LIVING In our second part of our serialization of travel editor Stanley Moss’s novel, The Hacker, we begin the story in earnest, introducing more of the team at struggling software firm Talsera in Gurgaon, who are faced with dealing with a difficult Dutch client on his way to see them
Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.
Dusk had fallen and a glowing brownish pallor settled over every surface in the city of Gurgaon as the umber sun moved lower in the western sky, diffusing the atmosphere with a smoky veil of vapour and pollution. It was like this most afternoons in the apocalyptic city. The previous day’s pre-monsoon dust storm had ripped some of the area’s huge digital banners to shreds, what were once immense commercial pitches plastered on hoardings 20 storeys high. The landscape looked surreal, like out of Blade Runner or Mad Max: the eerie evidence of a futuristic civilization flapping in the wind. It was all so conflicted: Armageddon and Utopia coexisting in one place. Gurgaon—a mad, mud city of cranes and dreams and high-rises and stainless-steel malls; a land of grandiose architectural statements; an instant metropolis populated by young people suddenly rich and getting ever richer.
Rajiv ‘Ricky’ Talsera turned back to the email, a memo sent by his faithful assistant Miss Briganza, on his computer screen. It read:
Cokes and burgers at 6.30pm today, basement lounge.
Also a charity booth there for Varanasi widows. Buy something. SRK’s new musical movie Pyaarh, Ishq, Love at Ambience PVR at 7.30 (You can duck out on the movie, but I recommend you go to the food.)
The following people may want to talk to you:
Pushpa, about her cab pickup point -(again)
Nitin L, about ongoing problem with The Destroyer Shivani
Jaitendra, about another of those nasty blog posts (!)
Mr De Vries from RoodInfo LLP will be here all day tomorrow. Senior management status review set for 2.30 p.m.
He sometimes thought she was too efficient. She kept his appointment book up to the minute, knew where to find him at any waking moment and always seemed to have her finger on the pulse of the company. Ricky glanced at the fat red folder she had neatly placed on the corner of his desk. Urgent homework again: reviewing the RoodInfo contract, more documents on the land purchase for the new campus, a frivolous lawsuit. Another weeknight shot to hell. And Shaalu would complain if he read in bed with the lights on. She had the kids to get off to school in the morning, the house to manage and his parents to look after, all of that in many ways more challenging tasks than running a software company of 600 people.
He wondered if Rajan Abraham had the same problem. He and Rajan and Khaneja had started Talsera 15 years ago, yet Rajan seemed to have more balance in his life. Maybe it was because he got to stay locked up with the technical teams all day, and his wife Nalini didn’t venture a lot of opinions. Khaneja was another story: he was always on the go troubleshooting for company, half the time travelling the world drumming up new business or putting out fires; he was their International Man of Mystery.
De Vries was coming in from Rotterdam for the RoodInfo status review. The visit was set for the next day. An unusually tough customer, de Vries; one he hadn’t yet met in person. Though he’d had enough indirect experience with the Dutchman to dread the next day’s meeting. The man was apparently volatile, opinionated and berated his own people in a cruel way during teleconferences. Moreover, he always had a complaint for Talsera’s team, and protested any fees they wanted to add, even if it was for genuine changes. But he was at the same time a big customer—Ricky had about 40 people working on RoodInfo projects. The first part of the contract was worth €300,000, with possibly another million over the next year.
The review team had been working late nights, rehearsing for the meeting with de Vries, but there were still many things left to be fixed. As always it was going to be a last-minute push. Danny Khaneja was going to IGI to meet de Vries and get him situated in his hotel. Khaneja was best suited for matters like these, as he had lived in the west for many years and had interacted with countless foreigners.
Besides, Khaneja had met de Vries in Holland on several trips. Ricky was counting on Khaneja’s legendary ability to keep calm under fire to smooth the situation with de Vries and keep him cool and happy so that the project kept moving ahead. Hopefully a night’s sleep in a luxury hotel would put de Vries into an agreeable mood.
