Sunday, June 04, 2006

Short Story - Too good to be true

“Where?” asked the man.

In seclusion, the ambiguity of the question would have rendered the possibility of a pertinent answer, a human impossibility. However, having being asked on a bus, the target being a passenger and the source happening to be the conductor, the question became childishly clear.
The target of the question in question however, apparently didn’t hold the same opinion.


And then suddenly dawn dawned. “Oh I see, Park Street”

“Seven rupees”

“Here you go”

The money-ticket transaction, thus safely maneuvered, Mr. Ghosh, the passenger, relapsed into his troubled daydreaming again. Not that he was certifiably into the profession of daydreaming, but then, this wasn’t a certifiable situation either. Three nights with virtually no sleep and four days of absolute torment don’t make for positive effects on the peace of the human mind. The unkempt stubble on his chin, sunken cheeks, bloodshot eyes and overall haggardness in countenance made his thirty one years look closer to forty one.
The intoxicating morning mist of a wintry Kolkata, hung somberly and beautifully all over. The vision reduced to the barest minimum, still had a special enchantment attached to it. Having made its confident way well out of horizon’s reaches, the Sun still appeared to be singularly incapable of generating either heat or light of any formidability. The unique smell of the nearby Ganges filled the air, something that is beyond the powers of language to define and can only be understood by one who has ever lived in the city for any length of time. The chill in the breeze, which in more accommodating circumstances might have been deemed pleasurable, was palpably disconcerting. The wide open green lawns of Esplanade and Maidan stretched out on either sides of the road. The horns, squeaks and screeches of the myriad vehicles and the general mayhem on the road, though in stark contrast, curiously, didn’t seem out of place at all. In fact, without it, the ambience would have been very incomplete.
However, Mr. Ghosh appeared to be untouched and indeed immune to all of this. His red, sleepless and disturbed eyes stared blankly into the distance. His mind obstinately refused to traverse any path, other than the one that it had chosen for itself. He mulled over the occurrences and the possible repercussions that he might face because of them. Yes, he had been greedy. And he had also been very foolish. And these two attributes put together, never make for too much joy in life. And yet, the unjustness of it all appalled him. What else could he have done? When your Boss tells you to do something on conditions of irresistible wealth or irrevocable disaster, however against your ideas of moral conduct it may be, you don’t disagree.
It had all been so simple at the beginning. The smuggling out of a few company letter heads and stamp papers from the tens of thousands available, over a period of two weeks, had seemed absurdly uncomplicated. He had scarcely known what use those letter heads would be put to and he hadn’t dared to ask. He wanted to kick himself on the backside for not having done so, but reasoned himself against it: Hindsight is always 20/20 and kicking yourself on the backside isn’t within the bounds of human flexibility. In any case it didn’t matter now. What did matter though, was that the harmless bunch of papers, with a few lines of black ink added to them, had been converted into something so hideous, as to be beyond his comprehension. But unfortunately, not everyone shared the limitations to his intelligence, and someone had comprehended. And that was the end of that.

“Get out of your seat, Man!”

The speaker of these words of immense cordiality was a heavily set, black as coal, bald specimen of a human being. His red T-shirt had turned dark red with sweat, which was quite extraordinary, considering the condition of the weather. A glimpse at him made this seeming anomaly clear. The bulging chest and arms of the man would’ve made it plain to the dumbest donkey that he had just spent a good many hours in the gym.

“Why the hell would I do that, Sir?” Ghosh enquired with timid defiance.

“Because I told you to”

Ghosh didn’t press the matter any further. He got up with the forced nonchalance of one who has little else to do by way of choices. Standing didn’t make any significant difference to the state of his mind though. It picked up from right where it had left off.
The last few days had been the most trying of his life. Faced with inevitable disgrace, if discovered, his Boss had made the perfect vault-face such as only Bosses can make. And he had been left as the unwilling heir-apparent. His Boss had put forth two very clear options to him. He had known that the options would be as unpalatable as the ones on the previous occasion, but he had forced himself to hear them out. He had been right. A resignation or a permanent posting in Nagaland, that’s what he got. The man had been kind enough to say that if he did resign, his misconduct wouldn’t be made public. It was hard to choose the lesser evil, Nagaland wasn’t heaven on earth. In fact it was probably a sure shot way of reaching heaven from earth. After much thought, he had decided on the former option. He reasoned, and reasoned correctly, that a poorer job in another company in Kolkata was the saner option any day.

