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I take the Metro to work. My wife takes the car.
Not that she minds letting me have the car. Except I’m an alcoholic, you see. Driving to work is safe enough, at eleven or thereabouts every morning, but I have a few discreet swigs of rum during the day and she doesn’t like me driving back home in the dark with all that sloshing inside me. Not in Bangalore’s peak-hour traffic, with irregular lighting and only inches to spare on each side. So I take the Metro, and she takes the car.
I tell her I don’t mind but I do, at least until the third large rum of the day, which generally happens by half-past-noon, so I’m no longer grumpy at lunch. On a typical working day, I have a couple with lunch, and a quiet little nap afterwards, leaning way back in the comfortable swivel chair in my room at the office. Back to the grind at three, a few calls, a meeting or two, a little writing, and it’s time for another couple of pegs instead of the cup of tea my colleagues have. And then it’s time to go home.
So when do I work, you might ask. Well, the straight answer is, not very often. I work for this magazine, one that I helped found… A long while ago, it was, nearly a quarter-century back. I’m the features editor now, with a capable assistant, Surya, who does all the work. I lend my presence, and a virtual blue pencil. My boss, co-founder and managing editor, Murali Srinivasan, lets me continue in my job because of our long history. We went to school together, started up this magazine together, branched out into TV together, and things fell apart soon after.
That was a couple of years ago.
No, it wasn’t. It was more like five years ago. The booze makes me lie.
No, no, I lie and blame the booze for it. Most alkies do.
Srini. Srini is the quintessential backroom boy. He runs a magazine and a TV channel but all the personal mileage he gets out of it is his name on the masthead of the magazine. Right from the beginning, we’d all go out in the field and he’d hang around in the office pulling strings, arranging loans when we needed them, fixing contacts, building up networks, and all the backup that a good journo needs. That’s what he likes, sitting at the back, pulling strings. Unflappable, available, and understated. He’s managing director, and he attends every meeting of the board, unlike me.
Srini’s room’s a bit larger than mine, but shabby, because of the constant stream of visitors: during working hours, it’s a rare moment when there aren’t a few people waiting to see him. The furniture’s a bit worn but there’s never enough time to change it. The curtains are worn, too, but Srini hasn’t had the time to select new ones and he doesn’t trust these fancy interior decorators so he makes do with frayed curtains and furniture that’s quite obviously seen better days.
He’s sitting at his desk watching his own news channel on a large bright LED TV set on the far wall. The TV is new and gleaming and out of place but it’s the one thing that he changes regularly: he insists he can’t afford not to have the best.
When I sit across from him, he turns off the TV. ‘I’ll miss Rajesh,’ he says. ‘I asked him to stay on for another year or two but he’s had enough.’
‘He’s been unwell,’ I tell him. ‘Besides his salary and savings, his job got him hypertension and worsened his diabetes. But he did give it his best.’
He takes his spectacles off and puts his elbows on his desk and steeples his fingers so I know that something nasty is on its way. I don’t know if he does it consciously, preparing the other party for the bad news, but he does it each time. ‘It’s been a long time since you gave of your best,’ he tells me finally. ‘The bloodhound is gone. What’s left is an old mushroom.’ He coughs delicately. ‘A pickled mushroom.’
‘Yes,’ I tell him. ‘But my job is more to manage the features section than to write. Surya does the rest of it very well.’ Surya is my capable assistant.
‘Umm, yes, Surya does it very well. He’s been doing it very well for the past couple of years, and he wants your job.’
A lurch inside. ‘He’s not getting it, is he?’
Srini wipes his spectacles, meaning the bad news is due. ‘A few hours ago I told him he is.’
‘Are you telling me I’m sacked?’
Srini puts his specs back on. ‘No,’ he says, fiddling with a pen on his blotter. ‘No. We wouldn’t have been here without you. So we promote you as well.’
‘And what do I do in that job?’
He looks me straight in the eye for the first time that evening. ‘You tell me,’ he says. ‘You’re not doing very much now, so you should think in peace until you find what best you can do here.’
It’s preparatory to the sack. ‘Okay,’ I say, giving him the opening he’s looking for. ‘How long can I take to think?’
More fiddling with the pen. ‘How long do you want?’
The anger and bile rise in me. It’s a physical thing in the abdomen, a beast rising up through the diaphragm to the chest. I ignore it. ‘Six months?’ I suggest, thinking that’s how long it’ll take me to get another job.
