Promotion by Anoop Anthony

Promotion by Anoop Anthony

Manu Raj sat slumped in his cramped cubicle watching the CEO’s cabin at the far end of the office floor. Through its glass walls, Manu saw the CEO, Mr. Dixit, a tall and stately man in a black suit, sitting upright behind his desk and grinning at the man across him. His visitor, Jayant Sahu, a young man who had joined the company only eight months ago, was leaning back in his chair in a relaxed posture and talked animatedly.

Slick bastard, Manu thought. Manu watched as Jayant said something, then raised his arms  and flailed them about, to which Mr. Dixit threw his head back and laughed. 

Manu joined ABV Supplies Distribution  eight years ago. He started out as a lowly Junior Accounts executive, his sole job to make calls to retailers across the city and sell printer supplies. His targets had been ridiculous and unattainable, and the work was pure drudgery (call, update records, call, update records, ad nauseam). But he threw himself into it. The job had come at a desperate time; his earlier job, as a salesman for kitchen appliances, had vanished when that company went bust. The economy had been bad, jobs impossible to find, especially for a guy who had only two years of salesmanship experience. He scrambled desperately for work for six months, and those six months had been hell. His education loan payments began to pile up, bills mounted — the fees for his son Ritvik’s school, groceries, rent, amenities. On top of everything, they’d had another child on the way, and he knew that the monthly expenses would increase explosively.

When he got the job at ABV, he had been deeply grateful, and he’d sworn to himself that he would make the best of the opportunity. He’d understood early on that to sell printer supplies, you had to learn the technical stuff. If you wanted to talk to retailers and not sound like an idiot, you had to know the parts and the compatibility charts. You had to be an expert to gain trust. When they trusted you, the sale came easy. So he spent nights poring over manuals and maintenance tomes. He was respectful to his managers (even the obnoxious ones). By the time he was six months into the job, he had begun hitting his monthly targets, often surpassing them. He worked long hours and rarely wasted time. It wasn’t long before he began to get noticed.

And so he’d begun rising in the ranks, a slow, steady climb that took its toll — over the years, he gained weight (most of it around his waist) and developed back problems from all the hours sitting at his desk. He rarely had time for exercise, and during busy seasons, he skipped meals or ate at odd hours. He developed IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) — his stomach was always acting up, growing gassy, or running at the slightest provocation. His amorphous shape revulsed him when he spotted himself in a mirror. He acquired a gleaming bald spot that he was conscious of when someone stood behind him.

But perhaps the most regretful casualty was his relationship with his children. On weekdays, he rarely saw Ritvik, who was ten now, and Baby Darshana, who was four. By the time he got home, they were already in bed, sound asleep. Priya chided him often about his ‘workaholism,’ but he told her that there were no shortcuts. One had to work hard and consistently if one wanted to grow in one’s organization.

Within two years after joining ABV, he was promoted to Accounts exec. In four years, he made Senior Accounts exec. In his sixth year, he was made Junior Manager and given a slightly larger cubicle. That promotion (his current position) had brought with it much needed financial respite. These days, after paying off the loan installments, he had a little money left over for savings and even a bit of luxury. For the first time ever, he was able to take Priya and Rithvik and Baby Darshana to a decent restaurant on the weekends (not super fine dining, mind you, but an upper-middle-class at least). He was even considering getting rid of his beat-up old Maruti and buying a larger sedan, maybe even one from a foreign brand.

They were still living in a tiny two-bedroom rented apartment in one of the more dilapidated parts of the city, but for the first time in his working life, the unrelenting pressure of his debt-loan cycle was easing up, and a kind of hope had appeared on the horizon.

Yet despite this, there were still months when unexpected expenses reared up (like the increase in school fees last October) and he was stretched again, his credit card balance beginning to grow and eat malignantly into his savings. At such times, he had no choice but to tighten his belt and try desperately to stay ahead of the banks. All it would take was one slip — a month or two with spikes in expenses — for everything to spiral out of control.

There were nights he couldn’t sleep; he would lie awake in bed beside his oblivious wife and agonize over how close they were to the edge of the abyss, and how one slip would cause them to go tumbling down to lower-middle-class hell. He thought of his father, how Appa had teetered on that edge for years… before finally going over and never recovering.

