Nobody loves Monday, but she was not Nobody. Monday mornings meant a host of official emails, a swarm of new themes to gossip about and a cup of tea that couldn’t quite wake her from the torpor instilled by the weekend’s laxness. Her boss would come up to her desk and take a progress report of her current projects and by the end of the day she would have to type it out send over once again. She would often order takeaway to brighten the fated day but it did little to change things when you have to be professional while eating your fricassee or your fries. A potpourri of “social synergy” events often took place on Mondays, but to know that that was another excuse to boost employee efficiency conveyed a heart of emptiness.
She worked on seventh grade textbooks, filtering through its content with the keen eye one develops as an editor and looked forward to that first cup of tea that would give her a few minutes to stare at the day’s excited sensex. The cup of tea was soon drained and in its place stood another; there was something about that Monday that seemed rather unforgiving in its very principle. Someone had ordered lemon teabags to bring about another Lilliputian rise in the general work cycle efficiency no doubt. A recently edited web support page had been flagged down for questionable content. And to top it all up, there was a problem with her official telephone which after all its years of faithful service had taken to the much spread electronic gout of all things subjected to a lifetime of servitude in human hands. It refused to engender its usual dial tone and as all things must someday, had died through the vacant night.
As it so happened, the boss seemed to have taken a liking to younger employees, but striving as an editor for two years, it was certainly a serving of a particularly nefarious serving of prickly pear to her self confidence when she saw her bring him around to their bay for a few light words.
‘As I mentioned earlier (-which was perhaps one of many lies-) this is Pashtu, the intern joining our team for this month. I have already given him a briefing on what he will be working on and he seems to have an adequate knowledge of basic grammar to get started on first copies of Stellar Geography. Kavita, please sort out what he has to get started on this week. Everyone show him around if he has any problems and Pashtu, report to me if you have any trouble with anything at all.’
Perfect. Now the company seemed to be facing such a dearth of editorial skill that any odd calf with a superficial knowledge of the English language was already aboard and needed showing the ropes. She greeted him as one usually greets new person who won’t stay too long. Briefly. For all his laborious attempts at looking older in formal clothes that had probably been bought so at least company minnows could take him seriously, an intern just wasn’t worth your while. Especially with stripes that serenaded a blank colour with little success in conveying seniority – fruitless.
The day ended when her phone beeped to a song she used to like once upon a time and at exactly 7:15 PM she left the building. The cab drive back was uneventful and once she disembarked she approached the corner shop for a packet of cigarettes – flavoured – somehow that made her feel better about occasionally giving in to tobacco. Later that night she lit up a little pyre to kill her spare seconds as she read what remained of an old Crichton classic.
Tuesday is a relief, not because it isn’t Monday, but simply because one isn’t absurdly clinging on quite as adhesively to that farcical creation most humans call a weekend. Tea, emails, proofreading, coffee, collation, printer failures, aubergines and rice, deck meeting, missing folders, doubts, T9 and traffic. A day that can be summed up in a sentence is usually not a very interesting day. Of course, that’s most of our lives at least if you’re any good at the language.
The following day brought about a number of delays regarding an electronic support software the company was developing in order to supplement the education textbooks that would be released next summer. Finishing her final version of a chapter dedicated to the classification of the various categories of soils, she realised she still needed a green light in order to proceed with its electronic counterpart. However, her boss was not in on that day and that meant phone calls, emails and prescheduled appointments with her superiors. Basically, it meant an indulgence in procrastination because people love stealing from the only currency life affords us: time. Doing the needful, she sat in her chair pondering on the days gone by when a similar setbacks had pronounced many abridged nights of fragmented sleep. But there was nothing to do, so she began to read through all her work in the past month. There is always something to do in an office.
Late in the evening when most of her co-workers were packing their bags and saving their documents in the common company drive, she got her email. It was an affirmative and she finally set to work.
‘Do you have a minute?’, said a voice logging her back into the objective existence of her editorial bay.
