“Sir . . . Punjabi Clooney, may I leave?”
Ved looked up from the neat stacks of paper on his desk to find his secretary, Sheetal, standing in the doorway to his office with a big-dimpled smile. She hung back, with one foot placed slightly beyond the door’s frame.
A quick glance at the clock on the wall confirmed what Ved had been dreading all day – the weekend had officially begun. Realising that his failure to respond immediately was only making Sheetal feel more awkward, Ved scrambled with a rising blush colouring his cheeks on being likened to the rakish Hollywood star. “Er...yes, Sheetal. Thank you, that’s all for today.” As an afterthought he added, “Have a nice weekend.”
“You too. May I offer some advice to my very hardworking boss?”
Without waiting for him to answer, Sheetal continued, “Ved, you practically own this company. Shut off your computer and get out of this cursed building! I’m sure whatever work you have can wait until Monday. It’s not like you have to impress your boss or anything. If I were a millionaire businessman, I would be outta the office on Friday as soon as the clock hit five.” She gave a quick wink before shutting the door.
Ved leaned back against the plush cushioning of his swivel chair with a deep sigh, pushing himself around in slow circles, wishing he could share some of Sheetal’s bubbliness. He briefly considered stepping out to see who else remained in the office, but he knew he was the last one left. Just like always.
Who in their right mind would spend their Friday night trapped in this soaring glass prison working for Mehra Electronics – building and company both owned by his father – with only the hum of sleeping computers for company? Not when there was so much potential for fun: families and friends and clubs and movies and restaurants...even Sheetal had ditched her demure daytime sari for Friday-night “fuck me” attire, a short black dress with a plunging neckline.
Well, at least someone was going to have a good time in Mumbai tonight. He had met Sheetal’s boyfriend, Rahul, once or twice and quite liked him – the way he was around her, fussing and fawning, as if she was the best thing in his life. To make him feel welcome at their office party last year, Ved, abandoning the boss card, had fetched two glasses of wine for them, and with much charm and flourish offered the drinks to them, saying, “Cheers to you two.” Rahul had been so taken aback that he took one gulp and spilled the rest on his shirt.
Ved’s presence could be intimidating, with his tall frame. The full head of soft, floppy hair with just a hint of salt and pepper on the sides, with eyes a shade of swirling caramel. Always dressed in a sharply tailored suit, usually Armani or Brioni, often accessorised with a silk tie or kept relaxed with the shirt’s top two buttons open. When he walked into a room, you noticed him.
He looked back up at the clock. He had maybe thirty minutes before the night cleaning crew would come in, and he didn’t think he could bear their looks of pity another week in a row. Home it was, then. As he packed his briefcase, he turned back to his desk and groaned. While the neat stacks of paper gave the illusion of organisation, organisation couldn’t be further from the truth.
By Monday, Ved still had to write up departmental monthly reports, plans for product development, a presentation on the future of electronics for the board of directors. He had no option. Ved would have to complete the work at home. He sighed. Doubtless, this would prove to be another long night with just his laptop and countless lukewarm cups of black coffee for company.
From the time he had joined Mehra Electronics right after college as a trainee on track to becoming vice president, Ved had done everything he could to prove he was more than just a “daddy’s boy.” From daily factory visits to eating lunch with his coworkers to even dealing with the union and its increasingly raucous meetings, Ved hadn’t been afraid to get his hands dirty. In fact, he took every chance to do so.
There was satisfaction in earning his workers’ trust, in knowing that his work was actively contributing to the company’s growth. Moreover, he was able to learn how the company truly operated, all the way on the bottom floors of the building, beyond the glass walls of his cushy office. Even as Ved rose through the company ranks, he always ensured that he was available to his employees whenever they needed him.
Ved never let himself forget that someday in the not-so-distant future, he would be in line to take over Mehra Electronics after his father, as was the case in every other business family in India.
This was not something to be taken lightly, not to Ved. It had taken him years to earn his peers’ respect, their trust, and now that he was lucky enough to have it, Ved knew he had to work harder than anyone else to hold on to it, including on weekends.
