[Issue 1 / May 2012]
Zepellin by Tanuj Solanki
In his 1st floor office they have made an attempt to name meeting rooms after flying objects. Helicopter, Boeing, Jet, Glider, etc. Sometimes the sonsy receptionist crafts a phrase using these names, some fadaise found funny by easily humoured men: She is waiting in the Helicopter but he is busy running the show in the Jet.
The largest room – the big Board Room, as called by some – is labelled ‘Zepellin’, proudly missing a ‘p’ and adding an ‘l’ to the spelling of the extinct German airship. He is inside this room, alone, early for a meeting, wondering if he is the only soul to have noticed the spelling error. Anyhow, he thinks, even if by mistake, the ‘Zepellin’ is now an exception. It has become, thanks to some harmless oversight, the only meeting room having nothing to do with aviation. A neologism, ready to receive any meaning. He hums silently the two versions, Zeppelin and Zepellin, exaggerating the possible difference in their pronunciations, agreeing more with lilt of the fake one than the peppery sound of the original.
The room has a large rectangular table with ten chairs, the furniture taking up most of the floor space. The upper half of the long walls is made of glass, half of which is frosted in a pattern with shapes resembling a paper plane. The pattern matches the aerodynamic theme. On a short wall hangs a large LCD TV, used for projecting. On the opposing wall, an oil-on-canvas painting in thick brown frame hangs. Its background, rendered in long brushstrokes, is white hills; the foreground, a silent brown hut standing by shoots of deliberately disproportioned – as if the painter thought of it as the subject – bamboo grass. Through the pathetic painting he measures his mood: morose, mundane, on the verge of cynical.
His wait isn’t long; within five minutes the room is overtaken by handshakes. There are twelve handshakes in all: four representatives of his department, including his boss, greeting the three representatives from the other department, including their boss. He performs his with a half-smile and a conscious palm.
He knows everyone in the room from before, something he finds mildly comforting now, as the seats are taken. He has forgotten the agenda though; it was shared in an email a couple of days back.
The first ten minutes are leisurely, wherein his department head uses his oratory prowess to ‘provide a background’, and ‘set the agenda’, and ‘kick-off’, for the discussion. His boss details all that their department has been doing, all that the others’ department has been doing, and all that the two departments need to do together. Within him a stupor grows in these ten minutes and he yawns thrice, the third yawn accompanied by an obvious little oval exhale that sounds both dejected and condescending. This soft round sound is incongruent in a sharp environment and hearing it the three prim persons from the other department look at him; one of them, Reema, a flabby female about his age, does so with a faint smile bordering on glee. As an immediate reaction he straightens his posture. Still disconcerted, he picks up a half-litre water bottle from a tray full of them, kept on a small table in the corner just next to his position. He cracks open the seal of the bottle and drinks the water straight from it, ignoring the purposefully inverted glasses on the large table in the center. This creates sounds too: the crisp crackling of plastic; the hungry gulp of water. He becomes conscious of his actions. The ensuing yawns will be silent, he decides, all close-mouthed affairs, of the sort that bring tears to the eyes.
Now and then he scribbles something on his notebook for simulation, and also to derail the chain of his yawns. As a rule he notes down whatever is uttered with any emphasis.
The meeting leaps forth from the first half hour to the second. He looks at his notes. No meanings can be deduced from what he has written, but he feels that his scribbles will have value to someone, to a philosopher maybe:
Need to ensure high quality
Complaints are of two kinds
Mis-selling is common in some companies and uncommon in other companies
Technology is a key enabler
We need to respond collectively
Banks will play a critical role
Can we make a timeplan for this
Then, almost surprisingly, on at least four occasions within ten minutes, he is asked for his views, or his agreement. The latter he provides unthinkingly, almost as a matter of policy, while with the former he takes a long time, ostensibly searching for an apt response, which is a good tactic because even before he can say anything the group dynamic takes over, making the answer from him unnecessary. There is always someone more eager to present the right answer, especially when bosses are present. You are only valued for saying the right things in a precise manner. You can be chewed, eschewed, no matter. No matter if you don’t build an impression. No matter if others always take the spotlight. Let them have the solace. It is a solace he anyhow does not understand; it is a consolation he does not want; it is a succour that makes him cringe.
