For Nana and Nani through whose love, I understood love itself
Foreword: The Hare, the Tortoise and the Twist
‘Dude, why are we running?’ the hare asked the tortoise at the start line.
‘Because you brag that you run fast,’ the tortoise snorted. ‘My community and other friends in the jungle chose me to challenge you. I’m here to prove we are no less.’
‘Running fast is one of my strengths and yes, I am proud of it. Just like a long life of three hundred-odd years is yours. My community doesn’t feel you people brag about it. It’s the truth and we accept it,’ the hare said, growing irritable. ‘Why should I run this meaningless race? It doesn’t make any sense.’
‘Then beat me,’ the tortoise smiled. ‘The old folks tell me that slow and steady can win any race. I am determined to beat you and I am sure I can do it if I work hard enough.’
‘That's exactly the point. Why should you work hard and not smart? Surely you have abilities I don't have, and I have qualities that you don't. Where does this race fit in?’
‘Survival of the fittest, that’s where it fits in,’ said the tortoise, puffing out his chest.
‘But aren’t both of us survivors? Otherwise, only one of us would have been standing here. Creation is about diversity. Besides, what happens if I win this race? Should I compete with a cheetah next and be the laughing stock that day? If at all I run, it will be for myself—my dreams and my desires. Not for you or this jungle.’
‘So what do you want to do right now? Got anything better to do than run this race?’ the tortoise scoffed.
‘Yes,’ the hare said, confidently. ‘I want to sit in the shade and relish a fresh, juicy carrot. Get lost chasing the clouds in the endless blue sky. Dig deep burrows to unearth new and exciting finds. Play with my friends, explore what lies beyond that horizon. I won't live the three hundred-odd years that you will. My life is too short to waste running mindless races.’
‘That's funny,’ the tortoise said as the gun went off. He started running. That is, he started moving as fast as he could.
The hare stood in his spot and shook his head. Then, without warning, he ran, far from the madding crowd. He followed his heart.
The tortoise won the uncontested race. Two hundred and forty years later, time hung heavily over the tortoise’s mundane routine of eat, swim, sleep, repeat. He was tired of hiding beneath the shadow of his shell, afraid of the vultures that dotted the skies. The hare had told him the sky was an endless blue with clouds of many shapes. Was the hare not afraid of the predators? He had dared to be a dreamer. Why was he so different? Life was complicated, the tortoise thought as he entered the swamp for his last swim. He disappeared without leaving a ripple. Despite living and being an intrinsic part of the jungle for almost three hundred years, not a soul missed him. The race that had been the cornerstone of his life was made into a fable by his community.
The legend of the hare, however, remains to be told.
Book 1: The Start Line
Chapter 1: Dream turns to nightmare
The alarm rang and Rasiq woke up without hitting snooze for the first time in his life. He checked the clock—6.00 a.m. Rasiq had spent a fitful night, anxious about the coming day.
Today is the first day of the rest of my life, he thought as he got out of bed and stretched. He pulled out his toothbrush from his travel bag and headed to the bathroom. He took his time brushing his teeth, thinking about his mother’s advice: first impressions are hard to erase. He took an unusually long shower, scrubbing himself obsessively as if to cleanse himself of ages of dirt. His shave was closer than ever, thanks to the new Mach 5 razor that his father had gifted him. Next, he put on cologne, again something he had never done before. He understood deodorants, but colognes were an enigma.
He applied a little gel on his thick, straight hair, which had been cropped short, to make sure it didn't stand up odd angles. If he were to believe what his seniors said about investment banking, it was going to be a long, long day. He wore his new shirt—double cuffed—with the cufflinks that Ruchika had gifted him. His new Van Heusen suit had cost him a bomb considering he had not earned a rupee in his life yet. Finally, he wore his new Aldo shoes. He didn't know anyone who wore shoes that cost ten thousand rupees, but then he didn't know any investment bankers either.
He checked himself in the full-length mirror and was satisfied with what he saw. At 5'11" he just missed the ‘tall’ benchmark, but his lean frame made him seem taller. His dusky complexion, sharp features, square jaw and intense look made it impossible for people to ignore his presence. He stepped closer to the mirror to wear contact lenses for the first time in his life.
‘You have beautiful eyelashes,’ Ruchika had told him when they were shopping in the mall a week ago. ‘You shouldn’t hide them behind your thick spectacles.’
‘Yuck,’ Rasiq had reacted. ‘Who puts a foreign object in their eyes? That’s so ridiculous!’
‘You know I love your lashes. Why can't you do even this much for me?’ she had said with her index finger dangerously close to her thumb, the gesture suggesting that the favour asked was insignificant.
He ought to carry it out with grace. Rasiq had acceded to her request. What choice had he really had in the matter? His bloodshot eyes spilt a small waterfall by the time he overcame his struggle with the lenses. He took out his silk handkerchief and mopped his eyes and face. He checked himself in the mirror a final time and nodded in appreciation of his new avatar. The first day of the rest of my life.
