We both were supposed to be friends. Or at least that's what i thought two strangers would naturally incline to be, when they were joining a new office on the same Monday morning. I casually mistook it for the day that will link us forever.
But it was not to be.
Might be b'cos i was a fresher straight t out of college. You were the analyst quitting the plush comforts of a Mumbai life and ain investment banking job that paid well.
A skewed equation for any nascent notions of workplace buddy ship to flower!
You know what, just-out-of-college kids like me, we live inside bubbles sometime. Feeding on fantasies, often without a diet. And it was then, when you stressed on adding a "ma'm" as i called you by your first name, that you burst the first bubble. So much for the neo corporate culture, thought I.
From then on i have called you gauri ma'm.
A firm reminder that i'm just another subordinate, when you looked down the food chain from the senior managers' mahagony desk.
Everything was new for me. Where to mark the attendance, how to credit an account, to cash-fill an atm, dispense cash at the counter, face people, to talk with H.O officials on phone, find a veg restaurant, the temple for morning prayers, a place to stay, shops to buy from, people to smile at and not, sheer volume of the city and the traffic, new accents my ears strained to, the old man down the street who picked rags and collected cow dung to bake and sell, girls who walked in tight outfits unmindful & different from the the long frocked ones at my village and the neighbourhood cat threateningly black and crossing away my confidence each time it walked from my left to right, it a ll puzzled and amused me. I missed my four room home at the village. And i missed amma. Her food and the way she let me know it was morning by massaging my shoulders every dawn sitting on my bed.
These days i wake upto the nokia alarm colourlessly ringing or from the nightmares you give me. Everything was new and out of place, but the worst was going to office and hear you shouting at me.
Nobody liked you. From the beginning. You were too cold. Aggressive. Cunning, calculating and manipulative to the point of being obsessive. You were in charge of the loans and advances. You ranted and complained about lack of infrastructure, improper guidelines & procedures and bayed for the blood of poor old Iyer sir whose seat you inherited upon his retirement. Everything was in shambles you said. But you did your work. Numbers told your story well. NPA's began a steady recovery under your relentless pursuit and you went decimating each hurdle you came across. You r phone calls to customers unwilling or unable to repay were menacingly threatening, on the verge of harassment. I remember you just counted, when an old man threw a bundle of soiled 100's cursing profusely. The air was damp around you. Everyone could feel the cold.
I was assigned under you. And asked to pick up your "efficient" ways. I hated it. I hated it even more knowing you knew too. First day you sent me to a client who ran a butchery, when the whole office and you knew by now that i can't stand the sight of blood. You smiled smugly i suspect, when i brought back notes stained from there, fighting nausea in the process.
That was the first day i called you a bitch.
Out of contempt, the word echoing in my mind, never really making an attempt to escape through my shut lips, out of fear.
Since then i have lost count of the silent abuses i have indulged in. I don't know what others' choice words were, but i'm sure even the chief manager had one.
So obnoxious you were.
Nobody knew about you. When mrs.nair asked you over lunch about family, you curtly reminded her of the pending lists to be done and hinted that her lunch breaks were elaborate. Women endured the lovely sarees you draped over your curvaceous figure, as they knew none of the men looked at you. Or stopped ogling at you, since long. You looked every inch a banking goddess to unaware customers whom you would coax, cajole and sugar-coat over new loans and schemes, and a demoness of brute will to defaulters whom you would squeeze to the last penny. Lakshmi and Kali at once.
It was no surprise either when you won the bank's best performer of the month. It's just two things that speak in this industry; sheer numbers and networking. Numbers spoke for you, but i don't think the networking part did when none of us from the branch really even bothered to say congrats. Neither did it matte r to you i guess.
Life under you was hell for me. Diktats, orders and the pitch of your voice strained me tight like the wrinkles around your squinting eyes, always focused like laser beam emanators. But time did it what usually does best, making one get used to things. Months passed and I got an old style home towards the east of the city for rent. A sliding gate opened into a climbing pathway, just wide enough for the second hand 800 i recently bought for a song. Front door was a remnant of the 60's, a sliding shutter, creaking at the hinges. A 2 bedroom affair, it had a veranda so smooth that one could sleep without a pillow and mat. Weekend afternoons always had a breeze passing across the kitchen and work area, whenever i tried my limited cooking skills on the heater. And when the first of the summer showers came in one evening, the smoky dark brown roof tiles glistened in the rain, glowing again in the sunshine as dawn broke over it next morning.
Amma also came in for a brief stay, a respite from the summer and office, both grilling.
She went about setting up my new place in a quiet manner that was her own. In came the utensils with her alongside new doormats and carpets. We bought a plastic makeshift dining-cum-ironing table and she dressed it up in soft polyester for dinner and using 3 rolled up bedspreads for ironing. All the cobwebs i had let gather at the faraway corners were gone one day and the toilets smelled of harpic and bleach. When i saw the lamp being lit for the evening prayer, it sunk in that amma was home. And dinners were less Spartan and more elaborate. Yet at the end of it all, i slacked and cozied up in my chair reading the day's newspaper, relaxed and uninterested. I always took her for granted. Mothers are born to be taken for granted. That's when you can love them the most, when you realise it all one day.
