In two months’ time, Devika proved to be an ideal employee. Always on time, willing to work during weekends if necessary, never getting annoyed or losing her temper – it was no wonder she was liked by one and all. Vishal was particularly proud that he had made the right choice.
Even though she was a quality manager, she took on other responsibilities, including correcting correspondence in English. It was one of the things Vishal hated doing. Correcting the emails of his juniors consumed a good portion of his day.
No matter how good the engineering colleges were, most of these graduates could not write proper English. Wrong spellings and grammatical errors annoyed clients outside India, particularly those in the UK and the USA. It was also hard to follow the clients’ accents and even harder to communicate in a manner that was comprehensible. Devika resolved all these issues as her English was flawless and she could converse freely with the clients. Because of Devika, Vishal could now devote his time to other important matters.
One day, while eating lunch at the canteen, Vishal casually asked Devika how she had such a command over the language. She said that while in Bihar she had appeared for the Indian Administrative Service examination, which required plenty of preparation. Even though she was not selected, the preparation and training had come in handy.
Seeing satisfactory progress on the project, the American client sanctioned money for a celebratory party outside the office. “You guys have worked day and night. You deserve to enjoy the weekend,” said the email. Under Devika’s stewardship, they selected a resort on Kanakpura Road along the Cauvery River to spend a Saturday with their families.
At the party Vishal met Vinayak, a handsome chap with a responsible position at a major company. Vishal wondered how such a handsome fellow found such an obese girl like Devika attractive. At the same time, he felt that Devika was the smarter of the two. Vishal introduced his wife, Shilpa, and the children, Tarun and Kiran, to Vinayak. He was touched that Vinayak played with the boys all day.
Devika pulled another surprise on her colleagues. To make the outing fun and help break the ice among the participants, several games had been organised. Outlasting others in a dancing contest was one such. Devika won that contest! The fact that her weight did not interfere with her ability to dance was a matter of admiration, especially to Vishal. She danced without missing a beat for forty-five minutes to the catchy tunes of Bollywood songs.
Thunderous applause from the men energised her so much that she danced vigorously, not caring that she was sweating profusely. Vishal complimented her by calling her “the Saroj Khan of our company”. Once again, at dinner, Vishal said “I just cannot believe...’
Although Devika sensed there was a touch of derision about her weight in his comment, she ignored it with a half-friendly smile. Between mouthfuls of chicken kebab, Vinayak softly quipped, “This is how she trapped me nearly seven years ago...by dancing away.” Devika heard it, and with feigned anger called her husband an “idiot” and smacked him on his back. Vinayak pretended to be hurt badly and said, “Oh, you’re killing me.” Everyone laughed, including Devika.
Three more months passed smoothly. Vishal felt a sort of unease. He knew, based on his professional experience, that just when everything seemed to be going right, that was exactly when waves of disruption could strike. He had now learnt to neither get overly excited nor accept a temporary calm as a permanent one. His suspicions proved right.
One day, Kasturi and he were at lunch when Devika entered the canteen. She smiled at them and stood in the queue for her turn at the counter. Vishal was busy describing Devika’s mature approach towards solving problems while Kasturi was busy watching Devika fill her plate with rice, sambar and curried vegetables.
She signalled to Vishal to stay quiet for a while and watch Devika. Vishal looked at Devika but did not find anything unusual about her. “What are you looking at?” He asked. Without changing her line of sight, Kasturi muttered, “Three months.”
Vishal did not understand. Kasturi continued, “Your tough days are just beginning.” As she continued to eat, Kasturi made it more explicit, “She is three months pregnant.” Shocked, Vishal looked at Devika again and said rather lamely, “I don’t think so.” Kasturi smiled and said, “That requires a woman’s eye. She is obese to start with, you could never figure out.”
Vishal banged the table with his fist and spat out, “Bitch.” Kasturi gave him another I-told-you-so smile.
When Devika entered the spacious meeting room, she saw three people sitting there – Kethan Desai, head of finance, flanked by Kasturi and Vishal on either side. Kasturi began.
“Devika, we have to ask you some personal questions, hope you don’t mind.”
“No, not at all, please go ahead...”
“We guess you are expecting...”
There was silence for a couple of moments, and Kasturi broke the silence by congratulating her. The other two followed rather meekly. Devika thanked all three with an equally subdued voice.
“Having a child is your prerogative, and as per the company rules we cannot question your personal choice. However, there is a chance that the project schedule may be affected, hence this discussion. Hope you won’t misunderstand us,” Vishal explained.
Kasturi added, “We had asked you at the time of hiring. You had assured us that you did not have any plans of having a child. That was one of the reasons for hiring you.”
Devika took time to answer. She said, “I agree with you, but not everything in life can be planned ahead. I am sure you are aware of that.”
“That’s true. But this is an extremely important project for us. You know you have an important role in this project. You also know that within the next five months we shall be reaching a critical stage when we will need you the most. If you decide to go on maternity leave for four to five months during that crucial period, the project is sure to fail,” Vishal tried to be as reasonable as he could.
“I understand the problem, but this is a question of my life. Only my husband and I know the kind of anguish we have experienced in the last four years. Now, by the grace of god, we have a sweet moment to look forward to, which is more important to me than our company or our American customers. This is a question of my life.”
The last comment enraged Vishal. “Doesn’t it mean anything to you if my professional life is ruined?” Vishal sounded furious. Kasturi whispered in his ear to calm down. Desai too patted his back, saying, “Cool down, man.”
Devika stood up. “I understand all of your problems, but I am not responsible for any of them in any way whatsoever. Nor will I feel guilty.”
As she left the room, Vishal threw up his hands in the air and shouted, “Bitch, she put me in a soup!”
“Vishal, language, please. Legally, we cannot do anything about it. A war of words will only make it worse,” Kasturi explained.
Desai had the same suggestion. “Let’s not quarrel about what transpired. Instead, let’s focus on how to recover from the current situation.”
“It’s clear, isn’t it? We will need to find another candidate. We should make sure she transfers all her knowledge of the project to the new candidate before we ask her to go. After all, these are tough times. The Americans are sitting on our heads demanding that we complete the project using half the budget.” Vishal spoke as if he had rehearsed the speech several times over.
Kasturi cautioned: “Vishal, you cannot give a pink slip to someone just because she is pregnant. To top it, she is your best employee. Your emails to that effect are in everyone’s inbox. On what grounds will you fire her?”
Vishal announced his firm decision: “We can find some grounds – sexual harassment, information theft...whatever. I am not going to tolerate any loss in my project. This is a question of my survival.”
Excerpted with permission from “The Recession”, from The Unforgiving City and Other Stories, Vasudhendra, translated from the Kannada by Mysore Nataraj, Penguin Books.
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