He went down to the lobby of the hotel; the Trident, Nariman Point, was his transitory home courtesy of his employers. He had a week to find an apartment in Mumbai.
‘Good morning, sir,’ said the woman at the reception.
Sir? Rasiq thought. Wow. I’m only twenty-three! Was she the one who checked me in yesterday? She wasn't that courteous when I was in my worn jeans and tee-shirt! Rasiq was pleased at the effect his new avatar had on people. He noticed as he stepped out that even the guard with the thick mustache saluted him. His office was a short walk from the hotel.
It was 7.30 a.m. He was to report at nine. Plenty of time. He crossed the road and walked to the waterfront. Pristine! Rasiq inhaled the fresh morning air—a small luxury that Mumbai afforded its residents. He caught the rare sight of the morning sun, its orange hue reflecting radiantly off the sea. The streets were mostly empty. He had an hour to gaze at the fathomless sea, but he couldn't sit on the low wall along the promenade, as he had done last evening with Ruchika. He couldn’t afford to ruin his new suit. He stood looking at the horizon, dreaming about a future that was about to unfold.
‘Chai, boss?’ came a shout from behind him.
‘Cutting,’ Rasiq responded like a Mumbaikar. He had heard people order tea that way the day before, an oddity unique to Mumbai.
Immediately the man served him super-hot tea in a plastic cup of dubious quality. This can't be hygienic, Rasiq thought. A thought immediately followed by the realization that he had never bothered about the quality of cups before. His transformation had begun from the moment he had worn his suit.
‘First time in Mumbai?’ the tea guy asked him in a thick Mumbai accent, forcing Rasiq out of his thoughts.
‘Yes,’ Rasiq said. ‘In fact, it's my first day here. I arrived last evening. How did you know?’
‘It's obvious, boss!’ Rasiq smiled. ‘Can you give me a Classic Milds too?’
The man took one out from a pack and gave it to Rasiq. He lit the cigarette for Rasiq. ‘How much?’ Rasiq asked, pulling deeply on his cigarette.
‘Arrey boss,’ the man said, ‘today is your first day in town. I can't take money from you.’
‘No, no,’ Rasiq said, putting his cup down on the promenade wall and pulling out his wallet. ‘I have to pay you.’
‘No boss,’ the man said, as he started walking away. ‘Pay me tomorrow onwards. I cannot forget my first day in Mumbai. I was penniless. I managed some food that day thanks to a kind man. I am just repaying the debt I owe to the city.’ The man rushed to serve other people.
‘At least tell me your name,’ Rasiq yelled after him and the man turned around, grinning. He walked back to Rasiq and extended his hand, ‘I am Gopi.’ Rasiq felt slightly odd with the formality of shaking the man's hand, but he didn’t want to be rude.
‘Rasiq,’ he said, shaking his hand. ‘Thank you for the chai and the cigarette.’ The man grinned again, all thirty-two teeth on display, and walked away. Rasiq turned to face the sea. He picked up his tea and smoked his cigarette in silence, waiting for the rest of his life to begin.
* * *
‘You have been cornered,’ Samar, a second-year associate and Rasiq's mentor at the investment bank, declared with a smirk on his face.
‘What?’ Rasiq said, confused.
‘The corner office is calling you,’ Samar replied.
‘What?’ Rasiq was even more bewildered.
‘Abey dhakkan,’ the associate said irritably, ‘the head of the investment banking division has summoned you to his office. It's the one on the corner of the floor.’
Rasiq felt like an idiot but wondered why. Was he supposed to have come prepared knowing the lingo these guys used?
As he reached the corner office, he saw an older man talking animatedly on the phone. His short hair was peppered with grey. Rasiq waited outside patiently, observing the man. He was dressed in a pinstriped suit that looked much more expensive than his own. After waiting for about fifteen minutes in complete silence, Rasiq started sweating in anticipation. Moving, in any direction whatsoever, keeps the mind occupied, Rasiq thought. It is only in moments of silent contemplation that the mind grows agitated.
The man slapped down the receiver of the landline phone. His action communicated anger, but his face was expressionless. Classic poker face. Or banker's face? Wait! Is that why bankers are good at poker? All of them as lively as walls.
When the man paid no heed to him waiting at the door, Rasiq knocked. The man glanced up before returning his gaze to his computer screen. He gestured with one finger for Rasiq to enter.
‘Yes?’ he enquired without looking up.
Rasiq could sense that his uneasiness gave the man a strange sense of control. ‘You called me, sir?’ Rasiq said with a quiver in his voice.
The man and his office intimidated him. Rasiq noticed the office had two glass walls overlooking Marine Drive and the Arabian Sea. The view was breathtaking, especially from the twenty-first floor.
Finally, the man looked up. ‘Who are you?’
‘Rasiq, sir,’ he said. ‘First-year analyst,’ he added, when the man made a strange face on hearing his name. ‘I joined today.’
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I’m Raghav. Listen, boss, I want to tell you a couple of things before you start here.’
Boss? Who talks like that? Rasiq thought. I understand Gopi, but this guy?
