It was Monday. The corner office was bellowing on top of its lungs again. Well, at least its inhabitant was. His voice was so loud that the very walls reverberated.
"Mala, the file, just where is that missing file? Quick, I want it now – the new quote we filed. What’s its name? Oh, for M/s Sundown Enterprises," he shouted.
I cringed inside. Tired of being treated like a glorified secretary, I stared at my hands. Surely they could do more than just pound at the desktop keyboard all day or carry files to this monster’s office. Sighing deeply, I stood up and reluctantly moved to Mr. Walia’s cabin in the far corner.
Suresh Walia was the owner of a jam bottling plant in Himachal. On the outskirts of Simla, this small patch of land was home to some of the finest apple jams that were ever made. The freshest fruit always made it to his plant and a ‘secret formula’ which he refused to divulge to others outside resulted in a lip-smacking jam spread that was forever in demand. Only a select loyal set of two plant foremen were privy to the ‘formula’. And they were fiercely loyal though one could hardly understand why.
Having slowly grown in size and profitability, one would think Mr. Walia would be gracious and humble. Far from it, the man was a regular obnoxious hound who abhorred propriety. Everyone from factory workers to his secretarial staff and even his wife just despised him. His foul mannerism and loud grumblings were enough to turn everything he touched, rancid and bitter. And, yet his jam was sweet. I had myself never tasted anything like it. In fact, it was one of the reasons I joined this private limited company. In my wildest dreams, I had imagined that I would be working for someone as sweet as his jams.
Now he stared at the file and shouted, "Not this file! Really, Mala! You need your head examined. Hasn’t your MBA taught you anything? What would I do with just a quote? I need the full details so that I can compare with our previous quote to M/s Moonrise. How would I know?"
On days such as this, I inwardly groaned and wished Mr. Walia would just disappear from the face of the earth! But tough luck, he never did. His rumbling only made me disappear behind a perpetual frown that my Mom hated to see.
Last weekend when I visited her in Chandigarh, she had one look at my sunken eyes and hollow cheeks and remarked, "That boss of yours is driving you crazy again, I see. Surely, you could move back here with us and take a job in this city."
The trees – I would miss the trees. Tall pine trees, it seemed as if each one of them was trying to outstrip the others’ growth to touch the sky. The verdant green valley dotted with a sea of purple pink irises when the season was right, the teeming hordes of tourists escaping from their concrete boxes in Delhi and coming here, the monkeys climbing trees as they played peek-a-boo with the humans, the birds.. The list of all that I would miss was endless. However, none compared to the smells of fresh jam being made from the juicy apples. The machines would break the little red balls of fruit till they became jelly. Sugar and pectin with some mild preservatives were added and then the jam was ready. A slice of heaven spread out for a king’s feast! And the icing on this jam bread slice was the syrupy apple juice by-product flowed from sieves on the other end. Free apple juice for the staff – on the tap. Ever since I reached here I drank the juice like a fish that absorbs through its very skin and gills water each day.
"Yet, you look like you have seen a ghost," my mother remarked as if she had heard my thoughts.
This week when I returned to the plant after a short weekend stay at home, I found my wish granted. Mr. Walia was nowhere to be found. He had gone for a long walk on Friday night, right after dinner, and not returned.
"Not returned?" I questioned his secretary twice. He had lived here for so long. I mean, someone hardly just disappears one fine day, or does he?
"Well good for you. Your wish has just come true. Now at least you will have some rest till the rogue comes back," Mother remarked over the phone when I called her with the news that evening.
I felt terrible. I mean, one says so many things and thinks so many things about people. However, you hardly wish it really happened. Resolving to do my best and perhaps to assuage my guilt, I turned my nose to the grindstone. There were orders to fulfil. The Walia family was too distraught to proffer any resistance and so I quietly just took over. After all jam making is easy as pie, I should be able to do it easily.
The foremen and other plant staff were at their best behaviour and cooperated fully. So while his family searched high and low for Mr. Walia, I held the fort at the plant. I ensured all the apples that reached the site went through their mashing and mixing till the smooth golden jam reached its destination – the apple shaped bottle with its dark orange lid. As I saw a few days later the rows of neatly stacked bottles, I felt proud. The bottle design by Mr. Walia, I had to admit, was a strong differentiator. In this market full of different confectionery and jams, this apple jam really stood out. The bottles were a splendid piece of marketing design. No wonder the consumers really lapped them up as soon as they hit the retail shelves. Using all my knowledge from college, I decided the supply chain could be tightened a bit. In the next few weeks, we sent out more jam than before and the office environment too was really genial. With the grumpy owner gone, and a pleasant person like me overseeing things, how could things not have been in a happier state?
