Jahanpanah's Entertainment13 mins 423 13 mins 423
A six feet, something frame on the prowl was a familiar sight on the work bays of Adroit Services. That quintessential smirk beneath the thick glasses and balding pate was a blood-boiling phenomenon that most tenured Adroit-ites had become immune to. Their boss’s uncanny ability to look through them, without a semblance of acknowledgment, would put even the most self-respecting individual feel like a piece of shit.
Ajay Verma’s rounds were interspersed between his almost eternal international ‘business’ trips. It was during these times that Jahanpanah or ‘The Refuge to the World’, as he was popularly called behind his back, made the most of the rare opportunity to make his presence felt amongst the lesser mortals – the employees of Adroit Services. Of course, he did not look through every one. His swaggers were punctuated with high-decibel bellows and Ravan-istic laughter at select locations on the work bay. Most of these pit-stops would be in and around the cubes and workstations of some of the prettiest women at Adroit. He had a way with women – women of all shapes, sizes, and ages.
“So, how’re you, Varsha?” asked the Jahanpanah. Varsha was one of the usual suspects, an impeccably maintained designer approaching her forties.
Varsha was in the midst of reviewing a design for submission later that day. She grinned with her wide eyes, half raised.
“What are you working on?”
The gargantuan lipid mass leaned on to the low-height separation of Varsha’s cube that made a creepy, creaking sound. Varsha realized that her worst fears were soon about to convert to reality.
“Well, a few things,” said Varsha. “Today I’m focusing on submitting design options for the Kempstar project.”
“Oh, can you show me what you have?” the Jahanpanah asked, scratching whatever little was left of his grey hair.
“I’m not yet done,” she said. “In fact, I’ve just started conceptualizing. Besides, today’s a bad day!”
The Jahanpanah did not seem to get the message. He came right into Varsha’s cube, occupying half the space in there, and sunk into one of the chairs. His pot-belly was placed on the table in front of him. Its bulges popped through his ruffled, un-tucked, half-sleeved shirt. The buttons of the shirt were stressed to the limit; they threatened to tear off.
“How’s everything at home? Is your husband traveling?”
“Yes, he has gone to Dubai last week.”
Varsha realized that she had ignored the first question. It was inadvertent. But that did not matter. She knew that the Jahanpanah was interested only in response to the second one.
The next fifteen minutes were laden with monologue – small talk on topics that ranged from family to philosophy; from politics to poetry. It included the customary placeholders – his insipid millionaire, entrepreneur wife who was recently voted one of the most powerful women in India by a business magazine, his Ivy League-educated children, and the latest book of non-fiction or poetry that he had read.
Even his most severe detractors would not disagree that he was a well-read person with a vast range of knowledge. He could hold an interesting conversation for hours. It was hardly surprising that he remained at the helm of a profitable organization for more than two decades. He had it his way – small, zero-growth, but profitable.
“I like it that way,” he had once told one of the members of his clique, Pandurang Satpute. “If Adroit grows, then it is counter-productive for me.”
The Jahanpanah looked down at Pandu. He gave out one of his cold stares, which soon took the form of a sarcastic smirk. He continued his strut, his form covering almost the entire width of the aisle. Pandu kicked himself for asking and cowered behind.
“Pandu, it’s simple,” said the Jahanpanah. He walked towards the exit. “If we grow, I’ll not be able to run this, the way I want. It’ll need a lot of de-centralization. I’m not comfortable letting go of stuff.”
Pandu nodded in agreement. He just thanked his stars that the conversation did not take one of those ugly, insulting turns.
The top management meetings at Adroit were a series of egotistic harangues. Any opinion, other than the Jahanpanah’s would be quashed. He, however, had the unique charisma that converted the sharpest and most driven professionals into the bunch of half-asleep, head-nodding yes men, who surrounded him.
“How about some wine this evening?” the Jahanpanah’s baritone cut through Varsha’s trance – his world of international trips, family, art, and poetry – to which she was half-listening; the other half trying as best as it could to focus on her design submission to be done that day.
Varsha’s reply was curt and spontaneous. Years of experience at Adroit had imparted in her the wisdom to pre-empt what was coming. The Jahanpanah’s shifty eyes, which normally, rolled all over, suddenly met Varsha’s for a good two seconds. Varsha dropped her eyelids as if looking into her laptop screen. She realized that her response bordered on the rude. She had to make up for it.
“Not today,” she said. “There’s a lot going on, including the Kempstar delivery. I’m sure, I’ll be very late.”
The Jahanpanah got up from the chair.
“Any new joinees?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Varsha. She pouted. Her eyes twinkled.
She was part of the sophisticated machinery, with all its systems and processes, which continually fed the Jahanpanah with information on when a new and ‘interesting’ woman joined Adroit. And she knew that. The parameters of the ‘interest’ quotient were well known to this machinery. It seldom disappointed.
