23 October 2010

Dreams and Nightmares

It is Friday afternoon. In Kaizen Tech, everyone is in the weekend mood. The early birds have already left for the day——except Paddy; though one of the firsts to arrive, he leaves only after Bob, his boss, goes to home. Uncharacteristically Bob has called for a late meeting. An unplanned meeting, late Friday afternoon, means only one thing: someone needs to be fired!
“Swing by my desk, when you have a minute,” Bob had left a message on the Outlook Communicator. Though Bob has not indicated anything——Paddy knows. Bob won’t do the dirty job. He will give instructions and wash his hands off the whole thing. Paddy is the executioner. In the past, Paddy had been unconcerned. But today it is a different case. The candidate, unaware of his ominous fate, is a dear one; at least, was dear to Paddy once. What no one knows, including Bob, is that Paddy has master minded the whole thing, with a simple plan: simple and full proof.
Part 1
Padmanathan Ulaganathan landed in the US a decade ago. Among other things, he was thoroughly perplexed by Americans failure in pronouncing his name. Americans, as usual, with a penchant for simplifying everything, had shortened him for Paddy——which he liked instantly more than his real name. Over the period many had forgotten his real name——except his Grandma in India, whom he called every week. “Ulaganathan, don’t forget your roots,” she would remind, much to his dismay.
Last year, in the absence of a suitable candidate, he was promoted. Sticking to one organization was one of his many schemes. He was full of such seemingly innocent but effective-on-the-long-run schemes. These schemes would some day place him at the top——such was his hope.
Paddy was a survivor. He smoked the exact brand of cigarettes that Bob smoked; at the lunch hour, involved himself with the right kind of people; always dressed sharp; made the right kind of jokes in management circles; laughed at the right moment; and stopped laughing at the right time not to raise any brows. He was a smooth player.
During the course of the day, he would attend as many meetings as possible, where in he would volunteer to, jot down the Minutes. After the meetings he would promptly send Minutes to all the attendees, kindly requesting for possible updates. Though, many were unaware of his role in the bigger scheme of things, because of his constant presence at the meetings, he seemed like a promising candidate in the rat race.
Many a times he was seen rushing around with important looking documents——relentlessly giving instructions to subordinates on his hands-free Bluetooth——hooked to his right ear; that made him look like a character from Starwars. In Kaizen, 2 most unpredictable things were Death and Paddy’s e-mails. Paddy’s e-mails, lengthy, well formatted, important-sentences-highlighted, CC’d to upper management, would arrive at all possible hours. Clueless employees, upon opening the mail box in the morning, would find half a dozen of e-mails from Paddy, sent in the wee hours, requesting immediate attention——lest an unfathomable business loss would ensue.
Those were Golden days. He was a magician, a conjurer, a demigod: others were mere pawns. He was not like this always. A decade ago, new to Kaizen, he was simply a technical consultant. In those days he was considered a Geek. However, being in one organization for a long time, he was not abreast with the current technology. That didn’t bother him much. In his own words, he was a Solution Provider. In the outside world job market was low. There were not many openings for unskilled candidates. Only a year back, being an indispensable resource, he was not worried about job security or the job market. Then something happened.
Paddy would never finish his tasks before time——but at the right time—— when people had just reached their frustration level. Either Bob had sensed this or had a genuine concern for the seemingly over-worked subordinate. He recruited an assistant for Paddy.
When Swami joined Kaizen, he was relatively new to the US. He had difficulty understanding American accent, and usually his American colleagues ended up repeating themselves multiple times, before he could finally get the drift. On the other hand, his boss, Paddy, was divinely blessed with two accents: One for Americans and the other for Desis: less mortals from Indian sub continent. Occasionally though, Paddy would mix-up the accents, use the wrong accent for the wrong group——but those were rare cases. Swami compensated his lack of soft skills with a strong technical knowledge. In this way both were opposite poles, thus, they attracted each other. Paddy wanted a disciple to listen to his management ideas, and the new guy was in need of a Guru——to teach him the American ways. Thus, the Guru and his protégée gelled very well.
There were some tasks on Paddy’s plate, which he had stalled for months; not by choice, but he simply didn’t know how to do them. Some of the servers were performing poorly. Performance is a relative subject. The more the better and, nobody have been harmed because of high performance. In the last stakeholders meeting, when the performance issue was raised, Paddy had lamely suggested to procure new hardware. The suggestion didn’t fly. In fact it backfired, and Paddy was asked to work on the issue diligently.
Paddy, if put his mind to it, could have come up with something. Instead he passed the buck to Swami. “Find a solution,” he told Swami, “and I will buy you a beer.” Swami, a born teetotaler but, ever-ready to please the Guru, worked on the problem day and night: searched all over the Net; posted queries on various newsgroups. Finally, he came up with a solution.
“I think we should do partitioning,” he told Paddy one day. Paddy listened. “Or archival,” Swami continued, “Archive the older data. Keep it on a separate server, serve the current requests from the smaller database and redirect the historical queries to archival server.”
Paddy absorbed the information like a sponge. The simplicity of the solution baffled him. The fact that his experienced mind could not come up with this solution first hand, made him cringe.
“Do you think we should inform Bob?” Swami asked eagerly.
“Not now,” said Paddy, “Do some more research. Bob will ask hundred questions. You need to cover everything.”
The next day, Bob stopped at Swami’s desk. “Got a minute?” he said, and continued without waiting for a response, “Paddy hit a jackpot, gave a brilliant idea. Archival! Archive older data and keep the delta in the current server-”
Swami listened to his own solution in shock. Paddy had taken the credit for his work——stabbed to his back. The Guru was a fake! Buried under the immense grief of betrayal, the protégée decided to break every rule he had learned from the Master. After all they were like water and oil ——never destined to be mixed.
This incident made a crack in their relationship. Though, they continued like brothers, Swami started breaking all the rules. In the past paddy had stalled simple tasks for hours——creating an impression of the tasks being complex needing hours of undivided attention. Now, the same tasks were completed in minutes under Swami’s supervision. People realized: either Swami was supremely diligent or Paddy had been creating the smoke-screen all along. Both views were good for Swami. The trainees, tired of Paddy’s red-tape, finally found a friendly person in Swami——who treated them as equals.
