The alarm on my phone rang a second time. This time, I let it ring so that it would wake me up enough for me to get up. I sat up, and instantly shivered as the heavy blankets slipped from my shoulders and the bitter cold touched me. I looked at the time. My phone flashed 07:02. I forced myself to throw off my blankets and face the cold – even with pyjamas and flannel top on, it was stinging. My back had a dull ache that seemed to make my entire body heavy and lull me back into bed.
“Serves you right for sitting and watching TV the entire weekend,” scolded Mki.
“My back hurts,” moaned Mandakini. “Maybe I can take the day off. Or at least half the day… Let me stay in bed for a couple of hours longer…”
“The project’s due this week, remember? The longer you take getting to work, the worse things are going to be. Now get up.”
I jumped out of bed before I argued myself into going to sleep again.
I stole quietly into Divya’s room, looked at the sleeping figure on the bed – she had got in last night while I was out – and crept into the bathroom to turn on the water heater. I crept back to my own bathroom and began to brush my teeth. It was the beginning of another day.
After a warm shower had somewhat calmed my shivers, I headed to the kitchen. My mug of warm milk in hand, I walked across the living room to the balcony door to pick up the morning papers. It was only when I opened the door that I realised why it was particularly cold today. Thick fog had descended on the earth: so thick that I could see nothing beyond the balcony railing from where I stood. I stepped up to the edge and looked down – I could barely make out the outline of Divya’s car from where it stood several feet just below me.
“No way is the cab gonna reach me in time in this fog,” I thought, as I walked back inside and settled down with my papers and milk.
It was half an hour past the usual time when the cab honked outside the door. I could hear Divya stirring in her room as I grabbed my handbag and shouted a hurried “Bye” to her before slamming the door shut.
The usual 7 minute drive to the next pick-up took nearly half an hour. I did not envy the driver, painstakingly navigating the cab through fog as thick as Knorr’s creamy mushroom soup – with added cornflour. I was seated in front to gain some respite for my aching back, and the white mass enveloping the car was at once exhilarating and depressing. Exhilarating because it was the first fog of the season, and it reminded me of the previous winter, when Mallika and I had walked to college in the fog, holding hands to keep each other from stumbling; when, between classes, we had gone - Raghav and Prabhu and Mallika and I – to the nearby dhaba for hot paratha and tea.
But that was last year, and now here I was, riding to work at a snail’s pace at half past eight in the morning with a backache and the knowledge that I would be at work till late at night. And it was just the beginning of the week.
I wished I could have grabbed a couple of hours more sleep instead of driving around town in this weather. But the alternative to the early-morning cab was a long drive in a cycle-rickshaw over bumpy roads (and over one patch, no road – only a dirt track as the rickshaw-puller took you over a short-cut)… That certainly wouldn’t have been medicine for my back.
“But Divya’s home, you fool!” cried Mandakini. “You could have taken a ride with her!”
I shrugged my shoulders and looked out of the window again.
The driver honked outside the house of the two other girls who were to be my cab-mates for the day. I glanced at my watch: it was a quarter to nine. We had been supposed to reach work at eight. The driver honked again, and then got out to ring the doorbell. I was more than a little annoyed. I was used to waiting for these women, but today we were already half an hour late and the drive to office would likely take another half hour. Finally I saw them walk slowly out towards the gate, giggling and swinging their brightly-coloured bags. I had privately nicknamed one of them Saira Banu, not merely for her physical resemblance to the old days’ actress, but also due to her always immaculately made-up face and her annoyingly high-pitched voice.
After the usual – curt on my side today – good mornings, we were on our way. I was regaled with details of Saira Banu’s conversation with the manicurist last evening. I stifled a yawn and thanked my foresight at having grabbed the front seat.
It wasn’t just the prospect of work – or my still-aching back – that was dampening my mood. When the project was over on Friday, Vikram would go back to his department. He would be in the other corner of the office and we wouldn’t have the easy pretence of work to spend time together.
“Don’t think about it!” warned Miki.
Vikram had joined the office at around the same time I had. I had noticed him in the cafeteria … it was difficult not to: his boyish good looks stood out among the other mostly nondescript males. But he was in Equity Research, while I was in Business Research, and looks had never yet been enough reason for me to fall for someone, so I contented myself with gazing at him from afar (and sometimes thinking about him on long lonely nights).
I couldn’t believe my luck when my department, being short of resources, borrowed him for the project I was on. We hit it off instantly, working well together and keeping up a friendly banter that made work seem easier and more enjoyable. We also flirted subtly at times, but it had never progressed beyond that – until yesterday. I wondered how he would behave towards me in office today, whether our ‘date’ last night meant that something had changed.
