25 September 2011

The Victim

After my graduation, for about 8 months I was at home, with nothing much to do. They were wonderful days; for my future was secured——I was selected in a campus interview. My employer was generous about the joining date. Most of this time, I spent on the cricket ground.
“Why don’t you join a computer course?” Father pestered now and then. I ignored him; there was lot to learn once on the new job. All my student life, I had learnt math theorems by rote under the reading lamp. I had no practical use for them so far and, didn’t expect any in future as well. Finally, the dreaded student life was over.
As the weeks passed by, Father got more and more anxious. I consoled him——these delays were expected from big firms. They have a thousand and one things to worry about. Eventually, I got a letter from the company; I casually passed it on to Father, without opening it, after all he was more eager than me. I, though, knew the obvious content. He opened it in a great hurry as if the matter would change, if not opened on time. As he read the letter, his eyes shot red, hands shivered, and an uncontrollable fit ceased him. With great frustration, he made a ball of the letter and threw it at my face. I fetched the crumpled letter from the ground. The firm regretfully informed that they had overestimated the quota and, no more in need of my services.
Father made my life miserable by reminding me of the painful rejection at every possible opportunity. He concluded that my cricket outings were the sole reason for this fiasco.
In the dog-eat-dog world, the competition was fierce; people were ready to work for less than my pocket money. Once the interviews started, I realized the difficulty in cracking them in the outside world, compared to campus. Interviews made me nervous. Just before the interview, my mind would go blank and right after it I would know all the answers. This way, I was doomed to fail every interview. Often, interviewers promised a return call, in the coming weeks, for they were still short-listing candidates. I got fooled initially——later realized that a promised call was a clue for rejection.
However, unlike others, Yukon Solutions called for a face-to-face interview. There were other finalists, though. Seeing them, all my enthusiasm drained——there was no way I could outwit all of them.
One by one, candidates went inside the interview room and came out with uncertain looks. I was sure they were all promised a return call.
Finally two candidates were left.
“Are you nervous?” asked the remaining one.
I nodded.
“One trick is to act as if the job is not at all important to you.”
I knew these tips——read them in interview-cracking books——they didn’t work with me.
“Sometimes,” he continued, “To create diversion I discus irrelevant things. Mind if I ask you a question?”
“What question?”
“Just say the first thing that comes to mind.”
“Okay,” I said. World is full of queer people.
“Supposing you have 100 text files, what is the easiest way to concatenate them?”
I didn’t want to stress my brain just before the interview.
“I don’t know,” I said, “some sort of a script-”
“No. You can easily do that in a batch file.”
He taught me how to do that. It seemed quite easy, once you knew the answer. He asked about 10-15 similar questions, none of them I could answer correctly. Then the interviewer called my name; I had to leave. I thanked the candidate, for he had succeeded in diverting my mind.
Once inside the room, everything went blank. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead. Across the table sat two interviewers: a young man and a woman. She looked relaxed——talked about the position and the company. I sensed, correctly, that she was from the HR; hence, not the primary decision maker. That left the young one, who was supposed to ask technical questions. I had to convince this person.
He asked the first question: “Supposing you have 100 text files, what is the easiest way to concatenate them?”
I thought, I saw a twinkle in his eyes, or may be it was my imagination. He asked only 10 questions. I answered all correctly, for they were the exact ones the candidate outside had asked. At the end of the interview I was asked to expect a call in the coming weeks, for they were still short-listing the candidates. This time though, I knew, I would get a call.
Outside, the waiting room was empty. The last candidate was gone.
On the first day, in spite of my relentless begging, Father accompanied to the office. I suggested taking the office bus. He disagreed. He wanted me to reach the office before time. None of the auto drivers were ready for the ride——the company was situated in the outskirts; a return fare demanded a long uncertain wait. Finally, we had to promise one-and-half fare to convince one of the drivers.
En route, Father did most of the talking.
“Ram, don’t spoil this opportunity,” he said. I was expecting this lecture. That’s why I wanted to go alone. On my silence, the lecture continued. Once again cricketing days were illogically connected to past rejection. I was reminded, again, how things were different in the gone by generation.
“I will go from here,” I suggested a few blocks form the office. He ignored my suggestion. Only when the auto was directly at the gate, he signaled the driver to stop.