But late last year in November, when sales had hit a record high, Mr. Dixit, the CEO, called him into his cabin and made him an offer that changed everything.

&&&

He had been working on the first-quarter forecast for his team, trying to collate the numbers,  when the phone on his desk rang. On the little green LCD, he saw the word “CEO,” and he froze. He surreptitiously glanced at Mr. Dixit’s room. He saw Mr. Dixit sitting at his desk,  holding the receiver to his ear. Across from him was Kumar Sahu, the Sales Director, Manu’s immediate boss.  Kumar was a man known to get results, even if it meant cutting down non-performers ruthlessly, which he appeared to do with a kind of sadistic glee. He a gaunt man with a predatory grin and hard eyes.

Manu grabbed the phone, his heart thudding.

“Manu,” Mr. Dixit said in his gravelly voice, “Can I see you for a minute?”

“Of course, sir,” Manu said. Why would the CEO want to see him? Why was Kumar in there? Had he unknowingly done something wrong? Was it the last forecast? He’d had to lower the targets because of the expected slump in early January. But for such a thing, Mr. Dixit  would have asked Kumar to deal with it. 

A minute later, Manu stepped into the glass-walled cabin of the CEO feeling like a man entering the hallowed halls of a temple where only a chosen few are allowed. He had never been in here before, and he couldn’t help but notice the plush crimson carpeting underfoot, the rich smell of cologne, the books lining the dark-wood shelves along the rear wall, and the exotic landscape paintings on the walls.

Mr. Dixit sat behind his vast desk and smiled at Manu, displaying teeth too perfect to be anything but capped. He had a rich head of hair that had greyed elegantly at his temples. He was wearing a silken white shirt, gold cufflinks, and a black-tie threaded with a filigreed gold design. He was an imposing figure.

Opposite him, Kumar regarded Manu with his usual unpleasant grin.

“Sit, Manu, sit,” Mr. Dixit said.

Manu sat slowly. His palms were slick with perspiration. He was suddenly aware of how he must look  — a pudgy man in glasses and tatty clothes, balding, slouched. He straightened his back and gazed at Mr. Dixit across the expanse of his desk.

They’re going to terminate me, he thought. That’s what Mr. Dixit had called him here for. They were going to tell him that they were downsizing, or that he had done something terribly wrong. They would thank him for the years he’d worked at ABV, and tell him that although they valued his contributions, they had no choice but to let him go.

He felt faint. The black mouth of The Abyss was opening up beneath him; it would swallow him whole, the way it had swallowed his father, and down he would go, falling deep into  impoverishment, hounded by the banks, Like father, like son. His heart pounded, and he might have let out a moan… if reason hadn’t asserted itself — Wait, If Mr. Dixit wanted to fire me, he would have just got Kumar to do it, and Kumar would do it without ceremony or pass it on to HR.

Mr. Dixit said gravely, “Manu, the board reviewed the company’s performance for the last quarter, and as you know, we had had some success pan India.”

“Yes, sir,” he said.

“The  real surprise was the numbers in the south, particularly in the coastal belt, Kerala and Goa. The board has been thinking about restructuring our sales divisions, and I agree with it.”

Restructuring?

Mr. Dixit raised his hands expansively, “They want South India to be a separate region. A separate division internally.”

From Manu’s right, Kumar said, “We’re still in the early stages of discussing it, but we need someone reliable to handle the new division. To push for the numbers the board expects.”

Manu looked blankly from Kumar to Mr. Dixit.

Kumar grinned, “Regional Sales, South. I recommended you to the board, Manu. I believe you’re the right man for the job. Mr. Dixit agrees, too.”

Manu’s mouth fell open. 

Mr. Dixit chortled. “Don’t look so surprised. Your performance has been consistent, your team hits targets, and Kumar says that he can rely on you.”

Manu’s eyes threatened to tear up, and he had to swallow hard, “Thank you, sir, I don’t know what to say.”

He tried to process what he had just heard. Regional Manager! That would involve handling the entire southern operations, from forecasts to delivery. His rank would be that of Deputy Director. Which would mean a pay hike of at least 70-80%. His salary would hit the fabled 8 figure mark.

Manu tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come.