Summer was drawing to a close and we were all waiting for it to usher in the rains. By that Monday evening it was two weeks since amma left for home. The cold wind that fluffed my hair had a pleasant threat of monsoon showers, as i looked up to see dark clouds gathering without order. The first drop fell as i took the right turn at the signal and by the time i was coaxing my 800 through the narrow by lane to my rented house, it was pouring. The fall was thick and filling the air with spray and fresh earth's smell. Just the sort of downpour when your windscreen wiper works full swing and yet you wish it had one more level to speed up. One such split second, when the wiper had retreated after the downward swipe, had blinded me like driving through a waterfall and the next moment i was staring at the steel grill of the SUV when the wiper came down again. I heard the bang, of metal crumpling and felt the lurch pass through my body. The pajero dragged my 800 backwards, unmatched in strength. All i remember is a spot of white light filling in from the corner of my vision and blacking me out amidst voices far away.
Later in the hospital, propped up against the iron bed, i learned that the accident scene by look didn't warrant a chance to the person inside the 800. And all i had to show for it, by God's grace, was a broken left hand and a stitch on my forehead. As my CM and other colleagues trooped off after visiting, amma said to me over a cup of coffee that you were the first to visit that night it all happened. You had stayed well into the midnight till dad and amma came in a taxi; travelling 200kms in 4 hours. You consoled my sobbing mother when i was under observation in the ICU, with scan reports yet to be out.
I felt strange and guilty. I wouldn't have come in if it were you. Why you did it?
The coffee tasted bitter.
Three weeks later when i resumed office, you were gone. Resigned i heard, reportedly for a plum offering as senior analyst for a foreign bank's newly opened branch in the capital city. Office was rife with rumours. That your pay package offered was thrice more, your divorce was on, that some irate client had issued death threats and that you were getting married again. There were more in the list of mutually exclusive stories that floated around your void, but everyone forgot you quick.
It was easy to forget you, though i had some unexpected difficulty now.
I looked for a number or an address, knowing for sure that you wouldn't be leaving one.
And i didn't find a trace. I wanted to say thanks, for that night. Feeling disappointed, I wrestled with the old perceptions of you in my mind, threatening to claw back in and paint a picture full of negativity.
"Who are you?" i asked myself that night as sleep was elusive, throbbing inside the temple of my forehead, reluctant to yield in to my repeated attempts to be one with it.
Nearly a year later I got my answer, on an April evening pleasantly punctuated with golden mellowed sunshine, a respite from the scorching heat of the daytime sun. I had started working part time for an NGO in the weekends, just to spruce up my resume later, when i will need a "catchy" "profile" for my MBA interviews. Still ironically it gave my moral compass a direction, when i clocked time for my organisation as a volunteer, never slacking even once when i was at it.
It was world autism awareness day then and our NGO was conducting half day programme inclusive of talks and seminars to start with and rounding it off with games for kids who lived with autism. Reaching up to look at the starting line, from the sheets of paper clipped on to my hand pad, i thought i saw your face amidst those children lining up for the 50m race.
No, i was mistaken, it was a little girl. With wide open smiling eyes on an oval wheatish face. I could see that she looked 5, or maybe even 12. As the whistle blew, i read from my race list. She was Gaurilakshmi on the fourth lane.
You were a proud mother when i walked upto you, sharing your smile graciously with me like never before, as she had finished the race third. I think it was not the podium finish, but your daughter's face washed in joy that flushed you with warmth. You were comfortable, evident from the way you introduced me to you daughter. Making her shake hands with me, letting her say Lakshmi with a drawl. Was it a newfound confidence in me that made you do so as i was one of the organisers?
Your daughter had your eyes, but ones with more life than yours. Might be you gave yours to her and you saw through hers' the world, in a different dimension, oblivious to the vagaries of it. You told me you shifted from our office as you saw it better for your daughter, facilities wise in the capital. You asked about my parents, on how was I doing and what my future plans were. You said you wanted me to have a tough grounding in life and with its realities, something you missed in your younger days. That i should be prepared when adversities surfaced un announced. You said you didn't regret being harsh on me as you always were confident that I knew why you were being so. You stopped trusting people since the day your husband left you, one year into the diagnosis of your daughter, when she was 5. That's what you told me when i suggested that you could've confided in us.
"Sympathy is an adulterant and sells cheaper and common than genuine concern" you said, holding her tight, as she strained from your arms to run again.
Your eyes didn't waver when a breeze suddenly strayed across your face, dropping down a veil of strands, of hair already greying at the roots.
That Night, it started with a drizzle while i was unfastening the chain securing the front shutter. Washing the dishes after dinner, I saw rivulets of rain drops falling down like a curtain of string beads loosened down, from the roof tiles lining the kitchen verandah. By the time the 10pm talkshow was over, I could hear the deluge, like bullets sprayed, on the neighbours' tin roof.
Even rain told your story, in the first showers of that summer.