Dayaram entered the office and his step faltered.
A new girl sat at the reception.
“Belaji?” he mumbled unable to stop himself.
“Good morning!” The receptionist sang out as she jumped up from her seat. “Myself Geeta, how may I help you?”
Dayaram shied away but he had to know. “Where is Belaji?”
“She’s getting married…”
Dayaram tottered away to his seat.
An alien sensation enveloped Dayaram – acid, he wondered or was it a heart attack? Wasn’t he too young? Was…was this what they called heart broken? How easily he had said it didn’t matter…but how would he live the rest of his life with this pain, this agonizing crushing pain as if a giant hand had slid into his chest and was squeezing his heart. He couldn’t breathe…
“Daya Babu, are you alright?” The office boy stood at his desk with a sheaf of papers.
Beads of sweat dotted his brow. Dayaram nodded and waved him away. He took deep breaths to calm himself.
He pulled a file and stared at the neat orderly row of numbers.
It had all begun 7 months, 21 days and 13 hours 17 minutes ago.
That day, unlike other days, Dayaram had arrived at the office a little late because he had been to the bank for some official work.
As was his habit, as soon as he entered he touched the feet of Goddess Lakshmi on the calendar that hung by the doorway. The calendar itself was a decade old but nobody dared remove it – after all she was the Goddess of Wealth. Dayaram himself was staunch devotee of Hanumanji and kept a fast every Tuesday, but Devi Lakshmi was hard to ignore. Besides, as head clerk of the Accounts Division, his job was all about money and her blessings were of paramount importance.
Even as he paid his daily obeisance, he could sense something was different in office. He had been coming to this office for the past fifteen years and hard work, perseverance and a love for numbers had made him a valued and reliable member of the company.
His honesty, sincerity and dedication were legendary and all, including the CEO were in awe of his meticulous work. If Daya Babu had passed a bill, a balance sheet, a file, it became God’s gospel – unchallengeable. He was the perfect employee who lived for work and had no time for office chitchat or politics. But he did have a quirk he was a stickler for first-come first-serve policy. The files, bills, vouchers were all handled as and when they were received and not in order of priority – not even if it meant rising rates, irate customers or delayed payments.
No amount of cajoling or pleading worked. He would just stare at the offending file and get back to the pile of files on his desk. Over the years, after many an altercation and brainstorming sessions, he had grudgingly begun to accept files, which had the CEO’s initials with his distinctive scribble “Daya babu plz expedite”.
He would keep these files in a separate pile and deal with them on his time after office hours no matter how late that made him.
The others shook their heads and laughed at him.
“Crazy fellow. No wonder he is still unmarried,” said one.
“I thought his wife had left him?”
“How old is he?”
“Really? He looks so much older.”
Dayaram did look forty plus but that was mostly because of the air of gravity that he wore like a thick mantle and shed only on rare occasions and never in office. The responsibility of providing for his family had fallen on him when he was still in school. A stroke left his father paralyzed. With his father out of commission and four younger siblings to take care of, Dayaram had had to grow up overnight.
He had joined this office as a peon and worked his way up. He had taken his responsibility as head of the family seriously and uncomplainingly unquestioningly earned money to feed his family, school his brothers and marry off his sisters.
The entire office laughed at his penny-pinching ways but he didn’t care. They didn’t know his story and neither did he want to share. He only did what had to be done – did the Sun ever ask why he had to rise everyday? Did he care if people cursed him or prayed to him? No. He did what he was meant to do. Rise and shine – come summer, winter and rain. If someone or something came in front, so be it, He would still rise and shine.
Daya Babu took inspiration from the Sun and drew strength from Hanumanji.