He would never have to worry about bloody loans again. Even housing would be taken care of by the company. They might even move to a villa! And there would be other perks, too, impossible luxories he had only ever heard about but could barely imagine — education allowances, business class tickets, annual bonuses. He said, “I.. I don’t know how to thank you Mr. Dixit. Kumar.  I’ll do my best. I promise you.”

Kumar said, “There’ll be an evaluation in February, merely a formality, mind you. After that, we’ll announce the new division. “

They spoke for half an hour longer, discussing strategy and how they might best recruit from within the company. The whole meeting felt unreal. And when it was time to go, Manu stood up on legs he could barely feel.

“You deserve this,” Mr. Dixit said, smiling genially at him just before he left the room, “Well done.”

&&&

But February had come and gone, and now it was July, and Mr. Dixit still hadn’t announced anything yet.

And there was no doubt as to why.

Jayant Bhuvesh joined ABV eight months ago, in mid-December. Everyone know that Jayant’s father owned one of the city’s largest electronic retail chains and was one of ABVs most lucrative customers. He was a powerful man who wielded clout within ABV’s board of Directors. It was certain that he had asked Mr. Dixit to give his son a job, perhaps to give the boy to some real-world experience.

Jayant had graduated four years ago from an IIM, which made him the cream of  management graduates in India. After that, he’d worked at his father’s company, possibly as an apprentice.

Jayant carried himself with the air of a man who has little to lose; he walked with a kind of perpetual swagger. Every morning, he pulled into the company’s parking lot in a bright red Godavari Roadster, a sports car that cost six times what Manu made in a year. Jayant wore pristine dress shirts and expensive leather shoes. He was devilishly handsome, and had a gym-sculpted body. It was impossible to miss how the young women in the office giggled and cawed at him.

Jayanth did not look a day older than twenty-five, yet he’d joined the company directly as a Senior Accounts Executive. It was evident from the very first that Mr. Dixit was partial to the young man. Mr. Dixit involved Jayant in all the sales meetings, and he coaxed Jayant to share ideas. Mr. Dixit invited Jayant into his cabin often, and there Jayant kicked back with a casual, lackadaisical air that Manu thought scandalous.

Manu had heard on the grapevine that Mr. Dixit wanted to give Jayant a more significant role in the organization, obviously to please Jayant’s father and to keep the massive deals from his retail business flowing. There was talk that he was going to promote Jayant to a “strategic position” as a kind of figurehead, where he would be babysat by a director.

Last week, unable to help himself, after much hand-wringing, Manu sent a rather timidly worded email to Kumar Sahu asking about his evaluation. Kumar didn’t reply.

Two days ago, when Manu was leaving the office late in the day, he saw Mr. Dixit standing at the elevator bank alone. Manu, who was at the other end of the floor, quickened his pace. When the elevator arrived, Manu broke into a run, but the CEO stepped in and did not hold the elevator’s for him. It slid shut just as Manu arrived. Manu told himself that Mr. Dixit had probably not seen him.

But he did see you, he thought uneasily, He did.

&&&

Now, as Manu watched, Jayant stepped out of Mr. Dixit’s office. He’d been in there for nearly an hour. He sauntered along the floor, through the maze of cubicles, walking with that infuriating strut that set Manu’s teeth on edge. 

Manu squinted at his laptop screen and feigned deep concentration. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Jayant walked past his desk… then paused, turned, and came up to him. Jayant stood over Manu and cleared his throat.

Manu turned and found himself looking at Jayant’s shoes. They looked like they might cost several thousands of rupees; genuine leather with dotted designs on their toe caps. Jayant’s trousers tapered down its length so that it was nearly skin-tight at his ankles. His pants were so tight-fitting that his crotch looked stuffed in. His white shirt looked crisp, as if he’d worn it minutes ago. The collar button was undone, and his tie was slung loosely around his neck. He had rolled up his sleeves to his elbows.

Jayant said, “Yo, Mr. Raj? Boss says he wanted me to get some figures from you on sales in the southern states?”

Manu stared up at him, “What?”

“For the digital marketing push,” Jayant said, leaning against Manu’s cubicle, “He wants me to push that, target those states, social media, search engines, you know.”

For a moment, Manu could not speak.

“Mr. Raj?” Jayant said.