The intern had not left yet and he was not even on a permanent payroll. Damn. That was some commitment for a measly recommendation letter. She knew that it would be another long night of aligning relevant images and corresponding text, but a few words outside those on her screen would probably do her some good.
‘Yes, what do you need?’, she asked him turning around to face him in the now rather empty confines of the office building.
‘Do you happen to know any shops nearby where I can pick up some supplies for everyday use? I don’t need anything too specific; just a few toiletries and stationary tools would be sufficient.’
‘There is nothing immediately around the office, but if you do travel towards the road that is perpendicular to this building you will soon find yourself by Amazon mall. You will find everything you need there. You might have to deposit your backpack at the entrance though as they have tightened their security.’
‘Oh, I see. That should be fine. I was looking for a shop where I can find all that I need in close vicinity; I’m new to this city so it has been a little difficult settling in.’
‘Yes, it takes a while to get used to Delhi, but everything is available here, if you know where to look.’
She had exhausted her five minutes of leisure time in order to help the intern out with his initiation in the big, scary city. It was time to get back to work – she swivelled her chair and began typing once more. He got the hint and followed suit.
‘Well, I’m done for today. Thanks a lot for all the information. I’ll let you know how things go tomorrow. Have a good night’, he said ten minutes later as he saved his files on the opposite computer and set off to explore the idiosyncrasies of the city. This was the first intern to grace their bay and she wished him good night.
Thursday set in with the much dreaded progress report which had to be presented in front of her superiors in the oval excuse they had for a meeting room. As always, what appeared to be a general work detail regarding the months projects disintegrated into a conversation about how some people had been caught browsing through websites which were banned by company policy. Moreover, by the time the topic was reinstated, instead of an outpour of suitable means of advancing individual projects, the senior editors gave the usual pep talk with the very familiar ethereal hope of a yearly raise to boost corporate motivation. While all that did not assist her with the projects allotted to her in any manner, they did kill enough time in order to bring about the much anticipated lunch hour. Along with her co-workers, she went downstairs to the canteen to devour that finite barter.
Returning to her desk she observed that the intern had not left his and was now working on editing a number of first proofs that had been handed to him by the woman sitting next to him. People using people to get their work done. Typical company ethics. He would perhaps take a break in a moment, but for now she had to get back to her desk.
Beginning on a particularly dreary chapter about the water cycle – which was interesting a long, long time ago – she pranced through the same basic ideas which had been discussed time and time again by an author who was paid by the page (or so it seemed). Soon, however, it became evident that she had not been granted permission to utilize certain pictures which were mandatory in the illustration of the unit. Someone had blocked the required database and now began the long wait for permissions once again. Waiting wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to anybody, it was the tsunami of endeavour developing at the mouth of the floodgates that got to you.
‘Do you want to go down for a coffee’, she asked Pashtu as she logged off her computer and glanced at his monitor. If anything, time could be killed in conversation, far, far away from a desk that reminded her home was a good many hours away. He assented with an unsure smile and saved his work for a much deserved break.
‘I’ll get some lunch if you don’t mind, I haven’t eaten all day. My guesthouse doesn’t serve regular meals and I’ve been kept busy all day.’
‘Yeah, sure. I’ll just get a cup of coffee because I have already eaten.’
‘Good call. No offence, but the coffee in the common room upstairs doesn’t work wonders in keeping me awake. Do you want to go pick up your coffee now and we’ll sit down somewhere before I place an order?’
‘Yes, that will work.’
They sat down together by the windows overlooking the outdoor parking as the sun cast its hottest rays on the aging day. He proceeded to place an order as she sat stirring her coffee thinking about the impending hell that would descend on her as soon as her clearance came in. Then she observed the creases of his ironed shirt which was tucked in systematically so that people would take him seriously and she chuckled to herself. No one wore that kind of stuff to the office these days. Not after the first three months anyway.
‘Sorry about that. They take awfully long to serve you if you’re a new face. That’s a trend everywhere I guess. Do you want to try some of this chaat?.’
‘No, thank you. I’m quite stuffed. Besides coffee and chaat don’t go to well together. Is this what you usually have for lunch – an afternoon snack?’