Every morning he would wake up at the crack of dawn and do the Suryanamaskar 32 times and be in office by eight-forty five am. He had a fixed routine that he liked to follow – fifteen minutes grace period to cool off, after a one and a half hour journey by bus and on foot. He would reverentially extract one marigold from his shirt pocket and offer it to the bronze idol of Hanumanji before bowing with folded hands. He had a deal with the flower boy at the temple, ten rupees a month for one marigold for each weekday. Dayaram splurged another ten rupees on Tuesdays for prasad, which he distributed in the office. Rather, he would keep it by the side of his table and his colleagues would feel free to take some and offer a greeting in return. Dayaram would nod in return without looking up from his precious files.
He would take a 10 min break for tea at 11 and 3 pm when the canteen boy arrived with the tea. He would sip the sweet tea with a biscuit from his personal store – one for the morning and one for the afternoon. He would leave his seat at dot one and have his lunch in the Government sponsored Meals on Wheels that stood at a distance from the office. The food wasn’t too great, but it was fresh and cheap. During summers when it was too hot to stand outside, he would carry a tiffin box, collect it and go back to his seat to have it and indulge in a bit of a siesta until the clock struck two. And it was back to work until six pm or later.
And that is how his life had been for the past seven years since he had joined the accounts department. Every morning when he came to office he bowed his head in gratefulness and reverence – for this was his temple, his sanctuary. He had a seat of his own and had even graduated from an office hall with a cooler to an air conditioned hall. At one time his job was in the field delivering collecting, queuing, or walking in the blistering heat just to save the bus fare. And study by night, sleep out in the open, live on the mercy of strangers saving every paisa to send home for his father’s treatment, his sisters’ wedding, brothers’ education. Those days had been the really tough ones even though he hadn’t had time to think so then – he was too busy coping. But now that the worst was over – his sisters married, a brother on his new job and even father was better, he had nightmares. Sometimes he woke up sweating thinking that he had been just dreaming of his office cubicle, his own desk, chair.
After many years he was finally in a comfortable position and wanted nothing more – What more could he ask for?
“Get married Daya, I worry about you. All alone…” his mother had taken to saying of late and Dayaram was running out of excuses.
“Don’t worry Mother. I am comfortable and happy. Why do you want to take away my peace?”
“I want you to have a family of your own.”
“You all are my family Mother.”
“You need a wife to take care of you, cook for you…”
“I can cook for myself. She will be more of a headache than an asset.”
“I want a grandchild.”
“Get Sakharam married.”
“He can’t marry before you!”
“Says which law? If you want I will look for a suitable bride for her…”
“Better you look for one for yourself!”
“Over my dead body!”
“Daya!” His mother burst into tears. Daya exerted himself to soothe her and calm her but he stood his ground. He wasn’t going to get married ever.
His mother was equally adamant. If he wasn’t going to marry, neither would his brothers.
And that was that – a stalemate as neither party was willing to blink.
Fate heaved a sigh and sent a gentle waft his way.
What was that fragrance? It took him back to his school days with his mother humming a song as she clipped a gajra on her hair. He took a deep breath – who in the office…?
“Namaste. May I help you?”
“Who are you?” Offended he shot back.
“I am Bela, the new receptionist.”
Dayaram walked inside without bothering to respond to her. Someone would tell her who he was. Besides, as the receptionist, it was her job to find out who was who, he sniffed.
“Good evening Dayaji.” She chirped when he left for the evening.
Showing off, he grumbled to himself, that she knew who he was and that she wasn’t a slacker like him, who came late to office and left early.
“I have to give these cheques to the Chief at his home,” he snapped.
Her smile flickered but she held on to it. “Very good Sir.”
He grunted annoyed with himself. What was the need to justify to her, a newcomer? Who was she? Oh what did it matter, his and her paths were different. They needn’t meet ever. He would be in office before her and leave after her. Today was an exception, he told himself firmly and put her out of his mind.
Or so he thought.
The entire night, the scent of mogra haunted him. How could one dream about scents? And why did he? She didn’t have much to her credit – dusky glowing skin, large kohl lined eyes, a long plait with the bunch of mogras peeking out, a mole on the upper corner of her lip…stop it! He told himself sternly.