“What the hell? What do these fellows think they’re doing?” someone beside him muttered.
So engrossed he had become in the dwellings of his mind, he had failed to realize that the bus had ceased to change its coordinates for a good part of ten minutes. The reason didn’t become at once clear to him. He could see a sizeable number of vehicles stretched out in front of the bus, and that none of them were making any significant progress either. On stretching his line of vision a bit farther, he could see the crossroads just ahead. And curiously enough, the traffic on each direction suffered a similar predicament.

“Silly Idiots! Why do these fellows have to do their worthless stuff just at this time? For God’s sakes, its peak office hours!”

Ghosh couldn’t locate the exact source of this fresh grievance, but it drew his attention to the cause behind the current predicament of the bus. From the road arriving or departing to or from the left of the crossroads, whichever way you looked at it, a continuous trickle of characters were jogging their way to someplace known only to themselves. They were appropriately dressed for the occasion, the mandatory sweat shirts and shorts could be seen in their rightful places. That they were jogging was only part of the truth. As true was the fact, that most other two-legged creatures could’ve set a positively brisker walking pace than them. The industrious bunch was either in no real hurry or was making an outstanding job of concealing that fact. Presently, he realized that it was the latest bunch of blue eyed NCC cadets, exercising every muscle in the body except the one that God had ordained exclusively for the human species.

The exasperation of the occupants of the bus, and probably of those on quite a few other buses, was evident. Most of the people had started fidgeting in their seats. A courageous and short tempered few had started discussing and reprimanding in tones and languages that were miles out of the realms of social acceptance. But just at that moment, society was demonstrating a commendable degree of acceptance. Apparently, everyone shared similar sentiments.

Ghosh was distraught. Like the defence-less hunter who comes face to face with two man-eating tigers in the middle of the forest, and knowing fully well that his chances are pretty much non-existent, vents his frustration by devoting his final moments to killing as many powerless mosquitoes around as possible, Ghosh found refuge in this seemingly inconsequential incident.

“Now that’s the last thing I wanted” he fumed, “All of this on my head and on top of all that, I am going to be late!” It didn’t seem to occur to him, that being early or late wasn’t going to improve his position in the least.

Amongst the utter chaos that had gradually built up inside the bus, one individual with his head firmly on his shoulders, set forth to dilute the situation.

“Never mind folks. Ten minutes, not more than that.” He appeared to be one of those God’s chosen few who have been gifted with foresight and enlightenment on everything under the Sun.

The procession lasted half an hour.

Finally, with a rapidly thumping heart; either or both of running up eight flights of stairs or the sense of impending disaster could’ve caused it; he entered office. He looked around with what he thought to be the most dignified demeanor one could muster under the circumstances, but which was actually his most apprehensive to date. No one seemed the least interested in him. All were engrossed in whatever work or pastime they had chosen to pursue for the day. Not even a single sign of acknowledgement came his way.

“They’re probably getting used to not seeing you around anymore” his sinking heart told him.

Someone taped him on the shoulder. Not too gently.
“Ah, here you are, Ghosh. I thought you’d never turn up!”

In any case, his conversational talents weren’t what they used to be. The sight of his grey haired fifty plus Director didn’t help matters at all.
“Uh..Huh, Sir…actually I was..”

“Oh, come now. Never mind! I know everything. There’s nothing to fear, Ghosh” The joviality of the tone was positively disconcerting. “Come into my cabin, my dear fellow. We’ll set you right!”

“Here we go” thought Ghosh to himself. “He’s trying to make it as cordial as he can, saving me from disgrace here amongst everyone.”

He allowed himself to be half cajoled, half dragged into the Director’s cabin. Inside, he was placed into a chair with an elaborate geniality that made him sick in the stomach.

“Tell me Ghosh, what would you like? Tea? Coffee? But first you must drink some water. You look terribly sick!”

Virtually on the verge of delirium, Ghosh didn’t care much for old world courtesies.

