This story was first published in UnBound Magazine Issue 2.
Ritu Saxena was half out of the washroom when Natasha yelled from inside, “Hey, don’t leave without giving us an update!”
“About what?” Ritu turned back to look from Natasha to the other junior girl, both from the testing team.
A dozen shiny tubes and brushes pulled out from the girls’ cosmetic bags garlanded the white wash basins they leaned over.
Natasha’s teammate, whose name Ritu couldn’t recall, had all her focus on the lower eye lid that she pulled down to line with a kohl pencil.
“About Anish Kashyap, of course,” Natasha replied, hand-combing her wavy hair to fall on her shoulders. The effect set off the sharpness of her heart shaped face.
“You heard that already?” Ritu said.
“Everyone has. The news is a day old,” Natasha shrugged. “How’s the investigation going? If you ask me, I don’t believe Anish is like that. Or I’d have known. He’s happy with his wife.” Natasha turned to smile at her teammate, “The other day, he told me such a sweet thing about his wife’s delivery…”
“Oh spare me, ‘happily married’ doesn’t mean men stop feeling the hots for other women,” the other junior spoke, one eye closed to let the mascara dry. Instantly Ritu recalled her name – Varnika, the newly wed. Ritu knew nicknaming wasn’t a nice habit, but she used it to memory-register the juniors she never got time to interact with.
“Girls, please don’t discuss the complaints to the grievance committee. They are supposed to be confidential.” Ritu stepped out of the washroom.
Simultaneously, two young men emerged from the men’s washroom at the opposite side of the nook that housed the ground-floor washrooms of InfoBiz (India) Pvt. Limited. They hushed their loud voices when they saw her.
After the ladies, it seemed to be the men’s turn to inquire about Anish’s fate. Ritu was forced to snub at least three of them before she took the stairs to her floor. Their anxiety to prove Anish innocent was quite obvious.
I’ve never seen them talking to Anish and overnight, they have turned his well-wishers, Ritu thought. He’s the quiet type, but that doesn’t mean he’s pure as driven snow.
Now that she recalled, she had often seen Anish talking to Natasha and other girls. Ritu decided he was not quite as silent as he was soft-spoken… no, not soft-spoken either. Soft-spoken people like her lunch mate Vinod held some warmth in their voice. Anish’s voice had a boring dry tone. A discreet voice incapable of being tinged with cheer, anger, or sorrow… she paused on the stairs.
Look at me, trying to find something macabre in his voice. Just yesterday she had shook her head in disbelief when Monica had filed the complaint against him.
Just her luck. She had known the week would be busy but not in this way. She had run from cubicle to cubicle to personally coax people to plug the loopholes that kept her three projects from releasing on time. Now the week that was to be the zenith of her role as a program manager would instead test her as the head of the grievance committee.
She dialed a number on the intercom as she set her laptop on the desk.
“Monica, how does everyone know about Anish?”
There was a stiff pause before the reply, “Does it matter? I told a couple of other girls about how he touched me.”
“Do you realize how complicated the whole thing gets when everyone knows?”
“Yeah, but my workstation isn’t an island. Everyone gets to know anyway!” Monica’s shrill voice could slice a diamond.
“Okay, don’t get all rattled now,” Ritu said in an even tone. Damn these campus recruits! She had no idea how Monica had passed InfoBiz’s formidable interviews. Those interviews tested a candidate’s emotional quotient. Monica was too easily agitated, totally unprofessional, always hyper – Ritu was yet to hear her speak at a normal volume.
Monica continued her feverish pitch. “What are you going to do next? I can’t go on like this with Anish sitting diagonally across the cube. It’s tiring not to look at that side to avoid those seedy eyes. One of us has to quit.”
“You don’t have to suffer him today. I got an SMS that he’s on leave. And I have till end of today to finish my investigation.”
“Good but his wife is present. She has been following me with her eyes.”
“Rein in your imagination, Monica. With her corner workstation, the only things her eyes can follow are the shadows on the wall.” Ritu had in fact stolen a glance at Anish’s wife from the stairs. She had got a good view of Reena’s pinched face staring emptily at the monitor. Ironically, she was the only person so far who hadn’t tried to sway Ritu with an opinion on the matter.
She ended her conversation with Monica, with the feeling that she had achieved exactly the opposite of her intention.
People – the reason why she had protested against heading the grievance committee at first place.
She was not the HR, she had argued. But the VP didn’t trust the HR.
“They are just kids. You are a mature, intelligent woman, and our senior-most. The government wants the senior-most female employees to head this committee.”
She wished government had waited with their Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace act until she retired. Of course, the women’s groups in the country thought the act was late by half a century.
Perhaps the VP now regretted his decision. Yesterday when she had reported Monica’s complaint to him, the first thing he wanted to know was if Monica the type to go to the media. When Ritu couldn’t be sure, his direction was to fire Anish right away. When she didn’t agree to do that without investigation, she was given the end-of-today deadline. A kid from the HR would have been more pliable.