“There’s Pakhi Saxena, a new member of the proposal cell,” said Varsha. She waved her hand towards the West wing, where the members of the proposal cell were stationed. “She’s joined last week. I think she’s just out of college.”
Varsha stood up as she spoke, adjusting the collar of her navy blue top. It looked like a subconscious action. She wanted this meeting to get over soon, and her body was giving out involuntary signals to this effect. The Jahanpanah plodded out of her cube. His smirk converted into a sly smile. He continued to move around the office for his subsequent catch.
A fortnight passed.
“I’m just fed up,” said Pakhi, sipping her coffee. “He just doesn’t seem to understand.”
“That’s cool, babe!” said Grishma, grinning ear to ear. “A proposal, right from the top? Not bad at all.”
“Now, stop it, Grizz! This is not funny.”
A tinge of pink covered Pakhi’s flawless complexion. She sipped at her drink, adjusted that stubborn lock that kept falling across her face. She looked ravishing. Grishma was not surprised that Pakhi was the Jahanpanah’s next pick. It did not, at all matter that Pakhi was, perhaps, his daughter’s age.
It was 3 PM at Cafe Coffee Day next to Adroit. Pakhi had asked Grishma out for coffee to seek advice. Grishma, an Adroit veteran, was her closest workplace confidante, in the three and a half months that she had spent at Adroit.
“First he asks me out for dinner and wine,” said Pakhi. She continued to vent. “When I politely refuse, he reduces his demand to lunch and some wine. I don’t know what’s his obsession with this ‘wine’. He thinks it makes him look classy? Old hulk!”
Grishma burst out laughing and sipped at her drink – a kind of sweet and spicy mango mocktail.
“I think this isn’t helping,” said Pakhi. “Let’s finish it off and get back to work.”
“Oh...sorry, sorry, sorry!” said Grishma. She suppressed her laughter, seeing that Pakhi was not amused.
“Old hulk,” she said. “It was very funny, the way you said it.” She attempted to explain her undiplomatic laughter. She was happy to see Pakhi’s face light up with a smile.
“Did you refuse lunch as well?”
“Yes, I gave him that usual busy day...submission crap that you had told me.”
“And now, he’s following up on Whatsapp for a suitable day that I can join him for lunch. Such a sicko...”
“Gal, there’s no way out,” said Grishma. She looked into Pakhi’s eyes. “He’ll keep following up. Go with him, once, for lunch; and get it done and dusted.”
Pakhi looked down on to the table. She was silent.
“It’s okay, babe,” said Grishma. She switched gears and winked, laughing yet again. “Don’t worry. He’s too old. He’ll not be able to do anything untoward.”
Pakhi joined in the laughter. After another fifteen minutes of gossip, they left the place. It was a fruitful outing. Pakhi came out calmer and wiser. She knew what to do next.
In a couple of days, Pakhi was awaiting the call for the most un-anticipated date of her life – with a man more than double her age. The wait was dreadful. At the stroke of noon, her desk phone rang. She checked the display. It was from the reception.
Pakhi knocked and pushed open the door. The office was out of the world. It was sprawling – probably about ten percent of the total office space of the company. It was hard to imagine such a huge space until one went in. With its shiny marble flooring, chic modern furniture, and artistic illumination, it was a far cry from the cramped, blue, bland, un-ergonomic interiors that featured in the rest of Adroit. The room, with all its elements and lighting, resembled a suite in a seven-star hotel. The external glass walls, with the louvers rolled up, overlooked the green, pink and orange shades of the beautiful garden of the Doric Business Centre. The tenth-floor perch also offered the pristine view of the hills far away, those adjoining Aarey Forest and the Sanjay Gandhi National Park.
Pakhi was enthralled. She took a moment to look around and admire the setting. Before long, her eyes fell on the Jahanpanah in the far corner, leaning on his chair with a book in his hand. His legs were stretched and crossed. He continued to read the book with his chin up and side towards the entrance, oblivious to Pakhi’s presence in the room.
“Excuse me, Ajay...,” said Pakhi.
The Jahanpanah turned his head and looked towards Pakhi, the book still in his hand.
“Come in,” he said.
He bookmarked the page that he was reading and stood up to keep the book back on to his neatly arranged bookshelf. It had an impressive collection across diverse areas – science, computers, philosophy, history, poetry, and fiction. And then there were some other obscure ones, which Pakhi struggled to categorize, while she walked through the room and stood next to the chairs across the Jahanpanah’s workstation.
“Sit,” said the Jahanpanah, as he came back and sank into his chair.
“Thank you for accepting my invite,” he said. “As I told you, I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about your work.”
“These are the ways in which I get to know my employees better.”
“Oh yeah,” she thought. “And it’s just Providence that all the previous beneficiaries of this unique perk have been women.”
“I’ll leave at 12:30,” he said. “Let’s meet up at the ITC Maratha at one.”
Pakhi nodded. She was confused but relieved. She had expected that they would leave together. Although it was a hassle to take a rickshaw or a cab to reach the hotel, she did not mind it. But, then came the explanation...
