Sunday, 17 April 2016

Freedom's Just Another Word

This story first appeared in the inaugural issue of UnBound magazine, released on August 15, 2015. It was published under the by-line 'Percy Wadiwala'. 




“Freedom!”

The echoes of the cry would have resonated around the ninth floor of the head office of DCTMR Bank, had it not been for the fact that it was uttered inside a closed cabin.

Ardeshir Behram Cowasjee, Senior Manager, umbrella-lover and resident bawa, looked up from the papers he was perusing. His friend and primary underling, Girishankar Sisodia, did not budge from his laptop.




“Care to elaborate, Amrita?” Ardy’s calm tones were a sharp contrast to the ebullient lady he was addressing.

“Offer letter!” she said, brandishing it. “My ticket to freedom! I knew the mannat I had asked for from Vaishnodevi last month would bear fruit!”

“I thought you went to Shirdi last month,” said Ardy, his eyes back on his papers.

“I went to Shirdi and Vaishnodevi both,” she said, looking even more pleased with herself, as anyone who has seen sincere efforts bear fruit can imagine.

“Joint venture then,” mumbled Giri. Amrita wasn’t his least favourite of the people who barged into Ardy’s cabin to chew the fat, but she was just the kind of over-excitable, easily-agitated woman Giri would rather have less of in his life.

“When’s your last date?”

“August 15 – well, 14th, I suppose, with 15th being a holiday and all. Hey, did you realise?”

“What?” Ardy looked up again, casting a look of carefully exaggerated cluelessness at his colleague. A waste of effort, given that picking up on subtle sarcasm of this nature was not something Amrita did.

“It’s independence day! And I’m getting independent on that day! Don’t you see? What a co-incidence?”

“I’d never have noticed if you hadn’t told me,” Ardy assured her.

“I’m so happy!” she said, leaning against Giri’s table, pushing his laptop two inches sideways and leading him to type an incorrect formula. “Free from DCTMR, free from that idiot Shrivastav.”

“We all are,” Giri said, more with the intent to get her out of his space than anything else.

“So, Amrita, what department will you be in over there?” asked Ardy, putting away his papers as a lost cause.

“Oh, Private Banking,” she replied.

“That’s the same thing you were doing here, isn’t it?”

“Yes, yes,” she smiled back.

“Well, easy transition, then. Who’s heading the team at Axis?”

“Same guy who took my interview – Akshay Damani.”

“Damani? Sussudeo, didn’t he work here?”

“Was an AGM in our Private Banking team,” nodded Giri, who was used to his boss referring to him by the name of a popular Phil Collins song. “Must’ve moved up the ladder in Axis. He used to be under Shrivastav here.”

“So you will be doing much the same work, under much the same boss,” mused Ardy, yawning.

“At a solid pay hike, Ardy sir! Twenty per cent!”

“Well I’m delighted for you,” said Ardy, just as his phone rang. He picked up the receiver and rolled his eyes on hearing the voice at the other end.

Amrita continued smiling as she left the cabin, and would no doubt have done a little jig as she did so, only restrained by the considerable girth on her hips that adversely affected her ability to indulge in such activities.

It was some time before the call was over, but when it was, Ardy put the receiver away with a sigh.

“Something the matter, boss?” asked Giri.

“Oh, nothing really. Amrita’s girlish enthusiasm should make me feel happy for her, I guess.”

Giri shrugged.

“Why not? She certainly seems ecstatic to earn her release.”

“Yes, all that freedom claptrap. Go from one cubicle to another, working with the same people, enduring the same beastly traffic, licking the same asses. Even the colour of the décor won’t change - DCTMR uses maroon to Axis’ dark red. It’s a prison by any other name. There’s no freedom in it.”

“At higher pay, though,” pointed out Giri.

“So it is. She has a home loan, I suppose?”

“Yes, boss. Not all of us are blessed to live in bungalows named for ourselves,” Giri couldn’t resist the little dig at the fact that his boss lived in Malcolm Baug in a quaint bungalow named Ardeshir Wadi.

“I’m going to ignore that jibe, Sussudeo, but you’re walking on thin ice,” said Ardy, tapping the desk with a pencil. “Anyway, my point was that the cycle is unforgiving. Get a job – buy a house – pay EMI’s – realise you can’t afford EMI’s – get a higher-paying job – buy another house, a few square feet larger than the first – realise you can’t afford EMI’s – get an even higher-paying job – finally you remain a slave because they know you’re bonded – whether it’s DCTMR, or HDFC, or Axis, or ICICI – and you’ll just rotate from one to another, doing the same meaningless paper-pushing, writing emails no human eyes will read, inventing work for yourself, dealing with morons who think they are dealing with you, the real moron…”

Ardy’s voice had risen as he spoke, until he finally came to a stop, red-faced and slightly flustered. Giri turned to look at what had led to the choking of the eloquent flow of words and found himself looking at the lovely visage of Rocky Colabewala.