Gradually, it dawned on Paddy that he was no more indispensable. There was a replacement for him. And, some people realized that the replacement was superior.
Paddy was waiting for the right time. Timing is everything——Bob used to say. Paddy had gone one step further: Timing and a knack for creating opportunities. Just a few months back, he had volunteered to drop John Clucas at the airport. Clucas, Vice President of Kaizen, operated from Chicago, was Bob’s boss. Paddy had never met him before, but recognized the old man waiting at the reception, at once from the company website. Paddy introduced himself to the old man, and realized that the old man was waiting for a pick up car. Paddy volunteered——being residing near to the airport. On the way, they had a small talk, and Paddy gave a subtle hint conveying he can handle Bob’s responsibilities if such a need arrived. The old man looked at Paddy amusingly and said he would think about it. Paddy had created an opportunity from almost nothing——just by driving 20 miles opposite from his home to the airport. He was an opportunist.
One morning, Paddy came to Swami’s cubicle with a fat file.
“Read this and estimate the efforts,” he said.
After 2 hours swami reported: “6 months for our team.”
Paddy had an 8 member team, consisting mostly fresh graduates.
“Too much,” paddy said.
“Paddy, it’s a complex application. We might end up creating custom components-”
“Dude, I know the game,” said Paddy, “5 months. No more.”
That put a stop for further discussion.
Later that afternoon, in the stakeholders meeting, Paddy gave a presentation for the project estimate.
“5 months is way high,” said Kurt, one of the business owners. In a prior meeting Kurt was unhappy with Paddy’s suggestion to procure new hardware.
“I know Kurt,” Paddy consoled, “But it’s a complex app. We need to develop custom components-”
In the corner Swami rolled his eyes.
“Paddy, you have estimated over a million dollars. There is no such budget for this project.”
“Kurt, believe me, I know, I did the math myself.”
Kurt let a sigh. He had underestimated the project. He was thinking of redirecting some of the budget to procure hardware. Now, that was out of the question.
“Swami, what do you think?”
No one had asked Swami’s opinion in the past. He was mostly invisible: a fly on the wall. Now, his very presence surprised some of the top guys.
The sudden question startled Swami, who took some time to weigh the question, finally he croaked: “one month.”
“But Swami, did you consider the-” Paddy tried to intervene. Kurt stopped him with a raise of his brows. Paddy mumbled an apology and stopped.
“Swami, you were saying?”
“Just give me the project. I will do it in a month,” he said confidently this time.
After the meeting Paddy stopped him at the cafeteria. “What was that?”
“What was what?” Swamy asked.
“Don’t play games with me, Dude.”
“Sorry Paddy, I estimated wrongly at the first time.”
Paddy stared his ex-protégée, searched his eyes, he thought he saw a twinkle.
So far Paddy was enjoying the game. Everything was under control. But the stakeholders meeting changed all that, made him unfavorable among some of the top guys. This was when Paddy drew a line; and, came up with a plan to fix Swamy——once and for all. He called for a meeting with Anusha.
Part 2
Anusha was thinking of leaving for home early, when she got the meeting request from Paddy. She had a Redeye flight to LA. She called Paddy at his desk; suggested to postpone the meeting.
“Can’t do that, it’s urgent,” he said.
It was useless arguing with Paddy, he would only be more obstinate; and, would come up with colorful and creative reasons about why the meeting can’t be postponed.
What could be the urgency? She wondered. Though she reported to him——they seldom talked, unless there was an unavoidable need. She maintained a strict 8 hour work schedule——unlike Paddy, who, given the option, wouldn’t have minded staying in the office full-time. All early goers, in Paddy’s book, were not diligent.
“Other people are putting more hours,” Paddy had told her at the last appraisal, “I can’t ignore them.”
“I don’t need a promotion,” she said flatly. She didn’t care for the corporate ladder, which was a good thing——one less candidate in the rat race. Paddy was a front runner.
She would be in LA during the weekend——with Manish. Six months ago, she had met him at a party. They were the only people at the end. The person supposed to pick her up had forgotten. Finally, the hostess had requested Manish to escort her home.
She was silent during the whole ride. When the car stopped at her house, she didn’t get down, “Take me for a ride,” she said. He hesitated, but obliged——made a U-Turn. She inclined the front seat, let her head relax. Her dreamy eyes watched the moonlit sky from the open roof; here and there a few stars, shadows of tree braches. On the way back she was fast asleep. When she woke up, they were in the parking; he was waiting for her to wake up. She mumbled a quick Thank You and ran inside the house.
At the next party, she stayed late, knowing there would be an escort. “Take me through the longest route,” she said, while driving back from the party. Upon his hesitation, she said: “Your services will be well appreciated.” She was drunk.
As usual, she was sleeping when they reached. When she woke, she found him waiting.
“Do you want to come inside?” she asked.
He declined.
“Just one drink.”
“No,” he said, “I have to drive back.”
She gave him a look.
“What is it? Am I not your type?”
“You are drunk,” he said.
“Do you prefer bimbos over intellectuals?”
“Bye, we will talk some other time,” he said, putting the car in gear.
“Go to hell,” she slammed the car door getting out.
The next day she saw him at the mall. He gave a warm smile. They didn’t talk about the past night. While sipping coffee at Starbucks she asked: “What did we talk yesterday?”
“Don’t be smart; when you dropped me, after the party.”
“Nothing much.”
“What exactly did I say?”
“I don’t remember,” he said.
She smiled. After the coffee they walked silently for a distance. “Thanks,” she said at the mall exit. He didn’t ask the reason.
After that, they met now and then. She liked him. “What is your story?” she asked one day. Then immediately added, “don’t tell me now. I don’t want to hear another sad story.”
“How do you know it’s a sad story?”
“One can not be compassionate without sad experiences,” she said.
He talked to her whenever she called——met her when she wanted. When she pointed this to him, he said: “I don’t expect anything from anyone.”
She pondered——A man without expectations!
“Don’t you expect me to be there for you ever?”
“No,” he said, after thinking a while. That choked her; not only his reply, but also the fact that he had taken time to answer consciously.
“Don’t talk to me again,” she said. And she had left. He didn’t try to contact her. But she could not stay away long.
“You don’t know how to talk to a lady,” she complained at their next meeting.
“There were not many ladies in my life,” he said. That pleased her.
“Take me to Niagara,” she said.
“Why Niagara?” he had asked.
“Because I want to treasure the moments with you,” she said, “or may be I want to jump into it.”
