by Murzban F Shroff
Abhay felt marvelous. So would you if you were Abhay: twenty-two and with an MBA degree. The degree promised to open up a world of opportunities. The difference was twenty-two, an age when not many finished their post-graduation. Already he saw how people viewed him. They wondered if it was genes, genius, or prayers that had worked in his favor. His mother was religious. It must have helped. So people said. Must find out who are the Gods she prays to. Which temple she visits, what she submits as offerings. Their curiosities could be understood, for Abhay lived with his parents in a modest middle-class neighborhood.
When Abhay got the degree and with it a rank (twenty-third, all-India), his parents’ joy was unabridged. Despite their meager income, they distributed Tiwari’s sweetmeats, stuffed with rich, crunchy dry fruit. At five hundred rupees a kilo, the sweetmeats were an extravaganza. But it spoke of the immense pride of his parents, who had always known that their younger son would do them proud.
Abhay, freed from the celibate existence of textbooks, had chosen to celebrate his success. He allowed himself to get drunk on four bottles of beer, shared with his old friend, Mehli Batliboy. On their last beer, Mehli extracted a promise from him. “Eh, saala, Abhay, don’t go forgetting us when you become a tycoon. Let only beer go to your head, not success!” The two had laughed and pledged eternal, indissoluble friendship.
As it happens with all rank holders from reputed institutions, Abhay got a call. It told him that he was singled out for an exciting destiny. The call came from Iyerton & Reddy, a top-tier management firm. It was polite and to the point. “Our head of Human Resources, Mr. Panicker, would like to meet you, to discuss your possible induction into our company as a management trainee.”
Abhay’s heart pounded with excitement. Iyerton & Reddy were the best paymasters in the country. They anticipated and influenced the growth of industries in almost every sector. They never pursued business; it came to them on a platter, and on their terms strictly. To work for them was like being commissioned to the elite corps. Thank God for all the hard work! Thank God for his mother’s prayers! Thank God for the fact that he had tied himself to a relentless schedule, steeling himself to temptations like pubs and discotheques! He said, “Friday sounds great. 11:00 A.M. I will be there on the dot.”
Friday came, a hotter-than-usual day. This summer was truly terrible, Abhay thought, simply unsparing. The heat was rising off the street and people were sweating and frowning heavily. Abhay waited at the bus stop. In one hand he held a folder containing his degree certificates; with his other he rubbed his chin. This gave off a whiff of an aftershave given to him by his brother, Pranay, which he had saved for special occasions and which he’d splashed liberally that morning.
Pranay always gave Abhay gifts that were useful: after-shaves, wristwatches, cell phones, belts, shoes, and jackets. Pranay, six years older than Abhay, had made it his mission to initiate Abhay into the finer things of life. Over the years, Abhay had inherited a lot from Pranay: books, music, styles of dressing, topics of conversation, and tastes in movies.
The sun glowered. It appeared to have positioned itself over this busy Mumbai street, with its bright yellow-and-blacks spitting fumes of diesel, its double-decker buses honking furiously, its motorcyclists trying to wend their way out of a thick traffic jam.
The jam was created by a pair of long-horned bullocks struggling to turn a cart that was loaded with ice. Layers of sawdust and sheets of jute covered the ice.
A traffic cop came by, blowing his whistle and flagging his arms vigorously, but he could do nothing to ease the jam. The bullock-cart-walla tried to coax his bullocks to go back and forth and find a way through the mass of vehicles, but all the animals could do was strain and back away, the loose skin under their necks flapping like buntings, their eyes taut and dilated with fear.
At the bus stop, people sweated. They drew their handkerchiefs and wiped their faces slowly, all the way down to their necks. Their hankies darkened with the grime they gathered.
A queue had formed; the time of the morning was such. At its head was a fat middle-aged man who looked as though he was having difficulty breathing: his cheeks flared in and out and dark patches of sweat appeared on his shirt. Abhay looked at the man distastefully, thinking he would never look like that. He would work out, keep fit, no matter how long his work hours stretched.