Roxanne “Rocky” Colabewala was the only other Parsee on the floor (besides Ardy), and easily the most beautiful girl in the building. She had skin like skimmed milk, jet-black hair that were always perfect, except for two maddening curls that clung to her lovely neck, and flaunted as trim and fit a figure as the conservative official attire of DCTMR Bank allowed her to. Ardy adored her, and she was partial to him too, but nothing had come of it in all the years they had worked together. Nonetheless, if anything could interrupt his boss when he was in full flow, it was the sight of Rocky.

“Ah, er, hullo, Rocky. What’s the news?”

“Shrivastav needs to book a flight to the US for Monday, but it seems we don’t have a travel budget left. Is there anything we can do?”

“The best option is to tell the man not to go,” said Ardy, frowning. “Between him, Bhatnagar and Dutta they have made shambles of the travel burget.”

Rocky raised a shapely eyebrow.

“Fine, send a mail to Giri, I’ll talk to someone in GFPIV.”

“What exactly is GFPIV?” asked Rocky.

“If I knew what every acronym in this bank stood for, I’d be a human computer, not a human minion,” said Ardy.

“Group For Performance Incentive Valuation,” said Giri.

“I always thought Giri was a human computer,” she smiled. Few people looked prettier than Rocky when she smiled.

“Don’t say that too loud, or the folks at GFPIV will stop paying a salary and charge depreciation on him. He going alone?”

“Nope, Bhatnagar too. And…”

“Yeah, Nisha?”

Rocky nodded, a touch of sadness flitting imperceptibly over her eyes.

Ardy fingered the handle of his trusty umbrella thoughtfully. One never saw Ardeshir Behram Cowasjee without his long, antique umbrella, and it was often what he resorted to in times of stress or sorrow. And thinking about Nisha generally made him sorrowful. He looked through the glass door of his cabin at the cubicle where Nisha Sethia sat. She was a relationship manager, and reported to Bhatnagar, an odious personality who owed his seniority in the Bank entirely to his ability to grovel before seniors and ruthlessly exploit juniors. Nisha accompanied him on all his client meetings, and was pretty much the envy of everyone else in the team, who suspected she owed her success to being her boss’ lover.

But those who were in the know, were aware that the relationship between Nisha and her reporting authority had more shades of abuse than love, that Bhatnagar had taken advantage of her gratitude and naiveté to entrap her into a relationship of which the details were as sordid as they were, unfortunately, common.

On an impulse, Ardy leaned over and dialled her number.

“Nish! Could you step in for a moment?”

Paanch minit de sakte ho?” she replied in her jarringly-piercing voice, before recollecting herself and saying, “Can you give me five minutes, Ardy sir? Am working on a proposal.”

“Take your time,” said Ardy, putting down the receiver, and turned to the girl he adored, “Could you wait, Rocky?”

“Time’s all mine,” she smiled, and settled into a chair.

“When is Shrivastav back?”

“August 14,” replied Rocky. “And some of the people from the Houston branch are coming too. Veer Singh and Chiplunkar.”

“Oh, we’ll have to arrange some sort of get-together.”

“I’ll book the auditorium,” said Giri.

“Yes, do that, or rather, book Hard Rock Café. We can combine it with Amrita’s farewell on the same day,” said Ardy, just as Nisha knocked on the cabin door. “Ah, come in. Wanted to talk to you about the forthcoming US trip.”

“Yes, sir, what is the issue sir?” she replied in a loud voice that, closed cabin or not, always carried across the floor.

“Turn down the volume, would you?” said Rocky, turning her finely-chiselled features towards Nisha.




If there was anyone who could stand next to Rocky Colabewala and not come off too unfavourably by comparison, it was Nisha Sethia. What nature had stinted in giving her, had been carefully compensated by artifice, from the skilfully henna’d hair to the tips of her manicured fingernails.

“Oh, no issue, Nish. Rocky was just saying that there’s some budget deficiency in the proposed trip to Houston. I think you’re to go with them too?”

