your questions? If you have some more, ask them quickly, as I may soon get busy with my office again, leaving you feeling bad.”

I sighed. She never did give much choice. But the wait of several years of forced celibacy at Bangalore was finally turning out worth it. I felt thrilled as the significance of the marriage soaked in. Shalini would at last be mine! I’d waited for her with parched lips for so many lives, I thought philosophically. The wait was about to get over.

[* The End *]

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Subir Banerjee is an alumnus of IIT Kanpur from where he did his Bachelor of Technology. While in college, he co-founded the institute’s newsletter and was on its editorial board for a year until graduation. Following that, he spent close to two decades in the Information Technology industry before taking to writing full time. He is fond of writing across genres, and has several fiction novels, including one on nonfiction dealing with alternative therapy, to his credit.


Will She Be Mine?

(About the book: Romantic suspense genre. The present title is book ONE of a series, WITH BOSSES LIKE THESE. However, each book of the series can be downloaded separately and enjoyed out of turn as each is complete in itself.) Despite not making any commitment to him, she is Rajat’s love boss, though still in high school. Shalini might as well control him with a slight flick of her forefinger if she wills. He wants her to do that but she doesn’t need to. She is able to string him along even without as much as looking at him. It is with a heavy heart he leaves home to enroll in one of the country’s premier engineering colleges and is required to stay on campus, with his heartthrob living far away in a distant city. That doesn’t deter him. He makes frequent trips home at the cost of his studies and performance as well as his parents’ hard earned money to meet her. Each time he returns back to the college confused about his importance in her life. Her priorities seem focused on a career that’s still distant. Rajat realizes he must exercise tremendous patience. But there is no guarantee she will say ‘yes’ at the end of his ordeals. If God didn’t make their match in heaven, Rajat is determined to seal the pact on Earth. The question is how? It doesn’t look like an easy task. Is he too much of a grown up for her? Or is she too worldly-minded and smart for his mundane love? Yes, this is another way that love happens in this world, making a boss of a lover, building of them the perception of a hard task master which they may not be! Of course, Rajat gets his share of tough bosses at work, without needing one at home- if ever Shalini does agree to tie the knot, which is the question uppermost in his mind...

  • ISBN: 9781370199075
  • Author: Subir Banerjee
  • Published: 2016-09-07 10:40:12
  • Words: 57586
Will She Be  Mine? Will She Be  Mine?