Beside the man stood a dour-faced lady. She was slim, in her sixties, with straw-like hair, pert lips, and legs like hockey sticks. At her feet was a bag of groceries. She kept looking at the bag and drawing it closer with her feet.
Next to her were two girls in their late teens. The cuter of the two had dimples and long hair. Sparkling eyes, too. She was dressed in tight low-waisted jeans and a rust-colored tank top, and had a hearty laugh that chimed over the noise of the traffic.
Abhay glanced at her from the corner of his eye. That the girl was laughing to attract him had not missed his attention. He knew that girls found him attractive. In college, he had collected roses by the heap on Friendship Day and cards galore on St. Valentine’s Day. And he had been around twice, breaking it off both times, citing “cultural differences” as the reason. He considered himself a clever “operator” and an “unfettered soul.” Romance was important, yes, but there was a time and place for it. Later, in management school, he had no time for any of that. Even now the laughter failed to make an impression. He would rather think of his interview.
The bus stop filled with people: freshly-bathed morningers; elderly ladies with patient faces; bright-eyed, clean-shaven executives; traders agog with news of deals in the pipeline, deals about to finalize; laborers with a sullen, worried look on their faces.
Buses came and went – 85, 87, 89, 90, 92 – and the air-conditioned bus with the black -tinted windows. The queue thinned out, but only partly. It was the 123 people were waiting for.
A young mother and her four-year-old son joined the queue. The boy was frisky; he pressed his chin to the railing and began to swing on it. The mother asked him to stop; she pointed out that the railing was dirty, rusted.
The boy refused to listen, so the mother whacked him hard.
The boy sat on the road and howled. The mother looked guilty. Taking the boy’s hands, she attempted to pull him to his feet. The boy resisted, screaming and kicking at her. The mother looked defeated. She now spoke to him in a low threatening voice. But no sooner had she finished than he screamed again. The mother looked helpless. People looked away: why embarrass the poor woman? Marriage, kids, thought Abhay, what a trap!
An elderly gentleman wearing a black coat joined the queue. He drew a racing book from his pocket and began to study its contents. From time to time, his nose would twitch in concentration.
Three men in their late twenties came and stood next to him. Laughing loudly, they stared at the girls. The girls shifted uncomfortably. Louts! Loafers! thought Abhay with disgust. He chose not to look in their direction. The last thing he wanted was any trouble. Now, if Pranay was here, he would have ticked them off. Ah, Pranay: he was so strong, so fearless; always ready to stand up for what was correct.
Turning, Abhay noticed a tall, thin man with a chiseled face, a sunken chest, flat, bony hips, and unusually long legs. There was something peculiar about the man: he looked all flattened out, a relic from another world. His face was a deathly pale, and his hair was brown from excessive dyeing. Abhay noticed that the man had at his feet a boxy-looking briefcase of shiny white metal, old-fashioned and hugely oversized. Probably a salesman, thought Abhay.
The girls moved closer to Abhay. The one vying for his attention ran a hand through her hair. It was thick and dark, with all the luxuriance of a youthful crop. She did this smiling, as though she was revealing more of herself to Abhay. But Abhay looked away. In this, he was not like Pranay, who would have struck up a conversation by now and exchanged phone numbers. Abhay turned to look at the salesman, who was oddly dressed. He wore a beige checked shirt, brown corduroy trousers, a faded leather belt with a flashy buckle, a fat red tie with concentric circles of purple, and green socks and shoes of black felt. All the looks of a confused loser, thought Abhay.
Just then he felt a rash of sweat break on his arm, trickle down in streams, and stick to the folder. Hell, the folder was everything to Abhay: it was his life’s work, his investment. Removing his handkerchief, he dabbed at the folder gently. Assured that it was dry, he retired to a shaded spot behind the bus stop.
Twenty minutes later, the bus arrived. It was welcomed like a miracle. People rushed to the entrance, pushing their way in. The conductor tugged at the bell in rapid succession. He stood legs astride, his box of tickets strapped over his belly, his one hand holding the ticket punch, his other hovering impatiently above the string of the bell.