Not all our team members were as charming as Vikram. There was Kim, a quiet and efficient girl who did her part of the work well but wasn’t much of an asset in discussions. She was low on imagination and verve, but through the last few weeks I had come to value her dogged hard work and her knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry.
Saurav was another of our five-member team. He had joined merely three weeks ago and had been put on this project for on-the-job training. He had impressed me by learning pretty quickly: however, he would be at the orientation programme this entire week and I couldn’t count on his help.
And there was Dhruv. He had joined just a couple of weeks before Saurav and this was his first project. He had graduated from a reputed b-school and he spoke brilliantly at meetings, but he seemed to be taken over by an eight-year old whenever he created a document or a report. I expected most of my late hours this week to be devoted to reviewing and editing his sections of the report.
On Friday evening, I went over the deliverable one last time before sending it. I discovered a discrepancy in Dhruv’s report and turned to speak to him. His chair was empty and his desk uncluttered. I realized he had left early – he usually travelled to his parents’ home on weekends.
I looked at the report carefully and compared it with the source data. Most of the numbers seemed incongruously large. Dhruv seemed to have mistaken thousands for millions. I made a few calculations and realized there was another mistake – the formula for an entire column of data was wrong.
I called Kim and Vikram over. I told them we had to not only fix these two obvious errors – and all the resultant analysis – but also go through the entire set of calculations Dhruv had done. There was no way I was going to trust the rest of his calculations.
We divided the work and set to it. Hours went by and we seemed nowhere near the end. At 11, I asked Kim to leave. She lived a long way away and the last cab was leaving. Vikram could drop me home when we were done.
We worked through the night, taking endless cups of coffee from the machine in the pantry, and getting up from our desks and talking to each other frequently in order to keep awake and alert. Vikram kept cracking jokes to relieve the tension.
It was nearly six in the morning when I finally sent the email to the client, deliverable checked and intact.
“At least it’s still Friday over there,” I said ruefully.
Vikram smiled. He looked as fresh as he had the previous morning.
I got up and stretched my aching limbs. The entire office was quiet and dark, except for the lights right over us. There were a couple of security guards at the door, but no one else seemed to have worked through the night.
I walked over to the large windows. Already it was growing light outside, and I could hear faintly through the glass, the chirping of birds. I was on the 9th floor: the few buildings around were smaller, so I had a grand view of the flat dry landscape. I stood there looking at the always fascinating sight of day breaking over the land and the morning star fading away. That moment seemed to make my normal, routine life – and the night I had just spent working on a report – mundane and insignificant.
“What, you wanna stay here till Monday?”
I looked around and smiled at Vikram. “Right. Let’s get out of here.”
We walked out yawning and laughing. Staying up all night had made me feel slightly intoxicated.
“Let’s go have tea somewhere,” I suggested. “And something to eat. I’m hungry.”
“Why don’t you invite me to your place?” Vikram grinned.
“No, we’ll wake Divya up. She’s here this weekend.”
We drove around town, looking for something that was open at that hour. We found a dhaba and made a meal of cauliflower paratha and masala Maggi, and a few cups of tea.
We talked languidly, disjointedly, too tired to string thoughts together coherently. Mostly we ate and gazed at each other, and enjoyed the fresh air on our faces. I managed to drop both ketchup and Maggi on my by now much wrinkled white shirt, but at that point, I didn’t care.
When Vikram drove up to my house, I played the project manager and thanked him for working so hard with me, while he laughed it off.
“No, seriously,” I said. “I don’t know what I would have done. You made it so easy.”
“What are you planning to do about Dhruv?” he asked.
I sighed. “I don’t know. I’ll talk to Shiva, I guess. I don’t want to blame Dhruv, and anyone can make mistakes, but I’m just surprised at his lack of responsibility. That he took off without making sure that everything was okay. That he didn’t bother to tell any of us that he was leaving.”
“Didn’t Shiva ask whether we had sent the report?”
“Actually, he did,” I said. “Last night, before I went for dinner. But he was going into a meeting and we only spoke for a few seconds. I told him there was a glitch we were working on, and he just said he trusted us to put things right and I could send the report to the client directly when we were done. By the time I came back from dinner, he had gone home.”
“At least we got it done.”
“That’s a relief, huh? Well, go get some sleep. Have a great weekend.”
I smiled at him, my eyes heavy with sleep. He smiled back, the dimple on his cheek winking invitingly at me.
“I want to kiss him,” sighed Miki. “Right there on that cheek.”
I forced myself out of the car and waved goodbye.