When had he noticed so much about her? And why her? There were other girls in the office, they laughed and giggled whenever he passed them by but he barely noticed them. What was so special about her?
Dayaram sneaked into office half an hour before his usual time. He slid into his seat and soaked in the silence and the familiar musty smell of files. He felt safe as if he had crawled into his mother’s lap. He even looked up to greet a colleague or two as they passed by his table.
Dayaram was neck deep in numbers when his breath faltered. Head still bent over his file, he froze, he gripped his pencil tightly and the numbers blurred.
What if she wished him? He wouldn’t look up. He would nod distantly. Like he did the others.
Daya’s breath left him. Almost helplessly, he looked up and of their own will his lips moved and he echoed, “Namaste Belaji.”
She rewarded him with a smile that stretched ear to ear, crinkled her eyes and even her shiny button nose. He stared bemusedly until she swished away her thick black plait swaying gently.
Dayaram put down his pencil. He closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair and replayed the ultra-short clip over and over again. His heart thudded, he was back in his village running through the yellow mustard fields the wind blowing through his hair until he was flying high, high…
“Dayaramji? Is everything okay?” It was Sukrit, the office manager.
“Y…yes.” He straightened. “Just a bit tired, didn’t sleep well,” he said shortly.
“Sorry to disturb you but could you please do this file urgently?” Sukrit was close to begging, “Please it is very urgent. The Chief is out of station otherwise I would have had it initialled, please…”
“Okay.” Dayaram took the file. “I’ll do it.”
“I wonder what’s wrong with Dayaji,” he mused over a cup of tea with his colleagues, “he broke his own rule! He took the file. I was prepared to fight tooth and nail just to allow me to keep the file on his desk. But he smiled and took the file!”
“I am sure this is a new delaying tactic. He’ll just sit on the file.”
“While I get an earful from both the Chief and the customer.” Sukrit fretted.
But by evening, the file was on Sukrit’s table. And he couldn’t even say thank you for Daya Babu had left for the day. Another first! He must be coming down with something serious.
Dayaram was restless. He had to meet her once more, speak to her, perhaps look at her…he flushed.
At the ripe old age of 33 he was turning into a pervert.
He left without wishing her and spent a miserable night cursing himself.
What on earth was wrong with him? Where was the unruffled placidity that had been his constant companion and strength in times of his greatest challenges. Was he losing it in his dotage? But didn’t people become steadier as they aged? He tossed and turned the whole night unable to sleep, the scent of jasmine wafted in from the open window, teasing him, disturbing him, inciting him…
Quite at his wits end, Dayaram upped this exercise regimen, went to the temple, tried meditating in an attempt to regain control over himself. It was a slow, uphill task – one step forward and two steps backwards.
He avoided her in the office but she always came by his desk to wish him, as she did the others. Nothing special. But she was the only girl in his office who was bold enough to help herself to the prasad on Tuesdays.
“I am a devotee of Sri Krishna,” she confessed, “but I love this prasad.”
He began getting a little extra packed separately for her, which he would slide towards her as she came by his seat.
Then one day, she requested him to help her with her tax, and on anohter, requested his advice regarding her investments. Dayaram went deeper and deeper into the chakravyuh. And like Abhimanyu he entered the complex tangled web easily enough but lost his way out.
Unlike Abhimanyu, Dayaram was oblivious to his entrapment and was in fact loving it. He lost his air of gravity, shrugged of the invisible burden that weighed him down, he looked younger, fresher.
Fate seemed to be pleased with the revised version of Dayaram. She laughed with glee and cooked up ways to throw them together. There was a new circular to transcribe physical files into electronic files. He was asked to take the help of Bela in extracting and computing the expenditure data. She spent longer times at his desk, leaning over his shoulder, fiddling with her dupatta, worrying her nail and sometimes throwing back her head to laugh at her own stupidity.
He could only stare at her in wonder. How could anyone laugh at oneself? How could anyone not mind making a fool of oneself?
