Settling Scores

Zaher Aslam scowled at his computer screen as though it were a real person. It seemed to be these days, more than his wife Arjumand and his son Atif. His computer was a live stream of conversation documenting the world and everyone of consequence and not on it. There were his real friends and, of course, there were those whom he had no choice but to befriend. Example: Ramesh Iyer.
Ramesh and Zaher worked together in the accounts department. This meant that they had to meet each other often. Ramesh was the condescending sort; he smiled at all people and was in love with the world—the kind of person who continuously showed his buck teeth in a state of contentment that Zaher could not fathom. Ramesh was not ruffled by anything. If there was a power outage at the office, he smiled as he plodded toward the generator. If there was a fire drill, he smiled as he collected all his colleagues, like a mama duck and her ducklings, and escorted them towards the exit.

Everyone liked Ramesh because he was so helpful. Who is helpful these days? Zaher didn’t notice this in the beginning. But when the little acts of kindness began to pile one on the other into a prominent hill, his cubicle became a meeting point. Zaher noticed Ramesh Iyer, the good samaritan.

Then there was office talk. “Why don’t we just ask Ramesh?” or “He’ll sort it out for you,” or the overwhelming “What would we do without him?”
Zaher was not indispensable that way. He did his hours and left. He was a ‘take it or leave it’ sort of person. Plus he didn’t like to waste time. Every question had to have an ultimate goal, a purpose. Frivolity was not entertained. “Time is money,” he taught his son who spent so much time trying to do nothing as though time didn’t matter, idle leaves dropping off a tree.
So when Ramesh went out of his way to do things for his colleagues, Zaher would stand up in his place, walk outside, smoke a cigarette (he didn’t care that it was a no-smoke zone) and wait for the favours to end. One day, while he inhaled the smoke with some élan, inwardly congratulating himself that he had never been caught yet, Ramesh came out and started to cough. He smiled his buck-toothed smile at Zaher and pointed at the No-Smoking sign. Zaher exhaled the smoke that he had stored for his enjoyment and dropped his cigarette. “Aha! Littering as well.” Ramesh wagged his bony finger and smiled.

Zaher tried to return the show of teeth. He saw himself reflected in the glass window, giving back the classic smirk.
“It is no use at all,” Ramesh said, despondency lacing his voice.
“My father, too, was a heavy smoker.”
He didn’t wait for Zaher to respond.
“You should have seen how he died. His lungs ballooned with tar. It was the saddest time of my life. He was gasping for air. Air is all around us and there he was grimacing for what he had denied himself.”

Zaher felt the cigarette butt beneath his shoe and stepped on it more gingerly.
“Oh don’t think I’m trying to force you to change, but Zaher, smoking is injurious to health. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”
Ramesh looked at Zaher with his doggy eyes—so brown, so sad, almost pleading. “Well, the only reason I’m here in spite of my wife’s nagging is because I smoke,” he said.
Ramesh tried to digest the statement. “Amazing!” he said.
“What?” asked Zaher, looking at his watch.
“That you could confide in me about your wife,” he said jerking his shoulders in laughter.
“Did I?”
“Well my wife is not a nag at all.”
“Good to know.”
“Can I connect with you on a social networking site?” Ramesh asked.
“What on earth for?” asked Zaher, scrolling through the meaningless messages on his smartphone.
Ramesh peered at him from over his glasses.
“I’ve befriended everyone in office and you are the only one left.”
“I don’t visit these sites regularly. Just a few status updates, that’s all…”
“Even then….”
“Allright, my profile goes by the name of Zaher Aslam.”
“I will find you,” said Ramesh and hurried off.

So that night, when Zaher scrolled through his updates, he came across Ramesh’s smiling profile picture with half a dozen posts about elephants, temples, songs, baby pictures and philosophical quotes like Smile at those who do not smile at you; roll your sleeves up when there is despair; discord outside is discord within.
“Baba, you tell me not to waste time, and what are you doing now?” Atif said hanging over his dad’s shoulder.
“Where is your mother? Arjumand! Doesn’t this boy have to be in bed?”
“Cool it dad,” Atif disappeared upstairs.