‘Well, on occasion. I don’t really follow the usual norms of daily meals, I’m always getting told off for that.’
‘Haha, I can understand why. So why did you come here for an internship? Didn’t you find an opportunity in the United Kingdom? I thought this field would be a lot bigger on that side of the world.’
‘Well, to be honest, I had to head back home anyway, being an only child and all that. This company came by as a matter of convenience and I guess I took it.’
In the following hour that was born of a mere coffee break, they talked about food, family, professions, hobbies, work ethics, the city, traffic and a whole of other things that begin as strangers and end in acquaintanceship.
She ended that working day later than most of the other employees and the sound of silence was startlingly loud in an empty building. Lighting up a cigarette she thought about the transience of all things in the present and how all things change.
The intern wasn’t all work and no play as she had assumed previously, he did occasionally strike up a conversation when he seemed too worked up by all the work that could be entrusted to a temporary worker. But unravelling his nature was something of a conundrum to her, he seemed too friendly for an office space – like people usually are while they still enjoy the company’s coffee. It was probably a first week phenomenon. Still she’d rather have him stay that way for the duration of his internship, but the eremitic city would get to him sooner or later. He needed to be preserved.
‘So have you been around the city yet?’, she asked sipping her first cup of tea the next day.
‘No, not yet. I don’t exactly know what to do here.’
‘Do you like movies? I’m a massive movie buff.’
‘Oh are you? They’re okay. There’s nothing great running right now is there?.’
‘Well that depends on what you like. I go for a movie now and again even if it’s not the best thing to don a screen.’
‘Oh really? I’ll look them up now then.’
Clearly, he did not have a soft spot for the cinema; oh well, she had done her bit. Sometimes, the smallest difference in taste changes your approach to social initiation. She looked back at the sixty seven pages she still had to edit in the civics textbook and got to work.
‘Check your inbox, I sent you a list of movies that seem worthwhile.’
The office was slowly becoming quieter as another working day was nearing an end and she looked at her phone to see if her cab driver has sent her a text informing her of a delay.
‘Sorry about that – I just thought discussing movies while everyone else was working might not get me the most furnished recommendation letter by the end of the month.’
‘You think too much. No one cares about that sort of thing here.’
‘I guess. I – I sent you the list of films we could watch sometime over the weekend?’
‘Oh yes, I’m not doing much. Here, take down my number and let me know when you are free in the following days.’
‘Alright. Um, apart from the movie, could you possibly show me parts of the city? Not too far from the multiplex of course, just places in and around that locality. I mean only if you’re not busy on that particular day.’
‘Around Saket? Yes, I could do that. But all the places tourists go to are not close by so do you mind travelling short distances in order to take in the sights and sounds of Delhi?’
‘Oh that would be great! I’d enjoy that a lot more than being trapped in a movie theatre and forced to watch a mediocre film about the Argonauts.’
‘Well, we could watch a movie some other time then; let me show you around this city.’
‘Are you sure? We could also go for the movie?’, he asked weakly, but the intent had been conveyed and she understood that well.
After going around the city, exploring the oldest cake shop, the Qutb Minar, Saket and a few other prominent spots, they sat in a cafe to cool their heels waiting for tutti-frutti sundaes which heal even the sorely worn out.
‘So what do you read about in your university course? I presume literature hasn’t changed much since I was pursuing my masters degree a few years ago?’, she asked him as the seconds ticked on.
‘Why great kings and valorous knights of course! What else does one study in literature these days?’
Choosing to play along, she added, ‘Yes, studied them too. Men in shining raiment who slay massive reptilian dragons and rescue princesses from steep towers.’
‘No, that’s Shrek’.
‘No, that’s the course you’re studying.’
‘Okay fine, they have upgraded the course from knights and dragons. But honestly, it’s still all about saving the damsels in distress. A tad bit outdated if you ask me.’
‘Yeah, just by a few centuries. There’s only one thing damsels in distress need saving from.’