Khaneja had the authority to feed the guy whatever he wanted, buy him as many drinks as he desired and do whatever it takes to stave off his ill-humour. It was going to be his first trip to India, his first face-to-face with the Gurgaon team. To be on the safe side, Ricky and Khaneja had gone over the entire route de Vries’s driver was going to take from the airport, so that he didn’t see many beggars and shanty towns. They had rigorously studied which roads had fewer cows and where traffic would at least appear to flow. Besides this, orders had been issued to spruce up the entry to Building 3. Early morning the next day, before de Vries’ arrival, a truck was going to dump a load of dirt on the street outside the entrance, and a team of chhotus were directed to quickly fill in all the potholes. A row of hedges had been planted some months ago to hide the sewage canal next to the office, and Hari Bhaiyya had appointed local construction workers to chase off the pack of feral hogs that picked through the trash every morning on Talsera’s street. With luck, the client would be spirited into the building before he was able to see any of that. Ricky had hand-picked Talsera’s brightest stars to sit in on the meeting to placate the temperamental Dutchman.
Ricky looked at the next item on the memo. Nitin, one of the tech leads on the RoofInfo project, and Shivani weren’t getting along well. Ricky had known this for weeks now and had been half-hoping the situation would resolve itself without his intervention. It wasn’t the first time Shivani was clashing with someone junior in the company. She did some super work, it was true, yet he’d always heard from more than one source that she drove her team too hard but never gave it the deserved credit, that she took all the glory herself. She was an early hire, and one of the few people IT had permitted unfettered access to all regions of the internet. She had also been given the latest version of every device to play with—BlackBerry, Ipod, laptop, notebook. These were her rewards for delivering so effectively. But her behaviour had earned her the secret nickname ‘The Destroyer’ throughout the company. Ricky was almost sure that Shivani must be the cause of her own difficulties with Nitin, but then he chose not to challenge her on it. He had decided that if things got worse, he would pull Nitin out of that team and ask him to head a project of his own. He was a brilliant techie and Ricky hoped he was mature enough to be entrusted with a complete project.
The next item on the memo: Pushpa and her cab pick-up point. Pushpa, a senior programmer, had categorically refused for months to walk to the cab pick-up point, a short walk from her place, though the other two girls in her commuter group had no problem in doing the same. She’d insisted that the cab pick up and drop her right outside her home. She claimed there was a dog who terrorized her along the route. The other girls had grown resentful with this ongoing arrangement. ‘Why does Pushpa get special treatment?’
Ricky knew he’d have to deal with this situation. He decided to call HR and have somebody walk the route Pushpa objected to, get a look at the dog and see what could be done. It was one of those miniscule labour issues the man at the top should not have had to deal with, but which still crossed his desk from time to time. He sent a note to Priyanka in HR and instructed her to look into it.
The final email item puzzled him: Jaitendra reporting another anti-Talsera blog post. That could be bad; rumours about confidential details and anti-employee policies may affect recruitment and morale. He sent Jaitendra an email asking for a face-to-face the next day to learn more. A disgruntled employee at Talsera? It didn’t sound right.
Ricky loaded up his backpack with the paraphernalia of the day—his battered HP laptop, fat files of papers, and the day’s The Economic Times. He headed downstairs and met some of the youngsters at Talsera on the way. He liked the way they all talked to him, and he had a lot of respect for their seriousness about their work. They were the ones who made Talsera a great place to work at, the people who kept the clients happy. They’d been very understanding about the hard times many Indian companies had experienced the previous year during those terrible months of recession. They’d all accepted temporary pay cuts, and now that the earlier salary numbers had been reinstated, they showed a renewed interest in their work. All these youngsters would be celebrating at the theatres or inside pubs over the weekend, partying and cavorting, and would come back on Monday to solve the software problems of the world.