Before the auto fully came to rest, I jumped out and ran inside the gate. Lest, I feared, a fresh sermon would start. I spied him through the one-way reception glass-door. Father waited for some time at the gate, but sensing no sign of me, he took the same auto to home.
I was informed in the appointment letter that my manager would receive me at the reception. No one turned up. Finally, I rang my manager from the visitor’s phone.
“May I speak to Mr. Balaswamy Murugan?”
“This is he.”
“This is Bala. What do you want?”
“My name is Ram. I am joining today.”
A pause ensued.
“Oh. I will be right there.”
He came after an hour. The moment I saw him, I knew he was the manager. His clothes were crisp and sharp. He was lean, tall with not an ounce of extra fat; a regular gym attendee, I observed.
“——pulled into a last minute meeting.” He squeezed my hand.
I followed him through the aisles. After passing several cubicles, we entered his room.
“Sit.” He pointed a chair. “Give me a couple of minutes. I have to finish something.”
He started typing on the laptop. In a short while, he got engrossed so much, he completely forgot my presence. I stared at the neatly piled management books. They looked new, unread.
Then, when I was least expecting, he caught me off guard by an unexpected question: “Do you have any relatives in this office?”
“No,” I said.
“Any friends?” He could type and talk at the same time.
He stopped typing, stared into my eyes, “so you know no one at all here?” He gave a narrow look.
“Why do you ask?”
“Emergencies.” He seemed unsettled by my question. “In case we need to reach someone. Never mind. Do me a favor; I gave a print out; if you don’t mind, could you get that for me?” He told me where to find the printer.
The printer was in the far end; on return, I got lost in the maize of cubicles. I had to ask for directions.
“Thank you,” said Bala. He gave a passing look at the document. “Oh gosh! There is a typo.” He looked alarmed. He pulled the laptop, and quickly corrected the mistake.
“Do you mind?”
“Could you get the printout?”
What disturbed me was not this repeat request, but when I got up, I noticed that, from the one-way glass of his window, waiting area at the reception was clearly visible.
On my return, I found a new person with Bala.
“Ram, this is Neha; she will work with you.”
We shook hands.
“She will do the KT.”
“Knowledge Transfer. Don’t worry dude. You will learn the lingo soon.”
She showed my desk, which was diagonally opposite to hers——we shared a cubicle. In the presence of Bala, I had ignored her. But now, in the privacy of the cubicle, I noticed how perfect she was, and how everything on her matched and complemented her beauty.
“You look lost.”
“Sorry,” I said, “This is my first job.”
“I am new too. I miss college.” She sighed, “Let’s do KT in the afternoon.”
She took me to the cafeteria, where she gave a few insider tips.
“Is there anything I should absolutely avoid?” I asked.
“Yes. Never miss the 5 o’clock office bus.” she laughed. The innocent laugh——I knew, even then­——would haunt me for years.
In the evening, I made a round to the floor. The hall was large and spacious. It housed many small cubicles, separated by narrow aisles, with a few pillars here and there for support. I searched for the person who took my interview. I didn’t find him.
The next 2 days, I didn’t see Bala. He was busy in meetings. On the fourth day, around four, he called me on the desk phone.
“I will mail you a defective script. Could you have a look?”
“Sure,” I said
The mail didn’t come. At about 5, the rush for the office bus started.
“Let’s go.” Neha said. She had shutdown the computer sometime back, and was waiting for the clock to strike 5. I was about to shutdown when I saw a mail in the in-box. It was from Bala.
‘I have attached the script. Make sure you fix it before you leave; send me a mail once you are done.’
I asked Neha, not to wait for me.
It was a small script, took me about 10 minutes to fix it. I felt proud for solving the issue in such a short time. After mailing the corrections to Bala, I ran to catch the bus. The bus-stop was deserted.
“The bus just left,” said the watchman.
“Do I get an auto here?”
“Rarely. Wait for the next trip.”
“When is that?”
“8 o’clock.”
The office was empty. I looked at the script again. The more I looked at it, the less proud I became. The defect looked obvious, intentional. Being a novice, I had corrected the code in 10 minutes; It surprised me that Bala could not figure it out himself——unless he wanted me to miss the bus.
Whenever I had some free time, I looked out for the person who took my interview. He had vanished.
On Friday, Bala called a quick meeting at his desk for me and Neha.