On the way back to the metro station, after a very eventful day, they sat in the auto rickshaw talking about work and how unspoken policies in the corporate ladder facilitated an invisible hierarchy in the company.
‘It’s like Polanski’s Carnage in many ways I think; no one buys a grain of what anybody else is saying and yet no one leaves the building’, he commented while looking at the blood red evening descending from the sky.
‘Yeah, but you do have to remember that’s what opened the gates of hell. One of Roman Polanski’s weaker movies if you ask me.’
‘You like Polanski?’
‘Of what I’ve watched, yes. They leave me thinking so I prefer to watch his movies when I have a lot of time in my hands.’
‘Have you seen Rosemary’s Baby? It’s my favourite Polanski movie! The man does know how to make your hair stand.’
‘So that’s a horror movie? I should tell you, even though I am a movie buff and all that, I’m not really that much of a horror movie fan.’
‘What? Well that’ll have to change. We totally have to watch Rosemary’s Baby.’
‘I don’t –’
‘Oh come on! When you watch it with another person, it’s never that bad. Besides this isn’t one of those ghouls-leaping-out-of-chiffoniers kind of movies. This is the real deal.’
‘I don’t think I ever trust guys when it comes to briefings about this genre of films.’
‘You just have to take my word for it. So when can we do this?’
Pashtu had known her for less than a week, but his manner channelled years of companionship. She could tell he wasn’t trying to be inappropriate, but she also realised that she did not know him very well beyond their conversations in the office and the events of that very day.
‘We could watch it later tonight if you’re not occupied.’
She rarely had shown her fellow workers her flat: the flat she shared with two other flatmates because that was her little oasis of peace from a world of printouts and pay checks. He wouldn’t be here long so there was no harm in calling him over that night. After all, if Polanski wasn’t the man of the hour, she’d probably sit down with a graphic novel and a cigarette to wade through the long dark night.
He certainly seemed more conscious in his words and movements in her apartment which was probably attributed to the new ambience of home. As her flatmates would come back later at night, she did not have to cook for them tonight. Acknowledging this, she asked him whether they should order food before they begin to watch the movie. He nodded in approval and the phone call was made.
Three hours later, after the trays of hummus, falafel and meatballs were all but finished and the movie’s credits were rolling, she realized that night had long set in. The weekend still administered another day to recover from the exacting week ahead so she had no qualms about staying up late. Pashtu did not seem to mind the idea, so they stayed up echoing the countless generations of speech which make humans of us all.
He left early in the morning as he had to visit some relatives of his that he had never seen before. After breakfast, he spoke about some problems he had come across while working on a school textbook. He made little light conversation and then put on his shoes and departed. Saying goodbye, he momentarily lingered and then left. She returned to the mattresses they had spread out on the floor and fell back into dreamless sleep.
The next week saw a number changes in the work ethic of the company, right from the head honchos down to the junior editors and even the coincidentally unfortunate interns. The head office in the United Kingdom was sending over a team of company executives to help oversee a merging with a few smaller editorial houses. That meant international feedback which could in turn provide a raise for several employees or alternately bring about stricter measures in order to increase their monthly output. This was going to be a difficult month and she knew they were nearing the netherworld every passing hour.
The intern carried on with his work until the lunch hour and then spoke to her regarding a doubt which she was sure he could resolve with his own devices. This graduated into a conversation over meat wraps and smoothies and led to a lot of catching up once the fleeting hour was over.
The following day she sent him over an email asking him if he’d be alright if she were to go for lunch with her office friends. He assented and carried on with his work. She liked his company of course, they never exhausted their supply of conversational topics. But he would leave after a month and she would have to work here for a sizable dollop of the future. She could not alienate herself from her friends here and she was sure he would understand. Nevertheless, she felt a trifle woeful when he walked out of the bay an hour later; he and his formal attire preparing to embrace the charms of solitude in a canteen where everybody knew somebody.
