Saturday, February 16, 2013
The Travelling Companion
1: THANK YOU, ANGELS!
Mr Sarkar’s journey hadn’t started well. After six hours, with another thirty to go, he was cursing himself for coming by train. But Mr Sarkar was the beneficiary of crack management training. It had hardened him to adversity, taught him to be strong, find a ray of hope, make a plan, use every situation to best advantage. At home he would sleep eight hours a night, so here, two nights on the train, thirty minus sixteen makes fourteen. Or he could grab the opportunity, get an extra two hours of oblivion, leaving a mere ten more hours of conscious existence in this place.
Ten bloody HOURS!!! And could he really expect to sleep in this non-AC sleeper class compartment? With all kinds of sounds leaking in from all over the place?? He hardly could put his eyelids together and forget his misery. The train sounded so loud. The thought turned him gloomy again.
He hadn’t wanted to come by train, in fact for the last ten years he’d avoided this mode of travel. Earlier, as a junior-level executive, receiving tickets for train from his company, he had always booked an air-conditioned compartment. There the sound was less and you could rely on the passengers coming up to a certain standard.
But there was a nation-wide three-day airport stir (strike) happening, just when at short notice he was asked to attend an important meeting at Calcutta. There was no alternative to the train and he got the best seat he could. Sadly the AC compartments were all booked: he had to make do with sleeper class. Damn!
One thing would make this mode of travel almost tolerable: to have a ‘standard’ person as travelling companion. He quickly scanned them all. No, none were worth having a quick intelligent chat with. They were mostly clerks or small time traders—or students returning home from West Bengal or Orissa.
Being the CEO of a “hi-tech” outfit he could not risk chatting with them. Anyhow, he hated Indians. If by any chance they got to know his identity, they’d lose no time in asking a job for their sons, cousins or nephews. Give them an inch and they’d ... Bloody damn race of a bloody damn country.
He liked to spend summer vacations in Europe. Such a beautiful continent. Such beautiful people. Shit! His bloody damn skin. A bit on the darker side. Bloody damn Indian blood.
Why? Why on earth he had to take birth to bloody damn Indian parents? Sometimes he asked this question to God. Of course He didn’t exist, or if he did, He must be envious of His creation. He still had to float in His ancient chariot and was bound by the earth’s atmosphere. Man on the other hand could travel by rocket and land in moon.
When he cracked this joke at a party with his European potential clients, he got a few brownie points. Of course, one has to do that in business. All’s fair in business and war. Later, he dropped in at a temple to apologise for his blasphemous joke. He also phoned his mother in Calcutta to arrange for a special puja. If his joke was a sin it was cleared within a day.
Mr Sarkar took care to keep faith with the Gods, for you might need them any time. And look how they listened now to his unuttered plea! That man in the front seat, with that blazer and beige tie, he was surely a top executive. It was too much to expect he would be a fellow-CEO. Yet a man with nothing in his head would not wear a tie.
2: MAKING ACQUAINTANCE
Looking at the ways of the man, Mr Sarkar judged him to be facing the same dilemma. He was looking impatiently through the window and sighing. Each was waiting for the other to start the conversation. Meanwhile, their actions betrayed their common thought: annoyance at being caught in this plight.
Being direct and frank by nature, Mr Sarkar took the plunge first.
“Airport stir eh?”
“Yes, yes. Indeed. It’s such a pain.”
The gentleman must be a Bengali like him, he could tell by the accent! Suddenly he longed to share the mother-tongue with this stranger. But for top managers, only English will do.
“I am Abhishek Sarkar, CEO of a small software development company.”
The other seemed impressed, for he sat up more attentively, emboldening Mr Sarkar to expand.
“Our Bangalore office is the headquarters, but our R&D is in the Silicon Valley.”
“Really! And you say it is a small company?”
“Oh yes, but growing. Our marketing hub is London.”
The other raised his eyebrows in silent admiration.
Mr Sarkar added a modest afterthought: “Actually, our offices in Munich and Paris are tiny. But yaa, Mexico is picking up. We plan to list our company on the NYSE and LSE next month.
“But tell, me,” continued Mr Sarkar, fumbling with the rucksack he’d bought in Austria last summer, and fishing out a card. “What about yourself?”
“I am a farmer by profession. I have five tea gardens in Assam. I had a small refinery too, before it got bought over by Shell some five years ago. Hard business, they gave me a handsome amount, so I smartly exited. Dibyangshu Roy at your service.” Mr. Roy offered his own card, from his coat pocket.
The custom is that you should not inspect the card in the presence of the person concerned, unless of course, you want to know the name. Mr. Sarkar put the card in his pocket.