“Sorry guys,” he said, “I don’t find time to spend with you. Meetings all the time.”
We waited for him.
“Any big plans for the weekend?” he asked.
I didn’t have anything. Neha said something.
“Could you both come to office tomorrow? Since I am busy during the week, I can spend quality time to give an overview of the project?”
We agreed reluctantly. The next day I reached on time. Neither Bala nor Neha came to office. At noon, I got Bala’s number from the security.
“Did I not tell you?” said Bala.
“Tell me what?”
“That I cancelled today’s meeting.”
“No,” I said.
“I clearly remember. First I called Neha. Told her about the cancellation. Then I called you-”
“You didn’t-”
“oops! What am I smoking?” I heard a nervous laugh, “Sorry dude. Go home. Enjoy the weekend.”
I waited another couple of hours, before I got a ride from a passing truck.
On Monday, in the cafeteria I met Rama Devi, the HR lady, who took my interview.
“How is the job?” she asked.
“Very good. Ma’am”
“This must be a child’s play for you.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You answered every interview question; never seen that before.”
“Oh!” I sighed, “The person who took my interview was smart too.”
“Yes. He is very good.”
“Where is he? I didn’t see him around?”
“He quit.”
“You look surprised. Don’t you know?”
“You are his replacement. When he resigned I asked him to find a strong candidate. And he selected you.”
I didn’t want to raise any suspicion by further questions. I didn’t know where to look for him. And, no one knew about the person who briefed me the questions in the waiting room.
When I joined the team, there was no proper orientation. And no documentation of what had happened in the past. Everything took time. I learned things by mistakes. Neha had a light approach towards the project and life. “I am not in the rat race,” she used to say. “I want to live a happy life. Is that too much to ask?” I wished, I could say that.
In between, Yukon Solutions got short listed for a government project. We were to do a proof of concept. If liked by the client, we would get the project. The proposed team, to do the work, got busy with something else. Eventually the task landed on Bala’s plate, who passed it on to me.
“I am overloaded,” I said.
“You need to prioritize the work,” he said.
There was no use arguing with him. Once he made up his mind on something, there was no going back. He was quite strong technically as well as in his soft skills. He always maintained the right attitude; always replied emails with the right words. He was a perfect project manager. He handled multiple projects. People avoided him, kept him happy when possible, he was a formidable foe. I didn’t have any option but to oblige him.
I joined a few technical news groups, posted queries on technical forums. Staying late became a routine. Often, I was the only person on the 8 o’clock bus. I had a tired look on my face all the time. Many a time, I was so exhausted, I was deep asleep, when the bus reached home. The old bus-driver would come from his seat and pat gently on my shoulder to wake me up.
Sometimes, when I had worked late on the previous night, I missed the morning office bus. At such times, I took an auto to the office. One day, late for office, I noticed a yellow post-it stuck on the monitor.
Swing by my desk.
I met him in his office room.
“You are not punctual these days,” he said.
“I sit late everyday.”
“That’s not the answer to my question.”
“I have completed all my assignments on time.”
“That’s not the answer either.”
“What do you want?”
“I want you in the office on time.”
“I put more than 8 hours, everyday.”
“I don’t care how much work you do or how late you sit. I want you on time every morning.”
“Why do you do this?”
He was not expecting this. I had said that without thinking. But I decided to stick to my stand. “Why do you harass me?”
“Dude,” he said at length, his voice quivering, “no one harasses you. As long as you do your work, nothing else matters. If you don’t like your job, you are welcome to leave.”
In a way, he suggested the solution for my problems.
Late that evening, I got an email from him. It was CC’d to our Group Head and Rama Devi.
It has come to my attention that you are not punctual to work. This causes delays on dependencies that need your presence. Also, affects the team morale.
Please be diligent. Not adhering to regulations might result in unpleasant consequences.
No one so far, had hated me so much——that too for no reason. I was not cut out for the corporate world. I missed college days, terribly. In the campus, things were different. Students had differences, sometimes clashes happened, some went a bit too far, but by the end of the day we were all friends.
During this miserable period, Neha’s presence made life tolerable. I had a small convex mirror on my desk, to check anyone spying over my shoulder; I used it to steal a glance at her, every now and then.
“Show me what you are working on?” she said, one day.
That’s a lame reason to chat with me. I knew her by now.
“How come you are interested in my work today?”
