Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Chapter 1: Trish

‘Lift, please. Hold ... HOLD!’
Trish reached the elevator just as the doors were closing and,
in her desperation, did something she normally never would have done – she thrust one thick denim-clad thigh through the doors, causing them to open again, revealing several faces inside the lift with expressions varying from mild surprise to studied innocence. A few people stepped aside to make way for Trish and she squeezed her heavy frame, still panting, into the already crowded lift.
Trish tried not to meet anyone’s eyes as she stepped on multiple sets of toes. She directed a ‘Sorry, sorry!’ towards the floor. She gave up trying to reach the back of the lift, where she would have felt more comfortable. Inwardly, she was seething at this typical rudeness of the corporate crowd in this building. These people had seen her running towards them. The polite thing would have been for someone to reach out and press the button to keep the lift waiting for her. Instead, they appeared to have reached some unspoken collective decision to pretend they had all suddenly lost their respective visions and therefore couldn’t see Trish, all seventy kilograms of her, with her curly hair and dark-rimmed glasses, hurtling towards them.
She felt breathless and dizzy now. She had known it would happen. She closed her eyes and waited for it to pass. Trish hated being in crowded lifts. Thankfully, the lift opened on the second floor and four people stepped out, squeezing past Trish, who tried to make herself smaller. She took a couple of awkward steps back, stepping on three more sets of toes in the process, and finally settled into a much more comfortable position at the back of the lift. She had thought at one point that she had a fear of enclosed spaces, but then had noticed she felt this way in the lift only when there were other people around. She hadn’t delved further into it; Trish didn’t believe in overthinking her feelings.
It helped her to distract herself by discreetly observing the other folks in the lift, and this was partly why she liked to stand at the back. She usually started with the shoes, to see whether she was dealing with a brightly insecure pink-strapped high-heeled junior management professional or a suave, egoistic boss in his smooth, polished-by-someone-else-of-course, stylish, formal shoes. The next clues were the legs and what covered them. Trish noticed that the shape a woman’s ankles was a good indicator as to whether she had yet tried the latest in fitness, whether it was Pilates, kickboxing, power yoga or a healthy combination of all three. It was easier to figure this out in the skirts and annoyingly named ‘jeggings’ that were so fashionable these days. Formal pants made it tougher. With men, Trish would have to shift her glance upward, past the crotch – quickly past the crotch! – to check for signs of the potbelly. The potbelly was pretty much a ubiquitous phenomenon amongst these relatively upper-class men in the corporate world. The men didn’t seem to really know how to work it off, except the select few who clearly went to the gym with religious fervour. Women who, by virtue of crossing thirty, had entered the state of motherhood recently still carried the signs in the belly region. The bright, insecure twenty-somethings, of course, had the tiniest, flattest tummies possible.
Trish made all these observations without judgement. She herself had given up on seeing her toes ages ago. Her weight problem had bothered her a little when she was younger, but now, at twenty-eight, she didn’t think she needed to meet anyone else’s standards. Her loose, dull, shapeless kurtas hid her shape fairly well, although they added to the bulk.
The lift cleared out further by the time it reached the seventh floor. They were now heading straight for the top floor – the tenth – and there were only two other people in the lift, a man and a woman, both from her own office. All three of them exchanged brief smiles and went on to studiously ignore each other. After a second, Trish glanced up again at their faces. The rise of the smartphone and the zombie-like downward gaze of smartphone owners made it easier for her to study faces these days. She thought her female colleague from the marketing department had partied too hard the previous night, given the tell-tale dark circles under her eyes. She was probably uploading selfies right now. The admin dude on the other hand looked like he might have got lucky last night. Maybe he was texting his wife or girlfriend or whoever right now to tell her – or him – how much he had enjoyed it. That had to be it, she thought. No one could look so happy on a Monday morning, especially not an admin guy. Unfortunately, he looked up at exactly this point to see Trish staring at his face. She blushed. ‘Bloody lift, so slow, making us late. It’s already ten. Ridiculous.’
He looked like he felt compelled to say something. ‘Yes. Very slow lift.’

Trish shifted her weight from one foot to the other and went on: ‘And the stupid new swipe card system. If you miss ten o’clock even by a minute, it marks you late. Wonder which idiot came up with it.’
The marketing girl looked up at them now with some interest, while the admin guy froze, appearing affronted. Too late, Trish realized that it was this fellow, Rajiv or Ravi or whatever his name was, who had been lauded for implementing the new swipe-to-enter technology at the last monthly HR announcements meeting – a mind-numbing function where Trish usually zoned out. Well, this was awkward.
The lift door opened. Trish abandoned all pretense of courtesy. Despite the fact that she was farthest from the door, she was the first one to get out of the lift.


