Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Fair Game

It was the last day of sales training for Suvro. He was unusually reticent, and not an expert at convincing people about anything. It was still a mystery how he managed to get selected at all. But then, the water filter people didn't care much about whom they hired. They were just bothered about numbers. And nobody in Calcutta had heard about arsenic poisoning before this. Armed with deadly pictures and pamphlets about the effects of various water-borne diseases and how the ground water in Calcutta is polluted, it was fairly easy for even a shy person to meet the monthly targets.

Suvro was introverted and withdrawn because of his heavy German accent. His parents moved back to Calcutta in the 80s when he was barely ten, and Suvro could never recover from the cultural shock of having moved from a quaint little European village to a bustling city with frequent power cuts and curious people. The kids in the neighborhood made fun of his accent, and the only respite was the Sunday service at the local church, where Father Gilson used to preach. He was Belgian and had taught Mathematics at St. Xavier's School, Ranchi, before moving to Calcutta. Father Gilson understood the troubled kid and took him under his fold. He could sense that the kid wasn't growing up to be a Christian, but Father Gilson believed one would seek god only if one needed him. He watched this boy grow up mostly an agnostic, immensely interested in European history, and caught in a cultural limbo. The last few years of school was at South Point, the largest school in the world, but Suvro could hardly make any friends. But there was a lot of space for an agnostic Christian boy in a city that had opened its arms to people of all faiths and even to those with none.

And there was Maya. Dark, wiry, a long jumper, and basically lost in her thoughts all day. She had learned very early in her life that although this city had made peace with atheists, pickpockets, authors, playwrights, musicians, and communists, there was still no acceptance for a dark-complexioned woman. A person's good looks are defined by the complexion, and even in her family Maya had to face a lot of rebuke for being dark. Her aunt, who used to live with them, would constantly keep reminding her father that he wouldn't find it easy to get her married. "Men will just use you and move on." Maya hated going home. She would often sit by the river next to the abandoned jute mill. She would go only when Baba was around. He loved her unconditionally, and called her his pretty little Sreela. Sreela Majumdar and Smita Patil were beautiful actors (despite being dark, as the industry kept reminding you). But Baba seldom came home. After the closure of the jute mill, he took up another job that involved a lot of travel.

Maya loved going to school because she found a friend in Suvro. He was this confused kid, mostly cornered and bullied by the others, and only Maya didn't make fun of his accent. It didn't take long for them to find comfort in each other. They would have their tiffin-time stories. He would tell her about Bach and the wonders of how multiple layers of simultaneous music could be composed by one man's brain. And about Edward Hopper.

They grew up together and stuck with each other through school and college. Father Gilson died of cancer. Maya was the first among the two to get a job with State Bank of India for representing Bengal in athletics, and Suvro, being a student of history from Calcutta University, was struggling to find a job as a salesman. That's all Calcutta had to offer in the mid-nineties. A job in sales for many, a career for a lucky handful. But the water filter people selected him. They were recruiting for an army of sales locusts to cloud over the city and were not very discriminating. Can you speak Bangla? Hardly. And English? What's that accent? We will give him the Alipore sector and Hastings to cover. All the rich English babus there.

Suvro got a job and it was the final day of training. Mr Devadasan was a brilliant trainer and had taught them all the techniques of sales over the last two weeks. About tricky situations, difficult customers, categories of customers, how to read their minds, how to make an entry, and so on. It is about instilling fear in the mind of the housewife about water. Doesn't she love her children?

"Today, I will put a special mantra in one lucky person's mind. And that person will never fail in his career." Mr Devadasan sounded mysterious. "I will hypnotize him."

Everybody was eager to be hypnotized, but apparently there was a game to be played first, to decide who is most suitable. Not everybody can be hypnotized. You have to be willing.

All the trainees were asked to close their eyes and straighten out their hands ahead of them, with one palm facing up and the other down. They were to imagine a balloon tied to one hand, and a pound weight placed on the other. At the end of the exercise, when they were asked to open their eyes, Suvro was the winner, with one hand soaring way above his head and another almost wilting, about to touch the table. Most of the other students hadn't moved their hands much.

"Like I said, you have to be a willing candidate, and let your imagination rule you. I cannot hypnotize someone who isn't ready to let me control his mind."

Suvro then had the most amazing experience of his life. Sitting in the room, he experienced being taken deep into a dungeon down a white marble staircase that slowly turned moss green. It was the inside of the redbrick Astorhouse, where he had never been. The voices from all around sounded like distant gurgle, and the only controlling voice was of Mr Devadasan's, whom he saw in a white suit, holding his hand.

Suvro came to with the sound of fingers snapping. All this while he was seated in the middle and Mr Devadasan had pricked two needles into his stretched arms. It wasn't hurting, and there wasn't any blood. But Suvro had no recollection of this incident at all. Mr Devadasan removed the needles and pressed some cotton on the incisions. "I've given you the secret code to becoming a successful salesman. Come back next year and tell me how you fared."

It was getting late, Maya would be waiting at Desapriya Park after 5.30. They had decided to celebrate with muglai parota at Adi Sutripti after he got his first salary, but for now, it was roasted groundnuts at the park. Suvro was breathless by the time he reached. Maya was waiting for him at the gate. It would be awkward for a girl to enter the park alone, infested with couples and hawkers. Suvro ran toward her and animatedly started showing the incision marks, not sure where to start his story. It might not be in the same league as Jasper Maskelyne's creation of a German warship on the Thames, but this was nothing short of a miracle. Mr Devadasan looked like god, you know? In white.
Maya hugged him and offered some badam bhaja.
Suvro wasn't listening. The needle marks were his trophies for the day.

But Maya's trophy was much bigger than that. Just that she chose to keep quiet about it.
More than the medals, the cups, and being photographed with the Chief Minister Mr Jyoti Basu, she had found herself a fair-complexioned boy.

It was time for a triumphant return home.