He stopped avoiding her. He made excuses to pass by her table – the photocopier machine, the washroom, drinking water, in search of the elusive mobile signal, his creativity blossomed. He changed the angle of his chair even though he got a crick in the neck. His colleagues snickered and although nobody dared say anything to the man himself, the girls teased Bela no end.
She began noticing his visits, his shuffling even steps, the way it faltered by her seat. She would continue to type diligently with a small smile on her lips and her heart rate would speed up just the tiniest bit.
There is no saying how long this gentle romance would have continued for one day, Bela dropped by Dayaram’s seat.
“I finished typing the 1998 records.”
“Give it to Ramesh to proof read.” He didn’t look up. “And take this file and correct the typos. So many errors this time. You need to pay more attention…”
“I…I…my engagement has been fixed.”
He looked up. The pencil slipped from his fingers.
“Cong…” he cleared his throat, “Congratulations. I hope you will be very happy.”
She drew in a sharp breath as if he had thrust a knife into her. She turned on her heel and went back to her seat.
After about an hour or so, Dayaram came to her seat carrying a file.
He shifted from one foot to the other.
He handed the file to her. “You forgot this.”
“You came to give this?”
“You could have called me.”
“I thought I would stretch my legs.”
“You wanted to stretch your legs?”
“There’s nothing else?”
“What else could be there?”
“I thought you came to ask about my…”
“What is there to ask?”
He walked away but not before he heard her sniff.
He felt slow and dull. He hadnt anticipated this. He had never given future a thought. He had been too exhilarated from soaring on the clouds living in the present moment, her presence, her fragrance, her smile.
But she wasn’t smiling now.
And she seemed to be angry with him.
Why was she angry with him? What did she want from him? What could he have to say to her? Had he not done the right thing and congratulated her?
What did she want from him?
The question haunted him day and night. He wrestled with it like he would when his numbers wouldn’t tally. He went over and over the question but it just didn’t add up.
“Why are you angry with me?” He confronted her.
“Why would I be angry with you? What right do I have to be angry with you?”
He shook his head bewildered. “I don’t know. But I know you are angry with me. I can feel it.”
“Feel? Don’t make me laugh.” She walked away.
He wrestled some more with his feelings but drew a blank.
“I don’t understand. What do you want from me?” He went back to her.
“What do you want?”
“Me?” He was taken aback. This question had never ever come up in his life. “What do I want?” He looked lost and confused.
Bela sighed. “Yes. What do you want?”
“What I want doesn’t matter.” He reported back to her the next morning.
“But the question is what do you want?” She insisted.
“I don’t matter.”
“Then what matters?”
He shrugged. “Others?”
“Everyone.” He waved his hand vaguely.
“Am I included in that?”
Unable to breathe, he could only stare at her.
“Well? Do I matter?”
His throat closed up choking him. Sweat broke out on his brow. This was something terribly important he could make that much out. But what exactly it was eluded him. He had to get to the bottom of it.
“W…what about you matters?” He managed to say.
“T…that…that I,” she faltered but held his eyes, “that I am getting married.”
He was silent.
Rage engulfed him. He wanted to smash everything in sight. He wanted to strangle her. He felt like running to the terrace and jumping off.
He walked to his seat.
She was getting married to another.
And he could do nothing but watch in dreadful silence.
His feet would drag as he passed her seat. She no longer wore the flowers in her hair nor did she wish him good morning. He wished he could say them but the words stuck in his throat.
Despair settled over him like the thick blanket of smog after Diwali. He was suffocating and the clock was ticking. Each day he lived in dread of seeing her empty seat. And each day he saw her sitting, was as if his death sentence had been commuted at the last minute.
But today the axe had fallen.
Her seat was empty.
She was gone and his life would never be the same again. A searing anguish ripped through his soul. Had he felt this bad when his world had come crashing down when he was barely out of his teens? He didn’t think so. His tender years would not have been able to take this raw bleeding gaping gash that didn’t let him sleep or work. Work which had been his panacea was abhorrent to him – the numbers mocked him and slipped away from his grasp. He messed up the accounts.