Rishi from the testing team walked over to her cabin. “Ritu…”
She looked up from her monitor.
“No I have no update about Anish.”
“I came to ask about PV3000.”
“Oh okay, I thought… anyway PV3000 is pending approvals from Legal. I expect that to be sorted out today.”
“Now that you mention it, you won’t get him fired, will you?”
Ritu sighed and sat back. “I’ll have to if I have to.”
“But it can’t be right. I mean his wife works here too.”
“Maybe she’s the kind who doesn’t mind a philandering husband. Even some presidents’ wives have known to stick with their cheating husbands. And Reena is only a small-town lass.”
“I wish my wife was like that,” Rishi chuckled and then as if suddenly realizing where he was bid her a quick goodbye.
By lunch time, Ritu had ticked just two items off her to-do list. But decided to join the beeline for the cafeteria, more to unwind than to eat.
She sat at her favorite table-for-two in the café terrace, picked up a three-compartment disposable plate, and began emptying her salads, paneer curry, and chapattis into it.
Monica slid to the seat opposite her and snapped, “Is Vinod late today?”
Startled, Ritu almost poured the curry into her salad.
“I’m early I think.” Nevertheless Ritu wished Vinod would hurry.
“So what have you decided? The day has only few hours left.”
“Anish has a wife and a baby son…” Ritu said slowly. “We can’t fire him just like that. In fact, he might not be just fired. He’d be barred to take up another job in the industry. We could go for some mediation…”
“I don’t want anything to do with him, not even negotiation. Why am I being made to feel like this? How would you have felt if Anish touched you the way he did me?”
“I might have glared at him, given him a piece of my mind, or shamed him in some other way.”
Vinod appeared at that moment and greeted Monica.
Monica ignored him but stood up. ”Those old-school tactics don’t work anymore, Ritu. If you don’t take action, I’ll have to talk to the HR about it.”
“By all means,” Ritu picked a carrot slice from the salad compartment. “You don’t think I was dying to head this women-cell thingy, do you?”
Monica swung herself out of their view.
Vinod ducked sideways to avoid her flying hair, “Whoa, that’s one angry young lady.” He took the seat she left.
“It takes very less to anger young ladies.”
“Hmm… Obviously you haven’t yet decided her wrongdoer,” he stole a carrot slice from Ritu’s plate.
“This investigation isn’t going to be easy. The case is too subjective.” Ritu dipped a bite of chapatti into the paneer sauce, thoughtful, “Did you make up your mind about him?”
Being a social smoker, Vinod was privy to most men’s and a few women’s personal conversations.
“I thought about him last night as you asked me to and well, though it never occurred to me before, I do think him a little odd. Just a little…” Vinod spread out the two cups, a tumbler and a square container of his lunch bag.
“You know at first impression, he seems like a gentle wise soul, the way he talks in his slow manner, about taxes, investments, salary and hikes, laws, politics… No one’s ever heard him raise his voice. You’d think that soon you’ll be good friends with him, discuss philosophy, share secrets, drink beer, and help in times of need. But the problem is… that you never get past that first impression.”
“What do you mean?”
“That his conversations never move beyond impersonal stuff like taxes, investments, salary and hikes, laws, politics…all money related, mind you. Except with some women. He does open up with women like Shalini.”
“Ahh, Shalini the chimney.”
“With her, he speaks about his wife, how he met her, and all those sweet things plus some absurd things,” Vinod paused for effect. “Like I can kill for money.”
Ritu raised her eyebrows.
“He can’t mean it but you see that he is off-guard when with women. And he is quite money-minded.”
“We all are. But who’d even say a thing like that?”
Vinod shrugged. “People have all sorts of itches. His is to experience everything in excess. It’s beyond greed, it’s crazy. That’s what I heard about him. Like he wants to get more value for money, the kind of person who’ll enjoy hours of delay during a flight because he got those extra flight hours for free.”
“Weird,” Ritu frowned.
“But is he dangerous?”
“I don’t think so. He’s too practical to be a molester or a rapist. You’d think he would hit on Shalini or Natasha, but they haven’t complained. There are no witnesses to this inappropriate touching with Monica. Are you sure she’s telling the truth?”
“Monica is brash but not a liar. You never have witnesses for things like this.”
“Yeah,” agreed Vinod. “She looks quite strong to me. But you know, in a genuine case, women handle it at personal level. Registering a complaint means she wants a benefit.”
“That’s so old-school, Vinod,” Ritu mimicked Monica, brushing him off with a wave. “What can Monica gain? She hasn’t asked for mediation, money, or anything. She just wants him out of her orbit.”
“To get back at him for something? Remember that girl who sent you edited chat files to implicate her ex-boyfriend. Chat logs from the server later proved her lies.”
“Yeah. We had some proof there. Something to convince everyone. Not like this case. No witnesses, no second victims…”
“Hi Ritu. Hello Vinod.” This interruption came from Pooja, the tomboyish, ever-cheerful girl from documentation.