People pushed their way in, caring not for the elderly ladies, nor for the young girls who squirmed with discomfort at the bodies pressed against them, nor for the elderly gentleman who seemed bewildered at the lack of courtesies. The fat man, the lady with the groceries, and the three louts got into a tangle at the footboard. After a heated exchange, they all managed to get in.
As Abhay attempted to board, he felt a bony hand clutch at his collarbone. Turning, he saw the salesman, anxiety all over his face. Before Abhay could react, the salesman had pulled him back roughly and propelled himself in. As Abhay made to follow, the salesman swung his briefcase into Abhay’s knee. Metal against bone, in that part where the knee was at its weakest, its softest. It made Abhay wince; it made him curse the salesman softly, under his breath. What a fucking oaf! What a complete asshole! The salesman made his way in, past the conductor and the other passengers. He now wore a look of wry relief. Placing his briefcase on the floor of the aisle, he patted his hideous mop of hair in place. And then he smiled, a strained cadaverous smile. As though he had had his day’s achievement. As though he shared a precious secret with himself.
The bus started, its aisle packed with passengers. They stood in a jagged disorderly manner.
Abhay inched his way forward, through a sticky mass of bodies. Holding his breath, he thought: It will be a matter of time before I can afford a car. No more buses then, no more suffering. How proud his parents would be. The salesman was a few places ahead, and boy, was he sweating! He was dripping all over. Abhay wondered why he did not use his handkerchief.
The bus turned onto Chowpatty. At the Wilson College it stopped, and gathered a whole lot of chattering boys and girls. The other commuters began to grumble – there were too many people, too many indeed; where was the space, the legroom? The conductor watched their discomfort coolly. He was used to this overloading, this cribbing. Under his demeanor, a smile bristled.
The bus picked up speed. The traffic was evenly paced and flowing smoothly. In the distance, the sea, the low parapet, the silvery waters of the morning, the soft cottony clouds, the city looking cleansed and washed; no sign of a struggle, no threat of a jam, a hold-up.
Outside the aquarium, a group of tourists waited. Noisily they poured into the bus as soon as it stopped. The men were neatly dressed, with cameras around their necks; the women were in bright gaudy saris, their hair bunched up with flowers, their ears and necks aflame with jewelry; the children wore starched clothes and lustrous shoes and pointed excitedly to the ocean. Abhay smiled. How much pleasure the ocean gave to those who hadn’t been born to its shores.
The bus whizzed past the gymkhanas – Catholic, Hindu, Islam, and Parsi – all the communities, all in a row. And on the shorn pitches of the gymkhanas, young boys played cricket. They bowled tenaciously, batted cautiously, and chased the ball with zestful vigor.
Passing the gymkhanas, Abhay thoughts turned to Sir Gerald Aungier, the Governor of Bombay, who, in the mid-seventeenth century, had invited the Banias, the Bohras, the Jews, and the Parsees to relocate from Surat and bring their trades to Bombay, so that the city might prosper. The good governor had then built courts of justice, schools, docks, a printing press, a mint, and forts at Sion and Mahim to protect the city from pirates. And he had given each community adequate land to build places of worship and funeral grounds. That’s how the city had first sprouted its cosmopolitan roots; it had come to acquire a reputation for hospitable living. Truly, thought Abhay, there are those who build a city that’s not even their own and those who, belonging to it, destroy it. They destroy it with their prejudices and egos. And almost instantly the compass of his mind shifted to the morning news, where the headlines decried the vandalism of a college where the principal had denied admission to a candidate referred to by a local politician. The politician had ordered his goons to smash the library and the labs and to blacken the faces of the principal and others members of the interviewing committee. And while the goons had been arrested, in less than an hour their lawyer was ready with their anticipatory bail applications, and they had gotten away scot-free, gotten away for the umpteenth time after an act of hooliganism.
But today was not the day for morbid thoughts, depressing thoughts….