“We’re starting a Southern Division, ” Manu said slowly, biting the words out, “I’ll be handling that when the time comes, so I don’t know what you’re talking about,”

Jayant recoiled, “Uh.. ok, I don’t… Well, Mr. Dixit said he wanted me to sit with you and get a few figures. That’s all I know. He said you have the numbers.”

“Did you hear what I just said?” Manu said.

Jayant now looking distinctly uncomfortable, “Uh, I’m sorry if I caught you at a bad time, man.  I need them for the digital marketing initiatives because Mr. Dixit wants me to do it so —”

“Send me a mail.,” Manu said shortly, ” If I get time, I’ll give you something.” He turned back to his screen.

Jayant shrugged, “Ok, man, I’ll mail you.”  As he walked away. Manu heard him mutter under his breath. Manu turned and stared after him and saw the way Nadia from accounts was watching Jayant as he passed. He heard Jayant’s easy laughter as he stopped to chat with someone in a cubicle further down. Jayant was  young, rich, good looking, not a care in the world.  And he’d got everything handed to him.

Manu glanced at his watch. It was still ten minutes to lunch, yet Jayant was already heading for the elevators. Manu got up and walked to the eastern section of the office, where large french windows overlooked the parking lot below. Behind him, the lunch hour buzz had begun, people leaving their seats and heading to the pantry in groups of twos and threes with their tiffins, talking gaily and aloud. Nobody noticed him standing there, looking out into the afternoon glare.

Two stories below, Jayant emerged from the building’s entrance. He ambled across the parking lot, heading for his bright red Roadster at the opposite end of the lot. Its nose was pushed right up to the lush waist-high hedges that lined the lot’s boundary. The car gleamed under the afternoon sun. 

Daddy got you the car. Daddy got you the job. he thought, his fists clenched.

His own father had given him nothing except a familiarity with hardship. Appa’s job at the bank had disappeared when a bank merger swallowed half the headcount eight years before his retirement. By then, Appa had been unable to get another job because of his age and his heart condition. To make matters worse, Appa had invested most of his savings on a bum scheme a year before he was fired.

Manu pushed these thoughts away and watched as Jayant slipped into his fancy car. Its tail-lights flashed as Jayant pulled out his slot, turned the car, and zipped away.

Manu continued watching as the car slipped into the main road and disappeared from view.

&&&

He lay awake, staring up at the ceiling. It was past two in the morning, and his thoughts worked furiously, refusing to let him sleep. The promotion would have changed everything. It would have turned their fortunes. And who deserved it more than he did? Hadn’t he sacrificed his health, his time, and his family life for the company? It had been a surprise when Kumar and Mr. Dixit announced the new division and their desire for him to run it. But in the following months, he had begun to see the promotion for what it was — a long-overdue recognition. The numbers spoke for themselves. How many times, over the years, had he won the ‘Performer of the Month‘ award? Two years ago, he’d even got the ‘Salesman of the Year‘ award. He’d worked hard for those, and finally, he had been about to get the big ticket. And then…

The situation had deteriorated; it was obvious that the board wanted to use Jayant for their own agenda, to keep the man’s father happy and secure deals. They weren’t talking about a new division anymore. In fact, Mr. Dixit was avoiding him, and Kumar refused to entertain the subject. They wanted to focus on online marketing instead, he said, digital leads, lean into the internet as a sales channel, and all that bullshit. And they wanted Jayant to run it.

Beside him, Priya slept soundly, her chest moving gently. Light snores escaped her lips. Baby Darshana slept between them, nestled in her mother’s arms, one chubby thumb tucked into her mouth.

When he got home tonight, Priya had immediately sensed something wrong. She’d asked what was bothering him, but he shrugged her off. Last November, when Mr. Dixit and Kumar Sahu told him about his promotion, he had come home bursting with the good news. When he told her what the promotion meant for their fortunes, she had burst into tears. He wasn’t about to let her know that it had all been a mirage, blown away by stupid corporate fuckery, given with one hand, withdrawn by the other.

So he had pretended nothing was wrong. But now, in the darkness, lying awake, he thought about how everything was wrong. He wasn’t naive; the world was often unfair, but a part of him had genuinely believed that if you worked hard, you eventually got what you deserved.

Hadn’t Appa believed that too?

