In one [photo], Ananya’s whole family stood to attention at the beach. You could almost hear the national anthem.
The city is filled with film posters. The heroes’ pictures make you feel even your uncles can be movie stars. The heroes are fat, balding, have thick moustaches and the heroine next to them is a ravishing beauty.
I stepped inside and handed him the gift pack.
‘Shoes!’ he said in a stern voice when I had expected ‘thanks’.
‘What?’ I said.
He pointed at the shoe rack outside the house.
The dining area had floor seating. At one corner, there was a daybed with a tambura (which looks like a sitar) kept on it. An old man sat there. I wondered if Ananya’s parents were cool enough to arrange live music for dinner.
The house had an eerie silence. A Punjabi house is never this silent even when people sleep at night.
No one in my family, correction, no one in my extended clan ever read editorial pages of newspapers, let alone articles about AIADMK.
Uncle caught me peeking over him and grunted, ‘What?’
‘Nothing,’ I said. I didn’t know why I felt so guilty.
Ananya’s mother came in the living room. She held a tray with a glass of water and a plate of savouries. The spiral-shaped, brown-coloured snacks resembled fossilized snakes.
I heard noises from the other room. They sounded like long wails, as if someone was being slowly strangled. I looked puzzled and uncle looked at me.
I had an urge to run out of the house. What the fuck am I doing here in this psycho home?
Of course, things had to be different with Mr Hindu-addict Grumpyswami in front of me.
‘Sit here, Ananya,’ he said and carefully folded the newspaper like he would read it again every day for the rest of his life.
We sat on the floor for dinner. Ananya’s father passed me a banana leaf. I wondered if I had to eat it or wipe my hands with it.
Everyone first kept neat little lumps of dishes on their banana leaf. Soon they mixed it into a slurry heap.
I nodded. I heard various technology companies’ the boys’ names. I felt like upturning my banana leaf on Shobha aunty’s face.
Sendil spoke to her in Tamil. Tamilians love to irritate non-Tamil speakers by speaking only in Tamil in front of them. This is the only silent rebellion in their otherwise repressed, docile personality.
A tape played in the next room. It sounded like a chorus of women marching towards the army.
‘M.S. Subbulaxmi,’ Manju said, noticing my worried expression. ‘Devotional music.’
‘Every Tamilian house plays it in the morning.’
I wondered if Ananya would play it in our house after we got married. My mother would have serious trauma with that sound. The chants became stronger with every passing minute.
Corporate types love to pretend their life is exciting. The whispers, fist pumping and animated hand gestures are all designed to lift our job description from what it really is – that of an overpaid clerk.
The men opened their newspapers. The women gave each other formal smiles like ballet dancers. The groom took out his latest Motorola Startac mobile phone, checking messages. Ananya’s mother served her standard fossilized snake snacks. No one spoke to each other. In a Punjabi home, if a similar silence occurred, you could assume that something terrible has happened – like someone has died or there is a property dispute or someone forgot to put butter in the black daal. But this is Ananya’s home protocol. You meet in an excited manner, you serve bland snacks and you open the newspaper or exchange dead looks.
‘Really? That’s nice,’ I said. I wanted to shove the spiral snacks up his moustache-covered nose, but I kept a diplomatic smile.
‘See, how much care he is taking of her already. You are so lucky, Ananya,’ an aunt said as I almost tore a piece of banana leaf and ate it.
I saw the bowl of sambhar in the middle. I wondered if I should pick it up and upturn it on Harish’s head.
She came back with a glass of water and their family dish of hard, brittle spirals that didn’t taste of anything.
I took one. My tooth hurt as I tried to bite it. I took the spiral out of my mouth and faked I had taken a bite by pretending to chew.
Aunty answered by placing a frying pan on the stove and pouring oil in it. Once the oil heated up, she tossed in mustard seeds and curry leaves. A pungent smell filled the kitchen. I coughed twice.
She tossed chopped onions in the pan. My eyes burned along with my throat.
At the HSBC Interview:
Interviewer: ‘So tell us why you are here.’
They had heard about 40 Stephanians talk nonsense about their greatness. Each candidate had solved all the problems India faced, redesigned the bank’s strategy, and promised to work harder than apartheid era slaves. Why do companies bother with such interviews? Perhaps it makes them feel better to talk about the problems of the world, even though the actual job involves sitting at a desk and punching formulas into spreadsheets.
I had no answer for my panel. I didn’t know why I had applied to them, or for any job at all!
Interviewer took a sip of water from his bottle.
Madhav: ‘Yes sir, I am here because..’ I fumbled to remember the company’s name. ‘Because HSBC is a dynamic place to work in and I want to be a part of it.’
Given my cut-paste answer, I thought he would splash his water on my face. However, he didn’t.
‘Why do you want to do banking?’
‘Because that is what you want me to do.’
‘Well, I need a job. Yours is one of those available. And you pay well. So yes, I’ll do whatever you want me to do.’
‘You don’t have a preference?’
‘Not really.’ (better answer: ‘Do I have a choice?’)
I don’t know what made me talk like this. Perhaps it was the fact that I had given eight interviews over the past two weeks and I had lied in every one of them. I had finally had enough. I didn’t want to be here anymore.
‘Madhav, do you want this job?’
‘Mr. Shukla, are you happy? None of you look happy. Nobody wants this job. Everyone wants the money you offer. You see the difference?’