January 1st, 2013
Lovers, parents, children, everyone around the world were merrily celebrating the dawn of a new year. It was the time for good hope. We wished each other happy new year and celebrated the first day of the year decorating our office with balloons, confetti and coloured ribbons.We prayed and got to our toes hoping our work and life will be colourful this year.
But work started in the bank on a dull note. Very few customers dropped in. Our manager Mr.Ashok, a man in his late thirties was browsing through the MS Excel sheet in his computer. He was comparing something with the Excel sheet and a file. Each time he looked at the computer and the papers in the file, his eyebrows raised and his forehead wrinkled. He appeared tensed and worried. It happened continuously. He clawed into his head and messed up further his already unkempt dry curly hair often. I wondered whether he had a shower that day.
‘Perhaps he hasn’t come out of yesterday’s late night party hangover? Or has he gone mad?’
I looked to my either side and saw our cashier, two clerks and other assistant manager also staring at our manager’s antics or rather say animal behavior. The animal we compared our manager to, without talking to each other was chimpanzee. Mr. Ashok looked like one at four feet three inches with hairy hands, flat spherical nose and yellow teeth decorated with dentures.
Later I thought his spectacles were due of a power correction and they gave him headache. We wondered what happened to our so called ‘super banker’ manager. Our doubts and confusion cleared when few minutes later I noticed the green file’s title ‘TARGETS’. That implied we hadn’t achieved most of previous quarter’s targets and the next quarter’s mammoth targets were unattainable. So we all geared up and made up our mind to get ready for a staff meeting call by him in the next half an hour. We also knew it will be ‘eating’ and not ‘meeting’. He was going to eat our heads and deafen our ears giving vent to his anger for not achieving targets. I was sure the reason for his frustration was not just our branch’s shoddy business performance, but there was something else too. Something unknown to us, except me.
As I personally knew him, I guessed that this henpecked manager was seriously frustrated by his fat, suspicious nagging wife’s repeated and unwanted doubt filled queries about his late night party and companions yesterday. It’s ‘that’ anger he had decided to share with us generously coupled with fury over our lacklustre performance in last quarter.
According to me Mr.Ashok was too young to hold the title of a bank manager with his limited experience. But our bank was keen on chucking out and sending into hibernation our old experienced guys offering VRS options, increased pension etcetera and infusing young blood like Mr.Ashok and me into the bank. But they forgot the flip side that young blood boils even for simple issues, at human body temperature of 37C. But surprisingly hotter, faster and stronger than water that boils at 100C. This also meant they are swift in messing up things in a hurry fearing deadlines, just like they are fast and sharp in meeting targets.
The otherwise bustling bank was almost empty as very few customers turned up. Many believed January 1st was a bank holiday. Personally we all were happy. We hadn’t yet come out of New Year party hangover and badly wanted to sleep the whole day instead of rendering customer service. Except some usual local customers who remitted money and chatted with us for time pass, no one else dropped in.
Again the fear of a ‘dreaded meeting call’ by our tensed manager made all of us nervous. We took a strategic time out like in cricket and formed a circle near to the store room. We made sure we are out of our manager’s visibility. He was still calculating something referring the file and unaware of what is happening around. Still scratching his head and spreading dandruff everywhere. We discussed what he will ask, what explanation and reply we will give him, what strategy should we devise, not to achieve targets, but to escape from his firing. Our thoughts and speculations knew no bounds. We were suffering from ‘probable kind of firing speculation’ overload.
‘What will we do Sir? We have underperformed last quarter? We are answerable to him. He has got our branch’s last quarter performance report .’
‘We can’t help it nor change what has happened Vikas. Our business was below average. But don’t worry we will be on a grilled and fried meat diet in the coming months.’
From Vikas’s and other’s confused but happy facial expression I understood they did not get my consoling threat. They were unaware of the very short duration of their happiness. There were two things that made our staff happy. First one, a salary revision, that happened only once in a blue moon and the second one, dine out in a five star hotel and have good junk food.