Zaher hated being caught networking. It was demeaning that he had started enjoying voyeurism, going into the other man’s thoughts. Looking at his pictures and favourite clips – making a character emerge from what was cut and pasted.
“Oh, you are on the social networking site as well,” Arjumand said.
“No, I’m not and where on earth do you disappear to anyway?” Zaher was defensive. “I’m just scrolling down to see if I’ve missed anything. This Ramesh chap keeps posting so much nonsense, I’m trying to get past it.”
“Ramesh Iyer?”
“Yes, how do you know?”
“Well, he called here the other day. He wanted to talk to you but when I told him you were out, he introduced himself. Such a polite man. It is strange you never mentioned him before. He says he writes the odd poem and has been published once in the Stately.”
“Writer? I didn’t know and if he was published at all, it would have been in the comments section.”

Arjumand wrinkled her brow as she did when she was embarrassed by her husband. “Dinner’s ready.” She didn’t add Jaan as she usually did. He just didn’t seem adorable enough sometimes.
She served him his favourite mutton biryani. “You don’t seem to like this Ramesh very much?”
“He has no reason calling home.”
“But you must be close, considering you are his friend on the social networking site.”
“Anyone can be your friend on these sites, Arjumand. It means nothing. He is Mr Whitaker’s friend, if you want some perspective.”
“Mr Whitaker? I thought you didn’t mind him all that much.”
“Mr Whitaker is a dog. He can’t help humiliating a bunch of fawning idiots. I don’t fall into that category. The firangi hasn’t gotten over his colonial hangover though. He enjoys it when Ramesh brings him tea or stays up nights to finish a report.”
“Who knows Zaher, he may badly need the money.”
“Sell your soul to the devil?”
“Unfriend him then.”
“I can’t do that. We are colleagues.”
“Say it is office policy.”
“You know how it is at Circa. They only want us to stay off networking during office hours. They aren’t bothered about our networking habits.”
“Well don’t ignore the lamb,” Arjumand pointed at the biryani. “Enjoy it.”

When Zaher went back to his networking window, he saw half a dozen more posts from Ramesh. One went India beats Pak by eight wickets… and a smiley with it.
Zaher hated the smiley. He knew that it was the invention of a professor who later confessed that he regretted the find. He also didn’t like the status update.

So he googled ‘India’. Then he narrowed his search a bit and then a bit more until he found the picture of a bedraggled mother holding a child with snot dripping out of her nose. Flies settled on their clothes and their eyes were filled with years of sadness for standing in queues and asking for more and dreaming of electricity.
Zaher posted the picture on his status update and typed in There is more to win in than just cricket.
He then hurried to bed as it was getting late and his schedule was upset a little.

The next day he tried to discern some sort of change in Ramesh. He would not have missed that status update, considering the fact that he had liked many elephants and cricket stories afterwards. Ramesh, however, was the same. In fact he seemed even more benign as though assault and effrontery brought out the best in him and made him soar into some kind of perpetual bird’s eye view where he could watch over the world without animosity.
“Oh Zaher, sweets for you,” he said bringing out a box filled with cashewnut and coconut-stuffed diamond-
shaped pastries that looked really tempting.
“Because India beat Pakistan yesterday?” Zaher asked.
Ramesh laughed. Some colleagues came over to Zaher’s cubicle, a seldom visited part of the office. “Oh sorry for laughing out loud,” he said. “Zaher thinks I’m distributing sweets because India beat Pakistan yesterday. A good reason to do that, but no. My son scored well in his exams and hence the celebrations!”