Thursday left her drained of any creative potential. Proofreading was not the most diabolical procedure of editing but it was perhaps the most monotonous requisite of any editorial cycle. Added to that was the recent phone call from home which brought back a subject she wanted to circumvent. Being twenty five, her parents had been urging her to consider her future from an ‘adult’s perspective’ – those being the exact words conveyed over a long distance call could mean a linear conclusion to the conversation. Being economically independent and yet unmarried was a strange circumstance of the advancement of a society which had left some people behind. Give the people bread and they’ll find something else to fret about. And to top it all up, her boss had just assigned her a few projects which were originally the responsibility of a co-worker who hadn’t turned up in months. She could not see past the next hour and wished for anything that would not involve reality momentarily.
But reality refreshes itself now and again in the draining dregs of coffee mugs, the deathly drubbing of keyboards and in phone calls that never come. It was seven in the evening when she finally finished for the day and she realized the next day and the weekend would be just the same.
‘Tomorrow’s going to be just the same as today, eh?’, the intern started as he came back from the common room with a glass of water. He kept true to his company coffee strike as always.
‘I guess so. Did you get a lot done today?.’
‘I don’t think interns can ever get a lot done. The moment I finished with my vetting project, Ms Panjula handed me some of her work to proofread. I guess life is all about feeling complacent with all things incomplete – sorry about the deep talk.’
‘Well, we don’t get interns very often, so when we do, it’s rather tempting to funnel a part of our workload on to the month long boon.’
‘Boon indeed. What are you doing tonight?.’
She was caught off guard. His sudden questions startled her frequently; no one else posed such enquiries in the office – especially in plain white shirts ironed to perfection. She had work to get through the next day and any delay would bring about more pressure from her superiors over the weekend.
‘I have to finish this book I’m working on right now. What are you doing tonight?’
‘Same as always. Skyping back home and then watching whatever is playing on the telly. Good life.’
‘Well, I wish we could watch a movie to –’
‘It’s cool. Shall we do something tomorrow? Even the employee of the month here needs a break right?’
‘Haha, of course. Yes, I’m okay with that.’
‘I have your word’, he said with a smile as he walked out of the office into the night.
‘Now don’t judge me based on how clean my room is here. They don’t clean it every day and I have to stay up late if I want it done after work. I’m never here when they do it in the morning.’
‘You have people clean your room for you? Well aren’t you spoilt.’
‘Well what do you expect? It is a guesthouse.’
‘And they charge you if you keep it clean I suppose?’
‘You’re impossible. Okay, we’re almost there.’
Ten minutes later, she found herself in his room – a room that she could associate with her college days – newspapers serving as table mats, opened packets of biscuits, pieces of writing scattered around on an unkempt desk – home.
‘Well, here it is. Let me turn on the AC, it’s positively boiling here.’
‘Oh he’s got his AC on all the time. He gets more spoilt by the second.’
‘You know what they say, if you’ve got it, use it.’
He changed out of his formal armour in the next few minutes and sat on the bed in a pair of shorts that had seen too many beaches.
‘The formalwear does make you look older. I can’t believe how much time I’ve been spending with a kid.’
‘Woah, woah! Easy! You don’t have to go all Estella on me just because I’m not donning my office best.’
‘Well, you look like a kid. I can’t help that.’
‘I guess that can’t be helped then.’
They lounged about for several minutes bantering until he suddenly remembered they were supposed to watch a movie. She was mildly amused by his denial of being a good many years younger than her by claiming a marked mental maturity. It occurred to her then that that rendezvous in his room should have defied her cognition of propriety by now, but it didn’t and she let the evening take its course.
‘Do you like poetry?’, Pashtu asked as they finished The Ghost Writer.
‘That was what I was least interested in while studying literature in my university. Do I like it? What I understand I like, but I hate it when people ask me to explain what I understood.’
‘That’s fair enough, going by the fact that every poem has its own essence in the mind of the reader.’
‘Why? Why do you ask? Do you write poems?’
‘On occasion; it has been a while though.’
‘Poet’s block? Does that even exist?’
‘No, but inertia does.’
‘Hmm. Read me something you’ve written recently.’
‘Naah. Let me pick out some of my favourites. And we’ll have Mr Bates read them out for you.’