Appa had woken up at dawn every day to go to his beloved job at the bank. He had been diligent, sincere, never once bad-mouthing the management… even when they fired him after the merger and gave his job to someone who perhaps deserved it less.

Manu got off the bed, moving slowly so as not to wake up Priya or Darshana. He walked across their tiny living room ( barely large enough for two sofas) and pushed open the children’s bedroom door. He hadn’t seen Rthvik today; he had come home half an hour after the boy had gone to bed. He stood at the threshold of the room now, watching Rithvik sleep. The boy’s face was cherubic, his mouth slightly agape. The room was no larger than a closet, toys stuffed everywhere, a study desk crammed in the corner.

He stood there for a long time, and then he turned to go back to bed. But as he crossed the living room again, he heard drunken voices floating up from the dank alleyway below the living room window. Every night, men from the construction camp across the road congregated there to smoke and get drunk.

How long must we live like this? he thought.

When you thought about it, what was happening to him was a kind of theft. They were stealing from him. Mr. Dixit had offered him an opportunity. He had done so not out of kindness, but because Manu had earned the role.

And now they were taking it from him.

&&&

The incident in the bathroom might not have happened if Manu hadn’t spotted Jayant returning from lunch and heading down the hall nonchalantly, as if he were strolling down a park rather than a place of work. Manu had just finished his lunch at the pantry. He had sat alone in a corner, brooding as he chowed down his food, staring out at nothing. He had barely tasted his food.

When he emerged from the pantry, he saw Jayant stepping out of the elevator and turning right into the corridor leading to the bathrooms. Without knowing he was going to do it, Manu set out after Jayant.

Inside the bathroom, he found Jayant at the sink, washing his hands. Jayant glanced up briefly, and their eyes met in the mirror above the sink. Jayant immediately looked wary.

Manu looked around the bathroom. He saw that both the stalls were open and empty. The two of them were alone in here. Jayant straightened slowly, grabbed a tissue from the dispenser above the sink, and then turned. “Mr. Raj?” he said.

Manu tried to think of something to say, but no words came to him. He simply stood there, staring at Jayant, who began to look increasingly uncomfortable.

“Mr. Raj?” Jayant said. “Look, I’m sorry if I said something yesterday? But -“

Manu took a step towards him, and Jayant took an inadvertent step back. “Mr. Raj?”

Manu said, “You think you’re really smart, don’t you? Coming in here with your fancy degree and your bullshit ideas. Walking around like you got in on your own merit, as if your daddy didn’t get this job for you. You think I don’t know that. “

Jayant’s eyes widened, his mouth fell open. He said, “Why are you talking to me like this? ”

Manu took another step forward, his hands balled into fists, his lips drawn in a sick grin. “Mr. Dixit gave me the South mandate. I earned it. So you better stay the fuck away from it.”

Jayant backed into the sink. Something he saw in Manu’s eyes appeared to frighten him badly. “Hey, man,,” Jayant said, his voice shaking, “I didn’t even want this fucking job, ok? My father forced me into it.  Like he does everything. I don’t want to be in your shitty company anyway. “

Manu glared at him wordlessly. He saw that Jayant’s hands were trembling.

He turned and left the bathroom without looking back.

&&&

At five o clock, Manu’s desk extension rang. He glanced at the phone and saw with a sinking feeling that it was Mr. Dixit calling. He glanced up and looked across the floor at Mr. Dixit’s cabin. What he saw sent a bolt of horror through him; Mr. Dixit was cradling the phone against his ear. Opposite Mr. Dixit was Jayant, and beside Jayant was Kumar Sahu. All three were looking in his direction.

Manu answered the phone.

Mr. Dixit said, “I’d like to see you in my office now.” His tone was cold.

“Of course, sir,” Manu said. He stood up, his heart pounding. This morning, he’d rushed to work, barely getting time to shower. He realized that he hadn’t shaved in two days, and his face was scruffy. He was wearing the same shirt he had worn yesterday.

He made his way to Mr. Dixit’s cabin.

&&&

Mr. Dixit regarded him wordlessly from across the vast expanse of his desk. Manu found himself shifting in his seat, unable to return his gaze. Beside him, Jayant was sitting stiffly upright, staring straight ahead. Beside Jayant, Kumar smirked at Manu.

