He was average.
Since childhood, that is what life had told him again and again. The marks in every grade in school, the way teachers ignored him to flock to the class toppers and the talented kids. The nondescript commerce course in a below average college he got his admission in. The way he was ostracised for his plain-clothes, a Hindi accent and his plain looks. Every object and human in his life told him that he was average.
Even his name was average.
There were over 15 Sanjay Kumar’s in his college, over 15,000 on LinkedIn and over 50,000 on Facebook.
He had checked.
The college course ended after three years, in the same manner his schooling had. He was ignored by teachers and students alike. He spent most of this time commuting and in a haze of classes. He had a few friends that were equally drab and one girl who was a nerd. He did not have fun in college like the other kids as he was a middle-class boy with very less pocket money.
He stood without clothes in the bathroom at his house often staring in the full-length mirror. He turned this way and that, always trying to figure out something that would put him apart from the rest.
Give him a character and perhaps an identity, all his own.
Sadly, what looked back from the mirror was a lean built man. His face was once described by one of the college girls as “plain and immediately forgettable”.
The thick black eyeglasses didn’t help and neither did white shirts worn with plain trousers.
The end of college meant placements for most classmates. But he had average marks and an average personality. He was rejected in all the interviews.
His father asked one of the relatives to help. The relative set him up in a private export company in Gurgaon, and he got a job as a junior finance executive.
The company promoted him to finance executive after three years. Largely because the HR head felt pity for him. You see, he was a hard worker but not much else.
His performance rating was average.
The promotion caused his father to search for a suitable match for him. She was nice, the girl they went to see in Haridwar. Shy like him and did not speak much. He said yes to the arranged marriage with the confidence that his parents would choose the right girl.
She was from an average middle-class family. They married and in a few years had two kids.
They were your typical middle-class family living a normal ordinary existence. It was a little tight in the money department because of his job, but they managed.
You see that’s how average people live.
Two steps above abject poverty.
But they say the only constant in life is change and the weather always changes when you least expect it. So the weather changed one day, and like a hurricane hits a shore, a woman entered his life.
Her name was Tanya and like a hurricane, she slammed into the shore of his life. Tanya was the daughter of the owner of the Export house where he worked. She had just completed her post-graduation from the US and was now back in India to spend time learning the business from her father. She was the inheritor and future owner of the company he worked for.
Tanya was also beautiful, vivacious and intelligent.
The office was aflutter with her coming, and she occupied a swanky office near her father’s to work.
She was also to be assigned a lackey to help her settle in the new role, be her PA and help her with the day to day tasks. For this role, the HR head wanted someone who would neither speak too much nor express any opinions. Someone who just did what was he was told to do.
He chose Sanjay for this role.
“May I come in, ma’am?” he asked as he knocked on Tanya’s cabin door.
“Enter,” she said.
He took a step inside and stopped as she raised her eyes from the laptop to look at him.
Her scrutiny started with curiosity, continued with polite disinterest and ended with an invisible mental dismissal.
The flash of irritation he felt at the dismissal overwhelmed him for a moment. The anger was irrational but perhaps had been building from birth, and like a tidal wave, exploded.
“Would you prefer the HR to assign someone else, Ma’am?” he asked with an insolence that startled her.
She looked at him again.
“No” Tanya said, “you will do just fine.”
He scared himself sometimes. His averageness hid an alter ego that got out of the leash sometimes. He mentally shook himself, tightened the leash and got to work. But leashes are terrible things, and they become loose over years of use.
He stood naked on the bathroom staring at himself that night and felt a thrill go through him. There was a difference. He felt it, but the reflection in the mirror was the same.
“You lie,” he pointed to the mirror.
The mirror did not reply.
He started to work with Tanya, and felt for the first time, the thrill of going to the office every day rather than the drudgery it always seemed. It was as if she was the sun and he could orbit around her for infinity, basking in the heat and strengthened by her gravitational pull.
She was vivacious, focused and ambitious. He was hardworking. They made a good team.
Work was mostly tedious and as days passed, they got more comfortable with the other’s personality and working style.
Then Tanya started to push the boundaries of their working relationship.
“Could you please get me a cup of coffee from Starbucks?” she said one morning to him, “I hate the coffee in the office.”
Starbucks was five kilometres away in a mall. He went and got her the coffee.
“Dry-cleaning,” she said a few days later, “Can you please pick mine up? I need to review the file for the board meeting.”
Perhaps it was the fact that he never said no, but the demands in the guise of requests continued to increase from Tanya. He was slowly turning into her personal butler, he sometimes felt, riding his bike in the rain to fetch her favourite ice cream. Though truthfully, in his heart he was fine with this. He was enamoured and would do anything to please her and stay in an orbit around her.
Then one day, she asked him to come home in the evening. She was throwing a party and needed help. He told his family he was working late and went to help organise the food with the other knick-knacks she needed to be done for the party.
She asked him to wait and help clean up after the party was over, so he waited in the kitchen.
It was a motley assortment of fifteen to twenty people she had invited. The usual socialites and intellectuals who drink too much and then talk too much.
He sat in the kitchen and dozed.
Then, the sound of the glass breaking got him out of his reverie. Loud voices arguing came from the living room and he found himself entering the living room just on instinct.
Tanya stood in front of a man crying. He was drunk, this friend of hers and abusing her in choicest Hindi phrases. It was clear that she had already slapped him, and the tears suggested, she did not know what to do next.
Politely walking up the man, he took the drunk by the arm and started to escort him out of the room. Tanya was taken aback but also wanted the drunk to leave.