He had smiled. When they were watching the great fall he said, “If you want me to beg you, not to jump——I will do it”.
At that moment she loved him. The notion of him kneeling down and begging in front of hundreds of tourists amused her. “Why didn’t we meet before?” she didn’t say the words; they didn’t materialize.
It was a long road trip, with beautiful memories. On the way back, they had decided to go for another such trip: LA.
She would meet Manish at the airport. But first she had to tackle Paddy.
At 5, she went to the conference room with a note book. Paddy, as usual, was on time. He was shouting orders to a subordinate on the Bluetooth; simultaneously composing a mail on the laptop. He had noticed her entry but ignored her.
“What is so urgent?” she said, when she found him free.
Paddy pushed an envelop across the table. She opened it. Inside, she found her Niagara pictures. They were not taken by a professional. Manish was in every one of them.
“What is this?”
“What if your husband sees these pictures?”
Her husband would divorce her. That’s what Ram would do. Ram was working on the East Coast. She was in the Mid West. He would come home on alternate weeks——for namesake. It was a failing marriage——arguments over simple things; long silent days. They had reached a dead-end.
That’s when she had met Manish. The days with Manish were beautiful——made her feel younger; showed life could be beautiful. Exotic and heavenly days——almost made the risk worth it. Back of her mind, she knew, some one would find out and inform her husband. But that someone would be Paddy, made the whole thing more painful. She knew, with Paddy, there was no hope.
“What do you want?”
“I need a favor,” he said.
She waited.
“I want you to raise a complaint to the HR against Swami.”
He said slowly every word. He had practiced this line several times.
“What complaint?”
“Sexual Harassment.”
She closed her eyes. “He will be sacked immediately.”
“That’s what I want.”
“This will go in his employment record. No big company will hire him!”
“I know.”
“Why should the HR take my side?”
“I will leave that to you. You are smart, I am sure you will come up with something.”
“What is the guarantee that you won’t black mail me again?”
“You have my word.”
“Your pictures don’t prove anything,” she made a desperate try.
“I know Ram very well. He doesn’t need a convincing proof.”
With that he stood up. “Keep the pictures. I have copies,” he said.
He left her alone behind the closed doors. She had maintained a strong posture in front of Paddy. Now she collapsed. She had been cornered. The beautiful days ended. The dream was shattered. The priorities would be changed. LA plan needs to be cancelled.
The grand master
Last week was uneventful. But Paddy was sure it was silence before the storm. He had seen Anusha in the HR room. Things were moving as planned.
Usually firing happens on the second half of Friday. Bob gives instructions to paddy——who is the executioner. The candidate is called for a sudden one-to-one meeting. In the meeting Paddy breaks the shocking news. The candidate is not given much time to recover. Eventually, he would be led to his cubicle, with a brown cardboard box for his belongings. No more computer access. The security team would have already changed the credentials. The access card for the premises will be revoked. Then Paddy would march the candidate through the long narrow corridor to the exit door. For the uninformed rest of the employees, the brown box is a red alert. A hush prevails among the employees who will soon witness the dead man’s walk. During the whole march Paddy maintains a serious look, with a detachment and seriousness of an executioner. In his mind, in the past week, he has rehearsed this march with Swamy hundreds of times.
“Swing by my desk, when you have a minute,” Bob had left a message on the Outlook Communicator. This was like deja vu. He had seen this scene in his mind. He went to Bob’s cubicle.
“You know, I am bad at sacking people,” started Bob.
“Leave that to me. Just tell me the name,” Paddy said innocently——everything was going according to his plan. Even Bob, unaware, talking the same words Paddy would have scripted.
“Things are really not in my hand. I am very sad-”
“Bob,” Paddy intervened, “Who is it?”
“Paddy, you have been relieved.”
This was not on the script!
“What…What do you mean?”
“You have been terminated. Today is your last day.”
Paddy shrank into the chair. He could not find words. “There has been a mistake.”
Bob pushed an envelop across the table. Paddy saw the pictures of Anusha and Manish.
“She raised a complaint: Blackmail-” Bob said.
“This is a set up.”
“We did a forensic,” Bob replied, “Your finger prints are all over the pictures. The whole thing has snowballed. Also, some top people are not happy.”
“Top people——Who? Is it Kurt? You know Kurt hates me.” Paddy said in desperation.
Bob didn’t answer the question. He said: “I have talked with HR guys. They won’t file any charges if you leave quietly. In fact the whole incident will be treated as if you are resigning. That way your records will be clear. And I can any time give you a good reference.”
Paddy sighed. There was no way out.
“Sorry I could not do much,” Bob said.
Paddy looked at Bob, who looked sad and helpless. They had worked well as a team. He was grateful; Bob had given him a clean slate. They sat in silence.
“You need to vacate the premises in 15 minutes. You know the drill,” Bob said. Rest of the things followed smoothly. There was some paperwork——formal resignation and such things. When they were ready for the long shameful march, Paddy said: “I will be back in a minute.”
He went straight to Anusha’s cubicle. She gave a start at his sudden disheveled appearance. Paddy could hardly control himself.
“You know what is in store for you.”
She knew.
“Took me a long time to decide,” she said, “Paddy, I am no different than you. But I can not ruin an innocent’s future. Probably that’s the difference between us.”
Paddy was impatient. He had no time for philosophy. The plan had backfired because of the sly bitch.
“Be ready for a divorce-”
He wanted to say more. But Bob had placed a heavy hand on his shoulder. “Time to go,” he said.
They marched quietly through the corridor. Though it was an empty corridor, Paddy knew he was being watched by several curious eyes, from the crevices of the cubicles. At the cafeteria Paddy saw Swami; their eyes met; paddy could not decipher anything from his——now
ex-colleague’s——blank face.
“Say Bob,” Paddy said at the exit, “since when did we start involving Forensic?”
“We don’t-”
“You didn’t do a forensic?”
“But you said-”
Bob smiled. “Remember Clucas?” he asked.
“Who?” Paddy asked.
“John Clucas - VP. You dropped him at the airport.”
“What about him?”
“Prior to Kaizen he was in the army.”
Why this story? Paddy wondered.
“He was in the War,” Bob continued, “I was reporting to him; saved his life one time.”
Oh, God! Paddy thought. He was obviously not privy to this information. In a hurry, to mitigate the situation, he tried to say something. But Bob stopped him. No more schemes. They were outside the main door.
“Good luck, Paddy.” He said.
Paddy sighed——accepted his fate. Reluctantly shook hands with Bob. Bob went inside, closing the door behind him.