‘Confused? Our master, sorry, monster chef Mr.Ashok sir is going to grill and fry us from now on and we will have to eat our meat. For we deprived him off his hat trick title of best performing manager by not meeting our targets anywhere near. Comrades, I think it will not be a new year for us from today. Probably a puke year. Our manager will make us puke and piss gifting strenuous workload, unachievable targets and very short deadlines amply.’
All of them laughed at my joke but immediately got worried about the impending danger. Thus the bank’s atmosphere was filled with tension and unwanted speculations. But we least expected the climate would become friendly, cosy and lovely in the next few minutes with ‘her’ entry.
We were trying to finish our pending work as we still did not get a meeting call from our manager. Towards 1pm, which was our lunch time, two ladies and one man arrived in a spanking new BMW and approached our cash counter just right to my seat, to remit money. While the two ladies were filling up the form, the man sat on the sofa. He was a short, bald man in black stone wash shirt and light blue cargos pants. He raised his Rayban cooling glass in style, rested them on his vast shining round globe like hairless head and started dialling some number in his HTC. He also kept scratching his unclean unshaven face and asymmetrically carved goatie, if at all it can be called one. In between the scratching he spared some time and glanced at all of us. Though he appeared to be rich and stylish, the way he carried himself and his facial expressions made me suspicious. He was fidgety and looked insecure. Also he was frequently making calls, talking about money transfer and looked at us slyly. News of thieves ransacking banks through well planned heist, posing as gentlemen and modest people flashed in my mind.
I recalled my training class session on bank frauds. The trainer had said,
‘Banks and financial institutions are soft targets for miscreants, so we must be cautious and vigilant all the time.’
Since then I had made sure that I keep an eye on customers whom I was suspicious about, without their knowledge. That’s what I used to think, but those customers easily found out that I was concentrating them.
Keeping that in mind my binocular eyes tried to scan thoroughly, not the bald man, but one among the two ladies at the cash counter. Not because of suspicion, but out of love filled curiosity. Because through the glass window of cash counter I could make out that she was a pretty young lady. Even though only her slender arm and side view of her very fair face was visible. That was enough to confirm that she was a gorgeous looking lady. But my object of suspicion, the bald man came to my counter.
‘Yes, he is upto something. He has diverted my attention with the lady as a bait. He’ll surely keep me and others at point blank range.’
He raised his right hand and clenched his fingers.
‘He is going to punch me and resort to violence. I must act fast, but how? Ok, I will shout and call the public.’
But the man put a full stop to my dreadful thoughts and vanished my doubts with a query and raised his little finger.
‘Excuse me sir, where is the loo?
Thus he revealed the exact reason behind his fidgetiness and frequent rubbing of his thighs sitting cross legged.
I felt sorry because I doubted his signals of nature’s call.
‘It’s behind that dining room’.
I showed him the way to the place of ultimate peace of mind.
‘Thank you Sir, thanks a lot.’
He scurried to the bathroom after thanking me lavishly.
Our other lady assistant manager was engrossed in work, but the two gent clerical staff was restless.
‘What the hell is this? One by one all are getting restless. Do they also want to join the bald man? But unfortunately there’s only one bathroom.’
‘Hey Vikas and Vinod. What’s wrong with you both? What is happening there? Come on, get back to work.’
‘Sir, sir behind you. There near the cash counter.’ Vinod said in a feeble voice and they were trying hard to get a clear view of the cash counter beyond my shoulder.
‘Oh, they have smelled the presence of the damsel at the counter and want a glimpse of her. No, I saw her first and it will be me who will talk to her first. Not them. I will not let that damsel in distress because of my colleagues.’
The hero in me was waking up. In a low voice, but with a tone of strictness I spoke to them.