“Hi Pooja, take the seat. I’ll pull a chair.” Vinod offered to Pooja and went in search of an empty chair. It was obvious Pooja had something serious to say though she wore a grin.
Pooja was the girl born with a toothy grin that often gave way to laughter. Her voice too would never be without cheer but her eyes… they were true. They didn’t hold the usual twinkle. Instead they looked dark and doubtful.
Pooja either giggled or cleared her throat as she took the seat. “I think I ought to share something that happened a year ago,” she said.
“I knew Anish and his wife from a previous job in Delhi. When I got this job, I called Anish just to let him know. Because I didn’t know anyone else in this city.
He offered to pick me up from the airport and drop me to the hotel where InfoBiz had booked me. I thought it was nice of him and went along.”
“Were you close friends?” Ritu asked.
“No, just office friends.”
“He was at the airport on time and I was grateful. I kept a friendly chatter all through the route though I wasn’t really up to it. The late night flight had been tiring. When we reached the hotel, I checked into my room and all I wanted was rest.
But Anish seemed to want to spend some more time. So I babbled on till he climbed the bed and stretched himself. My patience was tested now. I was seated at a bedside stool, and I was civil to him only for the help he had accorded me.”
Pooja looked at Vinod. Vinod looked uncomfortably at Ritu. Ritu shrugged.
“Suddenly he took my hand and said, “Ohh Pooja…, how I missed you!!” and started rubbing my palm.
Needless to say, I threw him out of the room.”
“Saala haram…” Vinod went back to his roots when angry.
“Why didn’t you report the incident to me?”
“I was new to the company and… I didn’t want to hurt his wife. I like her. I gave him a sound lashing of my tongue anyway. He didn’t bother me after that. My department is different from his. So I don’t have to interact with him.”
“Then why now?”
Monica’s head popped up from a far away table and caught Ritu’s eye before it lowered back to the other heads at her table.
When Pooja left, Vinod said, “See how she giggled it all off. That’s handling at her level.”
“Pff.. you know what, I get him now. It’s that value-for-money thing. He took the effort to pick and drop her, spent all that money on gas, let’s say. Then he demanded return on investment. He didn’t invest anything with Shalini or Natasha. Not yet.”
“Monica is a blatant seeker for help. She doesn’t request, she demands help – for free. She’s a go-getter and she asks everyone and anyone for help. Many of us are irritated with her but not Anish. Because Anish wanted his compensation for the time he spent or the tips he shared as ..um…sexual favors.”
Vinod nodded slowly, “Possible…but remember neither of these incidents has witnesses and Monica and Pooja are thick friends. Besides Anish cares for his wife. For sure.”
Hopping back to her cubicle, a plan formed in Ritu’s mind. She’ll manage to solve this in time after all. To everyone’s satisfaction and most of all hers. By tomorrow she’ll be back to focus only on her releases.
The role of the grievance committee head wasn’t that bad after all. She loved roles that made her use her mind. Nuanced handling, attitude analysis, and tailored trainings were her mantra. She knew how to handle Anish.
A strong warning. No raise this year and transfer to a department that did not interact with Monica.
Plus she would spread the word among the women in the office to not ask or take favors from him.
She dialed at the intercom to talk to the VP. She listened to the ringtone before her own mobile phone rang to claim her attention. She replaced the receiver and picked her mobile.
She didn’t recognize the number but she received the call.
Instantly she knew the voice was fake. He had stuck something between his teeth and was speaking through them. A voice-disguise tip probably borrowed from a movie. Underneath the sneering local goon effect, the words she could make out were –
“The investigation you are doing…better drop it. Or else the consequences will be bad. You’ll pay with your life.”
“How dare he…”
Then she calmed down.
Anish’s voice was so dry it was hard to disguise it with any emotion, even evil. Yes she had a poor memory for faces and names, but voices were her thing. As a child, she could tell which same dubbing artist had provided the voice over for the grandpa, the mother, and the son in cartoon shows.
She knew he wouldn’t carry out his threat. Anish was too practical to be dangerous. The threat was a desperate, fool of an attempt by someone who thought woman could be easily scared. His problem was that he underestimated women. And that was harmful to no one but himself.
He needed a lesson – a lesson for his own safety. So that he doesn’t put himself into danger from women in future. Oh yes his ignorance could put him in bigger dangers, much bigger dangers indeed.
The next few weeks were exciting for InfoBiz. The case was talked for months.
Ritu painted Anish as a danger and menace to the company. Her best evidence was the phone call threat. Shalini testified between two quick sutta-breaks. Monica testified in angry tears. Pooja testified with her grin on.
Anish was fired and blacklisted for sexual harassment by a board for companies. He was barred from jobs in any of the well-known companies in the industry.
He did eventually find work in a small company that probably hadn’t heard of background checks.
From his Facebook timeline, he still enjoys discussing taxes, investments, salary and hikes, laws, politics… and has a moderate kind of following.