I’m trying my hand at fiction after a long time and probably for the first time in this blog. Well, characters, events and places are fictional and the usual legal blah, blah ;)
Her heavily mascaraed eyes flicked towards me across the cubicle barrier. I made a futile attempt to pretend that I didn’t notice it. Her blank glance meant only one thing - ‘Aren’t you ready, yet?’ A meeting reminder has suddenly started flashing wildly on my computer screen. Just then somebody just slammed shut a printer tray diagonally behind me. Also the distinct soft thuds of a stilettos striding on the wooden floor again far behind me sounds like war drums. The typically inaudible chatter hundreds of fingers frantically tapping computer keys and depressing mouse buttons have suddenly become unbearably loud. A mixed feeling of sickness and growing anger is brewing in my tummy. I realize I have suddenly become perfectly still.
She stands up from her seat in one slow lazy motion. Her usual aloof expression almost certainly didn’t convey intelligence as she presumed. Rather it smacks of snobbishness. This time I don’t make a futile pretence of ignoring her, on the contrary I decide to acknowledge it. To further affirm my stubbornness in this matter, my chin dips slightly lower down my chest and my eyes dart across its breadth of my computer screen like a skilled Bharatanatyam dancer. The 12 page report I need just a mouse click away. Yet, my hand is still waving the mouse like silly as if waiting for a cue. Then suddenly I got my cue.
“We have the weekly meeting now, right?”
“Hmm…. Oh, right. Just a minute, Sonia”
She tries one of her sly smiles which rather disappear in the flashes of her red glossy lips “Can you take the printouts? I’m too lazy to hunt for it”
Damn you why me? - I wonder. “Sure, no problem”
You can call it the worst part of the day for a meeting or anything for that matter. At quarter past two just after lunch. Not that a BurgerKing bean burger meal is a particularly sumptuous or satisfying lunch. It just had to weigh down in my belly enough to trigger a mid-afternoon sleep. Not that this drowsy state would affect my performance in this meeting in any manner. In fact, sleep walking would be an ideal strategy to tackle the 15 odd weekly report meetings that I have these days. An impassive reading of the itemized colour coded action points, some vague summary of the tasks performed and a quiet nod to each speaker is all that is needed. No insights, no lateral thinking and god forbid no technical jargon. Paradoxically, being in charge of an IT project the last thing anyone would like to mention in such meetings is anything technical. The ‘tech’ stuff is usually so low level that isn’t worth mentioning. It is at end of the chain, the operational level. It’s not that you would be scoffed at or even rebuked for talking ‘tech’. But it would be quite apparent that it is slipping through the tunnels between everyone’s ears. More importantly it would be a career suicide for an IT consultant like me.
We never needed so many meetings. Originally there was just ONE. It was appropriately on a Wednesday morning. Everyone would promptly appear and we would kick off by reading out the consolidated 4 page report. But then Middle East project became our responsibility and they still wanted the same deadlines. We threw our hands up saying we simply didn’t have enough flack. It was true. Most of us Indians put in around 12 hours a day. We had drawn out things so tight that we would barely make it to the Haloween release. A certain German manager in fact didn’t quite appreciate this. Almost callously he claimed that we were underutilized. Like we were donkeys pulling a chariot when we could have actually galloped like horses. So he felt the best thing would be to track everything. From the code reviews to the lunch breaks. Every single bit of it. Perhaps it made him feel that he finally had the whip. Nonetheless, things were actually not improving in any manner.
The report heavy with graphs slowly loads up on my screen. I’m just a key press away from printing it. I pickup up my dark hardbound notebook in one hand and my extra strong, extra sweetened cup of tea in the other. I will badly need the latter in the next one hour. In fact I’ll actually need 3 such cups. But for now - this will do. This one was freshly brewed a minute ago. A minute ago when I punched the code 53 on the machine for the eight time today. When a Styrofoam cup popped down from within and the machine started whirring loudly. The tiny nozzles above the cup started spurting some liquids and steam in a premeditated sequence. They built up a foam which made delicious noises as it rose to the brim. Without even looking I picked up the cup timed to perfection as the last drop dripped down to the cup. One minute later, I look at the cup now, the foam is still intact. Perfecto, I murmured.
Then I catapult from my seat and press the print button and dash towards the printer. As the pages spew into the tray, my notebook appears like an enormous chainsaw and I’m mentally sawing down one big tree after another. I collect 24 pages of single sided print on bond quality paper for stapling. My stapler makes a vacant click reminding me that it was devoid of pins since last week. Without even thinking twice I pick up the nearest stapler and the deed is done.