‘What is this? Haven’t you seen girls? They are our customers. Behave properly and like professionals. Not like college students. Don’t dare to ogle or pass silent comments on them. Get to work.’
Dejected Vinod and Vikas went back to their seats.
‘Why she is not coming to our counter and staying at the cash cabin itself. Maybe they just want to remit cash. I must act fast. Yes I will go to the cash cabin and see her.’
I made my way to the cash cabin were Mr.Titus, our cashier was busy counting the notes in the note counting machine as well as double checking them by counting with hands. Titus was the senior most employee of our branch who was in his late fifties and about to retire soon.
I saw him counting the money again and again.
‘Oh my god has this lady remitted more money than in the slip or are they counterfeit currency?’
I was about to confirm my notion that the bald man was a criminal, who was still busy in the lavatory. I wanted to check whether he escaped from the bathroom. But before resorting to extreme action, I just looked at Mr.Titus.
He was gaping at the girl, while his hands were counting and recounting the cash which anyone would have looked and said it was two lakhs.
I poked him and whispered in his ear.
‘You too Titus a.k.a Brutus.’
Titus closed his mouth and looked at me.
‘Sagar, anyway I am going to retire soon and will not get an opportunity to see beautiful women like her who will be visiting our bank, unlike you young guys. Please let me enjoy at least now.’
‘She must be of your daughter’s age. How dare you look at her through a lover boy’s eyes? No way. If you want you can look at that old lady standing near her, who belongs to your age group.’
‘You are joking? Do you recognize her? She is no ordinary young lady.’
I turned to my left and gazed at the lady through the glass frame of the cash cabin. She had sharp long nose and light pink lips neatly applied with lip gloss. A tiny silver crescent shaped bindi was aptly placed above her nose between her curvy eyebrows. She was talking in her iphone looking down and smiling. Her cheeks looked like cherry when she smiled. Her free flowing hair was hovering in the fan’s wind. Slowly a strand of hair flew from her and gently landed on my eyes.
I closed my eyes and started dreaming. I felt weightless, I was floating in the air, but soon landed on earth as I realized it was bank and not my dream land. I took a closer look at her, because her face was familiar.
The super hit song from the mega hit movie ‘I love you’ played before my eyes.
‘Yes Titus sir. I recognize her. She is popular film actress Archana.The actress of super hit film ‘I love you’.’
Mr.Titus nodded in agreement.
‘But who is that old lady in salwar kameez with her? Maybe Archana’s maid or make up artiste.’
I told Mr.Titus.
My happiness and excitement knew no bounds, like I had hit a jackpot. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see in person and talk if possible to a film actress. That too an actress good looking without over make up. A raw beauty she was. I almost exulted in joy.
My voice was audible enough for Archana and the lady with her. I realized this when the old lady looked at me sharply with dilated eyes, adjusting her spectacles and sullen face. She resembled my old martinet history teacher who gave good exercise for our wrists daily, awarding pages and pages of imposition. Why? Because we deliberately used to forget to carry the heavy history text book in our gunny bags, sorry, school bags. Also we had the privilege of not attending most of her boring classes without bunking. How? Because most days she kept us out of the class for not answering her queries.
The lady’s frown confirmed me that she was Archana’s mom and not maid.
‘Oops .I should have talked in a low voice. But by god’s grace Archana may not have heard because she is busy talking over the iphone.’
Vikas saw a happy me and was curious to know the reason. Both of us played dumb charade for few minutes with eyeballs,facial expressions and gestures like in ‘bharatanatyam’. With miming and via telepathy I conveyed him the message that she was actress Archana.
Soon the message passed like wildfire to Vinod and our lady assistant manager Lekha at lightning fast pace through whisper in the ear. Out of fear of the dreaded meeting call to discuss past performance none of them bothered to inform Mr.Ashok,our manager, who was still breaking his head on the green targets file and remained alien to what was happening outside his cabin.
