Stories to Stir your Soul...

The smile and the conscience - Arundhoti Banerjee

Someone named Rima called me up last Thursday, whilst I was madly trying my hands at C++ and MPI and those loops and brackets in the code was getting me claustrophobic. With all phone etiquette forgotten, I gruntled my displeasure at my privacy in office and my concentration at work being violated. I shouldn't have taken that unsolicited call at all. On second thoughts, it could be my despondent subconscious self that knew the need of carrying myself with sobriety in office, even under conditions of growing despondency at my ineptness to produce a petty piece of code. The poor female on the other end provided the much needed vent to my fretting self.

Though guilty she was at having caused me trouble, her reluctance to hang up told me of the urgency of the call and got me a little softer. I had two minutes to spare. She cited some vague connections( a friend of some consultant who had supposedly helped me a couple of years ago and whose name I couldn't recollect) and stated the purpose. She was on the lookout for a job which brought her to my city and my organization, where she had appeared for a written test a couple of days back. The test takers were promised intimation in a few days if they made it.
She was putting up in a hotel waiting for the test results.That told me about her paucity of acquaintances in this place and I could imagine the kindling of a faint hope when she had tracked my number down. The favour she wanted of me was an enquiry at the HR Department as to the procedures and if possible the results. She promised me a call in another hour and I promised her the favour.

I dived deep into my code and comfortably forgot all about the call and the caller. It was only when the phone beeped after an hour and the screen flashed the same booth number that I recollected the deed I had to do. I cancelled the call( I always guard my laziness or sheer callousness with the excuse of being in a meeting) and rushed to the HR Department. After a hasty enquiry I was informed that the person who could tell me the things was at some genuine meeting. Now I took the call that came again, and with that meeting thing as the prelude( that made her feel guilty yet one more time) I quickly modified the requisite information as the concerned person being on leave for a day. I could hear her disheartened, but grateful at the same time for having granted her the favour. I felt a pang of guilt for a minute, but that was the only way to avoid being called again.

That didn't work though. She called up again the next day because she had this natural expectation that I would have the information when the leave duration was over. And the fact that it wasn't unjustified in the least, pricked my conscience one more time. With all that messy work left at my workstation and grudging this favour trap I had fallen into, I returned to the HR Department and collected the information this time. I told her that she would get to know the results in a couple of days' time and that the Department wouldn't divulge the results to anyone but the test takers. At hearing this she faintly mentioned the difficulties at her lodging and how two more days would add to her discomfort but the disinterest in my tone caught her in the middle and she stopped, thanking me again before she hung up.

Weekend saw me very deliberately missing her calls uncountable number of times, cursing her all the time for the annoyance she caused in the middle of my coffee-day conversation with my friends or more importantly my mid-day naps. Once I had almost picked it up while watching television, but my cunning self got the better of me just in time. I told myself repeatedly that I was a busy person and I had already done the most I could have. But then, something kept pricking my conscience repeatedly too.

Monday morning, the receptionist at my office reckoned while I was immersed in work. I walked there and found a dark-complexioned, ill-dressed and excessively lean female, greeting me with a smile that flashed eager anticipation. She introduced herself as Rima. I had no idea that she was so middle-class. I was wrong. Middle-class was an overstatement. The cheap salwar-suit, the unkempt hair, the almost-torn chappals, all of them talked about her plight with money.
I could imagine all the unstated discomfort in a second.

She was still smiling and I quickly cooked up my excuse for not having picked her calls. I was out of station with my cell switched on and left back here, that informed me only today morning when I returned, of all the calls I had missed. And I was so sorry that I missed them. I couldn't tell how I felt at having cooked that one. Only that I couldn't have felt worse.

She continued. She had managed thousand bucks from home for the trip and add to that a small hoarded amount as pocket money for emergency. The hotel took away most of it and she could only afford 6-bucks per plate idlis for all her meals. Her smile never faded. I added to that all the phone calls she had made to me. I could feel my heart thumping and my stomach sinking into a pit. I felt like running away. I was still listening. She cursed herself for not having foreboded an extended stay over the weekend. She wanted the entire selection procedure to be over at one go. She couldn't have convinced her family for more money to come down to the city yet another time. Her stupidity, as she put it, got her into dire straits because she hadn't the amount to pay at the hotel for another two days. So she called me to ask me of another favour. If I could allow her to stay with me for those two days. But my being out of the city( she had innocently believed the story) was her ill-fate and she shifted to some cheaper place. By God's grace the amount was enough. I hated myself and smiled.

I couldn't help asking her about the results. She replied that she hadn't made it. She was finally going back to her village and she just came down all the way here to try her luck at finding me. Again it was by God's grace that she found me and she couldn't stop thanking me for being the sole point of contact in this unknown city. I vaguely smiled. She thanked me for all the help. I could feel tears and remembered sobriety in office. She waved me a bye and left, smiling. I stood there. I couldn't feel.

- arundhoti banerjee


At 10:06 PM, Blogger Suraj Kamath said...

ouch.. am reminded of all the 'innocently' shitty things I've done. Smarts still.

At 11:02 PM, Anonymous Vj - vjwpf2@yahoo.co.in said...

i liked it more for the honesty of the writer. a trait very few writers have. great!

At 11:22 PM, Blogger rohit said...

deep impact! great job!

At 11:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice and touching story...

At 11:53 PM, Blogger arundhoti said...

Thanks Suraj, vj-vjwpf2 , rohit and anon... its your feedback, criticism or appreciation, that helps someone communicate. And holds Vibe together!

At 2:40 AM, Anonymous yash said...

congrats on your first short story in vibe.. and a real good one.. keep writing..

At 6:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Real class english, presentation style engrossing everything .
But do write a jolly story next time,this was really very sad.

At 1:31 AM, Blogger arundhoti said...

Thanks Yash. Will definitely keep writing.
And dear anon, the best part of your comment was that, the piece made you sad. It was a piece to help you remember times when you end up doing wrong with no intentions of doing so. Times when it was only in your hands to do a lot of good but that you threw away the opportunity, innocently enough. And later have only yourself to blame.
Its because we have lost ourselves to the supposedly big things( the C++ and office being a metaphor for that) and try to do away with what our consience( that intangible small thing ) tells us. This piece was just an attempt to make someone realise that we havent lost our conscience yet.

At 2:48 AM, Blogger wordzmyth said...

Great Story.Packs a deadly emotional punch.Great word play.

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