Note: If you liked this short story, you might like my other short stories as well. Click here for more. 

Before this Blog this story was published at Daiji.

14 June 2010

Everyday is a miracle

In the final days of pregnancy one can see the baby’s features and movements. Now and then you see a limb. Sometimes, you see the bulge of the head. I used to tap my wife’s pregnant stomach. Just like that; for no particular reason. For the baby, mother’s womb is like a swimming pool; most of the nine months it swims alone, in the darkness, unaware of the external world.

One day, when I tapped, the baby kicked back. It realized that there is life on the other side. Subsequently, much to my wife’s annoyance, the baby would respond like a dolphin at the water park——with much vigor and enthusiasm. It liked the attention.
The baby doesn’t have a sense of time. Sometimes, in the wee hours, it would start kicking, in anticipation of a response.
“You have spoiled her even before she is born,” my wife would complain. Being in the US, we could find out the gender well in advance. Her due date was around my birthday. This was a coincidence, not a planned thing. I don’t think if one can really plan a delivery date.
My daughter and I were destined to share the same star signs; hence, possibly, similar characteristics. This alarmed my Mother——another difficult person in the family——she concluded. “I wish she were exactly like you,” she chuckled, “that will make you realize the pains you had caused!”
My wife got admitted to the hospital one day before my birthday. I begged her all along: “Hold tight for one more day!”
That annoyed her. “You are crazy!” she said.
“I had warned you long back,” said my mother-in-law.
Mothers-in-law, around the world, in spite of cultural and geographical differences, are same: they are just great! My mother-in-law brought many interesting things from India, including but not limited to, a medium sized bottle of Parachute oil, 3 bottles of Gripe-Water, a giant snuff box, a dry coconut-shell, a tiny Kajal box, a framed picture of Saint Anthony, 5 bars of Medimix soap, Dabur Chyawanprash, Iodex for black shirts and MOVE for white shirts——any one of these items could have got her into a lot of trouble at the airport. An intelligent person, with all these items, can make a crude bomb. My Mom can make a bomb out of all this——she is an intelligent person.
“Why the coconut shell?” I asked.
“To bathe the baby!”
Life before the child
My mother used to say, instead of having a son like me she would anytime prefer not to have children at all. I am her third favorite child: she has 3 children. If she had 10 children, my position would have been 10th. I was a difficult child. Our neighbors compared their children with me and considered themselves lucky. I am mortified by the thought that my daughter would grow up to become my replica! I myself won’t approve of a child like me!
However, having a bad child is any time better than not having children. In fact there are no bad children, only bad parents! How about that? I wish someone would tell that to my parents.
Like everything else in my life, the child has arrived late. I had a long child-less period that was the worst period of my life. Accidental sex before marriage leads to pregnancy and well planned sex after the wedding leads to nothing! This is the law. People ate my brain so much that I had developed a phobia for people. Unlike animals, humans have emotions and language skills; equipped with these superior skills, humans are in a position to cause substantial harm. When the casual talkers realize you don’t have children, they suddenly assume the role of an authority on child-bearing. They give you a lot of unsolicited advice. I have patiently heard all these suggestions and thanked the morons. It is amazing how, in a casual conversation, people ask the very questions that hurt you the most. I guess, we all have a subconscious urge for other people’s misfortune. Germans have already invented a word for such a thing – Schadenfreude!
To avoid people, I spent much of my time at the office; and made my boss’ life miserable by constantly pestering him for more work. On Fridays, I would go to my boss and ask: “Do you mind if I come to work in the weekend?”
I had so much free time, I used to read all the comments of every article on Daiji: only the comments not the articles! Comments are more interesting than the articles! There are morons whose only purpose in life is to oppose whatever the articles have to say.
There are two types of men in the world: those who were present in the delivery room at their child’s birth and those who were not. Being in the first category I am now a changed man.
As I mentioned before, my wife was admitted to the hospital one day before my birthday. I prayed to God, and to my wife (who is also my God), to delay the delivery by one day. I was restless till midnight. At 12, I let out a sigh. Once again, I prayed to God, and to my wife (who is also my God)——This time not to delay any further.
Finally, my daughter was born at about 2 am. We share the birthday! It’s the greatest birthday gift. I was born in the wee hours too, however, I don’t know the exact time. Last time when I asked Mom, about the exact time of my birth, she said: “What? Are you a celebrity now—— to remember all the intricate details?” In fact I don’t have a birth certificate. Sometime back, the hospital people burned all the old documents. “There is no room for patients!” the hospital management had declared. They faced the painful dilemma of opting between patients and paperwork. With great reluctance and pain, they opted to get rid of the paperwork, although, they would have been equally happy, to get rid of the patients!
Over the period, not having a birth certificate has put me in many difficult situations. In the US, when I applied for a driver’s license, the man across the counter said: “For the record, without a birth certificate, you don’t exist!”
“I have a passport and 15 other documents that confirm my date of birth,” I said.
“I agree! But you don’t have a birth certificate.”
“I have a passport——
“Sir! Without the birth certificate there is no proof of your existence.”
“Is it not proof enough of my existence that I am standing in front of you in flesh and blood and conversing in human language?”
No matter how hard I tried, I could not convince the automaton. This reminds me, I have never convinced anyone in my life——not even my daughter——who is barely 3 months old.
Since I was in the delivery room, I was one of the first ones to see my daughter. I have often observed, people compare babies to parents or grandparents. At these times, often, I have failed to see the remotest resemblance. However, I must say, when I saw my daughter for the first time, I was awestruck by her uncanny resemblance to me. She was a miniature me! My bonsai. My zip file.
Most babies are born with eyes closed, which they open only when some moron introduces them to Sponge Bob——after that they seldom close their eyes——they become a part of the idiot box. However, from the very beginning, my daughter’s eyes were open. She looked around with great curiosity. I stared at her: she stared back with a penetrating look. I am not used to blank stares. This is probably what Nietzsche meant, in his famous and most mis-interpreted quote: “When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”