‘But I can do that anytime myself. What’s your value addition?’
‘Clicking. Okay, fine you can read the one I wrote about the office after we’re done with this. Don’t judge me.’
Alan Bates could make a deaf man experience poetry with that voice of his. Unfortunately, there were only two poems read by him that were to be found on the internet. It came down to Pashtu’s poem and he had no corner to back into.
‘Here it is. You read it.’
How bored were we to invent work?
Ironically its colder around ironed shirts
And you'd expect a touch of grease in polished shoes.
Someone's always having a baby, that's the talk;
How goes your morning? How is that heart?
Lets go have that first cup of coffee.
The economy would fall without Kottayam coffee:
Bitter brown liquid life of work;
No dipping tea bags in the cup of your heart
While you brush nothing off the cuff of your shirt
She's the new Indira Gandhi - so they talk,
As you look for the weekend in the soles of your shoes.
Always polish your Rockport shoes.
And breathe, drink, eat, screw cotta coffee.
And pay attention to the undertone, the talk;
It'll get you promoted, not your work;
Even if you had faxed your loyal heart
To this project, before you were a shirt.
It must be professional to tuck in your shirt
And spend your weekends polishing your shoes
And in your glovebox leave your typeset heart
Which once loved other things besides coffee.
You're one of the lucky ones, you have work
And when you're bored, there's the talk.
When children grow up, they learn to talk,
And play corporate fetch in collared shirts;
I think that's what dead men call work
They never bury them with their shoes,
A lifetime of polish, mice and coffee
To postpone that sanctioned heart.
I have an old keyboard for a heart
And my pulse speaks Tick Tock;
I've spent so much of me, I piss coffee
And my name's a thread in your shirt
And a leather canyon in your shoe
That dreamt of a freedom called work.
‘I like it.’
‘That’s insightful. Do you think using an incomplete sestina format was effective?’
‘I already told you; don’t ask me to talk about the poem after I have finished reading it. Some things can be enjoyed without a reason. In my opinion, reading a poem is one of those things.’
‘Spoilsport. Anyway, I think we should turn in now – we’ve got all of purgatory to get through tomorrow.’
‘Yes, that’s a good idea.’
‘What time shall I set the alarm to?’
‘The hour by which I wake up.’
Waking up in the middle of the night she could hear him faintly snoring on the other side of the bed, lying like a corpse in a graveyard of possibilities. She had never thought Delhi would render such an amity of sorts; people don’t make friends to watch Polanski movies and discuss formative poetry – at least she hadn’t since her college days.
Gazing up at the ceiling she began replaying the events of the last two weeks in her head. There had been so much work, working life had delivered its promised hectic package day after day. But there were moments like these too, where the world did not stop turning for an instant, but time stopped for introspection.
She wanted to investigate the constitution of what lying next to a stranger on a hot summer night meant, but the musings of Rilke banished her into a dream:
‘Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.’
The weekend passed with a flurry of deadlines which had to be met through a host of emails, but in the end she completely it all and by midnight she lay in bed wondering what the following week had in store for her.
‘I was reading this book by Hardy online just because I thought I’d heard the guy’s name too many times and I might just be questioned by literature big shot someday and I –’
‘I’ve read a poem by him.’
Pashtu faked a look of utter shock and humiliation. ‘Wait, wait, wait. Even you’ve read something by Hardy and I knew nothing about him till last night? For shame!’
‘Shut up. It was called ‘The Temporary the All’ I do believe. In fact I even remember a line from it: ‘Let such lodging be for a breath-while,” thought I’. Yeah, that’s all I remember. I have to go read it again, it was one of my favourite poems from back in the day.’
‘I thought you didn’t like poetry.’
‘No being tested on it, merely reading it for my personal pleasure.’
‘Ah, I see.’
When she returned to her desk after lunch, she looked up the poem once more. Just like the first time she read it, there was an element of melancholy in its depths and she couldn’t quite place it. After all which poem with ‘breath-while’ in its womb could ever be a happy poem?