Vinod and Vikas were elated and badly wanted to talk to Archana, but Lekha showed disinterest. She did not join our group and continued with her work. That was expected. No woman likes her husband, boyfriend, brothers or even colleagues admire and praise another woman in front of them. A known truth from the world’s beginning.
Few minutes later Archana’s mom sat on the sofa while she was still standing at the counter speaking over the phone. To my dismay suddenly she lifted her head and looked at me. Both of us locked our eyes. A thousand little red hearts were bubbling in my mind. Somehow I wanted to convince her I was not staring at her and did not come to cash cabin to look her closely. Though the reverse was the truth. My Idea connection mobile phone beeped and within a fraction of a second I got an idea.
I cleared my throat and asked,
‘Titus sir, what is the total cash? Do you want me to help with tallying the cash?’
Mr.Titus looked at me sternly. Because the cash value was very much available from our computer and he had already tallied the cash.
I mustered courage and decided to talk with butterflies in my stomach.
‘Excuse me madam, aren’t you actress Archana? Hope I am not mistaken?’
‘Yes, I am’. She said gifting me a beautiful smile.
‘Actually we all were discussing about you. Maybe u noticed it. We had doubt that’s why.’
‘Please come’. I gestured to my counter and she followed, from the cash counter.
She was wearing a red T-shirt and tight fit dark blue jeans. Her attire outlined her slim trim curvaceous body.
‘Please take your seat madam.’
She sat with crossed legs and wagged her right ankle.
But I was shocked to see Lekha, who had earlier shown disinterest in discussing about the actress, sitting in my chair. All set to talk to the actress with a plastic smile and snatch my chance.
Even Big Bang theory, grey matter or presence of God’s particle can be studied and solved easily, but not a woman’s behaviour.Their mindset is a valley of mysteries that cannot be unravelled.
‘Excuse me Lekha, could you please go back to your seat. I need to check something on my computer.’
Lekha had no other choice but to get up and she obeyed me angrily.
‘Do you have an account with us madam? If so in which branch?’
‘Yes, in your branch at Gandhi nagar. Actually it’s an old account. It was opened for me by our film association long back.’
‘Oh I see. But then how come you are here, in our branch?’
‘I was on my way home, so thought of remitting cash from this branch.’
‘Okay. Thank god we are lucky to have you here. So do you stay nearby? Where is your house madam?’
‘Oh no. That was too fast. I shouldn’t have hurried and asked her address. Will she underestimate me?’
‘I stay nearby in Desai Homes flat.’
‘Madam we didn’t know that. You are so near yet so far from me, sorry from us.’
Archana laughed at my remark like a fairy.
‘I liked that remark ‘so near yet so far’.Yeah, rarely people get to see we actors in person. You are interesting Mr.?’
‘Sagar madam. I’m Sagar, assistant manager.’
And I handed her my visiting card. She read my name in a low voice to herself, but audible enough for me.
‘You have a sweet name sir. Sagar, which in Hindi means sea or ocean.’
‘Yes Archana, I am an ocean of love and you are sitting at it’s bank.’
‘Thanks. But why do you think so madam? Is it because it’s the name of the hero of your first film?’
Again she laughed beautifully.
‘That’s true. But when you said, I heard your name as sugar instead of Sagar. Sugar is sweet, so is your name. I liked your name a lot sir.’
The bubbly actress said with tongue in cheek. A thousand colourful fire crackers of celebration exploded in front of my eyes. Every heart shaped speck of the explosion had her face in it. My heart expanded, I almost raised from my seat and floated in the air again.
‘Is she falling in love with me?’
‘I love you Archana.’
‘What?’ She exclaimed and her smile faded.
‘No, I meant I saw your latest superhit film I love you. It was superb and your acting was par excellence. I wish you get an award for your performance madam.’
It was a deliberate slip of the tongue aimed at sending some signals to the actress.
‘Oh thank you. That was so kind of you sir.’
