On the last day of work, Aarush must face some shocking truths. And a pleasant surprise.
|The city of a thousand and one Arabian lights, a Shangri-La in the Middle East – this is Dubai. It is midsummer and I am driving on the Sheikh Zayed Road to my office. A lively Bollywood number is playing on the radio. The RJ is over enthusiastic and her shrill voice is grating on my nerves.
I look at the cathedrals of consumerism – the huge skyscrapers on either side of the road. Every structure’s name here is preceded by, ‘The world’s largest.’ They stand in testimony to the slick modernity of this gleaming metropolis. ‘Ostentatious’ is the word that comes to mind, as many of the attractions seem to have been created simply as a means of saying to the rest of the world: “Look how much money we’ve got.”
Today is my last day at the office. A month ago I had handed in my resignation. Two years ago, I had arrived from India, with a lot of enthusiasm to achieve something in life. I am a management consultant here, in a renowned firm, “Lynn and Flynn.”
Waiting for the traffic signal to change, I see hundreds of laborers toiling in the sweltering heat on the rooftop of a building. They get paid a pittance. I feel guilty sitting inside the cool confines of my gleaming Honda.
The Dubai World Trade Center looms in the distance. I am doing well here and can make great strides if I continue, but an exciting offer from a German company aroused my desires to escape to the cooler climes of Europe.
I walk over to the lift, greeting people along the way. The aroma of ‘Oud’, a traditional incense of the Mid East wafts in the air. It takes me back to my first day at work when I became aware of this woody scent. It is fabulously expensive as a kilo of ‘Oud’ costs upwards of seventy thousand US Dollars. Did I mention, I love to spout numbers all the time?
The door is about to close when a dainty, well-manicured hand extends forward to stop it. A floral fragrance which reminds me of orange blossoms breezes in. My eyes fill with stars as I recognize Mayana Singhal, a colleague of mine. My heart is beating like a drum. She reminds me of a china doll in her flawless peach skin and doe eyes. Her shoulder length hair is falling in a cascade, bouncing gently on her slim shoulders. Her dress has floral patterns in minimal bright colors, with fringed sleeves.
"Leaving today, Aarush?" She smiles affably.
My name on her lips is symphony to my ears. I nod and try to act composed. Boy. Do I have a massive crush? Or is it more? Mayana and I interacted for a short period for a common client. She is a chartered accountant, and I often wonder how this attractive creature had ended up in a boring number crunching job. I look at the small of her back and daydream about serenading her with a romantic song.
With a spring in my step, I enter my work area and surprise my colleagues with an expansive greeting. Most of them show surprise, because I rarely do more than nod. It happens over a period of time. In the beginning, you greet everyone and as familiarity seeps in, it trickles down to a nod or an acknowledgement without eye contact.
Priyank, my witty colleague says to the others. “But, of course guys, a prisoner always feels happy on the day of his release."
I smile like the Cheshire cat, put my hands in the air, and yell, “Yeh!”
By nature, I am an introvert, but amongst close friends and family, I metamorphose into this humorous, boisterous person. The subtle transformation surprises me.
My profession is among the better ones of the modern world. I help companies to become more competitive by analyzing their inner workings and suggest ways of improvement. Sounds dull? But, no, it isn’t, because I am the one giving advise and suggesting improvements. Humans, you see, revel in pointing out others flaws as it makes them feel superior.
I enter my large cubicle and plonk into the chair. There is a fresh bouquet of flowers on my desk. It's having an eclectic mix of orchids, roses and cherry blossoms. Where did they come from? A secret admirer, perhaps? Yeah, dream on. Nonetheless, I am cheered by their freshness and lush colors. Flowers are symbols of good mood. I am a hopeless romantic and dream about fairy tale romances where I am the proverbial knight, riding on a black steed, searching for his lady in an exotic land. Will they come true? I don’t know, but fantasizing is good.
“Hiya, hope you had a great time last night,” a welcoming voice sounded.