“Just want to learn a few tricks from the master,” she said coyly.
I showed her the application. She asked many questions. She was genuinely interested in my work; even Bala had not shown so much interest. However, I had to break off our session abruptly-Rama Devi called.
Though, our paths had crossed many times, Rama Devi had never called me for an official meeting. When I met her, she was not in her best mood.
“Every year, we lay off 2 percentages of the least performing employees,” she said. “This is our way of maintaining competency and a minimum bar. Once a year, we ask the project managers to identify the least performing candidates. Such candidates would be given 3 months to improve their performance. Usually, no one improves. This is just a heads-up for the candidate to look for other opportunities. There is an official name for the list; but, everyone calls it Sack List. Because, once on the Sack List, the fate of the candidate is sealed. There is no coming back. ”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
She waited. “…because Bala has put you in the Sack List!”
A cold shiver passed through my spine. I had never imagined he would do such a cold-blooded thing.
“Other than not being punctual, the report here says,” she started reading from a file, “The candidate’s incompetence causes him to sit late everyday to complete his assignments. bla bla bla. Doesn’t show respect for seniors. Bla bla bla,” she closed the file. “…and your inefficiency is taking a toll on the team. Neha has to solely work on the new project-”
“That is not true. In fact, I am the only one working on project-”
She waved me off. “Tomorrow there is a client demo. If you are the only one working on the project, how come Neha is giving the demo?”
That was a bolt from the blue. Of all the things, it pained me the most. There was no more hope. Nothing to look forward. I remembered her innocent request to see my work. I had so easily fallen for it.
When I came to my cubicle, her chair was vacant. She had taken a half-day off. I could not concentrate on my work; By habit, I glanced at the mirror. Finally, I dashed it into the trash bin.
“How is the job?” Father asked at dinner. “You are late everyday; must be working hard.” He had softened towards me.
“I am resigning tomorrow.”
My mother looked at me, eyes welled up.
“What is this now?” she said.
“My manager harasses me.”
“Why?” Father asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Is he less competent than you?”
“Are you a threat for his future at office?”
“Then why?”
“I don’t know.”
For some time an annoying silence prevailed.
“Please-” Father stopped abruptly. For he had sensed, he was talking to his son and, such kind words were not necessary.
“We don’t ask much,” He said at length. He was quite shaken. His voice was not confident. In life, he had struggled for every single thing. Now, in his retirement, he had one final battle to win, with a formidable foe: his son. Finally, when he resumed, he found it difficult to look at me.
“I and your Mother will probably manage without your support,” he said. “But we have some expectations. Your friends are in good jobs. Some are in the US. I am not saying you should go there. I am not expecting the moon. I want you to stand up on your own legs. The money you gave me from your first salary, I haven’t used it. It is in the almirah, safely in the same envelop. When I see it, and I do that often, I feel proud. For once, I think, I misjudged you. I am not ashamed a bit to say that-”
He stopped; mother had placed a hand on his arm. Some where in the last months, she had sensed the widening gulf between the Father and Son; and she was afraid that one of these talks would cause a permanent crack.
After the dinner, I sneaked out of home, and loitered in the City-Mall. From the third floor, I observed the cheerful crowd. The weekend had started. A weird thought of jumping down, into the crowd, to end this misery came to my mind. It was a brief, low moment. Then, I saw someone in the crowd——recognized the person even from such a height: My interviewer. I raced down to the ground floor on the moving escalator, pushing aside the shoppers, causing much annoyance.
I stopped the person. “Pleas…wait…” I gasped. “Do you remember me?”
He got startled by the strange question by a stranger.
“Am I supposed to know you?”
He had a baby in hand. A woman, his wife probably, was curiously watching me.
“You took my interview at Yukon Solutions-”
“I don’t know what you are saying.”
“I answered all the questions. You selected me.”
“I think you are mistaken-”
“Please,” I begged. He seemed uneasy.
“Go ahead,” he told his wife, “I will join you soon.”
She snatched the baby.
“People always pop up to meet you,” she said. “No sense of family time. You have become a celebrity.”
“Please ma’am,” I said, “This is very important.”
She ignored, and moved on.
We sat at a table in the cafeteria. I briefly explained my situation.