“Yes, Bhatnagar sir requested I come along so that we can do some client meetings.” Only the slightest waver of her voice revealed the loathing with which she regarded the man responsible for both her spectacular career progression and deep self-revulsion.

“Right, so…,” Ardy dropped his voice to a barely-perceptible whisper, “unless you really think you need to go, I can make sure there’s only enough money for two people to travel.”

“Of course I’m going,” Nisha replied, so quickly even less perceptive men than Ardy and Giri would have known it to be a conditioned response.

“If you’re quite sure…,” said Ardy, disappointed.

Rocky got to her feet.

“Nisha, you’re being ridiculous. Two weeks in the States, virtually closeted with that man? It will be worse than it usually is! If you won’t take a stand, I will.”

“I’m not being ridiculous! This will be good for my career, he said so!”

“Yes, it will. All the things you do for that vile man have been good for your career, haven’t they? What have they got you?”

“Calm down, Rocky,” said Ardy, looking around.

“I am perfectly calm,” said Rocky, her tone cool and icy. “You think this is good for your career? More money that you spend on decorating your flat so that he doesn’t find fault with it. More money to spend on your beautician and your dietician so he doesn’t find fault with you. It’s not got you status or respect. Not here, not in this organisation, and not back in your godforsaken village in Haryana either. How many times have I practically begged you to at least try to do something about it? This is twenty-first century Bombay, not eighteenth-century…”

“In Jindh, Haryana, it’s always the eighteenth century,” said Nisha, her tone even, though her eyes were moist. “I can’t go the cops, I can’t go to the company’s sexual harassment committee. He knows me, he knows my family. I’m not you, Rocky, I don’t come from a family that would back me against the world. He could ruin me socially – and ruin my career. Not that you think much of it, I suppose.”

Rocky uttered a sound that would have been a snort had it come from a less elegant woman.

“What would I know about careers and families, I’m just a secretary who still lives with her parents in the house she was born in,” she said, as she swept out of the room. Nisha followed, distinctly downcast.

Ardy stared at his computer screen mournfully for a while, until Giri broke the silence.

“I say, boss, Miss Roxanne’s sent the mail, but she only mentioned the names of Shrivastav and Bhatnagar.”

“Ah, Rocky, you’re playing a dangerous game,” mused Ardy. “Shrivastav will have her head if Bhatnagar makes a hue and cry about it.”

“Well, what should I do?”

“Forward it as it is. If Rocky wants to put her job on the line, that’s her choice.”

“But, boss, you like Miss Roxanne!”

Ardy smiled wistfully.

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X

“Ardy! What’s up, mate? Been a while, eh?”

Ardy grinned. The speaker was Veer Singh, one of the best (if not popular) bosses in DCTMR Bank history, whose promotion to the Houston Branch had impoverished the Mumbai office. It was the evening of August 14th, and while most of the team was already assembled for the party – Sankalp Sodey, in particular, had already downed a gallon of beer – Veer was the first of the ‘chief guests’ to arrive. Ardy and Nisha had been chatting listlessly when her arrived, his glossy leather shoes making a clop-clop sound on the wooden floor.

“Oh, life goes on much as it always has in the bylanes of Bombay,” said Ardy. “What can I get you? Teacher’s?”

“Always with the LOTR references. No, no whiskey. When in India, I only drink Old Monk.”

Ardy nodded at the bartender, who mixed two Cuba Libre’s and handed them over.

“Decent flight?”

“Painful. Shrivastav wouldn’t stop yapping about work. I say, is that Rocky Colabewala?”

It was, indeed, Rocky, who wore a little black dress that was very little indeed, and sashayed across the dance floor to where some of the other girls were gorging on cashews.

“Yup,” said Ardy.

“You and she – a couple yet?”

“Nope.”

“Oh come on, you’re like…made for each other, man!”

“Maybe too much. She once said it would be too clichéd for us to get together. Two crazy bawas from Parsee baugs making our parents ecstatic and producing whitewashed bawa babies.”

“Silliest reason I ever…who’s that short, stocky individual waving his hands and nodding his head?”

“That’s Sankalp Sodey. Reports to Sussudeo. Kind of a shameless ass.”

“And the woman laughing hysterically?”

“That’s Amrita. It’s her farewell party too. Joins Axis on the sixteenth.”

“Ah, independence day for her, eh?”

“Do I detect sarcasm, Singh?”

“Cowasjee, you know me too well. I’ve worked in this industry long enough to know that there is no such thing as freedom, unless you’re free in your mind first.”

“Nice concept, ex-boss. Don’t know if it means anything.”