On his way out of the building, Ricky nodded at Hari Bhaiyya, who stood by the front security desk. Hari had been with Talsera since the beginning and there was a degree of non-verbal communication between them. Hari flashed a smile, and returned to perusing the logbook. His car awaited him at the gate. The driver held the door of the battered Hyundai open for him. ‘I should probably buy a new car,’ Ricky thought. ‘But then this one gets me where I need to go and is still running fine. I shall buy one when I really need one,’ he decided.
Stencilled on the back window of the car were the words ‘Drive home a relationship.’ That is wrong, Ricky thought, remembering his wife Shaalu. It should read, ‘Drive home to a loving relationship.’
The flight attendant’s shapely backside receded down the aisle of the first-class cabin. Jan de Vries sipped his champagne and wondered about her private life. He’d watched her for nine hours now as she served her passengers, her make-up perfect, her blonde hair tucked neatly into place by an expert system of hair pins. Her eyes were ice blue and her lips were the colour of spring cherries. More than once during the flight had de Vries fantasized about what he would do with her generous bosom buttoned tightly into her immaculately pressed blouse if given the chance. At one point he even debated asking her what her plans were after they had landed. Perhaps if she was in Delhi for a couple days, they could take some dinner together, do some sightseeing and then meet for a late drink at his hotel.
Despite his thinning hairline and crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes, he thought of himself as still a moderately attractive man for 56 years old. He wore a blue shirt with white collar, a conservative Hermès tie, soft wool trousers and Gucci loafers. He had a thin Patek Philippe timepiece on his wrist, and €2,000 in cash in his wallet. He had a platinum American Express card and he wore Terre d’Hermès as his fragrance. If she turned him down it would be her own loss.
He thought back to his alcoholic wife Berthe, no doubt passed out on the couch back home in Rotterdam by now, her nightly appointment with the martini shaker over. She had gone fat and bored and middle-aged on him, and sometimes she embarrassed him in public with her slurred speech and stumbling walk. Her family’s money had set them up, and she owned the house and the cars. She no longer worried about her appearance, and he had no idea how she spent her days, not that he cared. All memories of their youth and courtship had been replaced with feelings of boredom and dread, late nights at the RoodInfo office and golf weekends with other executives who had similar stories to tell.
Now he was headed to India to shake up the guys at Talsera. He intended to ensure the project was proceeding as per his directions and if it was not, he meant to threaten termination on the spot. He had heard enough of them mumbling in their strange staccato English during their conference calls, and he needed some honest and frank answers from the project manager, with whom he had an acquaintance in a past life. He had another hungry Indian company in his vest pocket, pitching him for his next project. It apparently was run by some eager young man who had started at Talsera and had even been in on the RoodInfo project, but was now out on his own with a new team, desperate for business and ready to play ball.
What a shame he had scheduled the meeting for afternoon the very next day. With the crazy traffic he was unlikely to get any time to discover the exotic delights of New Delhi or even Miss Nordic Amazon. Perhaps if she was serving on the flight back, he would approach her for a night out in Rotterdam.
The plane touched down in the darkness. De Vries detected a faint smoky smell in the air, and it seemed to him that they were taxiing to the gate through a dense amber fog whose colour was heightened by the orange landing lights along the way. Miss Nordic handed him his elegantly tailored Italian jacket and thanked him for flying with them. De Vries thought: there would always be another flight and another flight attendant. It’s a never-ending supply. God bless the ruling class; we always get everything we need.
While the ruling class was allowed to file out of the aircraft first, it soon discovered its status evaporating at the makeshift counters where masked men and women collected their H1N1 ’flu declaration sheets. De Vries visibly shuddered as he waited at the baggage carousel, jostled by people in odd costumes, bumped by turbaned types who stood so close he could smell the cardamom and anise on their breath. The terminal looked like an international airport, albeit one where an unfathomable and anarchic chaos prevailed. A bitter expression appeared on de Vries’s face, and he hoped Danny Khaneja was waiting outside to meet him, exactly as they had arranged.
