The Birthday Gifts
The Birthday Gifts11 mins 254 11 mins 254
Yash reached home from work at 2 am. A little after midnight, Preetha had sent him two disparate WhatsApp messages, one after the other. He lay on the bed and read them once more.
“Happy thirtieth birthday!”
“We should move on.”
Yash typed in some unsure words in response. He deleted them and typed in a few more. His wavering thumb deleted them again. He scrolled through the message history. The bitterness had built up over the past seven months when Preetha had left for the US on an assignment. It peaked six weeks back when Yash learned through the office grapevine that Preetha was going steady with their US-based engagement-director.
He scrolled down and read the messages one last time. Furious and morose, he deleted their messaging history with a decisive poke. He hoped that Preetha would be eliminated from his systems - forever. Before long, he drifted into that familiar, antsy cusp of sleep and wakefulness.
The shrill beep of the 7 am alarm jolted him back into his senses. He sighed, yawned and rubbed his red, burning, bleary eyes that yearned for another ounce of sleep. He closed his eyes for a few remnants of darkness and resultant peace. After two minutes, he took a deep breath and gathered all his energy to pull himself out of bed. He had a meeting with Pasha, the COO, in an hour.
“Yash,” said Pasha. “This is not working out.”
Pasha’s shiny pate and pudgy face sank into his loose, bulging torso. The bulges threatened to tear apart the buttons of his otherwise elegant, striped shirt. A part of his stomach protruded on to his dark worktable and stopped just short of his laptop.
“You’ve put the entire system to a grinding halt. It’s been three months. We can’t afford to take any more damage to the project.”
Pasha got up from his chair and wobbled towards the coffee machine at the corner of his office. He peered through the translucent glass partition into the empty bays. It would take another hour for the Zigma Solutions workforce to trickle in, and yet another, for the full strength.
Yash shook his head, hung low. “No, I’m good.” He lowered his eyes beneath a pair of thick glasses.
Pasha’s stated intent for these meetings was to take daily stock of the HSE, Inc. project and contribute to bringing it back on track. What he ended up doing instead, was to reinforce that Yash had messed it up to a point of no return. That day, too, the conversation started on that customary note. The coffee was an aberration. Yash bit his lip and wondered why.
Pasha dropped into his chair. He leaned back and sipped at the coffee.
“Look, Yash,” he said. “It’s become very difficult to shield you. I’ve run out of reasons.”
The strong aroma of the brew filled the expanse of his office. With its shiny marble flooring, chic modern furniture and artistic illumination, it contrasted the cramped, blue, bland, in-ergonomic interiors that featured in the rest of Zigma. The external glass walls with the louvres 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.
“Yash,” said Pasha, taking a deep breath followed by another sip of the coffee. “Unfortunately, we’ll have to let you go.”
Pasha’s last few words were soft and warbled. Yash’s heart stopped for a moment.
“What?” Yash hoped that he heard it wrong.
“Today’s your last working day with Zigma,” said Pasha. “HR will contact you for the relieving formalities.” The message could not have been more unequivocal.
Yash was offered an enviable Day-zero campus placement at the IT major, from one of India’s top B-Schools. He joined as a Delivery Manager. What followed was a mediocre six-years, peppered with failures and warnings. A concoction of office politics and his own, inexplicable fears suppressed his growth at Zigma. His fears ranged from being judged if he spoke something wrong, to whether he would hurt a colleague if he pulled him up, to whether he would lose his job. They dented his confidence and performance. Opportunities went to his more ordinary, but articulate peers. He became a socially awkward recluse. He dug deep into his shell, replete with a clutter of anxiety and self-doubt.
Three months back, when the complex, high visibility, HSL, Inc. project was entrusted with him, he was surprised. Later he found that the first choice, Venu Nagavalli, as always, had his way. Venu had expressed his reservations on taking up this risky engagement. He got away with it. Consequently, the project fell on Yash’s lap. Although apprehensive, he sensed an opportunity and hoped to resurrect his dipping career. Three months on, despite his best efforts, the project was on a downward spiral, beyond his control. It added another one to his unending list of failures at Zigma. This would be his last one.
