Shed Your Skin

by Tapan Mozumdar

Vinay Sadashivam, a senior professional in an international organisation, has to confront an unpleasant situation with the HR manager in his office. How does the surly man respond? Tapan Mozumdar tells the story.

When Priya wished Mr Sadashivam at the parking lot, she didn’t expect him to respond. He never did. That day, he smiled. “We can meet at 11, ok?”

A man known to lose his bearings at the slightest hint of criticism was voluntarily calling her for a disciplinary grilling? Priya was intrigued, more so when he smiled and acknowledged even an office boy’s wish! People who knew him would never agree with his first name Vinay, meaning humility in the Indian languages.

Upon their arrival at the 9th floor, Vinay checked himself on the reflective steel of the closed shaft door. He was wearing his usual Pierre Cardin, double breasted business suit, which accentuated his ungainly paunch. 5’5”, with thin layers of hair trying to cover a bald pate, an unglamorous moustache, a jagged face and dull, brown skin – Mr Vinay Sadashivam usually enjoyed the fact that his appearance, combined with his misdemeanour and bad temper, scared people away. That day, he seemed different.

At the assigned time, Priya collected her mug of coffee from the dispenser and pushed his cabin door a little, “May I?”

“Ah, Ms Mehta, please! I see you didn’t consider me worthy of offering you a cup. Have a seat. Let me ask for mine.” His eyes fixed on her face; he picked up the intercom, “Black coffee, and no sugar.”

His stare could make even a seasoned negotiator vulnerable during a deal. He looked at Priya’s fingers, which tapped on her notebook with a pencil incessantly. Priya became conscious and shifted the tap dance to her toes.

“So, you and Roshan have already decided on the consequence?” His habit of jumping to uncomfortable conclusions had always disarmed strategists on the opposite side.

Startled, Priya lost her grip on the pencil but quickly regained it. “Why do you think so? You know your value to this company.”

“I know. But do you?”

“Of course! Why else do you think you’re first on ‘one on one,’ instead of facing the harassment committee directly?”

“Great favour!” If sarcasm had teeth, Priya could have shown the marks. “So, what did Ms Christie actually tell you guys?”

“She emailed her statement to me and the EVP last night”, Priya patiently took out a folded A4 print out from her notebook and handed it over to him.

Christie’s angry words were still ringing in Priya’s ears, “He pulled me to his lap. His zip was open.” Impressions of fingers were fresh on her rosy wrist when Christie had come rushing to Priya’s room the previous evening.

Priya observed the reaction of the letter on Vinay. If his face were scanned by an infrared camera, it would have recorded rising temperatures. To bare eyes, it was only the trademark smirk that dissipated and the jaws that hardened.

“Ah, sweet! Now Roshan has what he always needed. So? What does he convey through you?” The smirk reappeared at the edge of his left cheek. He kept holding the paper.

“I am no one’s messenger, Mr Sadashivam.” Priya had tried to call him by name earlier. Vinay had not liked it. He knew it did not suit him. “In case you forget, my position has a job to do here.”

They fell quiet as the office boy brought the ivory white ceramic mug of black coffee. “Late again?” The bearer stole his glance away from Vinay and slipped silently away.

Vinay had a meeting with an Australian client that afternoon. They would not take it kindly if Vinay did not attend their order renewal discussions. That was just one of the dozen accounts that could be credited solely to him for acquisition and upkeep. Both Priya and he knew that.

“What’s your take, then?” Roshan had instructed Priya to keep the company’s interests above all, she remembered. 12 years in the HR Department had trained Priya well on not letting her instincts speak.

“I am here to hear your version.”

Vinay sipped the hot, bitter drink while checking his mobile phone. If such nonchalance annoyed Priya, her smile did well to conceal it.

“She came to me for a promotion and a raise. Her performance didn’t warrant either.” Vinay had his gaze fixed on that Executive Bond paper. “She pleaded for 15 minutes.” His voice was mellowed, as if he was speaking to himself. “That’s about as long as I could take the whining.”

“What did you do after that?” To ward off his silent eyes on her face, almost daring and mocking her to take action, she repeated, “After she pleaded, what did you do?”

“I pulled her to my lap and ordered a dance,” he laughed aloud. “That’s what you wish to hear?”

“There is no point trying to make the situation small, Mr Sadashivam. She is popular and has many shoulders in this office to cry on. She may approach an NGO or the police. I hope you understand your vulnerability.”