‘Take three,’ he says. Straight in the eye again. ‘Have another try at rehab, if you wish. But no more.’ He pauses. Swallows. ‘You’ve done a lot for us, but with the competition and high salaries we can’t carry you longer than that.’
‘How about a golden handshake?’
‘How much do you think you’ve cost us in the last few years?’ he replies.
‘You tell me.’
He shakes his head. ‘No. Let’s leave the history aside for now. You asked for six months, which I can’t give you. Take three months, that’s the most I could get the board to give you… But then, you don’t even have to come here. Think at home, if you wish. Check in once a week. That’s the best I can do. And the rehab offer holds. We’ll pay for it.’
You know where you can stick your best, and the rehab with it, the thing in my belly wants me to scream at him, but I don’t. Coward, I tell myself instead. As always. ‘Okay,’ I tell him, and rise to leave.
As I reach the door, he says, ‘Bala, I’m sorry it had to come to this.’
I turn back for a moment. He looks mildly triumphant, smug. The belly-thing continues to call me a coward. ‘So am I,’ I tell him, and walk out. Back in my room, I take a discreet but hefty slug out of the bottle of Old Monk rum that lives in the bottom drawer. I’ve got the movements down pat. A quick twist to get the cap off, a quick lift of the arm, a quick warming hit, another quick twist to get the cap back on, and the bottle disappears back into the drawer. A few seconds is all it takes, and the rum’s comforting warmth moves down my oesophagus, silencing the belly-beast.
We come upon the ashram gates beyond a clump of unlikely shops and stalls selling tender coconuts, bottled water, soft drinks and packaged snacks. The ashram is fenced in, and beyond a gate lies a path – beaten earth, again – to an old-style building with eaves and a tiled roof, in front of which is a sort of open hall with many pillars, also with a tiled, peaked roof. In a corner of the compound is a covered garage where two vehicles stand, a battered old Bolero and a relatively new – perhaps two years old – low-end Tata hatchback, besides a couple of small motorcycles. At the gates is a young acolyte in a white dhoti and shirt showing people the way to the hall. As with most such places, you’re supposed to leave your footwear outside, and a set of long shelves are provided for the purpose. There’s also a tap nearby where you can wash your feet if you wish. I put my shoes on the shelf and walk into the hall.
Missing are the security men. Every VIP surrounds himself with a ring of hard-eyed men in unlikely safari suits with things sticking out of their ears, or cops with fearsome-looking small arms and hissing walkie-talkies. These are conspicuous by their absence. Anyone wanting to harm this Swami can walk right up and shoot him between the eyes.
In a corner, another acolyte in white stands guard over a row of bags and suitcases: I’ve understood that people come here straight from the bus stand. Further on are rows of mats with people sitting on them, about a third of them girls and women. On a dais at the eastern end sits a lean bearded man in a dhoti and a shirt, the Swami, and flanking him are three men, dressed similarly in white. Facing him is a devotee, and the Swami listens to him, nodding and smiling, completely unhurried. He’s remarkably restful, the Swami, no odd gestures, just a smile of deep contentment.
As I watch, the devotee finishes his recital. The Swami nods at him, smiles, and does a namaste, after which the devotee walks off. One of the three men indicates the next person in the line, a young woman, who walks onto the platform to sit facing the Swami, who greets her with another namaste. More unhurried chat, more smiles, a bow from the devotee, and the same unfussy departure. It’s taken about three minutes. I look around and count: there are at least fifty people in line ahead of me. I’m going to have to wait at least a couple of hours to see the guy.
This guy is a small-timer. The big ones have thousands of people visiting them every day, and proportionately larger budgets and establishments. The comings and goings of their devotees support acres of shops, even malls, and whole townships, besides regular bus services from nearby cities, and, in one case, even a train service. This guy’s generated only these few dozen shops outside his ashram.
Swami Sarvananda seems to go for quality, not quantity, and doesn’t seem to have any of the frills – flowers, sycophants, sleight-of-hand, armies of uniformed volunteers to guide visitors around, billboards with his sayings plastered all over them, large florid buildings in which to hold public appearances, and so on. But then this guy is supposed to have some really heavyweight believers, so the numbers should rise very quickly. Unless, of course, he ends up in prison for rape or embezzlement or something.