Yet, all was not really hunky-dory. Plenty of people were unhappy to my surprise. His wife had paid some visits to the plant, however, her weepy wailing face had set off a host of ‘Oh, I am so sorry to hear about Mr. Walia’ type of reactions. We wondered when he would be found. Some had of course snidely suggested that three whole weeks had passed and Mr. Walia couldn’t have survived the thick pine growth of the jungle if he had ventured that side. This, of course, had triggered a long wail from Mrs. Walia who hurriedly signed some cheques and then departed amidst a trail of half-hearted sobs by others as they tried to shush the sceptics who voiced such thoughts. All in all, chaos reigned supreme. The loyal foremen too weren’t too happy. They hated me for having taken over the whole plant ‘just like that’. After all, I was just a slip of a girl, and hearing my polite albeit firm voice ring out commands was just not done.
Still, the plant kept functioning and orders were met. Till one day, the complaints began pouring in. They fell one at a time at first like the first drops of forest rain - heavy, but slow. Then they began to come as if the very the heavens themselves had opened up. The taste, did you check the taste? Well, it is bitter. How can it be? Our jam was always the best and tastiest, I thought. But it was. Bitter like the voice of the now-missing Mr. Walia. We were suddenly, for the first time in ten years, facing at cancelled orders. From a time where we refused many orders because we simply could not fulfil them, we were now being told that the retailers were backing out. The juice was still at its best. Then how was the jam so bitter?
"Are you using the right formula?" I questioned the foremen. Shaking their heads with sadness, they affirmed they were.
Desperate, I reached out to Mrs. Walia. She was of no help either.
"I hardly ever interfered with the jam making you know. Mr. Walia was not the kind of man to have stood for his wife talking business. I am sorry, dear. Maybe you should check with the foremen. They were the only ones who knew the secret formula," she mumbled.
Days passed and I was at my wits end. The staff had to be paid and though many declined their salaries when the grieving Mrs. Walia pressed them to accept cheques. I was worried over the state of affairs. Long hours of probing, of checking the vats and the pipes, of looking at the mixers, had led me to no answers. I was clueless on how to fix the sorry situation. Suddenly, I found myself wishing Mr. Walia were there. He would have all the answers, I was sure. But, he was nowhere to be found. The police had launched a state-wide hunt for him and there were people combing the forests hoping to find him.
On Saturday morning, Mother called me and asked me to come home. "You know what we are facing here. I cannot come. The plant is my first priority right now," I said declining her request. For the last three weeks, I had not gone home even once. This irked my mother but then she could not force me. On Sunday, on a whim I visited Simla. At the Church of Holy Mary, I found myself prostrate and begging the good Lord to let Mr. Walia return soon. I just could not handle this anymore. I would rather take his cantankerous nature than deal with such a situation where the whole business was collapsing.
Perhaps God heard me. For on Monday, as suddenly as Mr. Walia had disappeared, he returned. We were all stunned to find him in the corner office screaming on top of his lungs as usual. For once I loved the voice. When he shouted, "Mala, come here quickly. I need you to call Sundown Enterprises and tell Mr. Atul Sharma there that we will deliver the next batch to his company on Friday," I could have hugged him. Instead I said, "Where were you, Mr. Walia? The police, Mrs. Walia, some staff, everyone had been looking for you for the last three weeks."
There was total silence. Then to some of us who had gathered in his cabin, Mr. Walia smiled and said, "Vipassana Camp. I had gone to Dalhousie for a retreat".
Stunned we stared at him. He was smiling. We had never seen him smiling before. Then we emerged from our reverie and wonder-struck state, and I said, "But why did you not let us know before going. Everyone was worried about you."
"I wanted to see how things went in my absence", he replied.
"Oh!" I readied myself for his tirade when he found out the true state of affairs. However, before I could respond, Mr. Walia interjected, "All things considered, I am very happy with all of you. Things have been run quite well in my absence."
Watching our blank faces, he laughed out loud.
"My Vipassana session was so that I learnt to be self-aware and not lose my temper all the time. And, I know about the complaints. The foremen have told me. You, see there was no secret formula ever. The jam is made like it would be in any other plant on earth."
"But, it is not tasty anymore. In fact it is bitter," I responded dejectedly.
"The secret to good jam making or any product is not its lovely bottle or some secret formula. It is only in hard work, good relations with the buyers and honesty. The best taste though lies in making sure that the product is made from your soul," was Mr. Walia’s cryptic reply.
I went back to my seat feeling as if someone had cut me down to size. I understood that all the knowledge I had learnt in books so far was just not enough. I had plenty to learn from the belligerent Mr. Walia. He was right. The 'Soul' of the matter was really the key to success!