“Sir, please. I..I don’t need anything, Sir. Just tell me what you want me to do. Please!” he croaked.

“Oh dear! Look at you! My God, how you’ve suffered! OK son, I’ll not keep it from you any longer. Listen Ghosh, I know everything. Absolutely everything. Your conduct is not appreciable, Ghosh. It has come as a shock to me, this…this revelation.”

That did it. Ghosh burst into tears.

“I..I am sorry, Sir. Please, please…just let me go, Sir. I can’t take this any longer. Just…just go ahead, tell me. Are you, are you firing me?”

Ghosh’s voice carried a combination of despair, anguish and uniquely enough, some semblance of hope somewhere deep down.

“Well yes, its the logical way to do it, isn’t it? Just throw you out. Yes, the option has occurred to me.”

“Yes, I know, yes…I…I, Sir I didn’t know…” the ‘hope’ element in the voice had made a rapid disappearing act.

“Shut up. Just listen to me, Ghosh. I told you I know everything. Everything. Didn’t I? I know exactly what happened. With due respects to you, I knew your challenged intelligence could never have envisaged something of this sort. Here’s news for you. I’ve fired Chatterjee.”

Chatterjee was Ghosh’s industrious Boss.

“What??” Ghosh couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. “You did what? Er...Sir. You, you know? You know? Oh yes, you know! You know! Oh yes! Oh God”

The number of expressions his voice now carried was beyond the counting abilities of mere mortals.

“Shut up, you silly idiot. Why didn’t you come tell me at once, you fool? It would’ve saved you and me and a hell of a lot of other people so much trouble! Yes, your conduct is appalling, but your intelligence even more so! You thought it wouldn’t be discovered? Didn’t you even have the sense to think why that man was paying you that kind of money? What did you think Chatterjee wanted those papers for? To light up bonfires?”

“I…I didn’t know…” Ghosh clutched wildly around for some meaningful vocabulary, but failed miserably.

“That’s the problem, Ghosh. You seem to know so little!”

“I am so sorry, so sorry for what I’ve done. Please, please forgive me Sir. Please do,” pleaded Ghosh, “I promise I’ll never fail you again”

“Oh do keep quiet, you moron! Nobody is firing you. Get that straight. NOBODY is firing you, OK? Just stop blabbering, for God’s sakes!”

It took some time to sink in. At first, Ghosh thought he had imagined it. He looked across at the smiling man in astonishment. There was a gentle, kind smile on the Director’s face. His body numbed. And then, relief flooded in. The immense burden that had been on his chest, that had reduced him to this disgusting, despicable caricature of a man, had suddenly been lifted. He had an irresistible urge to just get up and start prancing all over the office, shout at the top of his voice, just go berserk. But some form of sanity still prevailed in his head, and it kept him on his chair. Only barely so, though.

“I…I don’t know what to say, Sir! I am, I am just so, so overwhelmed. Its, its just too good to be true, Sir! Oh thank God! And thank you! I’ll forever be your slave, Sir. I’ll do whatever you tell me to, I’ll just put myself at your feet…I’ll…”

“Yes, yes, take it easy, man!”

The raving and ranting thus suitably halted, the Director continued

“I am a very generous, God fearing man, Ghosh. And I am a forgiving man. I’ve let you have this second chance because I think you’re a good man and you’ll not let me down. Ever. Just keep that in mind.”

“Oh yes, of course, Sir. Most definitely. I’ll never ever do anything of the sort in my life, Sir. You’ll not regret your decision, Sir. I promise you!”

“I better not, Ghosh. I better not. Alright, time to get back to work. I wish you all the best, my good man. Just give your best shot, Ghosh. Give your very best shot. There.”

Whatever else they do, abrupt release of severe pressure and tension don’t make a dumb man intelligent all of a sudden. Ghosh didn’t get it at first. He frowned, a perplexed expression on his face.

“There? Sir?”

“Er…What?” the Director didn’t at once seem to realize what was being asked of him. After a couple of seconds, he smiled.

“Oh, I am so sorry, Ghosh. I am really getting so forgetful these days. Silly of me! Just forgot to tell you, you’re getting transferred. They need a hard working man like you in Nagaland. Good luck, Ghosh”

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