Did I just misinterpret Nietzsche?
After the birth, the baby was taken into to the nursery. That gave us a few quiet hours. I was awake for 18 hours at a stretch; so was my wife. Only at this time we could take a nap. When I woke up, it was still dark outside. In the dim night-lamp I saw my wife sleeping. She was relaxed and content; all the labor pain was gone.
I tapped her shoulder. She hardly raised her brows.
“Do you need anything?” I asked.
“Do you need anything?” I repeated.
“I want to check my e-mail,” she said.
After the child birth
We have named the baby – Ria; Already people have told me, R-I-A is the incorrect spelling; others have found it, uncreative, non-Catholic, too short, too common, run-of-the-mill etc. If I may, I want to kindly remind these people that this is my child and I will name her as I want.
Since she was born in the US, she is a US citizen. She needs a visa to visit India. In fact she is the first US citizen in our family. We already have other anomalies: gays, transvestites, alchemists, dormant CIA operatives, former SS members, Knight Templars, Yakshagana performers, suicide bombers, unpublished authors (you know who), etc. If the US ever wages war on India, then the father and daughter would find themselves on opposite sides. In this case, I might say, in the lines of Aristotle, who had said, in a similar situation: “Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth!”
Only a few months before the child, I was seriously thinking about getting retired from the corporate rat race and settling down in my small town. I was thinking of opening a small shop near my home. Probably a Xerox shop, with a coined telephone at the entrance, some popular magazines for sale and SIM-cards at a concession for college students, etc.
But the baby’s arrival has sky-rocketed my expenses. For the first time in my life, my monthly savings is in the negative. The delivery cost is more than my wedding cost plus my parents’ wedding cost! Insurance is supposed to cover all the expenses. However, insurance companies hire some of the smartest people on the face of the earth. They find every loophole not to pay the money. One needs to be a genius to understand how insurance works in the US. Einstein, who was in the US for sometime, could not understand it——frustrated, he took refuge in something simpler——and developed: The theory of relativity.
I have become a paranoid after the baby’s birth. I drive in the slowest lane, 5 miles under the limit——lower than that would be a traffic violation! People, over speeding in the adjacent lanes sometimes show their disapproval by honking——Illiterates, I presume. The speed doesn’t give you much leverage, unless your destination is the Moon; in which case even a small rise in the speed would make a great difference.
In Mangalore there is no speed limit. The Mangalore-Udupi express buses travel at the speed of light. I avoid these space shuttles; however one time I could not. I boarded at Mangalore, paid for my ticket, and was about sit down and relax——we reached Udupi international bus stand!
When I got down from the bus, I felt lighter, felt younger, more energetic, my watch was showing an old time, and the 50 Rupees note that I had given to the conductor was still in my pocket. All this happened because of Einstein’s stupid theory that says, if one were to travel at the speed of light he would actually travel in the past! I had never believed in this bogus theory till I experienced it first hand.
Sometimes, these Mangalore-Udupi space shuttles, veer from their orbits and kiss the innocent bystanders – a mortal kiss! A couple of traffic signals, at regular intervals, should suffice to check this intergalactic speed. However, so far no important person or a politician has received the deadly kiss. Action will be taken immediately after such an incident occurs. Mangaloreans are waiting patiently – like the wait for Godot.
Everyday is a miracle
It is the fulfillment of some kind of a Murphy’s Law that the most complex project of my corporate life and the baby has come at the same time. Everyday, how I juggle a balance between the baby and the office work is a mystery, a wonder, a small miracle.
Every baby is different and difficult. For outsiders babies are cute and angelic; however, managing a baby 24/7 is a nightmare. Babies have their own mind and space. They like the attention and exploit it. Just when I remove her soiled pampers, she proves me wrong. This is crazy; happens all the time. She wakes up at all hours. Sometimes, she cries long for no reason. On one such occasion, I tried everything, nothing calmed her down, till I accidentally played – Hips don’t lie. Nowadays whenever she is restless I play the same song that calms her down. The song, Hips don’t lie, is by Shakira, not by Emily Dickinson. Hence, there is no room for subtleties. The song means exactly what it says – I am hot tonight, my hips don’t lie! I am yet to meet a woman, who would say – she is hot and her hips won’t indicate otherwise; definitely not a Mangalorean woman. My daughter’s liking for this song has scared the hell out of me. No father, including Shakira’s, would want his daughter to be that candid! I am fine as long as she doesn’t understand it.
My wife, before the baby, had several short term goals: exploring Mexican underwater caves, a picture with Dalai Lama, bungee jumping, para-gliding, salsa, saving dolphins in Japan, controlling my weight, saving tigers on Facebook etc. Recently, upon asking her latest interest, she said: “The only thing I want in life is to sleep for 8 hours at a stretch.” Such is the change a baby has brought in her life. It’s like resurrection.
Having a baby is addictive, though. As soon as you have one, immediately, you feel like going for the next one——resulting in Irish Babies. Since I have a baby, at the grocery store, I can avail the parking spot nearest to the entrance. At airports, I am now eligible for priority boarding. People will offer me seats in buses! All these little perks make a baby worth it!
In a few weeks, my wife has become super efficient at handling the baby. She can hold the baby in one hand and operate a chainsaw with the other. I cannot do that. I am very scared to hold my daughter. She is so small and fragile. Before holding my baby, I need to switch off the mobile, mute the TV, take the pressure cooker off the stove, roll up my sleeves, tighten my belt——only after this I can hold Ria.
In between there were some magical moments. The other day my daughter saw her first rain. So much water! That amused her. Looking at the mirror, she thinks there is another baby on the other side. Toggling the power switch on/off, and the effect that creates on the distant lamp, raises her curiosity. She giggle and laughs, while bathing——she doesn’t know, yet, that she is supposed to cry. I remember as a child I too was amused by all these simple things. But then Mom put me in a school.
The whole baby business has freaked me out. I am on cloud nine. I am on Empire State building. I am on Pisa tower. I am in Taj Mahal. I am in Malgudi. I am in Shangri-La. I am in Atlantis. I am in Ideal ice-cream parlor——oops! That was not needed. But I am a Mangalorean. I have never been crazier before. If I continue typing, I may write nonsense. I guess I will just stop here.

