Sangeeta Das | Delhi
December 24, 2010: Akash and I were returning from office. Both of us work in the news portal atoznews at Sector 63 in Noida. The eight-hour-long shift ends at nine in the evening. After dropping sub editors Shina, Nita; senior sub editors Ritam, Krishnadhar and designer Sumit, our cab enters Central Delhi at around ten every night. Akash resides at the Railway Colony quarters in Connaught Place (CP) with his family. His father has been working in the Railways for many years before Akash was born. Akash is the eldest among three, but the youngest in our department. He is a proper Delhiite, with lightening speed, a carefree attitude, trendy get-up and a zeal for work. In the cab, we remained silent like strangers, as if we had never known each other. Sometimes familiar people are strangers until they know each other in detail. We had been like this for the last ten days. Perhaps our cab driver, too, sensed it. That is why he had asked me last night about the reason. We were speeding along the Bhai Vir Singh Road in CP. We crossed the Sacred Heart Cathedral Church. The night was chilly, ready to pierce the skin like the silence of Akash piercing my heart. The Church had been decked up for Christmas Eve the following day. The people on the streets appeared to be in a festive mood and were ready to splurge on decorations for Christmas.
Sitting in the back seat of the car, peeping out of the window, I recalled the Christmas Day of 2007, when my two roommates and I had visited it, even though we are Hindus. Like our country, my heart is democratic and likes to celebrate each festival of this unique land. The area was full of people standing in long queues, waiting for their turn to enter the Church and offer prayers. The roadsides were filled with vendors selling Christmas caps, trees, stars, bells and balloons, among other items for the occasion. After offering prayers, we, too, bought Christmas caps and sported them. From there we walked up to the Rajiv Chowk Metro Station. On the way, our caps attracted the gaze of some handsome youths freaking out at CP. They wished us “Merry Christmiss”. In response, we had smiled back at them. That year was my first year in the national capital. The Christmas Day had turned brighter with a job offer on the previous day. It was like a gift from God.
The beep sound of my mobile brought me back from my chain of thoughts and I opened the sms. It was a Christmas sms from a friend. It had a Christmas tree with a text that said, “Merry Christmas in advance. May the blessings of Jesus Christ bring happiness in your life.” The message brought a temporary smile and a thought at the same time. In spite of my repeated failure to resume contact with Akash, I forwarded the sms to him. I was again lost in my thoughts, thoughts of Akash, his anger, his silence, his love, his concern and about some hows and whys. Again the beep drew my attention. Before I could open the sms, the cab stopped near the gate of the colony. Surprise… Akash had replied to my sms. Standing on the road and pausing to carry his bag on his shoulders, he looked at me. “Bagheera, Merry Christmas again. Could you please bring a cake for me?” he asked. I was happy to hear the name Bagheera (the friend of Mowgli’s from The Jungle Book). Akash had given me this name and it indicated the end of the cold war between us. I could have brought anything for him and it was just a cake he had demanded. “Thank you, Mowgli, then see you tomorrow. Should I wait for you inside the Barakhamba Metro Station?” I asked him, returning to my former self. He bade me goodnight. My heart felt tremendous joy and gratitude towards Jesus Christ. It was the second time on Christmas Eve that something beautiful had happened. I couldn’t bear to break my relationship with Akash. He was like an oasis in the desert-like environment of our office and my life. Our hardwork looked like sand dunes that would disappear with a blow from Dr Arvind Jha, the news editor. He had this amazing ability to terrorise everyone working under him except Akash, who was exactly opposite. With a great sense of humour, patience and good communication skill Akash could easily mix with anyone like sugar or salt to water. Surely, this trait in Akash had drawn everyone to him, including me.
Since our first day, we had sat next to each other, working together in the sports section, going to the office canteen on the roof, sharing lunch and the most interesting part: I had even answered an unwelcome phone call on his mobile on his behalf. I was directed by Akash to impersonate as his cousin and tell the caller that he had met with an accident and was lying in hospital. I was hesitant, but something filled me with a sense of adventure to do that. After that, we faced Dr Jha together. And, at the end of the day, we would slowly walk to the bus stop.
While walking, my other colleagues, especially Shina – the fair and chubby foodie – talked non-stop and insisted on eating roadside delicacies like bread-omlettes, panipuri, aaloo chat, chhole kulche among others, whereas I wanted to leave fast for my room. On seeing my resolve to avoid eating those things and leaving soon, she insisted on paying for all. Her indirect comment suggesting that I was miser forced me to go with her. I gasped for breath among the crowd surrounding Akash. Soon my ordeal ended. Everyone dispersed for their respective destinations, leaving Akash and me together. From there we two commuted in a shared auto upto Noida City Centre metro station and then by metro to Rajiv Chowk.