From their first meeting, Khaneja had rubbed him the wrong way. The man’s credentials were impeccable, and he had a fine vocabulary and only the hint of an accent when he spoke English. He was always well turned out, courteous and mannerly, and never raised his voice. During his three visits to Rotterdam, de Vries had tried to get a better idea of the person he was dealing with, but Khaneja remained an enigma. His focus was single-mindedly on business, and he never seemed ready for small talk. Though he was comfortable enough drinking beer and eating pork sausages, he largely kept to himself. De Vries had only been able to find out that he had a young wife and son who lived in Delhi, and that his father was an engineer. As for his other interests, de Vries had drawn a blank. And as for his weaknesses, there appeared to be none. But de Vries was intent to keep digging.
Yet it was with a degree of relief that he caught sight of Khaneja waiting at the barrier among the droves of chauffeurs waving their signboards announcing the passenger names they were there to pick up. The men nodded at each other, Khaneja cracked what could be interpreted as a smile, and reached for de Vries’s rolling bag, which the Dutchman allowed him to drag along.
Dilbar ‘Danny’ Khaneja wore grey flannel trousers, a blue blazer with brass buttons, a white open-collar shirt by Pink of London, a black, hand-made alligator belt that looked Italian and a pair of black tasselled Bass loafers. He was a medium-build 39-year-old and had thick hair lightly peppered with grey. Though it was now nearly midnight, he looked and fresh and handsome, and projected an easygoing, confident air. Were it not for his nutmeg complexion and brown eyes, de Vries thought, he could have passed for a dashing young executive visiting the Yale Club on New York’s Park Avenue. Something is fishy about this guy, he thought, and I’m going to find out what it is.
In his usual businesslike manner, Khaneja walked him across the rough road into a dirt parking lot, warned him to watch his step at a crumbling concrete curb and at the end held the car door open for him. When he gave the driver some instructions to take him to the hotel, de Vries heard him speak in something other than English for the first time. The hotel had been a matter of contention for de Vries. He did not want to allow the Indians to put him in just any place. Ricky and Shivani actually wanted him to stay at a Radisson property near their office. But he did not trust them. ‘I’ll take care of my own accommodation,’ he had told Khaneja in no uncertain terms a week before leaving Rotterdam. So, his secretary had booked a hotel that looked good enough on the internet.
Now they headed through the dark Delhi highways turning this way and that, beeping horns whenever they came close to another vehicle, slowing down for potholes and speed bumps, Khaneja muttering something or other to the driver all the while. Outside, de Vries could only gain fragmentary impressions of oddly worded signs, ghostly silhouettes of people at the roadsides and sometimes a cow lingering aimlessly on a centre divider, at other times packs of mangy dogs trotting along on the pavements. Khaneja handed him a red folder of papers, which he held without opening. From a flyover he tried to focus on some of the massive signs with characters 2 m tall. Did one taunt him with the huge words CALL SHIV? He stared at makeshift buildings they were passing—crude constructions strewn with laundry hanging out and occasional humans huddled around oil lamps, and hundreds of signs in odd scripts punctuated with portraits of men in enormous moustaches and fat women in saris, with spots drawn on their foreheads. The driver’s mobile phone suddenly broke the subdued silence of the car with a tinny ringtone, some percussive ethnic song whose words de Vries could not understand. Just then, he was sure he saw through the trees a settlement of dwellings or lean-tos covered in blue plastic tarps.
It appeared they were headed into a zone of uneven roads and ghostly unfinished overpasses. At various construction sites, labourers seemed to be working, even at this hour, carrying flat baskets of soil with their heads covered in rags. Others stood around in groups, with nothing better to do than watch the vehicles roll by.