“Manu,” Mr. Dixit said, finally, “Jayant tells me that you… you attacked him in the bathroom.”

“Attacked?”

“And verbally abused him?”

Jayant piped up, “He told me to stay away from the project that you asked me to do. Even when I tried to talk to him about it yesterday, he was hostile.”

Manu did not look at him. He addressed Mr. Dixit. “Sir, I didn’t attack him. I just wanted him to know that there are people here who’ve been here long before him. That he must show some respect.”

“And what disrespect has he shown you?” Mr. Dixit said.

Manu opened his mouth, then shut it.

Mr. Dixit said, “Manu, you are one of our oldest employees. But I cannot allow such unprofessional behavior. That too to a valuable employee. “

Manu stared at him. “Sir,” he said, “Last November… you told me that the South sales…”

“This has nothing to do with that,” Mr. Dixit snapped, “We said we would be considering it. But this is an organization. And things change. Is that a reason to ill-treat a colleague?”

“Sir, I-“

Kumar suddenly spoke from his seat, his voice deadly low, “Who do you think you are, Manu? I recommended you, and you do this? “

“Sir,” Manu said plaintively.

“I’m sorry, Manu,” Mr. Dixit said gravely, “but this is unacceptable. Jayant has submitted an official complaint with HR that you assaulted him. “

“I didn’t, ” Manu said, “I just talked to him.”

“He stepped into my space,” Jayant said, querulously, “He raised an arm -“

“I didn’t-“

Mr. Dixit shook his head, his expression one of disgust, “Manu, this is all very disappointing.”

“Sir, I won’t do it again, you have my word,” Manu said, “I’ve had a bad week, and-.”

“You won’t do it again?” Kumar said softly, “You don’t understand yet, do you, you fool!”

Manus stared down at his hands.

Mr. Dixit said, “Leave, Manu and Jayant, both of you. I’ll talk to Kumar, and we’ll decide what must be done. Manu, you understand that we can’t just let this go.”

“Sir, I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking straight, ” Manu said, his voice breaking.

Mr. Dixit turned to his laptop and began typing.

Jayant left the room, and Manu stood up, his shoulders slumped. “Give me one more chance, I’ll make up for it.”

Mr. Dixit looked up, and that was when Manu realized he was livid. “I gave that boy’s father my word,” he said, “I told him his son would get a top-notch professional experience here. Do you know that Jayant wanted to call the police? We had to cajole him.  Now he wants to leave the company. What do you think his father will do?”

Mr. Dixit turned away, and said, “You have thought only about yourself, Manu. Not the company! Leave.”

Manu trudged out of the room and made his way back to his desk.

&&&

Thirty minutes later, the mail arrived in his inbox like a bomb. He saw the subject, and he felt the ground drop out from under him. A moan escaped his lips. But hadn’t a part of him expected this? He had seen it in the way Mr. Dixit looked at him at the end of their meeting, that harsh, merciless gaze. He had seen it in the fury in Kumar’s face.

The subject of the mail was “Termination Notice.”

He jumped to his feet, meaning to run to Mr. Dixit’s office, to apologize again, to beg him if that’s what it took… but Mr. Dixit was not in his cabin. He had already left, perhaps not wanting to be in the office when the execution took place.

Manu saw them approach from the other end of the floor — Kumar Sahu, flanked by Arun Gomez, the HR Director, and Preeti Sinha, one of his HR officers. They were walking purposefully towards him, like a team of out-of-shape hitmen coming in for the kill. Preeti, a short, squat woman in a black dress skirt, looked nervous, but Arun, a burly man with a swollen belly and a heavily bearded face, wore a stony expression.

Preeti was carrying an empty cardboard box.

They surrounded his desk. Arun said, in his deep baritone, “Manu, I’m sorry it has to end like this. You were a good performer. “

Performer? An image came to Manu’s mind — a monkey doing tricks before a clapping audience. He sat down and slumped in his chair, staring down at his hands. So this is how it ends. Ten years with them, and this is how it ends.

Arun cleared his throat and laid a heavy hand on Manu’s shoulder, “You’ll have to pack your things now. ” His belly hung over Manu.