Then we had the day shift beginning from 10 am to 6 pm. It was only after a month that the management of our office decided to provide a cab to drop us. But we had to manage on our own while going to office. Akash and I started going together from Barakhamba by metro to the Noida City Centre and from there via auto to the office as we were always in a hurry. Inside the auto, he would direct the driver to take us to the Butcher’s office (Butcher referring to Dr Jha). The news editor had earned his name after he’d once warned that he’d kick us out. At this, the driver would get confused and then, Akash would give the actual directions. Not only Dr Jha, but almost everyone had earned a special name from him. While Shina and Nita were Rahu and Ketu, Krishnadhar was Chachaji (Uncle). No one could have been saved from being on his radar. In fact, I was afraid of it as he would not spare me too. Somehow, if I appeared slow and forgetful, he would say, “You are turning old.” At this, I would always run after him to land a punch on his back. And again, he would grab my fist and drop it as if dropping a leaf to indicate how powerless my punch was. The office HR was named FB (Frastu Babu) as he always appeared frustrated when anyone went to him for work. Our HR deserved this name. He would never complete our work on time and would compel us to visit him several times. After one such disappointment, as Akash, Shina, Nita and I were returning to our department upstairs, a man with a numbers of files was named Chitragupta by Akash. He said, “These files contain lists of FB’s sins and Yamraj has sent him to show these files to FB.” Ritam had become a regular butt of jokes, at first between Akash and me and later, among the others. It happened after I had gifted him a beautiful plastic egg, bought from the India International Trade Fair held at Pragati Maidan, with some artistic drawings on it. Soon after receiving it, he put the egg on Ritam’s seat in her absence and said, “She has laid this egg.” “No, Mowgli, given her size, it will be like the egg of an ostrich.” Since then, whenever we talked about eggs, we two would burst into laughter. Nita suspected something and one day asked us about it in awhisper. I couldn’t stop myself from sharing it. In the cab too, Akash would intentionally pick up some topic related to eggs in Ritam’s presence and we would all try to suppress our laughter.
In another instance, after everyone got down, Akash rang his school-time buddy, also a Delhite, who lived with his family. In the middle of his conversation, Akash held his cell near my ear and indicated that I say something. As soon as I did so, he took it back. He repeated this two or three times. Suddenly, he disconnected and burst out laughing. I stared at him, perplexed. I anxiously waited for an explanation. Akash told me his friend’s mom was always suspicious that her son talked to girls at night. That night too, she entered his room and finding him talking, at first shouted at him – which was clearly audible to Akash – and then demanded to know who he was talking to. Son told her that he was talking to Akash, but she would not listen to him and snatched the cell. As soon as the mother held the cell, she heard my voice. Anyone can imagine what would have happened next. I scolded Akash for making me part of the prank. Poor friend!
Soon, we reached CP. There Akash would buy two to three plates of boiled eggs served with chutney, raw onions and coriander leaves and we would devour them. Akash would pay, in spite of my insistence on paying. He would say, “Kar din a na dushmano wali baat (You talk like an enemy).” On hearing this in the cab one night, making a face like an arrogant and spoilt child, Shina said, “This is not fair, Akash. How could you enjoy without me? I want my share.” Before she could pester Akash anymore, her destination arrived and both of us heaved a sigh of relief. After Nita got down, Krishnadhar and Sumit made some plans to have fun. Sumit explained their plan politely, seeking my permission. I looked at Akash. He winked at me to say yes. The cab stopped near a wine shop. Krishnadhar and Sumit went out with the driver. I asked Akash why he had agreed to their plan. I was scared to go alone with a drunk driver late in the night to the Delhi University campus. “Bagheera, don’t worry. My funda of life is work hard and party hard. Let them have fun, yaar. I will accompany you to your place. Alright?” he asked. Suddenly, the idea hit me. “Oh great! If you insist, no problem. But then why should boys alone have all the fun? Bring a Breezer for me,” I demanded in an exhilarated voice. I called Sumit and my unexpected reaction brought smiles on their faces. In his excitement, Sumit promised to bring me two. Krishnadhar was overwhelmed by my attitude. “Really Sunidhi, I appreciate your spirit. I mean the way you supported us. Others would have made a fuss, really,” he said from the front seat in an American accent. “It’s my pleasure, Krishnadhar,” I replied. He said he missed the party culture of his previous office in atoznews, where beautiful women in party attire were a delight to watch. I ignored what he was saying and my thoughts were diverted towards Shina. How would she react if I narrated this. Imagining this, I laughed. Krishnadhar looked at me suspiciously. He thought the Breezer had worked its magic.