“I didn’t get the resource support I’d sought,” said Yash, staring into the abyss. “I was set up for failure. It’s a big gang at work, Prakash.”
Prakash was one of the very few colleagues, who he was close to. They sat in a tea stall in the office complex. HR had completed Yash’s exit formalities with alacrity. By noon, he had stepped out of Zigma, one last time.
“Preetha’s overnight messages couldn’t have been a coincidence,” he continued. “Everyone knew about this.” He shook his head and took a sip of tea, followed by a puff of a cigarette. “Not sure what I’ll do now – EMIs, insurance premiums...”
“Stay strong, buddy,” said Prakash. “Something will work out for you.”
Yash sniggered, twisting up the corner of his dark lips, blowing out another cloud of smoke. “Thanks, Prakash,” he said. His large dilated eyes were moist. “But I hardly get interview calls. And when I do, I stutter to articulate even the things that I know about.”
Prakash patted him on his back. “Yash,” he said. “It’s your fears – of losing your job and of failing in your relationship – that have been holding you back.”
Yash took off his glasses and rubbed his sunken eyes. “Today,” said Prakash, “both your fears have come true. You’ve nothing to lose.”
Yash nodded, half-listening to Prakash. “Take a break, pick up the shreds and start afresh. I’ve seen you in action. You’re a lot more than what a Zigma or a Preetha perceives you as.”
A mishmash of thoughts and emotions – laden with anxiety, hopelessness and survival – occupied the most part of Yash’s muddled brain. The surrounding decibel levels increased with employees taking their post-lunch smoke- and walk-breaks. Their conversations were familiar – about that piece of code that refused to work despite being perfect, or a pushy client, or an unreasonable boss who did not understand the reality on the ground, or that politicking colleague who continues to get more breaks than he deserves, or…
Yash closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He sensed those furtive glances laden with sympathy and gossip – neither of which he wished to be a subject of. He sucked in the last puff of the cigarette. The smoke that he blew out, formed inadvertent rings as it mingled into the air. He threw down the brown stub with a rather long, thin cylinder of ash stuck to it.
Their tea glasses were empty. They got up from the wobbly, worn, wooden bench and hugged each other before going their ways.
In retrospect, Zigma was inauspicious for Yash. On his third day, he lost his parents in a horrific plane crash. Since then, he sank into his job…and after a few months, into Preetha. Through the six years, he tried his best – to keep his job and his girl. Both backfired.
“Today, I’ve lost the two things into which I gave my all,” he thought. “I’m a born loser – designed for failure.”
The harsh, afternoon sun showed no respite. Yash ambled along the walkway, aimless, towards the auto-stand outside the main gate. A consistent, dull headache added to his much greater miseries. He stopped, closed his eyes and ground his teeth for some solace. Beads of sweat rolled down his forehead and his cheeks. “There’s nothing left in this life to look forward to.”
A screechy, bumpy auto took him on his way home. He stared over the shoulders of the driver. The auto wobbled through the potholes and the traffic on the dusty, grey Mumbai roads. He sat agape, wide-eyed and without a blink. His puffy eyes had a ring of red. They sought some answers to the scrambled shambles scattered all over his disordered brain – some answers, some direction, some next steps.
He rummaged in his pocket for the last cigarette in his stock and lit it. He took his first puff. He closed his eyes and blew out the smoke.
“Sir,” said the elderly driver. He looked at Yash through the rear-view mirror of his vehicle. “Please don’t smoke inside the auto. I’ve asthma.”