“I was working for Bala, too,” he said, “By now you know him well. I had to resign; he had become intolerable. He wanted his brother-in-law for my replacement. He would have finalized the candidate without an interview. But Rama Devi wanted me to be in the interview panel. I didn’t want another monster in the company. I asked swami-”
“The one who briefed you the answers-”
“Where is he now?”
“He is in the US. He went on an assignment before you joined.”
That was the reason behind all this torture. Bala had sensed foul play behind my selection. But he didn’t know the involved players. On the first day he had asked for my friends or relatives in the office.
“Do you know how much pain you have caused me?”
“Think about it this way,” he said, “I gave you a job, in a tough market. Learn as much as possible and leave.”
He left. Finally, I learned the truth. But that didn’t change anything.
Bala and Neha were in the main conference room with the client, since morning. In fact the demo was an eye-wash. Bala had his ways with customers. He would take them to dinners and oblige them with gifts. He was a smooth player.
I typed my resignation, and took a printout. My plan was to handover the hard-copy as soon as I met him after the demo; and to leave quietly without creating any scenes.
Rama devi found me in the cafeteria.
“Searched you everywhere. Leave the coffee. Follow me.”
On the elevator she briefed me.
“Demo is a flop. The bimbo——what’s her name?”
“Yes, Neha. She is not in a position to handle the client.”
Neha was outside the room. She was wearing a short skirt and a top that had a low v-cut, quite unusual for her. Eyes red, she could not look at me. “Please forgive me,” she choked, and a tear stole down her cheek.
“This is not the time,” said Rama Devi and dragged me inside the conference room.
I met the guests: a surprisingly young team. No doubt they were difficult to impress. We discussed the project in detail for an hour. While answering queries, I realized how much more I knew than I had thought. I had worked on this project day and night. Finally, all late night stays, all that hard work, paid off.
After the demo, Rama Devi called a conference in Bala’s room. “I don’t know what is your game,” she addressed Bala, “apparently, instead of using the person who developed the code, you used your superior intellect, to do the contrary.”
“Ma’am, we didn’t expect a client visit-”
“It is their money. They will visit whenever they want-”
“This is too early for the——”
“Shut your f#$&ing trap.” She said in such coldness, alien to her nature, that I wouldn’t have believed it, had I not heard it first hand. It made a visible effect on Bala. I had never seen this side of his.
“Let me put it this way,” she said, “If the project goes south. So do you. Is this clear enough?”
“Yes. Ma’am.”
“You might want to edit your Sack List?”
“Bala, we don’t fire indispensable candidates.”
She came to me. “I don’t know much about technical things,” she said, “You saved the show, today. You did a fine job. I spoke to the client after the demo. They were pretty impressed by you. And, they are confidant that you will successfully handle this project.”
No one had said such kind words in a long time. How I had coveted such praise. In that moment I felt light, and all my tiredness vanished.
After she left, I and Bala remained.
“Stupid bitch,” he was still shaking, “Everyone knows how she has come this far.”
He continued: “I had my reasons to choose Neha for the demo; I was intending to tell you; Anyway. Sit. We have to do a report of the meeting.”
I gave my inputs and started to leave.
“Ram? Wait a minute.” He called when I was at the threshold. “I just gave a printout,” He said. “Run along and get it fast. I am already running late.”
Just a few minutes back I had saved him and his project. I looked at him. I didn’t see the strong ever-right person. But found a week man, struggling to retain his power over subordinates.
How long I could avoid Bala’s of this world? Even if I resign and join a new company, there would be some other Bala waiting for me. Somewhere in life, a man needs to draw the line.
I looked straight in his eyes.
“Why do you stare like that? Get the printouts, dude.” He said with a raised voice.
“Do it yourself!” I said confidently.
He jumped from his chair, shivering with anger, and covered the distance between us in record time. I stopped him.
My father had no hope for me. In spite of my hard work, I was put in the Sack List. Neha betrayed when I needed her the most.
“Bala,” I said, measuring every word, “I have hit the bottom. I don’t have anything else to lose.”
The desperation of a man on the edge possessed me. In that bleak moment I was ready for anything and everything. A nervous silence lingered. Then he went back to his seat, continued typing——never looked up.
I came out, closing the door behind. The resignation letter was still in my pocket. I tore it into pieces, and trashed it into the dustbin. Outside, employees were rushing for the evening bus. I joined the crowd.

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

Note: This story was earlier published on Daiji.

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