“I’ll explain, Ardy. There’s the dance-floor. There’s Rocky sitting on the sidelines, hugging herself. And here you are, not asking her for a dance.”

“What’s the point?”
                                                        
“Maybe there doesn’t have to be a point to asking her to dance,” came Nisha’s voice, uncharacteristically soft.

“Young lady’s got a point. Now look at your underling Sodey over there – he’s just taken Rocky to the dancefloor.”

Sankalp Sodey was, indeed, leading Rocky Colabewala to the floor. Ardy observed in silence as the contrasting spectacle unfolded – Rocky, beautiful, languorously elegant, trained in ballroom dancing, moving with a rare grace and Sodey, pudgy, clumsy, distinctly vulgar in his drunken flailing.

Veer chuckled.

“I’ll tell you what, Ardy. He’s the free man. Free of inhibition, free of any embarrassment about who he is or what his place ought to be. That chap sees he’s at an office party, knows the booze is free and is collaring as much of it as he can while dancing with women who would normally never give him the time of day. Anyway, I’ll go mingle with the gang a bit, you sit and fester,” he said, and with a tip of his glass in Ardy’s direction, walked towards where the bulk of the team members sat.

Ardy, red-faced, looked away and hailed Giri, who had been discussing the separation of veg, non-veg and Jain items with the manager.

“Any sign of Shrivastav and Bhatnagar?” he whispered.

“No clue, they did acknowledge the invite.”

Rocky, tired either of dancing, or of dancing with Sodey, now glided towards the bar and ordered a Margarita.

“Hello, Ardy. So nice to see you,” she favoured him with a smile.

“Always a sight for sore eyes, Rocky,” he replied.

“I say, Miss C,” said Giri, sipping a Sprite, “How come nothing happened of your blunder with the travel plans?”

“What blunder?”

“You know, how you forgot to put Miss Sethia’s name when asking for the budget and then money only got sanctioned for two.”

Rocky laughed.

“So Bhatnagar went and raved his head off to Shrivastav. The old man assured him he’d reprimand me, called me into his cabin, and we discussed the relative merits of Serena Williams and Steffi Graf.”

“That certainly worked out well,” marvelled Giri.

“Shrivastav knows which side his bread is buttered. If I didn’t keep his diary straight, and his mails in order, he’d be unable to function. Besides, I file his expense reports and make his travel plans. He knows that I know he spent a day in Vegas when he was supposed to be at a business meeting in Ontario, that he spent sixty dollars on a ticket for the PIN UP cabaret show that he’s showing as meeting expenses…” her voice trailed off, a mischievous glint in her eye.

“Bhatnagar tried to get me to come along anyway,” said Nisha in a flat voice.

“What? How?” Ardy asked.

“He said it was very important, that it would make all the difference to my performance rating, that I should pay for the tickets myself and come, it would show commitment to the organisation…”

“And of course, stay in his room to save incurring further expense,” the disgust in Ardy’s voice was undisguised.

She nodded.

“Pig!” said Rocky crisply.

“I told him I would come, but at the last minute I could not – just could not…he called from the airport – said the worst things – threatened to “see to me” when he came back…make sure I was out of a job…”

Rocky had always admired Nisha, albeit grudgingly. All that fate had given to Rocky – her being born in raised in Bombay by progressive parents, her stunning looks, her elite education, she had languidly frittered away due to lack of ambition, preferring the relatively relaxed life she led.

All that fate had denied to Nisha, she had worked hard to overcome, taking her life in her hands, moving to the big city alone, living on rent in a matchbox-sized flat, taking courses to improve her English, spending a fortune on ironing out the blemishes in her skin and hair, and even making the compromise with her morals that had led her to rise to being a Chief Manager in the Bank, an edifice of social success and respectability.

The fact that Nisha was able to sit now, outwardly calm, eyes unmoistened, while she awaited what would surely be the crashing down of the edifice she had built with such effort, only made Rocky’s admiration a little deeper.

“There’s Shrivastav,” said Giri, nudging Ardy gently. It was, indeed, the head of Private Banking at DCTMR – average build, average height, nondescript hair, wispy moustache – dressed as always in the most expensive clothes a man could get to try to cover up his essential average-ness. Next to him was Sandesh Chiplunkar, Veer Singh’s second-in-command, who was also average, but did not try to cover it up with his clothing.

“Ah hello, hello, people,” he said, in the faux-New York accent he always affected. It always impressed the Bank’s clients who were not actually from New York.