Yash stared back at him into the mirror. “The man consumes the tons of pollution that the Mumbai roads offered all day,” he thought. “Why does he object to me having a smoke?” He opened his mouth to protest – but stopped short. Too exhausted to have an argument, he shook his head and sighed. He, then, dropped the half-burned cigarette onto the floor of the auto and stubbed it out with his shoes.
The journey back home did not seem to end. Much like his life, it was sluggish, insipid and enervating. And much like his life, he wanted the journey to get over soon. Very soon.
His eyes fell on a bundle of paper. It stuck out of his bag into which he had stuffed his office belongings. He took out the bundle and unfolded it. There were caricatures of colleagues that he had drawn at an office event a few years back. He looked at them and smiled. He had won the event – perhaps the only achievement during his stint with Zigma.
Since his childhood, he was good at drawing. As he grew older, he dreamed of making a living out of creating comic books. In college, and later at the B-school, he was quite a pro, contributing to college journals and souvenirs with his art. The culmination was a parting gift to his classmates and professors at B-school – a fifty-page comic strip with a riveting storyline that covered his experiences with each of them.
After a few feeble attempts at a career as a professional cartoonist and some rejections by magazines and publishers, he decided to opt for the more predictable, comfortable, corporate life. His comic book dream became a closed chapter.
He wondered how life had changed in six years. His B-school batch-mates were in the thick of their careers, many of them, making great waves along the way. And he – had lost his job that he was desperately clinging on to. And going by the past, would not get one. “I’ll be homeless and starve to death before long. I’ll need to end it all before it gets to that.”
He googled on his phone for methods to commit suicide. He used superlatives – easiest, fastest, most certain, most painless and a few more. After ninety minutes of woe, he reached his destination. The headache continued to bother him, even as he crossed the road, towards his apartment complex. By then, he was clear that he would end his life. His ingenious mind simulated ways in which he would perform the act. Which one would be the easiest? The fastest? The most certain? The most painless?
Suddenly, he heard an eerie screech followed by a deafening honk. He turned to his left to see a car zooming towards him. He froze for a second, which was enough time for the car to hit him. He felt a few seconds of excruciating pain on his head and stomach, followed by a notion of being thrown into the air. His vision blurred. Then, there was numbing darkness.
“Happy birthday!” said Jaya. She gave Yash a cup of coffee. Yash smiled. Jaya sat next to him on a cane chair. She took a sip from her cup while scrubbing whatever remained of his salt and pepper hair. “Congratulations on turning fifty!”
“Thank you…,” he whispered, kissing her hand.
The balcony of his bungalow overlooked the sprawling, verdant hills of Panchgani in the horizon and the misty valleys below. Yash had moved into this magnificent abode earlier that year after he sold off his flourishing animation company, Toon-antics, to one of the world’s largest media companies. He put to rest, speculations by industry experts, of creating another start-up. He was clear about what he wanted to do – enjoy an early retirement.
“I didn’t feel like waking you up at midnight. You were in deep sleep.”
Yash sipped his coffee and closed his eyes. He breathed in the strong, fresh aroma of the brew blended with the misty morning air. Legs raised over the balcony rails, he scratched his grisly beard and chuckled. “Age is catching up.”
Jaya patted him on his head and giggled. “It doesn’t feel like that with everything else…!” He grinned.
“What’s this?” Jaya pointed to a file that lay on the coffee table. Yash stretched and pulled out two old documents from the file. Jaya peered into them – the exit letter from Zigma and the admission form for the hospital where he was treated after the accident.
“Two decades ago,” he said, “these precious birthday gifts kicked me out of a life that I’d wanted to end; and pushed me into a life that I’d always wanted to live…”
He rested his head on Jaya’s shoulder.
“I’d received another gift that day,” Yash continued. “I’d destroyed that in a huff. I shouldn’t have... Wasn’t that the most precious of them all?” Jaya nodded and laughed.
After all, this renowned children’s author was – his friend who inspired him to live life in the present, his wife for eighteen years…and also – the lady behind the steering of that fateful car.