I turn around, glad to see my friend and guide, Praneel Aurora. He is my senior, but more than that, a trusted friend. When I first moved here, I was in for a cultural shock. The people, the restrictions, the dress, everything confused me. Praneel stepped in and became my buddy. He explained to me the customs and traditions and took me around and helped me with little things. Over the months, I grew fond of him, and we became friends.
I hug and slap him on his back. “Man, last night simply rocked. My throat is hoarse from laughing.”
He took us to a jazzy club where the food and drinks were topnotch. Everyone cracked jokes on their bosses. Praneel was a bit sozzled, and his rants against his boss were what I call, most colorful. It was fun, recording him on my mobile camera.
“Aarush, my ass is busted today, man. I have meetings and consultations lined up throughout the day. So, best of luck for the future.”
“Thanks man. You have been invaluable. I shall cherish the time and the memories.”
"Bye, Buddy. Hope to catch you in Berlin.”
“Sure. That will be awesome"
He gives me a bear hug and then with a salute, leaves. During the course of our journey in life, we meet many people, and most of them are forgettable, but the ones like him remain etched.
I decide to meet Mr. Basu, my boss, for a goodbye chat. For a brief period, I worked under a different boss, and had excelled. The client was impressed and mentioned me in a glowing letter of recommendation. Subsequently, I was placed under Mr. Basu and reported to him through Praneel.
Mr. Basu is what I call an ‘indifferent-but-screw-you-sometimes’ type of person. He minces no words and rubs your mistake in your face. As per a survey, fifty percent of employees leave a company because of a bad boss. I am not part of that statistic.
I knock and enter. He is sitting with his eyes half-closed, his fingertips forming a pyramid. His cheeks are droopy and a dour expression lines his face. I clear my throat.
“Ah, Mr. Aarush come in.”
Is he smiling? If he is, I must give the guys the breaking news, his mouth does curl.
“I wanted to say goodbye.”
“Hmm… ” he says, looking through me.
Mr. Basu has this weird habit of staring at a person for a more than a few seconds. I wonder whether he is slow in understanding or is floating in a parallel universe.
He asks me about my plans and makes small talk.
On a sudden impulse I ask, “I would like to hear your feedback. Anything to help me better myself.”
“Well...” he says, bobbing in his chair and looking at the view through the window. “You are okay. You have the necessary skills and acumen but… ” he pauses dramatically.
“Being good at work is not everything. You should improve in other areas like sharing good relations with your colleague, planning well in advance and being proactive.” He tilts his head and adjusts his horn rimmed glasses.
I look at him as if he is a bug that needs to be squashed.
“I... I don’t understand. Are you referring to me?”
He gives me patronizing look, “Is there anyone else here?”
My mouth feels dry. I always got the feeling he didn’t like me. “What you are saying sounds alien to me. I am not at all the way you describe me.”
“Well. Your colleague thinks so, too,” he blurts.
I place my hands on the table and draw near, “Can you please tell me who?”
“I don’t want to create trouble, but what does it matter? It’s your last day, anyway,” he says leaning back. “Praneel is critical about your casual attitude.”
My eyes widen with disbelief. The chair feels small, and I feel constricted. “You mean Praneel Aurora?”
Basu's bald head bounces in affirmation. “He is of the opinion you don’t have the gumption or fortitude to handle important clients and your approach is impractical.”
Despite the air conditioning, beads of sweat form on my neck. I loosen my tie and simply gape at him. The son of a gun is enjoying this.
Sensing my discomfiture, he mocks, “Don’t take it so hard. We all learn from our mistakes.”
“Is that the reason I was not given the ‘Arab Foods’ account?”
“That’s right. The client was particular about conduct, so it was better we let Praneel handle it.”
My mind is perplexed and rakes up bits and pieces of gossip I heard about Praneel. They said he was a brown noser, and he sucks up big time to the bosses to get their favors. I had dismissed such talk as rumors, but Praneel charmed and sweet talked me to such an extent, I couldn’t see him in a bad light.
Mr. Basu looks through me again. Wonder how his wife copes with these bouts of blackouts. My palms feel sweaty, and I rub them with unease.
“Sir, surely you know ‘Median Industries’ cited my name for the professional way in which I handled their organization’s restructuring. How about that?”