“Daya Babu, you are overworked.” The Chief had been apprised of the real situation. “Take a holiday. Go home. Meet your family.”
Dayaram looked at his boss with something akin to hope. Meet his family. His mother. She would know what to do with him. She would take care of him. He couldn’t wait to see her. It had been five years since he had gone home. The money was better utilized in paying off the debts incurred for his sister’s wedding.
“Amma…” He choked up.
His mother shed tears of joy and sorrow. “Look at you my son! So thin! Don’t you eat? Are you not well?”
“I am fine Amma.” But he was listless and dull. He only perked up when his sister put her toddler in his lap. He sat for hours playing with her.
“It’s decided Daya,” his mother was firm, “you are getting married. Your Uncle even has a girl in mind. Very…”
“Amma please! You know I don’t want to get married. I barely sustain myself. How will sustain a family?”
“By God’s grace, we have enough for our needs. Sakharam has a job at the post office and God willing Munna will start earning soon. You can stop sending money to us. It is time you thought of your own family.”
“But you are my family Amma.”
“I don’t want any arguments. I have decided you are getting married and that’s it.”
“Amma, listen to me…”
“No you listen to me. You are getting married otherwise you arent going back to the city.”
“Fine I won’t go back to the city. I’ll just sit at home and eat home-cooked food.”
“You will see my dead face if you don’t get married.”
There wasn’t much to be said after that.
If only he hadnt come home! How could he marry? What about Bela?
What about her? She’s already married to another.
But I couldn’t marry anyone else.
Fine then see your mother die.
Dayaram was the most morose groom ever. He refused to cooperate. Not that it mattered. He was anointed with turmeric, bathed, dressed and led to the mandap for the wedding. He exchanged garlands with the bride, went through the motions as directed by the pundit and ended with the seven circambulations around the holy fire.
And he was married.
But he was also free.
Free from his mother’s blackmailing tactics. He had been an obedient son and done as she wished.
Now he would do his duty as a responsible son and leave his wife behind to serve his family.
That would serve Amma right for forcing his hand.
But before that he had to bypass the obligatory first night rituals.
He got drunk and passed out on the nuptial bed decorated with marigold and rose petals.
Dayaram managed a peaceful night but the morning brought no respite. If anything it was worse than before – his heart was as sore and resentful as ever only now it was compounded by a massive headache.
His sisters fussed over him and scolded him. “What made you drink? That too on your wedding night? What will Bhabhi think?”
He couldn’t care less and the less she thought about him the better it was for his peace of him. He snarled at his sisters.
They left him to sleep off his hangover.
With no alcohol to deaden his senses he thrashed and tossed about on the bed, groaning and moaning as the scent of jasmine assualted his senses. Would he never escape? Would he never forget?
“Bela!” He called out in anguish.
“I am here.” Her voice washed over him like a soothing gush of cool water. He never wanted to wake up from this dream.
“Bela?” He reached out blindly.
A soft small hand slipped into his. He gripped it tightly. She moaned. He sat up and stared.
Bela was rubbing her hands.
“You are here!” he said stupidly. “You’re married!”
“Yes.” She said simply.
“What are you doing here?” He hurriedly got up from the bed. “What will about your husband?”
“What about him?”
“What will he say?”
“Ask him yourself.” She said coyly.
Dayaram back away. “He’s here!”
He followed the direction of her finger.
Bela came up beside him and looked at him through the mirror. “You may not matter to you, but you matter to me.”
Dayaram gave up trying to make sense of it. He did what he had been yearning to do since the day he had met her. He buried his face in the white bunch of jasmine nestling on the base of her neck.
A short story with a local flavor inspired by O. Henry’s The Romance of a Busy Broker as described in Story Club #11.
Thanks for reading and go on, say it!