For the last quarter of the hour-long meeting his mind drifts away from taking notes. He looks at the six personalities in the room in a light and easy resentment, as if some curious difference between him and them was now bubbling over softly before his eyes. He records their facial features, their body structures, their stereotypical quirks and comments, and their attempts at self-aggrandizing. Their posturing makes their inner lives inapproachable, he thinks, and unattractive. But this posturing is a collective decision; everyone has decided to pose. And poseurs deserve captions.
He builds on this premise – captions for poseurs – and devises a little game: establishing a rhyme within the captions; the constraint being to stick to the closest description of the concerned person.
Mister wine and dine
He constructs many of these rhymes, notes them down in his notebook. He knows this is a silly pastime, knows that this is just a different kind of solace, but the contradiction he chooses to ignore.
While he constructs and improves the rhymes, the last fifteen minutes of the meeting go by. The meeting ends on a good note, with the obvious outcome: both departments agreeing for total cooperation in chasing the organizational goal. As all arise he rues letting go of the comfort of the Zepellin seats. Compared to the rigid working chairs of the cubicles the chairs here are wider, more cushioned and recline as far as 180 degrees, if one stretches. His gaze fixes on these chairs. The two bosses take to comparing Delhi and Bombay golf courses and the rest nod as if they know all about tees and putts and handicaps. He notices on the imitation-leather seat of each chair a warm, roughly circular impression, a little dent to be filled in time. The impression is largest on the chair on which Reema – the Reema of mirth and girth, he thinks – was sitting; it covers almost the entire seating area. She notices him looking at her chair, and immediately looks away. He wonders if he should have been ready with the retaliatory smile.
The Zepellin starts being abandoned. One by one the people move out. He is the last one to leave the room, and therefore the one who will switch off the lights and the air conditioner. If he doesn’t, he will be conspicuously (the receptionist keeps a track of such things) untrue to the value of Cost-Consciousness – one of the three main organization values.
He jabs at the switches nonchalantly. Then, for a little rebellion, he steps inside and picks up another water bottle from the tray.
The other team is housed on the fifth floor and as a mark of courtesy his boss has decided to accompany them to the elevator. The other two members of his team have decided to join as well. Everyone seems to be talking about cricket now, which means that the bosses have rightly noticed that talking about golf leaves the juniors out of the discussion, and was a tad inconsiderate of them. Waiting by the elevator for a few seconds, he finds the company of the glorious gang unnecessary and decides to return to his desk.
Alleys and gangways: burrows of the workplace where coffee gurgles inside stomachs, where mere acquaintances deliver bright smiles, where the person who forever deals in fiery fisticuffs in the train says “Oh Sorry” most politely even when his crime is no bigger than the warp of his shirt touching the weft of yours. Alleys and gangways, thin office furniture: he walks towards his cubicle through these, taking stock of his mood. Still the same. Still the same mixture of high indifference and low disgust; a mixture that he believes is more dangerous than low indifference and high disgust. The false decorum! Its sheer sanitation! He looks at his watch; there is still seven hours to go.
His professional perch appears within eyesight. He remembers the aeronautical theme. ‘The UFO’ is a good name for his cubicle, he thinks. In the last lane leading to it, there appear to his eyes, for the first time, some under-watered croton plants. The plants are housed in reddish-brown plastic pots. He wonders if they have been put here today or if they have been here all the time. Anyhow, the plants are dying; their large leaves – with a patchwork of yellow – are tilting downwards. Their novelty amazes him, along with the possibility that they he might have completely ignored them all this time. He looks at them intently, bending his knees a bit and placing his palms on them, squinting at the plants as if they could squint back. The soil inside the pots is a dry flaky white. He waters the pots with the contents of the bottle he picked up from Zepellin. He pours the most water into the fourth pot, the one closest to his cubicle, the one most withered.
Tanuj Solanki works in an insurance firm in Bombay. His work has been published or is upcoming in journals like Annalemma Print, elimae, nether Print, Istanbul Literary Review, and others. He just can’t learn swimming and has taken to blaming the dirty beaches for his failure.