*---------------*------------------*Note: If you liked this memoir, you might like the others in the series as well. Click Here.  
Note: The article was published at Daiji prior to this blog.

25 April 2010

The new tenants

The greatest knowledge is the one that tells you the difference between Right and Wrong. -Socrates.

The tenants and the Village
There is something mysterious about my new tenants. I smelled it on the first day - the moment I saw them. However, that day, I was busy, hence, didn’t give much thought to it at the time. I had promised Vasu to meet him at his hotel. Now that I am retired, people seek my help for something or the other; in a way that keeps me busy.
I was running late; at the gate I bumped into a young couple. They looked like college students, but the girl had a mangalasutra on, and many colorful bangles - newly married, I thought - must have lost their way.
“You have an apartment for rent?” said the young man.
Then I realized – their purpose.
The upper room of our house was vacant for a while. The previous tenant had vanished, without notice and last month’s rent. For weeks, I had run an ad in the local paper, nobody turned out, till this young couple materialized.
Reluctantly I said: “My wife is in the house, she will show you the apartment.” I knew these city people would not like the apartment.
And I darted to meet Vasu. Only in the evening, when Saroja, my wife, handed over the money, I remembered the young couple.
“They have moved in,” she said.
“So soon? What are they doing in this place?”
“The husband got a job in the city,” she said.
Mangalore, the nearest city, is around 40 km from our village. A few years back, the bus, that comes twice daily, was the only link to the outer world. Nowadays though, The Konkan Railway has brought more life. The laying of the rails had created much enthusiasm and vigor - created jobs for villagers. However, it was a daunting task: the government delays, landslides, crashing tunnels and the Monsoons- Everything took its toll. But nothing lessened the spirit of the people, who had not seen such attention before. Finally, the visionary dream materialized – obstacles were conquered, nature was tamed.
The first day, when the train arrived, a large crowd gathered to welcome it. There were people from neighboring villages as well. I went with my children: Anusha and Shankar. We all waved enthusiastically at the majestic train; though it didn’t stop at our village. I had never seen so many people at our village. My father used to say, the largest crowd, he had seen at any time, was the one, that assembled to welcome Gandhiji; who had stopped at our village for a few hours on his way to Mangalore. That was a long time back. I was a young boy, I don’t remember the event.
When Ranga got the job at the station, he proudly announced to me: “Shastri Sir! I have been hired by the biggest employer on this planet.” He said.
“The Indian railways!” he declared with much delight.
Though, his job was only to hold the Green or the Red flag whenever the train was in the vicinity.
In the initial days, the early morning gong of the train abruptly stopped all village activities. Nothing moved till the train passed our village; this ritual continued for a while. Gradually the enthusiasm decreased and even the magnificent train became a part of the routine. By the time Bora, the dog, came under the train, many had even forgotten the mighty locomotive. Nobody knows how Bora came under the train. Vasu was the first person to find the dead dog. He lives on the other side of the track that needs to be crossed, everyday, to reach his hotel. On the fateful day, Vasu found the dog, on his way to the hotel, lying in pool of blood, decapitated and dead.
Vasu, like many others in this village, was my student. He was not academically excellent; hence, when it was time for his father to retire from the hotel business, Vasu was ready to takeover. He discontinued his studies, in spite of my earnest pleading. In the end everything has turned out well. Probably this was his calling.
Usually, I am his first customer. We talk about this and that till other customers start coming. Along with my usual cup of tea, he gives me daily updates, inside information, future up-comings, and the news that doesn’t get published in the paper – like Bora’s demise.
“Bora, committed suicide,” said Vasu, on that particular day.
The name didn’t ring a bell.
“The dog - Bora”
“He committed suicide?”
“Came under the train”
“Why do you think he committed suicide?”
“I don’t know,” said Vasu, “Bora was intelligent. There is no way the train, that moves in a straight line, could outwit him.”
Though I waved it off at that time, deep in my heart, I just want to believe that theory. Like some of us of the yester generation, Bora, had seen better days. Probably it got tired of the recent anti-social developments. And found his escape by coming under the train!
At least a few people would have escaped this village, if they had the means - or come under the train, if they had Bora’s courage. I cannot run away from this place - not now. I had tried once, though. After my teachers’ training, I got a job in Mysore. The pay was good. I was young, and desperately wanted to see the world beyond our village limits. However, convincing my father was a Herculean task. My mother, whose help I sought, unlike every other time, rejected my plea at the most crucial time. She didn’t want to undertake the futile mission.
Father loved this village. He never stayed away from it; whenever he went out, to the neighboring villages, for Kambala or Yakshagana or for some marriage, he made sure to return home for bed, lest he wouldn’t find sleep. My plans of leaving his beloved village hurt him deeply – beyond my expectations. I was the most educated person in the village. And he, my father, considered my departure, a substantial loss for the village; the village of his forefathers.
When I explained my plans, he didn’t say much. “This village needs you,” he said. I saw the pain in his eyes. He had never asked me anything for himself; I could not say no to him. I took the teaching job at the local school. That made him content.
In the end not leaving the village turned out to be the correct decision. All this happened a long time back. The river never ran dry in those days. Now, I am retired. My Father is no more. In a way, I am thankful to God; my Father was not a witness to the recent developments - that would have killed him anyway.
The village is a sinking ship that people are abandoning. The last to go was Khan; he left for Mumbai, a few months back. That’s why the arrival of the new tenants surprised me. The tenants had given 3 months’ rent in advance, which was a novelty; that clouded my intellect.
My earlier tenant, Das, the one who vanished, used to complain about one thing or the other. I spent much of his rent in meeting his demands - ate my brains all day. On weekends, he used to invite himself for dinner at our home. Hence, when he left, I must say, I let out a sigh of relief. To my surprise, these new tenants had done no such thing. What do they want? They have eloped; I am sure of that. But that is not the end of it.
An unexpected visit
Though, it’s a while now, I haven’t seen the tenants. The husband goes to work in the early morning bus – before the day breaks. Even the girl, I think her name is Ramya (as per the rental agreement), is not to be seen. She is supposed to be at home all day. However, I have never seen her any time the home or even at the window. Their room has an external staircase that I had built after Das vanished - to avoid intrusion from future tenants - is serving them conveniently.
I had not climbed these stairs since Das left. I knocked on the door. Ramya must have been in the kitchen. I heard the water running.
“Please come in,” she said, surprised; She was not expecting me.
Inside, I observed how neatly she has maintained the home. Das never bothered to pick anything, once it landed on the floor. Saroja used to give a courtesy clean on weekends.
“Just a casual visit,” I said, “How do you youngsters like this place?”
“This is a very quiet place,” she said.
“I know. It used to be still quieter.”
“Sure,” I said.
While she was in the kitchen, I continued my observation. A few books were neatly piled on the table. I recognized some of them. Adjacent to the books was a picture frame. The girl in the picture had an uncanny resemblance to Ramya.
“Is this your sister?”
She gave a thin smile; offered biscuits on a small square plate. “No,” she said, “that’s me.”
“Who is this man?”
“Harish: my husband”
Then I saw the resemblance.
“You both look different now,” I said. “Is this an old picture?”
Something dark flashed on her face, for a brief moment, was that fear? I don’t know.