At the next stop, some people disembarked, others boarded. The seat where Abhay stood fell empty. He was quick to claim it, thinking, what luck, he’d get some breeze now. He’d also forget the encounter with the salesman, his knee still smarting, just above the kneecap.
But who should come and stand near him but the salesman.
Abhay shot him a hostile look, which went unnoticed. The salesman’s tie swung before Abhay’s face, the red and purple combination a dazzling reminder of his omnipresence. The conductor yelled to the standees: move, move; don’t crowd; move ahead.
A cacophony of trumpets shattered the peace. The bus slowed for a wedding procession that had blocked the road. A short, toothy drummer, grinning, beat at his drum madly; the trumpeters, elderly solemn-faced men, puffed out their cheeks and let loose a series of blasts. All the band members were dressed in red caps, red jackets, white shirts and white trousers, and wore red shoulder pads with gold tassels. Women in saris, bedecked with jewelry, and men in silken kurta pajamas raised their hands and danced gaily. Behind the procession came a victoria pulled by two white horses. Inside the victoria was the groom, his face shrouded by garlands that flowed from a golden turban. Poor bastard, thought Abhay, getting married in this heat.
The man at the trombone let loose a blast that exploded the calm of the morning. Crazy, thought Abhay, how anything goes in the name of democracy. Noise pollution, hold-ups, congestion: who is to complain, who is to blame? Last Diwali, walking on Marine Drive, he had a firebomb explode right next to him. It had singed him on the arms, deafened him temporarily, and when he had complained to some cops, all they had said was: “Let it go, sahib; let people enjoy. It is Diwali. Why you want to spoil people’s fun?” And promptly Abhay had exploded. “This is precisely what holds India back,” he had said. “Imagine if our freedom fighters had thought like this. Imagine if they had accepted foreign domination, looking at their own self-interest.” The cops had looked at him as though he was a madman, an obstructionist, and had continued to do what they were doing while on duty: enjoying the breeze and the florid fireworks display.
Suddenly, on the arm of his that held the folder, he felt a wetness.
Horror of horrors! There were drops of sweat falling from a lean, long neck onto his folder.
Abhay looked up. The salesman had loosened his tie and was sweating profusely. Holding an overhead handgrip, he was dozing, his head resting upon the back of his hand.
Abhay felt a choking, tumultuous rage. What cheek, what gall! If the man thought he could get away with this, this act of humiliation, why, he was mistaken. “Wake up, you shameless swine,” said Abhay, delivering a four-finger jab to the man’s ribs. The man awoke, startled.
Abhay pointed to the gleaming coin of sweat that shimmered on the translucent plastic cover. “Look what you have done, you bastard! Have you no shame, no manners?”
The man burned with embarrassment, the crimson showing up more easily in his pallor than it would have, say, in another complexion. Abhay’s voice was loud, very, very loud. And it was scathing. Some of the passengers had turned in their seats and were looking.
“You junglee bastard, you uncouth fuck!” spat Abhay. His neck muscles had tightened and what he was feeling was extreme rage amounting to blind fury.
The man fumbled in his pocket, as though for a handkerchief, then realized he didn’t have one. He looked imploringly at Abhay, who said, “Who will clean this? Who … tell me? Go on!”
The salesman stammered his apologies, but Abhay was in no mood to listen. His precious certificates had been defiled. He had been humiliated, sweated upon. He wanted everyone to know how furious he was. How unforgiving.
Some passengers asked Abhay what had happened, and in a loud voice he said, “This idiot from a low-class background, obviously low-class, has sweated onto my important papers.”
The salesman squirmed. In a thin voice he trudged out another apology. Passengers standing in the aisle craned their necks to see where he had cast his noxious secretion. The salesman began to sweat even more.
“Look!” said Abhay. “Just look at him, sweating like a pig, and he does not even carry a handkerchief.” The salesman looked despondent, crushed, defeated. As for Abhay: he clearly had the advantage of the outraged, the wronged, the aggressor.