“What’s the name of the company you mentioned, Mr Roy?”
“It’s ConAgra Tea Estate,”
“I know one ConAgra … it’s a food giant in US.”
“Yes, we are their India distributor, we handle the tea side. It’s my own tea garden, but the brand is theirs. You know how things work in these big companies,” Mr Roy said rubbing the dial of his watch. Mr Sarkar craned to see its inscription. Pierre Cardin, the finest in the collection.
Yes, YES!!! This is the kind of man he liked to interact with. God! Surely whatever happens, happens for a reason. Now he felt thankful to the angels for arranging this sleeper compartment.
There was sparkle in their conversation from then on. Skin-colour notwithstanding, Mr Sarkar recognized in himself a true European, modelled on his friend and mentor, Martin Smith from England. The hardest part was to keep a stiff upper lip and say words in a “hush hush” manner: quiet, well-modulated. He admired Smith’s way of arguing in a perfectly normal tone. Europeans never raise their voice, a trick which it had taken a long time for Mr Sarkar to master. Now he was proud of his English “bedside manner”: confident, reassuring, like a Harley Street physician.
But two things of the Europeans he never could approve was their using toilet papers and eating breads for lunch. He needed at least five litres of water for hygiene purposes; and must have rice at lunch and dinner. Without rice, he didn’t feel he had eaten anything at all. In every other respect he could surely pass for British, for even they, when they conquered India, buckled under the midday heat, opted for the afternoon siesta.
When lunchtime came, he was reluctant to order rice in front of is co-passenger: what would he think? With the stomach of an Indian peasant, how could he pass himself off as a European gentleman, ? Mr Roy unwittingly rescued him. Before Mr Sarkar could say anything, Mr Roy brought out a Tiffin box from his suitcase.
Not to worry, Mr Roy also couldn’t do without rice! Angels couldn’t have arranged it better.
Mr Roy divided the food neatly on to two plates, explaining that it was a custom in his family: always carry extra food and a spare plate, in case there was a guest to be entertained on the journey.
Both had their bellyful, the food as excellent as his last meal—at a five-star hotel.
He was content. He was happy. The food was so good that he wanted to do something he hadn’t done for a very long time: take an afternoon nap. His eyelids were getting heavy, but it was a good feeling.
“You know what, Mr Roy? This is paradise on wheels.”
At which both laughed heartily. For a moment he let his English sensibilities go and laughed like any bloody Indian.
Soon he was in the realm of dreams, enjoying the company of a girlfriend he would marry, just as soon as he had got rid of his nagging wife.
3: THE AWAKENING
It wasn’t till six in the morning that he woke, with a start. Wow! He’d slept for bloody SIXTEEN HOURS!!! If he could continue this performance, no worries. Another sleep and he’d open his eyes just in time to arrive at Howrah Station.
He stopped a tea-wallah passing down the corridor, and bought chai. How nice to sip something hot after a good night’s sleep!
He lazily fumbled for his wallet to pay the man, but he must have put it in his bag for safe keeping. He left the tea by his bunk bed and got down for his bag. Which was nowhere to be found.
From anxious enquiries he learned that the bag was taken by “its owner” who got down at a station during the night.
“What do you mean, the owner? It was my bag. Who took it?”
The man in the next seat just looked at him.
“Your friend, with whom you had lunch yesterday. I was thinking whether to wake you up when this gentleman was leaving with the bag. I sort of challenged him, he said that the bag was his. He said his name was Abhishek Sarkar, he also gave me his card. See?” The man passed a card to Mr Sarkar.
It was the card he had given to his travelling companion.
“Bloody, that’s my card!!! That was my bag. I am Abhishek Sarkar.”
Mr Sarkar remembered Mr Roy’s card and found it, still safe in his pocket:
Chairman and Managing Director
Agra, Uttar Pradesh
And on the back, scrawled in bold letters, “SLEEP WELL”.
Mr Sarkar forgot his European manners. He took no account of the girls and elderly people in the same compartment. The manner of his shouting at the top of his voice was typical bloody Indian manners.
“M****c**d, Motherfucker, V**c**d, Suoerer Baccha, Kh****r Chele, Son of a bitch, brother of a whore, fuck you bastard, up on your ass you asshole.” Complainants later reported that he continued in this vein for half an hour: at least it seemed that long. One witness characterised his performance as the choicest slang you could hear anywhere, even in the most degraded slum.
As if it mattered, in a sleeper class full of bloody Indians. © Anup Roy 2008
Posted by Vincent at 9:04 pm