He is silent.
“I don’t know what lies Praneel has fed you about me,” I shrug.
“Don’t you think ‘lies’ is a strong word?”
“My reputation is at stake here, sir,” I say. “You could have spoken to me earlier. Given me the chance to defend myself,” I persist. “Instead you choose to believe in him blindly.”
He has no reply. After all, Praneel is his blue-eyed boy, running his personal errands, laughing loudly at his poor jokes and praising him ceaselessly.
“Just because he brown-noses you doesn’t mean you should listen to his crap,” I spit out. I am burning with indignation and have to fight back.
“This meeting is over, Mr. Vaid. Learn to behave and respect your seniors,” he gets up and stares me in the face.
I scoff at the hypocrisy of his statement. “Having sycophants around suits you well. Good day, sir.” I then storm out.
Hurt from the betrayal, a helpless anger is simmering in me. I go to the restroom and walk back and forth. Did I go overboard? Of course not! I should stand up for myself, even if it is my boss, especially when I have done no wrong.
My mind is deluged with past incidents as I search for hints of Praneel’s deception. I recall one instance when I committed a faux pas in my analysis report, being unaware of the sensitivities of this region. Praneel told me he would take care of it. The next day the bosses praised him for the effort he took in resolving the issue. Now I realize he had taken advantage of me. He must have blown up every insignificant thing and made it look like my mistake.
What chances did I stand against an enemy who was posing as a friend? I wonder how he goes to sleep. Doesn’t his conscience bother him? Ha! I guess I am being naïve. Welcome to the real world, my friend.
I need air to clear my mind. I fill a cup with coffee at the dispenser and carry it to the terrace where some of the employees go for a break.
There are chairs underneath a large shaded area. I carry one to a corner behind the bamboo partition. The air is humid but breezy. I light up a cigarette. As I exhale, I wonder why people smoke when they are stressed. I read somewhere, smoking gives an illusion to the smoker of being in control of his actions. I am not much of a smoker, but holding a cigarette in your hand and blowing smoke feels invigorating.
I recall how Praneel had showered me with praise and complimented my work. As I now realize, it was done with no one around. How could he put on a saccharine sweet smile only to bad mouth me behind my back? I try to be objective and reason whether what he had said held any truth. Even if it were, why didn't he tell me. If he were a true friend, he would point out my shortcomings and help me improve. His actions points to the contrary.
I hear voices. Some guys are laughing and gossiping incessantly. I am behind the partition, and they cannot see me. I recognize one of the voices as Sanket from our division.
“Praneel is relieved today,” he says.
“Why?” asks the other guy, whose voice I cannot place.
“His threat, Aarush is history. Praneel considered him a big competitor. If he hadn’t played smart, Aarush would've overtaken him and Praneel would be sitting on the sidelines.
“He knows Aarush is smart and had he stuck around, he would have taken Praneel’s place. Aarush is a real ass. How come he didn’t see through Praneel?”
“But I thought they were great friends,” the other guy says. “How do you know all this?”
“Praneel told me. In fact, he took my help on one occasion to back his claim.”
“What if he does the same with you?”
“No chance. I am smarter. I'll use Praneel to my benefit, now that I have the power of knowing what he did.”
They gossip some more. Sanket cracks a joke and they burst out laughing. I hear them back slapping each other and their voices fade.
I am dumbstruck. Am I really an ass? Guess I am, deceived by someone so close. I stroll over to the edge of the terrace and take in the panoramic view of the bustling city. Dubai is like an adult Disneyland with wide gaping roads. Seems like the roads are punctuated by shopping centers. You get out of one, and you find an entrance to the next.
I take the final drag of my cigarette and watch the smoke, wondering where it goes. Trust is a precious commodity these days. Whom to trust is a question we all face at some point. Sometimes justice prevails. I read a line somewhere - ‘The people who screw you, will get it back one day. And if God is kind, you will be able to watch.’
I want to leave with good memories rather than spoil my day further. I mime an act of pushing Praneel off the roof and place my hand behind my ear to hear the sound of his crash. Clapping my hands together in a gesture of good riddance, I stride away.