They had exchanged personal email addresses in order to chat and raise no suspicions of their unforeseen concord within their bay. She wasn’t too bothered, rather aware that the gap of five years between their ages would be an impermeable immunity against any gossip. He, however, was afraid enjoying his office time a bit too much in the form of constant conversation would not reflect too well on his letter of recommendation. It was a bliss ignorant world out there that thought either one of them were burning themselves out editing textbooks. It wasn’t quite as productive, but it kept them going.
Friday came a lot sooner that week and they had by now watched four movies directed by Roman Polanski and a whole lot of other things that had no need for the director’s accrual. Getting to the office was a bit trickier when two people who weren’t living together or married or even remotely related came to work by the same vehicle.
They worked their way around this by taking the lift upstairs at different times and thereby creating a space of fifteen minutes to dissipate any scent of romance. Ingenious stuff.
On Friday evening, while they were returning on a particularly rickety auto rickshaw, Pashtu expressed his feelings on working in the educational publishing section.
‘It’s all a bit restrained don’t you think? I mean with respect to freedom, do editors have any control over what’s going into the books? I mean they practically rewrite older editions by the same authors but they have to stick to the outline set up by the various boards of academia.’
‘There needs to be some quality control right? Editors only have a limited knowledge of each subject, to give them greater right would put a lot of basic education opportunities at risk.’
‘Surely, they can hire specialists to work on each subject?’
‘Specialists? We’re hiring interns to keep up with the clock, do you really think we could provide enough incentive for specialists to come and work with us?’
‘Whatever you say. I need a drink.’
‘A drink to what?’
‘The futility of it all.’
‘Yes, let’s raise a toast.’
‘No, I’m serious. It’s been a while and I think all this work is starting to get to me. A little liquor is long due.’
‘Are you some kind of closet alcoholic?’
‘Quite right. And you just saw me come out.’
She did not drink very often and when she did it was in moderation. She had seen enough in her university days to refrain from alcohol, but her companion seemed to hell bent on getting drunk for no apparent reason.
‘Don’t worry, I never force people to drink with me. Unless they want to drink that is. Then I force them plenty.’
Six hours later, they were sitting up in bed talking about their childhoods and all the things that made them who they were. A bottle of Smirnoff watched the scene play out – the ungainly conversations, the debonair smiles, the infrequent prattle – archetypical of debauchery.
She looked at him and said, ‘Is this a day in your life at university?’
‘Pretty much. No, not really. This just the usual Thursday night, when our submissions aren’t around the corner.’
‘I see. So how are the people there? I’m sure they don’t all follow your dress code of shirts and striped trousers for one thing.’
‘Oh no! They’re all wear top hats and trench coats; every single person there. And some of them even carry canes and pocket watches.’
‘You can shut up now. No seriously.’
‘I don’t know. People are a lot more open once you get to know them I guess?’
‘Once you get them drunk you mean?’
‘Yeah, you could say that.’
‘Sometimes I wish everyone in the office would have a drink. People are nice when it comes to a few words exchanged, sometimes it feels like family while we all sit for lunch together, but not quite.’
‘Can you not make friends in the office?’
‘You can. But it’s not quite as easy. Working for a salary makes everyone a co-worker and that tag of friendship has to be used with caution.’
‘Yeah, I know what you mean when you say you need to exercise caution. I feel that way when I have to hug somebody – like I want to go through with it because I can’t write a poem for everybody, can I? But then I think whether it is appropriate or not because I’m not sure if I know them well enough. And you also need to think about the duration of contact because hugging is like soldering, too little and your circuit will be incomplete; too much and there won’t be a circuit.’
‘What does that have to do with anything?’
‘Good point. Sorry, just something on my mind.’
‘Well, talking about hugging, sometimes I wish somebody would come around and give me a hug when the going gets tough on a long day.’
‘Do people hug each other in the office?’
‘Not very often, I guess.’
‘That’s what I thought.’
She packed her stuff in the morning while he ordered their breakfast. Twenty minutes later, she wished him farewell.
‘I’ll see you in the office on Monday?’