The drunk tried to object at first, but Sanjay firmly led the drunk out of the door. Once of the house with the drunk still objecting half-heartedly, Sanjay caught the drunk by the throat and held him tight.
“Go,” Sanjay said, staring the drunk in his eyes. The drunk saw the eyes and stopped.
Then he went.
The party broke up quickly after that, and the guests went home. He tidied up after the party while Tanya sat on the living room sofa with her hands on her head.
“I should go now,” he said, after completing up the tiding. They were alone in the house now servants having left as well.
She looked up and he realised that she had been crying silently.
“Please don’t cry,” he said, “he was just a drunk.”
She smiled through the tears, “Yes, just a drunk.”
She wiped her tears and stood up. Sometimes when she stared at him he became uncomfortable. No one usually looked at him twice.
“You are just a very simple man, aren’t you?” she asked.
There was no answer for that question so he kept quiet.
She took his hand and led him to her bedroom. He followed dazed that she was touching him. She turned to him in her bedroom, came close and kissed him on his lips. The demand, this time, was clear and her eyes expressed it far better than her kiss did.
He had agreed to her all the asks.
He wasn’t about to start saying no now.
They made love much like their official relationship where she was in charge, and he followed her orders.
Without waking her, early morning, he went home.
He stood in the bathroom without his clothes this time and knew that this time, the reflection would look different. He felt different.
He was no longer the average Joe or the average anything. The reflection in the mirror, though, was still the same.
“You still lie,” he pointed to the mirror.
The mirror still did not reply.
Is our averageness in our psyche? Are all men and women not different, each special in their own way? Is it their marks or scores that make them average? Their looks? Or it is their experiences? Is it not our own self-worth that defines us? How we see ourselves through our own eyes? Does that not define whether we are average or special? What is special?
His self-worth told him now that he was no longer average.
Then he went to office the next day and learned how wrong he was.
The HR head cornered him the moment Sanjay entered and ushered him into a conference room. Then the HR head questioned him at length on what happened last evening.
He replied honestly about everything except sleeping with her. That was his special night, and he did not want to share that with anyone. The HR head went up to report to the owner after asking Sanjay to wait.
After two hours, the HR head returned and sat down in front of him. The pity in the eyes of the HR head made him wary.
“The drunk man yesterday was the fiancé of Tanya” said the HR head, “and he has filed a complaint against you for your behaviour. We have decided to fire you from the job immediately.”
“But, speak to Tanya on this,” he said still unworried, “she was there. I did not behave inappropriately, sir. He was drunk and creating a scene.”
“The only reason we are not calling the police to file a complaint against you” said the HR head “is because Tanya interceded on your behalf. We are only firing you for this job”
“Does Tanya know this?” he asked, “Is she aware?”
“She approved this” said the HR head.
The three words hit him with a force of car accident on a highway. He could not reconcile what he heard now to the woman he had slept with last night.
“But I…, “ he started and realised that they would not believe him if he said she had slept with him. You see, he knew that he was just a junior employee, and she was the owner’s daughter. It was her word against his. He would also sound insinuating and making fake allegations because he was being fired.
So he went home dejected and bitter at the world.
She had made a fool of him yesterday. Made him believe that he was perhaps more.
But he wasn’t.
He was just an average guy.
Have you seen those stones near waterfalls sometimes, where droplets of water in a stream keeps falling on a rock and starts to eat away at the rock? Creates craters in them? Have you see the banks of fast moving rivers where the water eats away at the corners till they look eroded and barren? Ugly and breath-taking at the same time?
His averageness had forced him down again and again, to the point where resentment had built now to a crescendo. Ugly and breath-taking at the same time.
He was angry for every sleigh, every taunt and every snub through his entire life. The river of emotions that flowed through him through his entire life surged with rage and flowed towards the target of his anger.
The person who has snubbed his averageness in his face.
The rage was demanding an outlet. A need to scream at the world that he was not average but someone special.
He decided to take revenge. He would kill her.
Simple men are the most methodical. They think on simple clean lines and do not complicate plans too much. He bought a knife anonymously and a ski mask.
He knew she was attending a party today. He had planned her calendar every day. He walked towards the restaurant and waited in the shadows. It would be a robbery gone wrong of course, but he would somehow make sure she knew that it was him. That he did it, and she would see how she had wronged him in the end.
She arrived at the restaurant with the drunk, her fiancé.
Sanjay kept looking at her through the glass window of the restaurant as Tanya and her fiancé spoke to each other and perhaps made up for the altercation between them.
Tanya and her fiancé walked out of the restaurant, and he tensed. The walk to the car park from the restaurant was lonely and deserted. He planned to intercept them before the car park.
He put the ski mask on.
The phone that shrilled in his pocket startled him, and he put his hand in the pocket to reject the call. The screen came into his view as he looked at it to rejected the call. The screen had a picture of his wife and children smiling under the contact name “My life.”
His life was calling. It buzzed like a hornet in his hands.
He was breathing heavy through the ski mask as he looked at the picture of his family on the screen.
A tear slipped out of his eyes.
Tanya and her fiancé reached their car and drove away.
He could not kill her.
He realised, for the first time in his life, that he would always be average. God had made him just like this. Not someone special, not a superstar and with no real talent but just to be himself.
He threw the ski mask and the knife into the garbage and walked home. He would find another job in a few days which would probably pay a little less, but it was fine.
They would stretch some more, he and his life. He would never look at himself in the mirror of his bathroom completely naked again.
Mirrors don’t lie. He knew that now.
They would survive and live.
You see that’s what middle-class people do.
He was average.