Kumar said, “Don’t make it worse, Manu. We don’t want to make a scene. We’ll escort you to the door.” He glanced at Preeti, who placed the cardboard box on his desk. She said gently, “You can use that to pack your belongings, Mr. Raj.”

“It was mine,” Manu said, under his breath.

“What’s that?” Arun said.

“The promotion,” Manu said. He looked up at Kumar, “It was mine. I earned it. Then you gave it away to keep his father happy.”

“That’s not true,” Kumar said, but his expression faltered.

“It is,” Manu said, “Nobody has shame or balls here. And fools like me toil all our lives for the company and we get nothing. “

“Watch your mouth,” Kumar snarled.

Manu gazed at them each in turn. Kumar and Abhijit stared stonily back, but Preeti didn’t meet his gaze.

Manu stood up slowly. He opened his drawers and began to pack.

&&&

He trudged across the parking lot, carrying the cardboard box they had brought for him to pack his things. There hadn’t been much to take, really. A few files, a picture of his family that had been propped up against the cubicle’s wall, a couple of documents. It was depressing to see how little he had to carry away after ten years in the company. He had paused when he saw his ‘appreciation’ certificates — the ‘Employee of the Month’ and ‘Salesman Of The Year’ awards he’d received. He stood there staring down at those pieces of stiff paper that meant nothing to him now. In the end, he hadn’t taken them.

Finally, they had escorted him to the main door. A few of his colleagues looked on curiously, but nobody said anything. Why should they? Everyone wore polite expressions as if this were the most normal thing in the world. And maybe it was. Maybe he had been the one too naive to expect otherwise.

Now, he trudged to his beat-up old Maruti. (Going on 8 years now, falling apart.) He passed Jayant’s red Roadster, and for a moment, a sense of such deep rage overcame him that he had to fight an urge to stride up to Jayant’s car and…. he didn’t know, maybe kick it? Break a window? Hawk out phlegm onto the windshield? Puncture a tire?

But he did none of those things, of course. Instead, he plodded to his car, opened its trunk, and tossed in the cardboard box.

He climbed in and sat behind the wheel. How was he going to go home? What was he going to tell Priya? How was he going to get another job now? His life was all but finished; he had the quarterly rent payment coming up next month; he had the second term school fees due; he had already defaulted on his credit card payments and the guys from the bank were calling with their  insolent questions.

After a moment, he rested his forehead on the steering wheel, the despair a big black thing that threatened to engulf him and destroy him completely.

 Perhaps, if Jayant hadn’t come out into the lot at that moment, things might have turned out differently. If Jayant hadn’t emerged from the building and walked across to his flashy red car (daddy gave you that car) with that unselfconscious swagger, that nonchalant strut, as if he was somehow far above the Manus of this world, untouchable, rich, beautiful, Manu might have just driven home.

It was 5:30 PM, and the lot’s light hadn’t come on yet (they came on at 6:00 PM). So Jayant didn’t see Manu in the car, gripping the wheel so hard that his knuckles were white. Manu watched Jayant walk right past him, oblivious to the presence of the man whose career he had wrecked. Manu’s lips trembled.  A cloud of red rage engulfed him, wiping out all conscious thought.

Manu gunned the car to life.

Jayant turned.

Manu slammed his foot on the accelerator, and the Maruti lurched forward, its engine thundering. Manu turned on the headlamps in the last moment, and they caught Jayant in their glare — Jayant’s raised arms, his face a white oval of shock. The last thing Manu saw before he rammed his car into Jayant and into the red Roadster was Jayant’s wide, horrified eyes and gaping mouth.

&&&

Manu tasted blood. He brought a hand up shakily to his forehead, and when he drew it away, his fingers were slick with blood. He had felt a great gash up there, and blood was pouring down his face. His windshield was shattered. The front of his car had crumpled from the force of the impact. It had slammed Jayant into the Roadster, pinning him so that Jayant’s upper body lay flopped over on the bonnet of Manu’s car.

Jayant wasn’t moving.

What have I done, he thought. What have I done?

People were surrounding them. The lot’s overhead lights came on. A woman began screaming. He heard a man babbling into his phone, calling the ambulance, the police. He heard another woman shrieking.

Manu sat there, gripping the wheel.

And he began to first weep… and then laugh.

THE END

Copyright Anoop Anthony 2020

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