The growing closeness between Akash and me had aroused Shina’s jealousy. Usually women are like this. On some pretext or the other, she would take him outside office for lunch and evening tea. A few days later, it was a usual sight for us to see her inside Dr Jha’s cabin. I could easily smell something fishy and prepared myself for the worst. One evening, the news editor called everyone for a meeting to his cabin. He announced the management’s decision to provide a cab service within Noida and its adjacent areas. This decision affected no one except me. Dr Jha’s words fell like a bolt from the blue. He asked me to shift to Noida as I was living in rented accommodation. I was unwilling to leave the nest that I had made with my loved ones. I felt cheated and his comments instigated me to reply bluntly, “Sir, you promised to provide me a cab during my interview. You should have made it specific then. And I would not have left my previous job. If needed I will resign, but won’t shift.” His mouth remained open for a few minutes in shock. He thought for a moment and asked us to leave his cabin. Later, he called me in alone and asked me to come in the morning shift (8.30) from the coming first of January. Although he didn’t fire me, he left me with no option either.
In the cab, Nita and Krishnadhar appreciated my guts to hit back at Dr Jha. Elated by the praise, I narrated some previous incidents during my internship with the local and national media in Guwahati that had earned me the name ‘slow poison’. ‘Hmm… Sunidhi, you are the tip of an iceberg,’ Nita commented. I took it as a compliment.
Next day, I was concentrating on a story. Akash had some doubt about the headline and the introduction of his story. He turned towards me for help. Seeing no response from me, he took the handle of the revolving chair and hit it hard, making it revolve two rounds. Just at that point, Dr Jha came out of his cabin and it was clear he took this action as mine. In a flash, he was behind me, scolding, “Is it a place to play? Do your work properly. I am a very good person, don’t let me turn into a demon. Show me how many stories have you edited.” Till then I had edited 15 to 18 stories, which was very good. I thought he would be happy. Instead, he called me to the cabin with the list of headlines I had given. My seniors had already checked those headlines. Thus, I went with some confidence to him. I sat there with my heart pounding. He found fault in almost every headline. I defended myself, saying that Krishnadhar had checked. Moreover, through my previous experience as a sub editor, I knew that my headlines were correct. He was mad at me and would not listen to me. “Pay attention at work. This is not a place for friendship,” he concluded. I could have defended myself, but couldn’t have pointed a finger at Akash. In the cab, after Shina got down, Nita asked me in detail about the matter. The incident really upset me and I told Akash how childish he was. But Nita aggravated the matter by poking her nose. She went on to talk non-stop until she reached her destination. I was occupied with my row with Dr Jha. What Nita said to Akash went over my head and I remained quiet in the cab. And from the next day, he started avoiding me completely…
December 25, 2010: To keep my promise, I set out half an hour early for office. On the way I bought a cake with other gift items like little Santa Clauses, stars, etc., for everyone. At office, it turned out to be a big celebration in our department. Everyone was happy to receive gifts from me and I became the star of the day. However, Shina was away on a visit to her hometown and missed the celebrations. In the cab, Akash confessed that he had missed me a lot. “Really, then why didn’t you talk to me these ten days? Can you imagine how I felt, Mowgli? You took away the entire happiness of my life in those days,” I replied. “Sorry Bagheera, I never wanted to hurt you, but as my close friend, I expected that you would have saved me from Nita.” “Fine, I apologise. Next time I will take care of it, but you promise me that in office, you won’t disturb me at work, especially when the Butcher is present.” “I promise, Bagheera”.
December 25, 2011: Since the last Christmas Eve, everything was going fine with Akash. Shina’s possessiveness had alienated him from her. Consequently, he had stopped talking with her completely. Her constant nagging and bitter words against me had hurt Akash. He was a grown up person and could understand everything. Her cheap flattery had impressed Dr Jha to listen to her against me, but not Akash. A few months back, I met with an accident. It was Akash’s off day. He rushed to office as soon as he got the news, took me to the doctor and then to my home. The doctors advised me to take bed rest for some months. It led to my resignation. After I recovered, I approached Dr Jha to retain me. He got his chance for revenge. In the meantime, I continued my duty to wake Akash up in the morning for his morning shift as I did while I was at atoznews. A few months later, Akash joined a leading news channel. I was very happy for him. But, he became one of the busiest people in the world and that prevented me from meeting him whenever I wanted. I missed everything – from eating out to accompanying him to office to waking him up, receiving his calls at odd hours, etc. People say that an empty mind is a devil’s workshop. I had no job at hand and it had disturbed me most. I thought I had lost Akash. And Shina would be the happiest person to know this. A few months passed and I applied at many places but couldn’t get any as there were no vacant posts. Suddenly, yesterday, I received a call from Akash. He immediately called me to his office for a meeting with his boss. At last, my hard work and Akash’s love paid off. The festive mood turned contagious. I realised that Christmas Eve is very special for me, that brings joy with its advent. For me, it is synonymous with Akash since 2010. We decided to celebrate. First we went to the same church at CP. I spent two Christmases with Mowgli and am looking forward to this for the rest of my life.
(The fiction by this author first appeared in Sunday Reading of The Assam Tribune in three parts on January 1, 2012, January 8, 2012 and January 15, 2012).