Zaher mused on his son’s report card. Unfortunately, he could not share the joy.
That evening Zaher got back to the networking site and typed: Indians do dismally in international
scholastic rankings.
Zaher usually did not check the site as soon as he woke up. He thought it was an insult to the human mind to do that and yet, he found himself logging in. And hey presto Ramesh, the smiling buck-toothed good Samaritan, had shot back an update on the plight of girl’s schooling in Pakistan.
He had half believed that Ramesh would not respond to it. He had half believed that the smile was genuine and that Ramesh was the sort who couldn’t hurt a fly and not be hurt. But there you had it – the proof.
So he had found a weak spot – patriotism.

Zaher began to read up on India as never before, his emphasis being entirely on the foibles. It was easy enough to cherry pick negativity as that was all that news channels spoke about. There were so many things he could use—corruption, molestation, inequality.
In spite of this networking site war that many of Zaher’s friends had started looking upon with interest, Ramesh remained smiling. He never brought it up during his no-smoking tirades either. It was as though there were two of him—the compassionate offline Ramesh and the zealous online Ramesh.

One day Mr Whitaker called his team for a meeting in the conference room. He projected graphs and pointed at descent. “This is what happens when we have a bunch of third-rate people in the firm. What do I tell the Sheikh when he walks in here the next month? I have some explaining to do and you are going to create numbers to prove it.”
“It was bound to happen.” Ramesh said to Zaher as the crowd dispersed.
“You knew about it?”
“Of course, I did. I’m the one who managed his personal accounts. He’s eating the company like it’s his own bank account.”
“Why didn’t you tell anyone?” Zaher asked.
“Whom can you trust?” he looked Zaher in the eye. With Ramesh’s teeth hidden in seriousness, Zaher felt a pang of sympathy creep in.
Ramesh was now busier than ever. He was summoned a lot more to Mr Whitaker’s room. Zaher imagined him in all his servility as he fabricated accounts, probably with the name of some god on his lips for forgiveness. He hardly posted on the networking site any more. His smile grew weary and his aspect sullen.

For a couple of days, there were no updates. Ramesh didn’t show up at office either. Zaher scrolled through his social network page, unhappy that there was no one he needed to expose to his global network. He could continue with his hate infestation but what was the point when there was no one to hate you back? He collected tidbits of unhappiness and waited.
It was midnight when the doorbell rang. Two officers stood outside. They said nothing, showed no arrest warrant and just carried off Zaher into the police station wagon.
It was a dark night that Zaher would never forget. His wife and son stood behind him, their eyes about to explode in horror. The social network window a blur and his MS Window open filled with anti-India tirades.

When he went into the cell, he saw Ramesh sitting there in yogic certitude. “What the hell is going on?” Zaher asked Ramesh.
“Misappropriation of funds.”
“Mr Whitaker?”
“He’s probably on a flight to Berlin just now. His second wife is anxious, you know.”
“And why am I here?”
“I can’t go down alone, can I?” Ramesh smiled his buck-toothed smile. “Your signatures and mine. Mr Whitaker has done a good job of framing us. We are the only two in the accounts department. I’ve been promised bail.”
It was a night of silence. The world outside no longer existed and the rules that applied there did not seem to enter these murky walls and iron bars.
The next morning, Zaher saw Ramesh leave the cell. “Good luck my friend,” he said.
“You will get me out of here, won’t you?” Zaher asked him, his voice shaky, betraying fear.

Ramesh peered at him, grey flecks of sadness floating his eyes. “I could Zaher. I could try my best to talk to the sponsor. Let me see what I can do. Pity though,” he said, “that I won’t be able to see your status updates on the social network for a while.”
He smiled a triumphant smile, as though all those jibes and smirks were waiting for a retort.
“Tell Arjumand I’m okay,” Zaher said to Ramesh, gripping the iron rod as though it was the only reality left.
Ramesh turned and Zaher saw him, the online Ramesh, vindictive and jerking his shoulders with inward laughter.

                                                             Neelima Vinod

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