With a sweep of his arm, the neat piles were destroyed and the papers stuffed into his briefcase, along with a laptop that would surely already have emails outlining more work to do. Yeah, working through the weekend every weekend wasn’t ideal, but if Ved was being honest, what else did he have to do?
How many years had it been since Ved had looked forward to “weekend plans”? How many years since Ved had had someone to share his weekends with? Drinks, pizza, movies, late-night walks...anything? All Ved knew now was that working through the weekends, Friday through Sunday, was normal.
Frankly, having all the work to keep himself occupied was really a relief. At least this way he could tell himself that he was just dedicated to his job, not a loner without a single plan during the two long days stretching between him and Monday.
Stepping into the glass elevator, Ved stared at his reflection. Sheetal wasn’t the only one who said he looked like George Clooney, though Ved wasn’t sure his salt-and-pepper hair really warranted the compli-ment. Did George Clooney have thick-ish eyebrows and an unflattering bump of a belly? It really was time for Ved to put a lid on those late-night binges at the refrigerator. He couldn’t rely on his height to balance out his weight forever.
The city below him slowly approached. Sleek, glossy skyscrapers with the demeanour of runway models, slim new constructions coming up over old heritage Bombay houses, luxury fashion boutiques, and exorbitantly priced health food cafés. With the offensive amount of glass, everything and everyone – expats, hipsters – was on display. At all times. This narcissism reeked of the nouveau riche, and while Ved was technically a member of that group, that didn’t mean he could forget the good ol’ Bombay he’d grown up in so easily.
Gone were the clear skies and starry nights. Gone were the days when a “night out” entailed nothing more than a simple and easy traffic-free drive on Worli Sea Face with a stop at the kulfiwala for a cold sweet treat. Now, in upwardly mobile Mumbai, where plenty of families owned at least two cars, the roads were always gridlocked with traffic, and a blanket of smog perpetually hung over the city.
Closing his eyes, Ved could remember the horse-drawn carriage rides he would take with his parents at the oceanfront promenade along the Gateway of India, the bump of the carriage wheels across the uneven stone pavement. He could remember the Chinese food at the Taj Hotel’s Golden Dragon restaurant as a special treat on birthdays and all the crisp plates of fish and chips at the Sea Lounge with his father to celebrate yet another acquisition at Mehra Electronics.
His family would drive his dad’s first car, a white Ambassador, back to his grandfather’s colonial cottage in Prabhadevi every month. Ved would always roll down the windows, enjoying the soft breeze that caressed his face, while his parents would (lovingly) argue over which station to listen to on the radio. Unsurprisingly, Mum always preferred old Bollywood classics, while Dad preferred contemporary English pop. Back in those days, Dad switching the radio station while Mum wasn’t looking had been life’s biggest problem.
Everything changed after Mehra Electronics suddenly became a sprawling empire.
A new elite school, a palatial house in an upscale suburb, constant bickering at home between his parents, Ved finding himself more and more in the company of the many servants hired to attend to the Mehra family. Soon enough, conspicuous wealth was the new order, and everyone spoke a language of important brand names. Even the thought of kulfi was offensive, long replaced by the gelato that came both sugar- and dairy-free.
Like the Mehra family, the city had long since embraced a new visage – gaudy Mumbai. The small clump of old heritage Bombay houses that remained looked like dolls’ playhouses next to the new, shiny monoliths.
Just as Ved was stepping out into the dusk, his phone started ringing. A quick glance at the caller ID confirmed his worst fears. “Dolly Mehra” was requesting to FaceTime. After ignoring her for a week, there was no way he could get away with not answering. If he did, he knew the police would be knocking on his door later that very night with a hysterical Dolly in tow, claiming she had filed a missing person’s report in his name. So, knowing he would regret it, Ved accepted the call. Dolly’s high cheekbones and hazel eyes filled the screen.
Excerpted with permission from The Other Man, Farhad J Dadyburjor, Lake Union Publishing.