Perhaps it was the jet lag setting in, or maybe it was fatigue or even Khaneja’s monotone, but suddenly de Vries felt tired and disoriented and irritable. He wanted to just get out of his formals, have a shower, drink a beer and crash on some bed. Whatever had possessed him to make this trip, he wondered. These were the people handling their software? And was this the goddamn hotel his secretary had booked? The Delhi Maharajah Palace? This place with its marble-clad façade, and that kitschy fluorescent-lit lobby, in which a bored uniformed man is sitting next to that metal detector? This place?
‘Here’s the hotel you booked,’ Khaneja said.
De Vries made a bitter face. ‘I thought it was downtown,’ he snarled.
Khaneja looked curiously at him. ‘This is downtown,’ he said.
It was a few minutes after noon and the basement canteen at Talsera filled with chattering people. An hour earlier, the space—a large hall of orange walls and shiny grey marble floor decorated with a sea of brown table tops and red chairs—had been nearly deserted. Back then, only the faint hum of the air conditioning or the occasional clatter of a pan dropping into place back in the disorderly kitchen could be heard. Now an ambient din of conversations and laughter echoed through the room and the place was filled with a contagious energy made all the more intense by a Bollywood music video projected onto a wall at the end. Hari Bhaiyya and a canteen worker called Das stood by an avocado-coloured barrier and watched the familiar chaos which occurred there every day. To their right, in the sports room, a spirited TT game was in progress. Down past the water cooler, the Xbox room had filled with gamers.
‘You see those three girls there, Hari?’ Das asked. ‘They always sit at that same table by the pillar, na?’
‘Yes, they are best friends, joined the company together. That is the way it is. The best friends you make are the people you meet in your first day at work.’
‘That’s not true with Vijay and me,’ Das protested. ‘I met him on my first day, and he and I are always fighting. I think he is a …’ and his voice drifted off.
Hari watched the three young women meticulously take out their lunch containers from their bags, delicately open them and arrange them on the table top. He thought of them as his teen deviyaan, modern, educated women but still good and decent people. Even though they were a bit difficult to understand for a man from an Uttrakhand village he knew a considerable lot about their private lives, even more than they thought he knew. It was his job to know about everyone at Talsera and anticipate what they needed before they did.
‘Yaar, you are looking at those girls again, Hari. Which one do you like the best?’
‘You had better keep your thoughts to yourself. Now, go over there and clean that table,’ Hari said.
While Das was visiting the tables Hari thought back to Maladevi, his wife. She lived with his parents in his native village, which was an overnight bus ride away and which he returned to only once every six months. Their two daughters were grown up and lived in different towns with their husbands.
Hari stayed at Talsera Building 3 most of the time, in a small shack up on the terrace. There he slept and cooked for himself. Even though he was paid much lesser than most others, he worked very hard and did more things than he had been employed to do. He supervised the work of housekeeping, kept watch on the air conditioning, tended to the coffee machines, marked the staff attendance book, waited on Ricky and the other big folks and made multiple rounds to the market.
Das came back. ‘You are still staring at your goddesses!’
‘Never you mind what I am doing.’
‘I would like to go to a movie with a girl like the one in the blue salwar.’
To his own surprise, Hari decided to humour this outlandish thought. ‘First you would need to stop taking so much paan,’ Hari said. ‘And, even then, someone like her won’t talk to you. After all you clean the tables they eat on.’
‘Hmm,’ Das said. ‘What do you know about her?’
Hari thought: her name is Adita, and she is engaged to someone from her own biradiri. She is very decent. ‘Not the kind of girl you ever stand a chance with,’ he said.
‘That’s fine with me,’ said Das. ‘I was just kidding. Who is interested in her? I want someone more like the firangi dancer from the movie we saw last night.’
Hari Bhaiyya knew more about Adita than he told Das. He knew that she had started as a trainee and was tutored by a junior software engineer named Ravi on her first project; that they had pulled the same assignments thereafter and often worked late together side by side; that a close bond had formed between them, and that now they wanted Adita to terminate her engagement and marry Ravi. She needed to come out to her family regarding this, though she hadn’t done that yet. But he said nothing.
