The swanky office of the architectural firm Sharma & Associates looked over the Worli Sea from the nineteenth floor of a business complex. Outside, the roads strained to handle the hustle and bustle of an overcrowded and over-demanding population. The cacophony found its way to the nineteenth floor in spirit. The interns, associates, accountants and heads were all conducting their own off-key symphonies within the office walls. Self-centred to a fault, none of them noticed a member of their herd trying to sneak away – a head with a mop of neatly combed hair cautiously popped up from the countless homogeneous-looking cabins. A pair of gimlet-black eyes scanned the immediate area to make sure everyone was preoccupied like they were a minute ago. Check. The eyes scanned the big man, the eponymous owner, Mr Sharma’s office.

For reasons unknown, Mr Sharma didn’t like being called by his name and instead, liked to be called Boss. The choice of title wasn’t up for debate. Anyone who begged to differ could say goodbye to their job and severance pay. Through the frosted glass, barely anything could be seen. The stillness of the cabin deserved a closer check. The peeping tom slipped away from his cabin and on to the main hallway. Marked with distinct Punjabi features and a lean build, Aakash Varma stood at 6 feet tall. A rough two-day stubble with grey specks marked his entry into his early thirties. A consciously chosen wardrobe of maroon shirts and black slacks made Aakash look more similar to a Gladrags model than a nine-to-five employee. It had been almost a year for Aakash at Sharma & Associates, making it his longest tenure at a workplace. Four years ago, Aakash was presented with a choice of plum offers upon graduation. He had turned them down in favour of an urban planning start-up, a choice he regretted a year later when the start-up tanked even before it took off. Shrugging off his failure, Aakash jumped into his second job, with a pay package that was 30 per cent less than his placement offers. The more time he spent at the office, the more he realized that he wasn’t cut out for the job. Picking up pointless battles with supervisors, disrupting the office environment and straying from the designated plans were more to his liking than getting any real work done. Though, his attrition rate never dented his cocky confidence. As long as there was land in Mumbai that needed structures to decorate it, Aakash believed that his talent would help him find a spot in the hiring rosters. Despite his lack of focus, he was efficient with the work he was assigned.

Aakash pressed his ears hard against the office door of his seventh boss to check for any activity. Having heard a garbled telephonic conversation, Aakash figured out that the boss was planning to step out for an early dinner with one of the prospective clients and concluded that he had four hours at his disposal – he had reached that figure after factoring in traffic, time to entertain the guests, time to consume a seven-course meal, a couple of cigarettes and a drink to seal the deal. Amid his calculations, Aakash heard footsteps approaching from the boss’ office and immediately rushed back to hide in his cabin. Two minutes later, the sight of the boss stepping into the lift encouraged Aakash to take his water break. As he walked towards the office water cooler, he bumped into Sudha, the boss’ secretary.

Nobody liked Sudha, physically or emotionally. She had a dark complexion, a puffy nose, dark eyes and long hair that was always graced by one flower or another, and a penchant for sarees in eye-catching colours. Appearances aside, nobody liked Sudha because Sudha liked nobody. She took sadistic pleasure in using, rather, misusing, her direct access to the boss’ ear to complain about the inefficiency of the employees. In return, the employees viewed her as a rat. Nobody knew how the cycle started but Sudha always seemed to have the upper hand. Unbelievably, she always knew too much about the employees – what they were doing and not doing with their lives, who was sleeping with whom, who was looking to shift jobs and who was stealing the office stationery. To keep the salaries coming in, everybody superficially displayed a reverence to her. Aakash had never liked Sudha, for he considered her an eyesore. The feeling was mutual as Sudha found Aakash to be inefficient. All that kept him on the job were those rare flashes of brilliance that lagged behind his overall lazy demeanour.

Sudha looked up and her face darkened.

“Can’t you look and walk?” asked Sudha, in a distinctly South Indian accent.

“Sorry, maaadaam,” replied Aakash, mocking her accent.

Sudha squinted at Aakash with thorough disapproval. Did he just use an accent on me? She wasn’t sure.

Aakash quickly cleaned up the mess and returned the disorganised stack of papers to her with an apology and innocent eyes. Sudha let Aakash pass with a stern gaze.

As she sat down at her table to examine the papers, she realised that the paper order had been disturbed. Determined to assign Aakash to the tedious task of reordering, Sudha headed over to the end of the hallway to grab Aakash by the ears. To the left of the hallway was the water cooler. As she walked towards it, she heard laughter. Knowing that water coolers were a ripe area for office gossip, she decided to eavesdrop from the corner to learn the latest joke.

Aakash was the narrator. “I just bumped into Sudha on the way and threw her papers all over.”

“Did she make you squat for making her drop those papers?” asked a reedy voice.

“I just charmed my way out of it,” said Aakash confidently.

“I sent a wrong mailer the other day and she made me write, mind you, WRITE, ‘I won’t send wrong mailers’ a hundred times. Who resorts to that form of punishment these days? I wonder what the source of her sadism is.”

Excerpted with permission from Secrets Within, Mushtaq Shiekh, Penguin India.