“Come in, sir. So nice to have you!” Ardy succeeded, barely, in keeping the sarcasm out of his tone.

“Celebrations are nice! What are we celebrating today? Not just my return of course, it’s Veer and Sandesh coming to Mumbai after so long, aren’t we? And of course, this young lady’s farewell. Happy Independence Day, dear! Ha ha ha! Freedom from DCTMR Bank, wonderful wonderful! But you will keep in touch with us, of course, of course. Give your contact details to Roxanne here, will you, and do ensure that…”

“Ahem, boss,” said Rocky in a loud whisper, “This is Nisha Sethia. She’s still with us. It’s Amrita who’s quitting. Over there, opposite corner.”

“Oh, is it? Apologies then, I will meet her directly. Not getting your freedom after all, are you?” the great man wagged a finger at Nisha before striding towards where Amrita was swaying gently to the beat.

“By the way, where IS Bhatnagar,” wondered Ardy. “Not that one is looking forward to seeing him or anything, but…”

“Oh, I suppose you guys wouldn’t know,” said Chiplunkar, taking a glass of water from the bar. “He groped one of our tellers at the branch. White girl, named Lavinya. She called in the cops. HR is preparing his final settlement right now. He’s history. I will probably take his place. Expect a mail on it soon.”

Ardy and Giri looked at each other and then at Nisha. Her eyes widened, her mouth twitched. Then, in a flash, she was gone.

X-X-X-X-X-X

It was Rocky who found her, sobbing softly in the bushes near the parking lot. She scrunched up her sharp, long nose, but sat down on the dusty parapet wall next to Nisha anyway.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“I…I can’t believe it! He’s gone! He’s…I don’t know what will happen to me, but he’s gone! I can…I can be myself again, Roxanne! I don’t have to – do those things any more.”

“Well, you seem happy,” said Rocky.

“I’m crying! I’m crying tears of happiness,” she said, “I don’t know what will happen to me now, whether I will get promoted or whatever but – I don’t care! Whatever I do, will be my work. My rewards. Which I deserve! I’m free, you know. Shrivastav sir was wrong. This IS my Independence day.”

Rocky put an arm around her and held her for a while, until the hysterical sobbing stopped. When it did, she didn’t expect the words that Nisha spoke next.

“It could be yours too, you know, Roxanne.”

“What? I’m not sleeping with anyone, thank you very much!” she said, letting go.

“Why? Ardeshir sir loves you. And you know you like him very much. You should be with him! What’s holding you back?”

“Oh geez! I’m not…I don’t even know why I’m explaining…I mean, he’s nice and all, but come on – Parsee boy, living in Malcolm Baug, loves his parents, plays the piano – how typical can it get?”

“But he’s handsome, intelligent, good-natured…”

“Yes, but…it’s just…”

“Roxanne, is the only reason you won’t let yourself love him the fact that he’s exactly the sort of boy your parents would choose for you?”

Rocky turned her head away.

“Maybe, just maybe…woh bolte hai na, ghar ki murgi daal barabar. Roxanne, your mind’s desire to be unconventional at all costs is keeping you from finding happiness. That’s all I’ll say.”

Nisha got up, tottered a bit, and walked out, hailing a rickshaw. The last she saw was Rocky sighing and burying her head in her hands.




X-X-X-X-X-X

When Nisha came to office two days later, her neighbour Ananya told her in a scandalised whisper about how Roxanne Colabewala had come striding onto the dance floor, called out Ardeshir Cowasjee to join her, how they had rendered a waltz, then the foxtrot and then a tango together of such elegant perfection that they were given the floor to themselves, how it had ended with a passionate kiss, and how even Shrivastav had joined in the general cheering when they left together, umbrellas protecting them from the rain that had come pouring down, but hands clasped together as though no storm could ever tear them apart.

“Happy Independence Day, Roxanne!” Nisha called out, standing at her seat and calling out over the cubicle wall.

From her secretary’s station outside Shrivastav’s cabin, Rocky stuck out her tongue.

“Right back at you!” she said.


X-X-X-X-X-X



All artwork is (c)  the original artist.

3 comments:

  1. Awesome tale, Percy Wadiwala. In such a short story, you managed to create so many characters the reader gets to care about. Usually we see your narrative skills - here we see your characterization skills as well.

    ReplyDelete
  2. What a geat read! One of the best i've read today

    ReplyDelete
  3. I am aware of the fact that I have just read something I shouldn't get to read for free. This is some piece of writing.

    ReplyDelete