Sharma was late for work. When he signed his name in the attendance register, the clerk in the personnel department shook his head disapprovingly.
‘Very bad, very bad, Sharmaji,’ he said, clicking his tongue. ‘This is the fourteenth time you are late this month.’
Sharma’s brow darkened. ‘You keep quiet, Mahesh,’ he replied. ‘Who are you to tell me I’m late? You are a clerk, I am a clerk. You don’t have the authority to tell me anything. Understood?’
Mahesh retreated behind his desk. He said, ‘What I am telling you, I am telling you for your own good. Why you must take it in the wrong spirit I do not understand.’
‘You don’t tell me what is good for me,’ Sharma said. He raised his voice. ‘I am twenty-five years older than you.’
In the corridor he bumped into Gupta smoking a cigarette. ‘What Gupta,’ he said, ‘you left me alone to face her.’
‘What to do?’ said Gupta. ‘She has already told me off twice. She thinks it is still Indiraji’s raj. Cigarette?’
‘Might as well,’ said Sharma, and took one. ‘So, how are things with you?’
Gupta lit his cigarette. ‘All right, so so.’ He gave a bashful smile. ‘My parents are searching for a girl for me. I have to get married before December. The astrologer has said that the two years after December will be very inauspicious for marriage.’
‘Are you looking for a working girl, or what?’
‘Yes. We think that might be preferable. How can we manage on my salary? But they bring less dowry. And my sister has to be married off next month. It is very difficult.’
‘Oh, sit down,’ said Sharma. ‘Even my boss is after my life. They are all like that, these managers. They think that only they work. Just because they stay here after office hours they expect people to believe that they work. Ha! All that is to impress the general manager. How else can they get their promotions? All maska.’
Gupta sat down.
‘Jagdish,’ called Sharma. ‘More chai.’
The third round of tea arrived.
The electricity went off.
‘Bas,’ said Sharma. ‘Now who can work? These power cuts will kill us all.’ He sat back in his chair.
‘My boss says that it is no excuse,’ said Gupta gloomily. ‘He says that if a power cut lasts three hours it doesn’t mean that we don’t work for three hours. He says that we are here to work.’
‘He can keep saying that,’ said Sharma contemptuously. ‘Does he think we’re animals? They all think that we have no feelings. Work all day, work when the electricity goes off, work without increments, work without promotions, work, work, work. That is all they care about. No concern for us as human beings.’
Sharma was silent. He shook his head. He looked sadly at Mr Borwankar. He said, ‘Borwankar sahib, why are you taking this tone with me? You ask me questions as though you have no faith in me. This is not a detective agency. Why must you interrogate me in this manner? All right, I was not in my department, but that was because I had work in other departments. Still, if it is your wish, I will not go to other departments even if I have work there. I will sit at my desk and work only at my desk. Yes, yes I will do that. The company does not want me to consult other departments. All right, I will not consult other departments. You will see, work will suffer, but why should I care when you do not? I have been in this company for twenty-five years, but no one cares. For twenty-five years the company has bled me, sucked me dry. What do you know? You have been here only two years. You know nothing. Twenty-five years ago I joined as a clerk. Today I am still a clerk. Why should I work?’
The other workers listened, rapt.
With his hand on his chest, Adesh said, ‘Madam, what you have said has hurt me here . . . right here.’ He drew a shuddering breath. ‘You think we have no feelings, no hearts. You think that only officers have feelings. But madam, believe me, our hearts are more vulnerable than ours. We feel . . . we feel. Sharmaji, chalo.’
They ordered tea. Sharma lit a cigarette and smoked sadly.
‘Sharmaji, said Adesh deliberately, ‘you had better mend your ways. I can’t help you out next time.’
The tea arrived.
‘What do you mean, mend my ways?’ asked Sharma sulkily.
‘You know what I mean. You don’t seem to know your limits.’
‘Don’t lecture me. You are the general secretary of the union. Your duty is to get me out of this, not give me speeches.’
‘You keep quiet. If you want me to help you, hold your tongue.’
Sharma simmered. Again, insults from someone so much younger.
Sharma sighed and sat. He passed his hand over his brow. ‘It is so hot, he said. ‘How do you expect us to work in these power cuts, Miss Das?’
‘What to do, Sharmaji? That is how life is in Delhi. Would you like a glass of cold water?’
‘Certainly.’ He gulped down the water. ‘What advantages there are to being an officer! You have flasks of cold water in your room. We poor workers have to go to the canteen to drink water. And when we go there and someone sees that we are not at our workplace, we are accused of shirking work.’ He returned the glass. ‘Thank you, madam.’
‘They say I do not work. They say people should not mix with me. I, who was one of the first people to join the company twenty-five years ago. If I did not work, why did the company give me a special award for excellent work twenty years ago? You look surprised. You do not know. Of course, they will not tell you. They know you are intelligent. They know you will ask, what has happened to this man? You wish to know madam, yes?’
With great dignity he sailed out of the room. A minute later he returned. ‘Madam,’ he said with a slight shrug, ‘I was wondering, you wouldn’t be interested in reading some of my poetry would you?’
‘I would very much like to.’
Sharma smiled. He nodded. ‘I will get them tomorrow. Madam, I wrote these poems many, many years ago. Since then I have written nothing, nothing at all. Still . . . they are very philosophical, very deep, very complex. Tomorrow, at 9 a.m. I will share them with you.’
She replied, ‘In the lunch break.’
He frowned. ‘There will be another power cut in the afternoon. How can I read my poetry to you, drenched in sweat?’ He considered.
He capitulated. ‘If you insist, then, the lunch break.’
Sharma sat on his desk. He took the paan out of his pocket and carefully removed its wrapping. He put it in his mouth. Chewing, he opened his drawer and took out a sheet of paper. Lovingly, he placed it on his desk, licked his pencil and began a new poem.