‘So do you think this is your dream job?’ he said, not bothering to ask Rasiq to sit.
Rasiq nodded, unconvincingly. His wobbly voice stumbled on the way and never make it out of his throat.
‘Wrong,’ the man continued, clearly satisfied with the effect he had on Rasiq, ‘it is your nightmare.’
Rasiq wondered if he was expected to agree.
‘We don't have room for dreamers. But we are going to ensure we nip the problem in the bud. You are going to slog the whole of next year. Not much time to sleep, so there won't be any dreams.’
Rasiq stared at the man, horror-struck. He swallowed hard and was afraid that it was audible. He imagined Raghav laughing like a possessed monster from a Tim Burton movie. I would have wet my pants if he had done that, Rasiq thought. Ironically, the humorous thought calmed him.
‘Tell your family and girlfriend, if you have one, not to visit you here in Mumbai: it would be a waste of a trip. Let's be clear about that, boss.’
Rasiq was too intimidated to say anything.
The man smiled out of the corner of his mouth and extended his hand, ‘Welcome to investment banking!’
Rasiq managed to thank him before leaving his office.
* * *
‘That was quite something,’ Rasiq said as Samar turned towards him.
‘Not interested. Who are you?’ Samar dismissed his observation with a question as he rose from his desk. He was a good half-foot shorter than Rasiq and wore his thin, wavy hair long, probably to hide the balding that had started at his temples. He was, however, dressed smartly in grey trousers and a pink shirt with a white collar. His gold cufflinks competed for attention with the four diamond rings on his fingers. The shiny, pointed leather shoes were from Armani, much more expensive than Rasiq’s, of course.
He started walking without saying anything to Rasiq. Confused by the question, Rasiq resigned himself to following him.
‘Rasiq,’ he answered feebly as they walked, aware that it wasn’t the answer expected from him.
‘That's your name,’ Samar said, louder than was necessary considering how close Rasiq was to him. ‘Who are you?’ he asked again.
Rasiq could feel everyone in the office looking at them as they walked by the array of cubicles. ‘First-year analyst?’ Rasiq said, doubtfully.
‘Wrong again. That's the designation on your card,’ Samar said, ‘not your identity. Who are you?’
Rasiq was annoyed with the unnecessary third-degree. ‘Do you have the answer?’ he finally gathered an iota of courage to ask. ‘Why don't you tell me?’
‘You are a whore!’ Samar said as he burst out laughing. Rasiq stood aghast. He opened his mouth to say something, but nothing emerged. He could hear laughter from the audience of the theatre of the most embarrassing moment of his life.
‘Yes,’ Samar said. ‘You are everybody's bitch.’
I’m sorry, I think you have me confused with your wife, Rasiq thought. That's what he should have said. ‘What do you mean?’ he asked politely instead, his ears burning with embarrassment.
‘One team picks up an analyst from the second year onward. But in the first year, you have to work with all the directors so they can decide whether they want you on their team. Which means anyone can and will ask you to work on anything they want. Ergo, you are everyone's bitch.’
The colour drained from Rasiq's face. He had no idea how to respond to such talk.
‘You thought you were fortunate to be the only guy on campus to get an offer from us?’
‘Yes,’ Rasiq replied sincerely, despite the situation. Jobs were difficult to get during the recession, but he had received his placement an hour into Day Z: short for Day Zero, the first day of the campus placement season.
‘Well, you’re probably the unluckiest guy in the world,’ he said. ‘The firsties have to do the grunt work on all the deals. We typically hire four or five. This year, you are the only one, which means your life is going to be four or five times harder than that of any other first-year analyst's. And boy, what a shitty life they have.’
Rasiq could hear muffled laughter from the other associates and vice presidents in the office.
‘Here’s your only real friend, the coffee machine,’ Samar continued as if nothing had happened. ‘You'll need litres of it, so you can walk in anytime, have an unlimited supply to keep you alive, alert and awake. I'll show you your desk now.’
What have I gotten myself into? Rasiq thought, feeling every bit like a lamb destined for the slaughterhouse. He followed Samar quietly, his ears still burning and his face an embarrassing crimson. This level of humiliation was a first for him. And to make matters worse, he had never felt so handicapped in giving a fitting response.
‘This is it,’ Samar said, pointing to an extended desk with four chairs and a single desktop on it. ‘Normally, four first-year analysts sit here for a year before earning a proper cubicle in the team they join.’
‘I guess I am lucky then,’ Rasiq said trying to brave a smile. It had sounded funny in his head but came out as desperate and meek.
Samar scoffed. ‘You can set up your office account and email. Familiarize yourself with the system. I'll send you the presentation for the deal I’m working on in a couple of hours and we can discuss the sections you need to work on.’
‘Umm,’ Rasiq said. ‘I have an onboarding session starting in an hour, which will be for the rest of the day.’
‘Rest of the day?’ Samar asked.
‘Yes,’ Rasiq said taking out his joiner's agenda and handing it to Samar.
‘It's till six,’ Samar said. ‘That's not even half a workday. We'll start at six then.’