All the while Sonia was waiting armed with her spiral bound notebook, office supplied pen and the bloody same aloof expression. She had worn her usual black jumper and black trousers. As popular wisdom goes Black can be quite flattering for women wishing to look slim. Honestly, it hardly helped much on her 150 pound frame. I gave a tiny smile indicating that I’m ready. That smile got amplified, sugar coated, mixed with a hint of a yawn and flashed back to me in bright red lips. I tried to mildly joke something about the recently proliferation of reports. She chortled in her usually highly pitched tone, which almost startled me in mid motion.
“Would anybody from CHIRP apps join us?” she mouthed in her heavily south Brit accent.
“I suppose not. Neither Jennifer or Kiran accepted the meeting request. I guess they have no outstanding tasks this week.”
“Hmmm, I suppose they don’t. But we can still dial them up from the conference room”
I didn’t quite hear her last sentence. I guess her 3 inch heels rhythmically pounding the carpeted floor was drowning it. A short tuft of hair over her forehead kept vibrating in rhythm. Her exaggerated movement came to an abrupt stop. I reached out and punched the lift button.
She kept watching impatiently at the LED display of the lift. I looked though the bright window at the end of the alley. It was a warm day in London today and a perfect time to be outdoors. I could see a group of young identically dressed balle dancers by the streets walking to the nearby park. Some were leaping and spinning with graceful ease. Further across, little chubby English children played hopscotch or sat on seesaws in the park. A pale thin young woman was sitting against a short cherry tree and was half amused by her over enthusiastic chestnut coloured Doberman. Her cheerful face couldn’t hide her longing, but right now, the sun and her life looked bright.
The lift opened with a ring. As the doors slid open, a tall slender formally dressed black Brit rushed out. He was momentarily confused which way to turn. He chose right and decided to run. Sonia stepped in almost immediately. I dragged myself in. She lifted her manicured fingers all the way up to button 14. Thanks to the extra 3 inches she didn’t have to try too hard.
‘Kapil, going home for Diwali?’
I could almost feel the nausea now. ‘No’, I replied.
‘Hmm… why?’, she enquired
In a low voice I replied, ‘Not that many leaves left actually’
‘Bummer. Don’t worry, we can celebrate it over here this time.’
I looked at her face hoping she was joking. Hell, she wasn’t! After all it isn’t quite surprising actually. She looked unmistakable like any other Punjabi girl. Except perhaps for her bobbed silky looking hair dyed in psychedelic colours. Except perhaps for her near perfect south Brit accent. Except for her childhood, which perhaps had fleeting trips to Punjab once in a year, which would now be more of a repulsive memory of a poverty stricken country.
Of course she wasn’t an Indian. She wouldn’t know what it is like to be home at Diwali. More importantly she wouldn’t know what it is like not to be home at Diwali. An ignoramus. A cross cultural freak. A word that’s stripped of its etymology. Pathetic!
I tried to smile. She smiled back, this time more meaningfully. Did she actually peek into the mind of Kapil Sharma for a moment? I cannot say. Perhaps she did. Perhaps she did look a bit pretty now. She had wide telling eyes. I had forgotten.
The lift pulled itself to a halt. As I stepped outside I heard a familiar voice to my left. It was my project manager, Hari. Meticulously dressed in a cream pinstripe shirt and black blazer, he was slowly pacing about the walkway. To a casual observer, he could be seen as loudly talking and gesturing to an invisible person, almost like a lunatic. But, a thin wire dangling in front of him is the sole proof of his sanity. He must be speaking via his hands-free to his offshore project manager over a teleconference. His voice is barely audible but one can sense that things are not quite happy there.
As I walked the wire seemed more like a leash around Hari’s neck. The mobile he held in one hand seemed to have firmly held its other end. It seemed to have slowly tightened its grip on Hari, till his thickly mustached lips moved and muttered something out of sheer compulsion. He never saw me. I turned and realized Sonia was already entering the meeting room.
I entered the tiny room with a circular table and few plush plastic chairs. I handed over Sonia’s copy of the report to her. I placed my black notebook and tea on the mahogany table just next to her. I opened my notebook and leaved through the notes of all my earlier meetings. I found a blank page and scribbled down the date at the upper left corner. As I’m about to write, I’m now aware of a familiar feeling in me. I’m still wondering - which meeting is this?