After that she was not comfortable. She looked like one of the guilty students in my class. I finished the remaining tea.
“I will go now,” I said, “Thank you for the tea.”

When I was at the door, I remembered the purpose of my visit.
“We have a pooja at our home,” I said, “Some important people are coming. I was wondering if you could-“
“I am sorry. We will be busy-“
“Not a problem,” I said and took leave.
Only, later, when I was picking flowers in the garden, it occurred to me that the girl had rejected my invitation, even before knowing the pooja day.

The second time, when I went to collect the rent, the picture was gone.

The Culture
Nowadays, there is not much crowd at the Hotel. Only a few months back, before Khan moved to Mumbai, we used to have great debates over many subjects. I and Khan go a long way back. We grew up together. During our younger times, we used to be the formidable opening pair of our village cricket team. A couple of times, I fondly remember, we had batted the whole innings, without getting out. He was so strong. Watching him, from the non-strikers end, hitting those huge sixes, was such a joy. It feels like only yesterday. Now, years later, Khan is only a shadow of his youth. Time has taken its toll.
After his wife’s death, Khan lived all alone. A few months back, one night, miscreants pelted stones at his window, and broke the glass. No one knows who did that or why – a convenient mystery.
Khan’s younger son lives in Mumbai; He was begging Khan to relocate to his house, for years. Khan never obliged. He had spent his whole life in the village. However, the breaking of the windows, though a minor incident, was the catalytic blow for the gentle giant. He sold all his property – it was a lopsided deal.

“You could as well have donated it as charity,” I told Khan, when I came to know about the deal. He didn’t say anything. This is not the Khan, I had known years back. Not the fearless Khan, who would hit a six at the first ball of the match. Tired by age and unreason – this is the Khan who wanted an exit.
I dropped him at the Mangalore station.
“You will have a wonderful time with your grandchildren,” I told him.
He gave a weary smile, looked me in the eyes.
“Sashtri, in an ideal world-” his words trailed off. He is not much of a talker.
“Don’t…don’t say anything. I know-”
We stood together, till the departure was announced. From inside the train he waved to me, his eyes were moist, or probably they were mine – I don’t know.

Vasu brought the tea and the newspaper.
“Anything new?” I asked him.
“Computer Company changed their plans,” he said.
I saw the article at the bottom of the third page: Tech Atlantis is backing out!
Tech Atlantis, the software giant of the country, had purchased a huge area of land in the outskirts of Mangalore. This was a good sign. No need for the young job seekers to go to the bigger cities. But now, it looks like, the company is shifting to a small place called Madhapur in Hyderabad. The company has not given any specific reason for this, however, it is obvious. Our district, once known for its hospitality and egalitarian values, is now highly volatile - a sleeping volcano. The business people like Atlantis are not interested in the pseudo values that the so-called saviors-of-the-culture are trying to protect. The news of Atlantis’ departure has not created any stir- a single paragraph on the third page! The developments are so subtle that we don’t even notice them.

Where is my daughter?
My thought process broke off when I saw the new tenants on the pedestrian trail that leads to the temple. The trail passes through the thicket that people usually avoid at this hour of the day.
The temple was built during my grandfather’s time. The chariot procession, at the annual Jatra, used to be a great attraction. My daughter, Anusha, eagerly awaited the colorful event. Before she was born I took part in the chariot pulling. Two thick ropes would be tied at the front of the giant chariot. Enthusiastic devotees, in two endless human lines, would pull the chariot for a furlong, to the backdrop of mystical chanting. I used to be one of the frontrunners – like a path finder. The next day I would have blisters on my palms. But on the day of the Jatra no one could stop me. And somewhere down the human chain, near the holy chariot, among the muscle men, would be Khan, sweating, pulling the ropes with all his might, to put the chariot in motion. Now, in the current days, the very presence of Khan, maybe considered against our religion or maybe against our culture. Anyway, I will never know – since in the last few years the temple feast has been cancelled.