Trish waited at the coffee machine while three girls in front of her discussed, in great detail, the movies they had watched over the weekend, all of which had apparently been ‘total bore, yaar’. Who were all these bubble-headed pretty young things flooding the office these days, anyway?
Trish figured Akshay had something to do with this. The new boss had arrived on the scene several months ago and had proceeded to throw himself into the heart of the business. Apparently, this didn’t include content creation, which was Trish’s function. She was the only one of his direct subordinates whom he hadn’t bothered to spend any time with. No formal induction session, not even a subsequent review. Which, frankly, suited her just fine – she had already slotted him in as an egoistic slime-ball. Plus, he looked really young, perhaps just a couple of years older than her. This stung her slightly. She had risen to the position of content head after slaving away for years, but Akshay was clearly a corporate dynamo, considering he was already a vice-president.
He was the most visibly successful boss she had ever had: sharply dressed, gel-haired, clean-shaven, fair-skinned, gym- fit and eloquent, amongst other various vaguely annoying qualities. Bloody show-off. She frowned as she made her way to her desk, holding the hot paper cup gingerly out in front of her. She sat down, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Her coffee smelt delicious. A gentle wisp of steam wafted up to tickle her nostrils as she slowly lifted the cup to her lips for the first glorious sip of the day.
‘Trish, can I see you in my office, please?’
Her head snapped up, the coffee halfway to her lips. It had been more a command than a question. Akshay was standing right in front of her desk, one hand resting on the edge of her cubicle. Considering that he barely ever spoke to her, why on earth did he want to see her, of all people, first thing on a busy Monday morning?
‘Um, okay, be right there,’ she managed to get out. As if she had a choice in the matter. He looked suave as always, and having him in such close proximity made her feel grubbier and even dowdier than usual. She found herself wishing she hadn’t worn this old brown kurta again today, comfortable as it was.
‘All right.’ He glanced down towards her desk and added, ‘You might want to...’
She looked down and saw that the coffee was trickling down one side of the cup on to her desk and the papers on it. She hadn’t realized she had been squeezing it so hard. She shifted her grip slightly and managed to get some of the liquid on her fingers. Ouch, it was hot. Where were the tissues? Oh, there. Good. By the time she stemmed the flow and placed numerous tissues around the slightly deformed cup of steaming liquid and looked up, Akshay had disappeared.
With her usual vague sense of skepticism mingled now with an uneasy curiosity as to what this was all about, Trish made her way to her boss’s office.

‘Ah, come in, Trish,’ Akshay called out as Trish opened the door. She found herself feeling a little irritated by this. He had just invited her into his office but was now acting as though she were asking for his permission to enter. Bah. Idiot MBA-type.
She went over and sat down on one of the chairs in front of his desk. She hadn’t been in here in ages. The previous boss, Sunil, had been fuzzy-headed but inclusive, prone to calling in people for random brainstorming sessions about various business problems that he seemed unable to solve himself. Trish had often taken part in those sessions which were painfully unproductive but usually involved a round of freshly ordered doughnuts. Sunil had been the grey-haired, mild, absent- minded variety, more suited to being a professor than a business head, but he had been fundamentally a nice person, and at least had the decency to look way older than his team.
Akshay was now staring with a frown at some random sheets of paper. A glistening white bone-china cup, half filled with what looked like green tea, was on the desk in front of him. Green tea! And bone china cups! What luxury the top brass in this office enjoyed. Oh well. Trish told herself that she still liked her own low-pressure job. She had been the content head for two years already. With each new website that the business added, she got an additional content writer to report to her. So she now had a team of four young people. She had carefully chosen folks who weren’t overly enthusiastic in the interviews. Stability, she decided, was the quality she was looking for. People needed to be steady and not rushing off with ambitious dreams every couple of years. Look at her. A total of seven years in this company now, straight out of college, obediently moving from the print department to the new-fangled Internet department five years ago. Sure, some people would have expected her to have a more senior position after all this time, but Trish was satisfied. Content with content, she quipped to herself with an inward smile.
Akshay looked up at Trish, his face impassive. ‘So.’
Trish cleared her throat, unsure of what the response to that one was supposed to be. Akshay didn’t seem to expect a response though, because he went on.
‘I noticed, Trish, that you’ve come in late several days last month.’
Was that seriously an attendance sheet that he had printed out in his hands? Trish felt the colour rise to her cheeks. She could make out what seemed to be people’s names in the rows, each followed by a series of numbers. Her mind raced. Maybe it was the admin dude who had gleefully brought Akshay the printout. She tried to stay calm. It wouldn’t do to turn into a tomato in front of Mr Perfect. But it was a biological trait she couldn’t control, this colouring of her cheeks when she felt bothered or embarrassed. She was both insulted and caught off guard. She was a senior manager – well, relatively senior, anyway, and had been with the company for so long – how could he—
‘You’re a senior manager – relatively senior, anyway,’ Akshay went on. What, he was reading her mind now? ‘It wouldn’t do to set the wrong example for your team and other young people in the office, right?’ He leaned back and she noticed for the first time how dark and curly the hair on his forearms were, even the ones on his wrists. It gave her a bizarre sense of satisfaction to know that there was something imperfect about him. She swallowed and then found her voice.
‘Akshay.’ She spoke deliberately, refusing to call him Sir like the others. ‘I’ve been here for years. I’ve delivered on every single deadline and project that we’ve got going on, whether it’s involved staying late or working over weekends. And I must tell you, I’ve never been called in for a discussion about coming in late.’ She was watching his face closely and noticed something change in his expression. She went on. ‘Is there something else you mean to tell me?’
‘Well, Trish,’ Akshay hesitated only a moment before adopting the smarmy, soothing tone she had distrusted from the beginning. ‘Your contribution has of course always been valued here. You’ve been with the company for ... seven years now? Commendable!’ His smile looked more like a smirk to her. ‘Not feeling any seven-year itch or anything?’
She sat stiffly at the edge of her seat. What was he on about? The smile dropped off his face. ‘Look. I need to bring you on board with some of the new thinking we’re instilling here. The business is in trouble and even though the last two quarters have shown some recovery’ – the last two quarters since he’d been around of course – ‘we’ve still got a long way to go. I’ve been thinking of rationalizing the structure and we’ve all got to be ready to go with the flow – or find something more suitable.’
Wait, was that a warning? Trish willed herself to stay neutral. ‘Could you be more specific?’
Akshay’s eloquence came from his ability to spin a yarn around the simplest facts, but even he seemed to struggle a little with the next words. ‘It’s like this, Trish. You must be aware that we’re starting a new fashion-and-lifestyle vertical next month?’