‘And that girl in the green, I have never seen her spend a single rupee in the canteen, not even buy a coffee. Why is that? She makes much much money.’
Hari thought about the girl in green, Shoba. Married, conservative, 7.30 a.m. daily pick-up, always on time, always happy. But he said nothing.
‘The girl next to Adita wears jeans every day. You think she’s looking for a boyfriend? Should I go over and talk to her?’ Das asked.
‘Of course you should.’
Das knew perfectly well he could not speak to her. He envied her, because she had been to school and then to college and now she had a job and because she could pack her own lunch and sit with her friends at a table at noon and wear new clothes every day and type out words on a keyboard and chat in English. She had a mobile phone on a monthly plan, and a car brought her to work each morning and took her back home each night. God has not been fair, Das thought, that she should be so lucky.
He thought of the newest Honda bike he had seen first on a skyscraper 20 stories high, a sleek black and chrome beast under the words ‘Flight into the Fast Lane’. He had seen the two-wheeler driven endlessly on television. The advertisement showed a man riding it on an empty, straight road in the direction of snow-clad mountains, and halting it by a lake so that a foxy girl in a skin-tight leather jumpsuit could climb aboard. As they drove away the girl shook her head so that her lustrous hair waved in the wind. He wanted that bike. He would buy one and arrive with it at Talsera one morning just as the teen deviyaan would be walking into Building 3. They would look at each other and ask: isn’t that the boy from the canteen?
Hari Bhaiyya thought about the goddess in jeans, Harpreet. A dutiful Sikh daughter; she and a Muslim boy she had taken up with at Talsera were about to announce their wedding. But he said nothing.
Hari Bhaiyya watched Das go over to their table, and say nothing to any of the three as he cleared the used papers and beverage cans, put the empty water glasses on his tray and carried the mess out of their sight. The girls kept up their happy conversation. Over at the TT table the boys had started a doubles’ game. Through the other window he could make out the Xbox jockeys jousting on their screens. The lunch tables were emptying, and the noise level was going down.
Hari thought about his own afternoon agenda: he had just been informed that the RoodInfo man had called in, something about putting things off until the next day. Now he would need to make sure the large Einstein conference room was ready next morning after his rounds were done. He would have to rearrange the flower pots, put the welcome banner in place, add imported coffee in the machine, ensure that the guards understood the change of plans and that everything was as it should be.
The three goddesses stood up, carefree and left the canteen. Soon, it was deserted again, and a pleasant silence returned to its walls. Lunchtime was over. Hari went back to his rounds.
The Destroyer flipped open her laptop and logged in to her Hotmail account, surprised to see a mail from Jan de Vries waiting for her.
I am only in town only for a few days. I can’t sleep. Would like very much to meet you for a drink. Just name the place and hour.
Shivani nodded knowingly. A drink and then he hits on me, just like he always did, she thought. Nothing ever changes, except the speed of connectivity.
A woman could go as far and as fast and she wanted these days, Shivani thought. She could even smoke a cigarette like a human being for God’s sakes, and nobody could say a thing about it. It had been her intention to see Jan de Vries only at the status update meeting, keep things formal and businesslike, but here he was pursuing her again. The RoodInfo project was at a critical juncture. Big clients require special handling. Reluctantly she decided to meet him.
‘Thank you for sending a car for me,’ he began, obviously embarrassed. ‘I admit I was not quite prepared for this place, I mean, the way things are here. I am sorry. I am a bit disoriented right now. I slept all day today.’
‘How did you ever choose that Maharajah Hotel?’
‘My assistant found it on the net.’
‘Fire her as soon as you get home.’