“Yes, the people – the judge, jury and hangmen! Tell me, Ms Mehta, are you here because you are scared of them or because you think a wrong has to be corrected?” Vinay tossed the question like dough in the tandoor.

“I am here to hear your side of the story.”

“Right you are, a story! Being an HR pro, I hoped you would see right through this.”

“If I hadn’t seen Christie’s condition last evening…”

“I am sure your department does a thorough background check, right?”

“Of course!”

“Then you must know that Ms Christie had been unsuccessfully auditioning for Kannada feature films and has done a few YouTube shorts?”

Priya had heard this from one of Christie’s fans in the finance department. But how did the unsocial Vinay know about this?

“How relevant will that be to her allegations against you in line with IPC 354A?”

Quoting the law worked. Priya watched Vinay slump into his high back chair slowly. Furrows peppered his grim face. She was beginning to enjoy such taming of the mighty Vice President of International Business at GloBizz. She should have guessed that for predators, withdrawal preceded a leap, usually for a kill.

“I didn’t do anything that she didn’t deserve.” The sneer was back.

“I hope you are referring only to her annual appraisal.” Priya tried to steer Vinay towards confession.

“That, and much more. But I don’t think you have been sent to understand my side.” Priya could hear his breath in the silence that followed. “Everyone loves a good scandal, isn’t it?” The question hung in the air like early morning summer smog. “I need a lawyer. I don’t want to argue on this now. Later, ok? I have to prepare for my meeting post lunch.”

Vinay walked up to the overhead shelf and took out a couple of blue, bound files. On other occasions that would have been a sufficient gesture to get Priya out of his cabin. That day, Priya waited for Vinay to come back to his seat. Back to his seat, he kept flipping through the files.

A little later, he looked up. “Aren’t you hungry? It’s about 12:30, and so far as I know, you leave home before 8 to get here.” His smirk hung low, insolently. 

“Do you stalk me?” Just after she shot this, she realised that her position demanded sobriety despite provocation.

“If you may recall, I was in your selection panel, and my memory is good. I remember your address.”  Vinay lounged back in his chair and looked out of the window. Gaze fixed afar, he mumbled, “Some of us know how to shrug the past and not to let it shape our future. I think that I am one of those. What about you, Ms Mehta?”

“Did you just confess, Mr Sadashivam, of what Christie accuses you of?” Priya’s athletic frame was tense as a bow, sensing target.

“You are enjoying this trip to nowhere, right?” Vinay suddenly leant towards her. She pulled herself back on an impulse. “Would you be trusting Christie as much if I were a handsome Kashmiri like Roshan?”

“Shall I understand that you are implicating Christie of falsely accusing you?” Her suppressed anger and hunger, together, were causing her cramps in the lower belly. It was the second day of her periods, and that didn’t make it any easier for her to sit through this drama.

“What if I do? Will you trust a successful, ugly male over a damsel in distress? Can you be the professional you are pretending to be?”

“Try me,” she blurted, infuriated with the condescension.

“Call Narayana.”

“The office boy?” Vinay knew the name of an errand boy? Surprises were abundant today!

“The one who brought coffee sometime back?”

“What about him?”

“He may have something to add to your Christie’s story.”

Priya met the boy in her office. While gulping down a few glasses of water, Narayana narrated what he had seen as he entered into Sir’s cabin with his scheduled cup of black coffee at 4:30 yesterday. Christie Madam was shouting at Sir and threatening to ruin his character if her increment and promotion didn’t happen. Sir was trying to push her away by her wrist.

Very few believed that anyone could intimidate Vinay. However, when Narayana repeated the same, verbatim, when summoned before the committee, Christie was counselled to let go of the complaint. When she disagreed, she was facilitated with a quiet departure from GloBizz.

The finale boded well for the business. The Australian contract was resumed, for three years, on the commitment that Vinay would continue to be the point man.

Later that week, Narayana waited after serving Vinay his black coffee at 4:30. “When will it happen, Saar?”

“Friday. My friend in the Police has spoken to the school,” he replied without shifting his eyes from the monitor.

“Much high fees, Saar!”

“My responsibility. Till tenth.”

Narayana tried to touch his feet. Vinay scolded him. He knew he deserved no gratitude. It was too small a price for his poor judgment of Christie’s intents that evening.

Tapan Mozumdar has been a practising engineer. Now, he is practising quite hard to be a writer. At 51, the opening of a new vista of writing short stories has been quite fulfilling for him. He was shortlisted in 2016 for the Star TV Writer’s program and Bangalore LitMart for pitching like a new writer. He has been published in Spark and several other online magazines.
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