‘Er-yeah. My last week.’
‘Erm – I hope I have it light.’
‘Yeah, I’ll try to put in a word for you.’
‘Thanks, that would be great. Um, you have a good weekend.’
‘Also, how do I say it – er –’
‘You know the awkward thing I was talking about?’
‘I can’t quite remember.’
‘Er – this –’
And he put his arms around her in what encapsulated a momentary clasp.
‘Well, reciprocate! Jesus, this is why this is so odd. Always!’
‘I did! Has your sensory system shut down?’
‘Oh – okay. Alright, bye bye.’
It so happened that the next week would bring her visitors. First her ex beau and then her best friend from high school visited her in the first two days of the week. Pashtu was given a final project to complete in order to conclude his internship experience in Delhi. Overloaded with deadlines, he rushed through the proofreading, vetting and correcting cycles as diligently as he possibly could. She could not make it for lunch with him as she hadn’t eaten with her co-workers for a while and on Monday she noticed they hadn’t bothered calling her. On Tuesday, Pashtu did not get up from his table all day and when she asked him whether he would like to go for a cup of coffee in the evening, he refused her offer saying that he had too much work to finish. She had not seen such professional indulgence in him since his first week in the office. But work was work and she let him be.
On Wednesday, she came early in order to access a picture database which would exhaust itself by midday. Pashtu hadn’t arrived and his lonely chair sat quietly caressing his desk. He came in about an hour later, muttering a quick greeting for everyone and sat down to work. She sent him an online message, but received no reply. After about two hours she typed:
‘Is everything okay?’
‘Everything is just fine.’
‘Are you mad at me for something I have said or done recently?’
‘No, why would I be mad at you? Everything is fine. Everything is great.’
His curt tone resounded out of her monitor and she decided to pursue it no further. Clearly, something was bothering him, but as long as he chose not to bring it out himself, there was nothing she could do to help him. But what could its root be? They had hardly spoken in the last two days, let alone done anything together. It had been a packed set of weekdays for her and he had undoubtedly spent some quality time with himself in the confines of his room in the guesthouse. Nothing she had said in the past could bring about such a change in him. She could not interpret his demeanour but neither could she accept it.
Circumstance had done him in. It was his last week in the city and the only friend he had made there was occupied as the sojourn neared its finale. It was no secret that all things had to end. Robert Herrick had taught him that, W.B. Yeats had taught him that, heck, the bard had taught him that! But what poetry could teach that valuable lesson that new found solitude communicates vacuum so eloquently? He knew her world did not revolve around his day to day affairs in the city, but now he would have say that to himself and gently let go of that paper boat that contained all of his memories in Delhi.
And he did so with cold precision. Her absence mocked his overinvestment in silent laughter. All the stakes had failed, this had been such a memorable summer, but one to forget. He had often wondered how he could come to terms with leaving behind their companionship when his internship ended. Time had provided a viable solution. He would have to return the favour and exercise neglect.
‘Neglect is the coldest of the winter winds’
- Thomas Hardy, Desperate Remedies
On Thursday, however, his mind rebelled against its master. His weak constitution worked out that he should try apologising to her and leaving the company in grace. It had been his delusion all along that had tortured the innards of his reflections, for she had welcomed him to the city and she deserved better. He skim read another chapter of ancient history as he waited for her to arrive. Just as he had formed his resolution to go through with his apology, a nearby phone call informed him that she had taken the day off.
And Friday passed as all Fridays must.
Came Monday, with no hue and cry, but with the clouds that promised an early monsoon. She entered the office and saw the intern at work, signing a few documents which would complete the formalities necessary in order to receive his stipend as well as his much treasured letter of recommendation. He spoke a few words to his boss who commended his performance as they always do when you are leaving. People try to see the best in people before they say goodbye.
He came around to the bay with a programmed smile and bid farewell to everyone. After shaking Ms Panjula’s hand, he came around to her desk. The corporate handshake, the pitiful wince and mankind’s forgetfulness about his faculty of feeling.
‘But this was not our story.’