Back in the cubicle, I enjoy a cool drink of water.
Piyush sticks his head in the door and asks, “Hi, Aarush. Want to lunch with us?”
“Glad to. Give me two minutes.”
I am engrossed in reading an e-mail when there is a hesitant knock on the door.
“Coming, guys,” I say, not looking up.
A soft clearing of the throat grabs my attention. She is standing with her hands behind her with a smile playing on her lips. I stand up, pleasantly
surprised that Mayana has come to my cubicle. My knees feel like twanged guitar strings, and I hold on to the desk.
“What a delight to see you again. The room is aglow with radiance,” I gush. Did I really say that?
She looks at the flowers, “Someone must like you. Who sent them?”
Do I notice a mischievous glint in those eyes?
“I don’t know,” I say caressing them and enjoying the velvety feel.
This is the first time we are alone and the moment feels intimate.
“Well... ” she says, pausing a bit and making eye contact. “I was wondering whether I could take you out to lunch.”
Don’t swoon. My dream girl is inviting me for lunch! This is manna from heaven. From the corner of my eye, I see tinsel falling and hear the sound of bells. I told you, I am a romantic.
“Of course, what better way to sign off?”
I am twenty-eight, a good looking guy, tall with an athletic build. A straight nose and a deep cleft on my chin add to my retro looks. I am aware of my personality, but women are not flocking in droves. I ought to look up the internet. There are like a gazillion websites telling you how to attract a woman. Anything under the sun can be searched on the Internet. Check out this: ‘How to tell if food is spoilt?’ or ‘Try Yoga with your cat.’
When her back is turned, I do a little jig, winking at the bewildered expressions of the guys whom I was ditching for lunch.
I sit in her Mazda and notice an empty box of Domino’s Pizza and a few tissues smeared with sauce strewn on the floor. A fascinating visual of her eating while driving pops up, and I grin. She is human after all.
“Sorry. I was so hungry last evening."
She maneuvers the car smoothly. “I know a nice place hidden from the crowds. The ambiance is really cool."
I give her a sideways glance. She is chewing on her lips, and some of the lipstick sticks to her teeth. A small action like this can be very sexy. How I wish to reach out and caress her cheek. Why can’t I gather courage to tell her what I feel? I try consoling myself with the thought that some things are not meant to be. But it offers me no comfort, and I feel dispirited.
We stop in front of an inviting Indian restaurant, “Jashan” meaning celebration. A nattily dressed lady seats us in a cozy cabin overlooking the sea. How divine!
"May I order? I know you will agree with my choice." I nod. I have no qualms. After our food arrives, we indulge in a warm conversation about families, movies and books. I compliment her on her excellent selection of food that includes an intriguing lamb gosht masala and chicken in a spiced spinach and cream sauce. There is also butter garlic naan bread and steamed rice to go with it.
She seems a bit distracted and gulps her food. A nameless sadness creeps into me as I realize time is slipping and soon I will depart never to see her again.
The tranquility of the place, the spicy food, and the soft notes of a romantic duet stir my senses. On an impulse I decide to confess my love for her. The waiter arrives, and the moment passes, forever to be lost.
“My girlfriend didn’t like spicy food but I just freak out on it.”
A transient, wistful smile lightens her face, “Must be someone really special.”
“Uh huh. But things didn’t work out… ”
I take a sip of my drink. “One day the magic disappeared. There was simply no excitement left. So we decided to go our separate ways. We played our parts in each others lives,” I say, remembering the gregarious laughter of Riya my ex.
“What about you?” I ask.
“What…? You mean… No, I have a tall order. Difficult for anyone to fill. So I am waiting.”
The afternoon has taken an enticing turn. Talk of love stimulates me.
I spread my arms. “So here we are: desirable people, up for grabs.”
Her mouth widens, its corners lift heavenwards. She looks around, cups her hand to her mouth and says, “Is anyone listening? We are available.”
We both laugh with abandon.
Running a finger on the rim of my glass, I say, “I am an introvert and have difficulty expressing my feelings.”