She had heard vague rumours about this a couple of months ago, but had no idea that it was actually planned so soon. She had been waiting for a project brief on this. It had sounded interesting and her assumption had been that, as content head, she would be pulled in naturally for something like this.
‘I, um, yes, but ... next month?’ She stopped and bit her lip as the implication sank in for her. She had been sidelined.
‘We felt...’ Akshay hesitated for a second. Trish wasn’t sure who the ‘we’ was here. ‘We felt that something like this needs a vibrant new team of fresh, young people – that’s why all the design graduates have been hired.’
Ah. That explained the pretty young things floating about in their six-inch heels. Wow. A whole new content department had been set up right under her nose and Trish hadn’t even seen it. How blind of her. Her approach of keeping her head down and just delivering on her existing projects had done her in.
‘As we’re shifting resources to the new avenues of growth, we’re having serious thoughts about the current structure and whether indeed we’re justified in paying out salaries to people who aren’t directly contributing to the topline.’ He went on to use a few more big words, but Trish was barely able to register what he was saying because her mind was racing. She did catch the word ‘rationalization’ being used more than once as he droned on.
Oh, she knew where this was headed. She could finally see the writing on the wall although it was too late now. She hadn’t demanded raises like the others, even though she was underpaid given her seniority. She hadn’t been proactive in asking for new responsibilities, preferring to stay out of people’s way; she had set up systems and trained her team well to function independently – in short, making herself redundant. She was dimly aware that Akshay was offering her the option of a month’s pay for immediate termination or two months’ pay for one more month’s work. Her cheeks felt hot. Staying wasn’t even an option as far as she was concerned. She couldn’t bear to be here a moment longer.
‘Trish? Are we on the same page?’
Twenty-eight years old. She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt like crying. She wasn’t usually much of a crier. She certainly wasn’t about to cry now. Still, it was through strangely bright eyes that she now looked straight into the face of her smarmy, so-successful boss. She raised her hand and pointed at the attendance sheet on the desk, with its neat rows and columns and names and numbers. She tried to keep her voice steady as she said, ‘Are you on that page, Akshay?’
He froze for a second and then glanced at the sheet before looking up at her with a confused frown.
‘Didn’t think so.’ She shook her head from side to side slowly and added, more firmly. ‘No. We’re not on the same page, and we never will be.’
Without another word, she stood up. A part of her badly wanted to tell him that his hairy wrists were terribly unattractive, but she wasn’t sure she had it in her to say anything more at this point. She quickly turned, left the room and walked back to her desk, trying to maintain a steady pace.
Her coffee lay there, looking forlorn. It had gone all cold in the blast of the air-conditioning. Trish took a small sip from it – it was horrible. She tossed it angrily into her dustbin.
And then, slowly and methodically, she began to clear out her desk. 

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