It was 9 p.m. and the Radisson cocktail lounge was humming. They sat at the farthest end of the bar, side by side, sipping strong drinks with witty names. ‘The bartender is obviously looking for a good tip,’ Shivani said, taking a breath. ‘There must an extra shot of rum in this punch. Watch out.’
‘You haven’t written me back in some time,’ de Vries said. ‘Over the last couple years I emailed you a lot more than I heard from you.’
‘There was nothing to say, was there?’
‘Maybe not for you. But I had become quite attached to you in Amsterdam. Your hasty departure really puzzled me. I always thought we were better friends than that. You’re looking good, Shiv. And what am I supposed to think, now that you send a car for me and meet me at a bar? A drink, and then I hit on you, wasn’t that the old joke between us? Maybe tonight I’ll get lucky.’
‘You are such a selfish pig,’ she said under her breath, teeth clenched. He shuddered and took another sip off his drink. She still knew how to shape the most cutting remarks, he thought. She always did, and he felt a peculiar thrill when he heard her say them. ‘You know I am not even supposed to be seen with you now,’ Shivani went on. ‘You’re a client. If you need help, you don’t email me in the middle of the night and expect me to drop everything and run to your rescue. I’m your project manager, Jan, not your concubine.’
‘I told you, I had no idea the hotel would be so … so …’
Shivani looked at him fumbling there on the barstool in the multicoloured light. He had been decent enough in Holland. It was thanks to him she had been able to bring the RoodInfo project to Talsera in the first place. He certainly was generous and rich. Quite rich, in fact: always meeting at the nicest of places, pouring the best champagne. The only downside was that he wanted to talk far too much about his train wreck of a wife. She and de Vries had not hatched a romance in Holland, though he certainly had wanted it and pursued her constantly. Shivani didn’t really have time to humour a man 25 years her senior, so she had said goodbye, rather abruptly, when the Amsterdam contract was over for she did not want to encourage him. She knew he would only try to seduce her from afar.
‘You should take a room here tonight,’ she finally said. ‘Fetch your bags tomorrow morning.’
‘Shivani, my princess, my creator, my destroyer,’ he replied, putting his hand gently on her forearm, with the identical overfamiliarity he had employed in Holland. ‘If you need a place to stay tonight …’ He ran the hand tenderly up to the elbow, and higher on her arm, touching her with such an intimacy that a delighted expression came over her face.
‘Stop that!’ she laughed, remembering his relentless flirtation and now strangely flattered by it. ‘Take your hand off me, and order me another of those strong drinks, please.’
In the darkness, Ricky Talsera stared overhead at the rotating ceiling fan and listened to Shaalu breathing next to him. It was at this time of the day that he could think about things, put the pieces of his life together. Shaalu constantly delighted him. She had, from the first, been the most accommodating and affectionate partner. She acted as a calm centre of stability amidst the relentless grind of his professional responsibilities. She remained inventive in their love life, even after years of marriage and two children. Tonight he had found her irresistible, delicious, captivating as always. While her mature body had taken on a rounder character now, he still marvelled at how nicely she kept her skin and hair, and how her fragrances always seemed to dance seductively around her. What they had discovered in each other was mutual and private and unique. He loved her as he loved no other person on earth.
At this time, his mind, working in an exhausted body, attacked the problems of his business life from a half-dream state where the answers always came freely and quickly and clearly.
De Vries had called in sick that morning and said he wanted to rest the entire day. Initially, they were grateful for the postponement, for it gave them another 24 hours to fix everything they knew might have gone wrong had the status review actually occurred that day. But when he also declined a dinner invitation, Ricky took note. Monkey business? Had he found a new supplier, someone perhaps cheaper? Had Talsera made any mistake? No, the team headed by the Destroyer was experienced and efficient and had met every deadline. He would wait to meet him face-to-face before reaching any conclusions.