She looks at her watch and rubs the nape of her neck. She seems pensive, looks sideways and is lost in thoughts.
She turns suddenly with a determined look. Her earrings dangle with the movement. “Can I fill the blanks for you?” she asks.
I blink, not understanding.
“Aarush, time is at a premium.” She frowns and shakes her head as if this was not the right choice of words.
“There is no time. In several hours you will be gone. If I don’t say it now, I never will. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering what if. The question would haunt me to my grave.”
She looks deep in my eyes, her gaze unwavering. The sounds around me seem to be far away. Time stops. Looking at her mesmerizing eyes, I feel submerged in cold and warm waves. Her words sound surreal and send pleasure through my being. The anticipation of what she wants to say rages like furious lava about to erupt.
“Aarush…” she whispers, “I love you.” After a pause she continues, “I have loved you since the moment I set eyes on you. But I couldn’t gather the courage. When word reached me of your resignation, I was crushed. I agonized over it this past month and tried everything to forget you,” she says. “Yesterday, I decided no matter what, I must tell you my feelings. Better to have loved and lost than to love and not try. “By the way, it was me who sent you those flowers” Her eyes twinkle as she finishes speaking.
She watches me in fascination as I continue to look at her in silence. “It’s a great relief to have told you. It's like a giant wave has washed over me, and I feel liberated.”
The dulcet tone in her voice sweeps me away. Her words will forever be ingrained in my memory. She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and looks at me in anticipation. In that moment, I am reborn. If I were to know I was going to die the next moment, I would gladly embrace death. My life is complete, and nothing matters. I have attained ‘Niravana’ and ‘Liberation,’ that every human being aspires for. The pursuit of my happiness has reached its deserving end.
I look at her with the submissive gaze of a prisoner who feels glorious bound in his chains. In the human heart, new passions are forever being born. What happened next will become a treasured memory that the passage of time cannot erase. I fix her with my gaze and walk over to her side. I am an introvert, yes, but at this moment, I am a guy drunk on the heady wine of love. I transform. Everything is happening in slow motion. I place my hand on her cheek, lower my face, and reach out to her soft pink lips. Our cheeks graze. I can feel the warmth of our faces as my lips unite with hers in celebration of a first kiss. She runs her hand on my chin and caresses my stubble. I think, it is a very romantic kiss, maybe even better than the one in Titanic.
Savoring the kiss, we gently pull way from each other. She smiles, and I smile back. Our bodies are doing the talking. We sit back and gaze into each other eyes. What is meant to be will always be.
An hour later, we are back in office. My fairy tale romance has come true with a slight twist: the lady wooed the knight. We had spoken at length and made plans; a long distance relationship for the time-being; when she would join me in Berlin. She holds my hand for a long time. Then, with a mischievous wink, she glides away.
I jump and give a high five in the air. I slide around in my chair with delight. My joy is boundless.
Celebration over, I speak to HR and complete the pending formalities. The thought of Praneel resurfaces. The revelation perturbs me. An idea is taking shape. I deliberate at length and finally make up my mind.
Later that night, Mayana is at the airport to see me off. My heart is constantly aflutter with her around. I tell her about the sordid episode of Praneel. She dismisses the incident, and implores me not to give it much thought.
"Lover boy, I'll miss you," she says twining her fingers around mine. "Parting is such a sweet sorrow."
Passions erupt within me, and my embrace grows tighter. After a lingering kiss, we finally say goodbye.
As the Lufthansa plane takes off, I stretch my limbs, and think of my final act before I left. I try hard to suppress the laughter choking me. I mailed the video of the previous night to Mr. Basu. The video in which a sozzled Praneel is heaping profanities on him. Some of the expletives, I have never even heard of. He acted out the, ‘Basu’s hot wife with ample bosoms’ remark in a flagrant manner.
I cannot suppress the giggle any longer and chortle. The little girl beside me looks up with a bemused expression. With a wink, I tousle her hair and settle in for a dreamy sleep.
I experienced great betrayal, and discovered romance, all in the course of a day. I will never forget Dubai – it was in this desert, I found the oasis of love.