Not quite ready to abdicate this advantage, to give up on the rage that bristled in his heart, his eyes, his face and arms, Abhay reached out and pulled the salesman down by his tie. A nasty tug, for sure. He then pressed the tie end to the sweat and held it there till it soaked up the sweat. Releasing his grip, he saw that the salesman had turned a deadly pale and that he contorted his face from side to side. It was as if he could not find the right words; they were stuck in his throat, choking him, showing him to be helpless, speechless, defenseless.
The conductor came up, clicking his ticket punch. Indifferent to the commotion, he urged the standees to move in front. He had a thick leathery face, small eyes, a sullen mouth, a turgid belly.
The salesman darted to the front of the bus where Abhay’s voice followed him: “Pigs like him shouldn’t be allowed to use public services. They should be kept at home. Yes!”
The conductor, who was issuing tickets, paused and shot Abhay a look, a lengthy look. As though he wanted to say something then had changed his mind.
With a heave of tire, the bus stopped at a signal and promptly the salesman shot out. He began to walk away in long, gangly strides, holding his hand out to stay other vehicles that were slowing down for the signal.
But he did not see the cyclist, a dabbawalla who came from the last lane, came so fast that he smashed his dabbas against the salesman’s briefcase.
Metal against metal, and while the tiffins stayed fastened onto the cycle – at the most, a bit of dal spilled and ran along the sides of the dabbas – the briefcase jerked open, and what fell out were a whole lot of deodorant cans, with shiny metallic bodies (gold, silver, purple, rust, midnight blue, and wine red), black matte-finish caps, and a lavish luminous logo: No Sweat!
The cans fell and rolled toward the pavement, rolled and gathered at the side of the road, where the salesman began to collect them. But before that he stood and threw open his hands wide to question the dabbawalla, to ask him why he’d done this, but the man was gone; he had skipped the signal; he had lunches to deliver and promises to keep.
The signal turned green; the bus started.
Abhay turned his mind to other things. His interview, for instance. He would explain his concepts to Mr. Panicker. He would stress how he believed that lean teams, dream teams, were the order of the day. How market clairvoyance was critical, how mind share was as important as market share, how it was going to be a numbers’ game eventually, and how once you’ve got the pulse of the people you’ve got their minds. He would declare that corporate reputations were built on the basis of accountability and in an emerging economy it was processes and performance that made all the difference. And that was why he yearned to belong to Iyerton & Reddy, so that he might imbibe a work culture he believed in, a work culture that had come to be the gold standard for management in India.
He wondered what kind of a salary package he would be offered. Okay, things weren’t what they were a couple of years before. But still it would be enough to make his heart sing, his bank balance soar, his parents thrill with pride, his friends look at him with respect. New found respect.
He wondered how long before his first trip overseas, his first car, his first home theater system, the Bose Lifestyle of course! His thoughts were interrupted by the conductor ringing the bell and yelling “Churchgate!”
The bus stopped with a hiss of tires. Abhay moved to the exit. He stepped off the bus, into the hands of a waiting ticket collector, who held out his hand for Abhay’s ticket. Abhay’s hand reached for his pocket, then froze. He realized he had forgotten to buy one.
The bus filled up slowly. The queue was long, full of college-going girls and boys with books and cell phones in their hands. As they passed by, inching toward the entrance of the bus, they looked at Abhay pleading, pleading with the ticket collector, saying, he was from a good family, it was his first offence, a mistake actually, but the collector just held out his hand, smiling, and said, “How I can let you go? You have done wrong. You must pay the fine, no, or come with me to the station.”
Abhay tried to comb his mind for some excuse that would convince the ticket collector, that would let him keep his date with his future. He was thinking hard and pleading desperately when, from the inside the bus, he heard a voice that said, “Don’t let him go, sahib. These rich kids: what do they think? They can get away by not paying. By traveling free of charge. Fine him well, sahib. Better still, take him to the lock-up. That will teach him a lesson.”
Abhay did not see the owner of the voice, but he was surprised at the vengeance it bore.