“This is your table,” Basab Banerjee told her.

She looked around. It was a small office space made of light plywood. There was a soft, yellow-coloured revolving chair, a steel almirah, two telephones – the green one being an intercom and a wastepaper bin in a corner of the room.

“What is it? Don’t you like it?”

Hurriedly, she replied, “Beautiful! It’s beautiful. Can I open the window?”

“No, you can’t. That’s the problem when you have an air conditioner. But it is so hot and polluted here. People don’t open their windows anyway.”

She had reached office quite early today.

“In the initial days, it is always like this, but slowly you will find yourself stepping into the office just about a minute before 9.00 am or two minutes past 9.00 am,” Prasen told her later in the day. She quite liked the fact that among the staff, almost all of them were either younger than her or her contemporary.

“So, let’s talk about work now?” Banerjee said, sitting down in his chair. He had an intense, piercing gaze and one couldn’t look into his eyes for too long. “Maya Lahiri is still dealing with our clients. We will hire two more communicators for the team. You don’t have to go to each location personally. Maya . . .” he continued, switching to English to describe Maya, “She is clever and intelligent enough for most of the tasks assigned. You may face certain issues initially, but occasionally, I will help you solve them, if not Maya.” Then he brought his face closer to Bhashwati’s and said in Bengali, still whispering, “After the GATT and Dunkel agreement, work has started pouring in, and we have benefited. Foreign companies have only started to spend millions of dollars on commercials targeted at the Indian market. They are opening many sales organisations in India, too, and guess what, we have riled up the Anti-GATT and Dunkel parties. Why won’t local ad agencies get jobs? Now they are all worried. A little bit of that money will now be spent through our organisations, too. We will soon get a project from a cellular telecommunications company – then there’s no stopping us! By the way, Altaf has been praising you a lot. He said you know several languages and possess a literary mind.”

“Well, that’s nice of him, but it is nothing compared to Altaf; he speaks eight languages!”

“In any case, we will be benefited from your skills and knowledge, no doubt. The captions for the campaign must be amazing, okay? As soon as people see the product, everyone from a two-year-old to an 80-year-old, must immediately think, that is what I need! That’s the kind of popularity I am talking about. For instance, the Surf detergent powder tag line, ‘Dhoondte reh jaoge’. And how about ‘Neighbour’s Envy, Owner’s Pride’, which reminds the entire nation of Onida TV. From March onwards, public issues and their campaigns will start to take off. You will be overseeing the parties being organised in five-star hotels for high-profile clients. We get a lot of work in these parties. Taking care of which client needs what is your responsibility. You must keep that in mind. You have understood, right? In short, you will soon see for yourself that it is super exciting to work in an ad agency. It is addictive, almost like gambling. Anyone can become a billionaire, and a billionaire might just be reduced to a pauper. But once you are in, you are addicted. Your salary is Rs 4,000 a month only on paper. You will get a 25 per cent cut if we get a contract through you! That’s extra money. Imagine, you get us a two-lakh-rupee contract. How much will your cut be then?”

Bhashwati tried to calculate. Two lakh was 2,00,000. That was almost 50,000 rupees! “On top of it, every company will give you a bumper gift – saris, bags, cosmetics, watches, expensive jeans, shoes. You must have ambition, okay? Ambition in your career.”

Saying these words, Banerjee got up to leave. Suddenly, Bhashwati remembered Dwijen da, her elder brother’s close friend, for whom she had immense respect. Discouraged at being unable to secure a job for herself because of her low grades in her master’s, he had told her, “You are in a capitalist country. We are all products here. Our certificates are commercials. When you read the details on a bottle of oil that claims to be fat-free, you buy it unsuspectingly. In the same way, we also trust each other. To sell yourself in this system, you must create a suitable ad campaign and market yourself as a product. Through your certificates and grades, your conversations, or a mixture of truths and lies. Otherwise, every year, all those students who earn 90 per cent in their exams should have turned the country into a world leader, right? But has that happened? No. You must be a part of the system and that’s the rule. If you don’t know that yet, or don’t realize it soon, you will only end up being disappointed and depressed.”

Bhashwati wanted to meet Dwijen da, talk to him.

What would he have said about this world? This competitive world of commissions and cuts and bumper gifts?

Excerpted with permission from My Poems Are Not For Your Ad Campaign, Anuradha Sarma Pujari, translated from the Assamese by Aruni Kashyap, Penguin India.