This story was first published in CEA Mid-Atlantic Journal, Vol. 30. The PDF edition is out; the print edition is on the way. Thank you to the wonderful editors at CEA for working patiently with me on a list of edits I wanted. Even after several rounds of revisions and proofreading, seeing your work in a different format makes you see new errors or suboptimalities.
In the headquarters of Calcutta Electricity Supply Corporation, we sit over lunch. The powder-blue walls smell damp; the fans hanging on ten-foot-long rods from the high ceiling whirr lackadaisically, barely moving the swamp-thick air; our lunch is white rice, fish curry, and sweets; and the only way to stay awake this midsummer afternoon is to jabber.
We’ve pushed around our paperwork, slow as snails, but there’s nothing to push post-lunch. Still we must stick around till 5pm. You decry the regulations: “Already in this heat, my eyelids are embracing like lovers, refusing to part.”
Utpal and Animesh, who lunch with us, merely nod.
But next day at the meeting, Boss cold-shoulders you. You and I confer, and conclude that either Utpal or Animesh is a snitch.
Animesh is always haunting Boss’s cabin, telling Boss how he toils, picking up everyone’s slack. Boss asks him home to tea. For the occasion, Animesh buys new shoes and shirt, and thereafter comes to work extra-smart. In the midmorning post-tea slump, you and I butter up Boss’s new favorite, undoing the damage of our loose tongues. We begin lunching out of office.
We take Utpal along. Utpal has no friends, speaks a muddy English, wears kurtas shabby-elbowed and eyeglasses thick as telescopes, and works like a masochistic donkey but never brays about it. Stupid fellow!
Over our threesome lunches, joking around waiting for the food, we realize it’s safest to stick with one butt for every joke: Utpal. Utpal smiles sheepishly.
My wife is learning kasuti stitching. She explains how she must count the threads of the warp and the weft. What might those be, I wonder, yawning at the Anandabazar’s Sports section.
It takes her a day to fill one square inch with embroidery. I bend kindly over my poor bored housewife. “And what’s so special about kasuti?”
She turns the cloth over and looks up at me. I blink blankly. “Don’t you see? The backside is as neat as the frontside.”
“So what? Nobody sees the backside.”
“My mother taught me,” she says, “That a beautiful thing should be beautiful on every side. God sees the backside.”
My wife’s mother was also a housewife. And God has retired – he was succeeded by Boss, and Boss only has eyes in the front of his head. I smile into my moustache.
Over the vanilla cake celebrating Animesh’s promotion, you and I whisper about his paunch, ballooning under his fine shirts. All week, we haunt Animesh’s big new Division Manager desk.
Utpal grinds away in his corner, hidden behind and bent over his pile of papers. Feeling generous, we stroll over. “Friend,” I advise, “Don’t work yourself to death.”
“We three will grow gray at these desks,” you reason. “Might as well make ourselves comfortable, eh?”
Utpal thanks us for our advice, poor half-wit, deaf to irony, then ducks his head back to work.
The sexless old bachelor doesn’t even avail of his ten days’ leave a year, and doesn’t seem to know that on Saturdays you need only stay till noon.
We’re going to visit a schoolmate in hospital. “Just 41,” you say, tsk-tsking with relish, “And a heart attack!”
“Makes you think,” I agree. But I don’t want to think. Panicking, I cast about for pleasanter subjects.
Our taxi’s rushing down the new highway over a neighborhood we roamed during college days. I remember these houses’ fronts: repainted every year in post muted colours, balconies rainbowed with flowerpots, rice-powder alpona in driveways daunting passersby. Now we’re passing these houses’ backsides.
You snort. “Look at them!”
Damp has blackened the houses’ back walls and is cracking them. Bathroom pipes and loose wires grotesquely necklace them. Air-conditioner exhausts, smog-browned, sag from blind windows. These back walls are never repainted. They never were painted to begin with. The cement wasn’t even smoothed: it’s still grainy.
“Poor souls,” I reflect. Fifty years ago, these houses put their faces towards the front, viz, the main roads we used to haunt. How could they know that later there’d be another front, the highway at their back?
Utpal hasn’t been late or absent in thirty years. We finish today’s paper-pushing, then tour the office. Often he’s helping someone with their work, viz, doing it for them.
He’s not here.
The world devours fellows like him: good-going-on-simpleminded, bhalomanush. We debate ringing the police. Then you spot him sitting in the Regional Manager’s glass-walled corner office.
“Good old Utpal!” you laugh. “Gone bonkers at last.”
“Stealing something from Boss,” I speculate. “Old dot-pens, probably. Loony miser!”
We saunter in. Animesh stands across the desk, notebook in hand, bowing as Utpal dictates from the swivel-chair. Is Animesh in on this little skit? Not a good skit: Utpal’s English accent is still thick as ghee, his elbows still seedy as a rickshaw-driver’s morals.
Utpal finishes. Animesh bows, turns, and walks sheepishly past us. Our blood turns to water. We start crawling away.
Utpal smiles, just as he always smiles. “Yes?”
“No, we were just wondering” – you begin.
“That is to say, we didn’t know” – I supply.
“Congratulations, old man.”
“Boss, we mean, Mr. Utpal, sir.”
“None of that,” smiles Utpal, from the black leather throne, behind the plaque glinting on the bureau. “I didn’t want to tell you I’d interviewed – that too for this position. Leapfrogging! It’s unheard of.” Modestly he smoothes his chest where his necktie should be. “But we’ll be as before.” We swallow as we think of ‘before,’ but that memory’s too big to swallow: it sticks in our throat, a live-legged frog. “If you ever face any problems, or have any ideas how to make things better, just walk in.”
Our jaws drop. We scrutinize his face. Is he really this naïve? Trust the government to promote jackasses over the heads of sensible people. We stumble back to our nook. You’re the first to find your voice. “We got lucky, eh?” you mutter, wiping your brow. “For a moment there, I thought we’d be penalized for having shown the wrong person our backsides.”
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