His mind drifted back to the drinks and burgers reception of the previous night in the basement canteen at Talsera where Nitin had blundered through the crowd and tried to start a conversation amid the hustle bustle. ‘Sir, Miss Briganza said you would talk to me!’ Ricky had no desire to make their conversation public. He suggested they take ten minutes in an empty conference room upstairs, and they secreted themselves away while the party continued below.
The boy was all rage when they were alone together. ‘Shivani doesn’t know how to contain her emotions!’ he said, in an unabashed whine. ‘She takes out her frustrations on people. She is mean and vicious to us. Ricky-sir, I’m begging you, you got to do something about this.’
‘No “sir”, please.’ They had dispensed with the ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’ business. It was supposed to be all first names now. The only ones who used the honorific routinely were new hires, but even they quickly adjusted to this detail of Talsera’s corporate culture.
‘You think the younger engineers don’t have the experience and so they’re not as good. The managers take advantage of this. They make it look as though they are the ones rescuing the project, though they are mostly clueless. For example she never gave any of us credit for the Pharmacom job that was such a success last year. It was the team that made all the difference in that one, not her.’ He didn’t get a promotion, and he didn’t get an increment, Ricky remembered. Why would he stay? Ricky had read about him in the overly detailed HR report.
Lives at home, only child. Father retired, mother housewife, his salary runs the home, no car, gives his mother money for groceries. Claims he doesn’t want to get married. Says he idolizes Einstein and Mother Teresa but also Hitler! Uncertain about his career path. Mainly wants to increase his salary.
In a separate memo he found in Nitin’s HR file, the Destroyer had written: ‘… performance unsatisfactory. Will ask for his resignation at end of month after he returns from sick leave.’
He realized he, too, could be convinced that the easiest path was to be rid of Nitin. Nitin had kept blabbering until Ricky cut him short. He’d looked rather obviously at his watch, but the kid didn’t take the signal. ‘I really have to go, Nitin. Let’s rejoin the party. I will look into the matter later.’
‘Yes, OK, thank you, sir. I have really benefited from this talk.’
Later, he had met Jaitendra at the chaiwallah’s stall across the street from Building 3. It was an irregular ritual he had known for years. The stall offered them a space where they could grab a pair of plastic stools under the awning, lean in close to each other, take a cup of chai, share a bag of potato chips and confer undisturbed.
At 44, Jaitendra was older than most people at the company and had seen much more of the world. Years earlier, when he had joined the company for zero pay in return for the right to work on software, Talsera was a start-up in a dingy little office. Now, years later, he had shares, seniority and tremendous respect as an architect and manager at Talsera, even though he wasn’t one of the men at the top of the org chart. His loyalty to the company was legendary; he was known to match the young hires hour-for-hour on difficult projects. If you wanted to lobby Ricky Talsera indirectly, there were few better ways than to get the ear of Jaitendra.
‘This second blog post is nastier than the first one. Claims we are a sweatshop and are cutting corners on a certain project out of Holland. Attacks the woman in charge, who bears a shocking resemblance to …’
‘The Destroyer,’ Ricky guessed.
‘Correct. IT has figured out it came from a shadow Hotmail account. Untraceable. It’s also pretty uncomplimentary about working conditions.’
‘What do we do next?’
‘My instinct tells me that we wait. They’re obviously targeting RoodInfo. Let’s see if the client lets on to any knowledge of this tomorrow. I have IT watching for anything suspicious originating from our laptops or from within our firewall. We can’t go public with this for now. We can only hope it goes away.’
‘OK,’ he said to Jaitendra. ‘Keep me posted, and let’s hope they don’t pop any surprises before the status review. That could be a disaster.’
After this, he had headed home to the remarkable, insatiable Shaalu.
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From issue 35 of Lucire
The Crimson Garter
Lucire has frequently covered ballet and travel, and we’ve reviewed hundreds of books. As a treat to readers, we present our full serialization of The Crimson Garter, book one of the Captain Blackpool trilogy, by travel editor Stanley Moss, writing pseudonymously as Lovejoy
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