“It’s always better to leave separately,” he continued. “It’ll ensure that no one sees us together. Also, don’t talk to anyone about this. It’ll set a lot of tongues wagging, and it’ll not be good for you.”
‘Wow! So much does he care for me!’ she thought. ‘And, hey, this entire operation is supposed to be clandestine! Hush, hush!’
It could not have been a more unnerving prelude to the episode, for Pakhi.
“Okay, see you there,” she said, and she walked out of the corner office.
Dressed in an off-white formal shirt and dark trousers, she was a personification of elegance. Her light, loose hair was tied to a ponytail. Her deep, dark, eyes and slender, feminine features turned a lot of heads as she took her purse from her workstation and moved towards the exit. She took a rickshaw and reached a couple of minutes early. She waited at the hotel lobby, for the host to turn up. After some time, she went to the washroom, came back to the lobby and continued to wait.
At exactly 1:15, she saw, at a distance in the lobby, the all too familiar form slowly walk towards her. As it came nearer, she noticed the routine balloon pants and crumpled shirt, with which she had become so accustomed during the past two weeks. She got up and walked towards him.
“Hope I didn’t keep you waiting,” he said.
‘Of course, you didn’t,’ she thought. ‘I was mighty engaged for all these fifteen minutes.’
She followed the Jahanpanah to Peshawri, a North-Indian and Mughlai restaurant in the hotel. A lady escorted the two of them to a very large corner table. Pakhi felt weird. She went through the motions and wanted it all to end as fast as it could. Soon, they were settled and browsing through the menu booklet.
“What’ll you have?” asked the Jahanpanah.
Pakhi continued to look into the booklet for a few more seconds. There were a lot of choices – copious and confusing.
“May we opt for the buffet?” asked Pakhi. She took her eyes off the booklet, held on to a half-turned page.
“Hey, I was just about to ask! Cool, let’s go ahead.”
Pakhi smiled. She felt that she had saved at least fifteen minutes with the masterstroke she had just delivered. They went around and took their pick from the spread.
“Care for some wine?”
Pakhi chuckled. She was waiting for this to come and wondered why it took so long.
“No, Ajay. I’m good.”
“I’m ordering one anyway,” he said. “You don’t need to feel that it’s office hours and against the policy, or anything like that – now that you are with me!”
Pakhi did not expect any better from the Jahanpanah.
“No, I’m good,” she re-iterated. Her face stretched into a feigned grin and shrunk with an unconscious grimace.
The Jahanpanah went ahead and ordered his wine. He, then, subjected his subject to his customary grandiloquent anecdotes. It was a crescendo of irritation for Pakhi. She could not imagine herself being long term at Adroit and being subject to yet another torture such as this one. For now, her only solace was that it would all get over soon; well, hopefully so, at least for the time being.
It, indeed, got over. It had to. After the last morsel of gulab jamun was quickly scooped into the Jahanpanah’s mouth, he signaled for the bill. It came in a couple of minutes, enough time for some more pompous deliberations – some parting ones. He studied the bill for some twenty seconds and gave his card; forever maintaining his trademark, wry smirk as he did so.
The waiter came back after a minute with the bill, the card and the swipe machine.
“Sir, the card’s not working.”
“What do you mean?”
The waiter lowered his eyes and did not say anything. Yes, he meant exactly what he said – the Jahanpanah’s card was not working. It could not have been worded in a more succinct manner.
Pakhi was composed.
The Jahanpanah took another card. The grizzly tufts of hair on his ears protruded more than they usually did. There were a couple of beads of sweat on his forehead, that threatened to roll down his face.
“This, too, does not work, sir,” said the waiter. He showed the message, which said:
Card not accepted.
“There’s some problem with the machine,” the Jahanpanah howled.
“No worries, Ajay,” said Pakhi. “Let’s try my card.”
“No, no; how can I let you pay? There’s some problem with the machine.”
Pakhi handed over her card to the waiter. It worked.
“Thank you, madam,” said the waiter. Pakhi punched in a good tip amount. She smiled, gracious.
Our Jahanpanah’s face was small. There was a momentary hiatus to his non-stop chatter.
“I think I kept my main card in my other purse,” he said. “I left it in the office.”
Deep inside, Pakhi was laughing out loud. A manifestation of that showed up externally.
“That’s fine, Ajay,” she said. “This happens sometimes. But, thanks for lunch. I had a good time.”
The Jahanpanah could not make out if she was being sarcastic. They got up and headed towards the hotel exit.
“You can claim this expense, okay?”
‘Wow,’ thought Pakhi. ‘Thanks for the permission.’ She had hoped to see some change in him after this episode, at least for some time. But, she could see that he was already into his normal self, as he walked towards his car.
But what came next was the killer.
“You can claim it under my ‘Entertainment Expense’,” he said. He stepped into his car and closed the door on her.
Some things never change.