These days the number of people at the temple has decreased. My tenants’ temple visit at the odd hour made me curious. From whom were they are hiding?
In the evening, while cutting vegetables in the kitchen, I asked my Saroja:
“Did you notice anything unusual about our tenants?”
“No,” she replied.
“The girl is in the house all the time. I have seldom seen her go out.”
My wife sighed. “Leave her alone,” she said, “she is not your daughter.”
Even today, Saroja has not forgiven me. Though she has not said it verbally – she is still upset because I didn’t listen to her. I am talking about a time, though now it seems eons ago, only a few years have been passed.
I was the principal of our school then. Anusha, my daughter, was in the final year of the college in the city. Now, I can recollect the events with greater clarity, however, in those days I didn’t notice the change in her demeanor. Initially, I didn’t notice the blank phone calls. Later, I realized that probably the person on the other side hung up only when I picked up the phone. Then someone saw her with a boy in the cinema theatre. Ours is a small village, everyone knows each other, days are long, and people wait like vultures for fresh rumors.
I don’t believe in locking someone up in the house or stopping their food. I told Anusha, there was no way the relation could have a meaningful conclusion. She was stubborn too; probably she got that from me.
In the school, I heard students whispering behind my back. Only days back they didn’t have the courage to raise their eyes in my presence. Now like a pack of blood thirsty wolves they stared at me. I could not stand their stares. The eagerness for the fellow human’s fall, even in these young children, wrenched my heart.
At home, the awkward silence at the dining table, unnecessary arguments, made Saroja weary. Finally she said to me: “why not give up, let her do whatever she wants, if that makes her happy.” I should have listened to her. But I saw the years of carefully built up reputation and goodwill collapsing like an avalanche. Saw my father’s sacrifices going in vain. I could not risk all that.
The very next day, a fishing boat, found her body. The couple had tried to commit suicide. Though they rushed the victims to the hospital, they could save only the boy.
And my wife has not forgiven me. Now I see my daughter in every young woman. Nothing can be worse than the death of your child.
Son’s arrival
My son, Shankar, has come from Mangalore. He comes only when he is in need of money. Very often he comes up with a scheme or an investment plan. Last time he sold me a few cheap household items for an exorbitant price. It was some kind of a network. You need to sell the same things to the people in the chain below. I didn’t see the logic in that. I don’t have the energy, or street-smartness, to convince any potential members, why they should buy these expensive unheard products, when better products are available at a cheaper price in the market.
Saroja has lost hopes on him too; though she makes an unsuccessful attempt to hide it. She prepared a feast; and somehow convinced our tenants to join us for dinner. That was surprising. It was a quiet dinner. Somehow, we were all uncomfortable in each other’s company. As expected the tenants didn’t say much. Shankar did much of the talking.
“I am thankful to you guys,” said Shankar, to the tenants, “you give company to my parents.”
I am used to this phony talk. He is incapable of differentiating his parents from potential customers. He has this salesman tone all the time.
“Appa, you should give this couple a discount. After all money is not everything.” I didn’t know what to say.
Then he gave a curious look to the new couple. “I have a feeling, I have seen you somewhere,” he said.
I looked up from my plate. For a moment I saw something dark, a shadow on Ramya’s face.
“You guys look different now,” Shankar continued, “Probably I have seen you long back.”
The tenants kept quiet. They were quite shocked. For a moment an awkward silence ensued.
“The food is excellent,” said Harish, finally, his voice quivering. After years of teaching, I know when a student feels uncomfortable and wants a change of subject. And I know when to let the student save his face, “Indeed, Saroja,” I said, “food is very good.” We quietly finished dinner.
The man from the past
Sometimes, after my evening walk, I sit for a while at the park bench. A car stopped just in front of me. And a couple with a small baby stepped out.

“Hello Sir,” said the man. He must have been my student at some time. Children grow up so fast. It is difficult to identify them when they come to me years later. Sometimes, it makes them a bit sad, when I don’t recognize them instantly.
“I am sorry,” I said, “I must have taught you some time in my life. But I cannot recollect your face. Though I think I have seen you somewhere.”
“I was not your student..”
“Oh! Have we met before?”
“I was the ..” The man could not complete the sentence. The words were lost on him. Then it came suddenly like a bolt – where I had seen him before. I had seen this man in the hospital, years ago. The nurses were rushing him to the operation theater. He was the one who tried to commit suicide with my daughter.
All those emotions rushed back. I could hardly control myself. “Please leave…” I said.
The couple reluctantly left. The woman came back and sat beside me.
“My husband is not a bad person,” she said, “He was young and foolish. Though we cannot change what has happened. He repents everyday of his life. He just wanted to apologize.”
I could not bring myself to say anything. When she didn’t hear anything, she quietly left.

Right and Wrong
Years back I had done only what I thought was right at the time. My God, knows, I have never been biased. It was always my utmost priority to be fair when justice was sought from me. Because of this I could have a clear conscience.
Now, I don’t know what is Right or what is Wrong. God, don’t put me in a position where I need to judge people. These were my thoughts when I approached the house. This is when I heard a loud noise and a wild shriek from our tenant’s apartment. I ran and busted the door open with all my might.
Shankar was in one corner. Ramya struggled out of his embrace and ran inside the bedroom: wailing and dragging her sari.
“Appa, I can explain,” said Shankar.
“Leave my home; right now,” I said.
“Don’t ever come back.”
Shankar left. I was alone for a while in the room.
Inside the bedroom, I heard sobbing. Ramya was sitting at the edge of the bed. I sat with her. I must have sat there, like a ghost, for the good part of an hour. The sobbing had stopped.
“I knew Harish since childhood,” She said. “Last year we were planning to get married. My brother had sent us a handycam from US – a marriage gift. We were together one day. We were drunk. One thing led to another and we had intercourse. We foolishly taped it. A few days later, a friend borrowed the handycam. We forgot to switch the tape. The video was on the internet in no time. My parents committed suicide. Wherever we go people recognize us. Your son has seen us on the internet. He wanted to take advantage –”
I didn’t listen to the rest of it. Years of experience in teaching and guiding people, though I have, I didn’t know what to tell her.
“This is a small town, we thought we would have some privacy” she was saying. She wiped the tears on her cheeks.
“What do you want to do now?” I asked.
“I don’t want anything from anyone,” she said. “I want to lead a normal life. I just want a second chance.”
*------------- End ------------*

Note: If you liked this short story, you might like my other short stories as well. Click here for more. 

Note: The story was earlier published on daiji.