I heard Vikas murmur in Vinod’s ear a fact.
‘You know Vinod, I saw that film. Waste film. She had nothing to do other than dance and cry. Our sir says she can expect an award, yes, award for worst actress of the year.’
‘Please don’t address me as madam sir that makes me look old. You can call me Archana.’
‘Or shall I call you Archu?’
‘Hey how come you know my pet name?’
‘I guessed it.’
Actually I got the information from a film magazine I read a week ago.
‘In that case you must call me Sagar and not sir, because I feel the same like you.’
Both of us laughed and agreed our mutual demand.
All this while her mom watched me rudely. From the beginning she did not like me talking to her. Maybe because I misunderstood her for a maid or make up artist. But she really looked like one. My colleagues looked at us in astonishment, as they had earlier misjudged my flair to court a girl. They were shy to interrupt or talk to the actress but Vikas.
‘Why don’t you open an account in our branch Archana?’
‘Actually I was thinking about it. The other branch is too far from my flat. I would like to transfer the account to this branch. What is the procedure to transfer?’
My query at the right time hit the target. So many thoughts flashed in my mind. Actress account, heavy balance, manager happy, getting into his good books, promotion, frequent visit by Archana, visit to her flat in the name of customer service, getting chance in films, becoming hero etcetera. This new year had started on a positive note , I thought.
I explained her the procedure and handed her the application form, which she started reading.
We were running to each other through the white soft clouds in heaven like a prince and princess. I was on cloud nine. The romantic song from her film played in the background. But someone poked my dream bubble with his finger, and it disappeared. It was Vikas.I cursed him for that heinous act ever to be done to a lover.
He studied the actress and whispered in my ear.
‘Sir, look at her..?’
I sensed danger and before he could finish his sentence I pulled him into the nearby room, caught his neck and raised him against the wall.
‘How dare you tend to make a derogatory remark about my Archana?’
‘Sir, please put me down. I did not mean to make any dirty comment. Please.’
I brought him back to earth, but he was laughing.
‘Sir, how come she became ‘my Archana’ for you within twenty minutes.’
‘Dear Vikas, I feel there is something developing between me and her. An unexplainable relationship, which may end in a knot. So you and others strictly follow the pledge ‘all Indians are my brothers and sisters’.’
‘But the pledge is applicable to you also sir.’
‘For the time being no.’
‘At least can I get her autograph or take photo with her sir?’
‘No, it’s a big no from me. Remember we are elite bankers. We should not stoop to the level of a college student. Do you get me? Now, go to your seat.’
We got to our seats. Meanwhile a person who had gone missing for a long time returned from the loo, the bald guy. He came out tired with few buttons of his shirt open. He smiled at me thankfully.
‘Sagar, I forgot to introduce. He is my brother Ajay and she is my mother.’
‘Hello Ajay, hello madam.’
Her mother gave me a smile grimly.
‘Poor Ajay ,I think it was an ordeal for him in the bathroom. Dear Archana’s mom cut down on your son’s potato and junk food diet.’
Vikas was rudely going to the manager’s cabin.I understood he was going to tell him about the actress, so that manager calls her into his cabin from my counter. But it also meant the dreaded meeting to discuss poor performance in last quarter would happen soon.
I rushed to manager’s cabin faster than an athlete and before Vikas. Mr.Ashok was excited when he heard about the star and called Archana to his cabin. They chatted for ten minutes and she came back to the seat in front of my counter. Those ten minutes I fired Vikas and prayed she came out of manager’s cabin very soon.
‘Sagar, from our conversation I guess she is very rich. Her father is into sea food exporting. So try and get her account, she may maintain good balance.’
‘Yes sir, but the amount will not stay there. It will be my dowry.’
‘I have already given her the application form sir.’
‘Very good. Then why don’t you talk about the ATM inaugural function?’
‘Okay sir, I’ll do it. She is cool with no arrogance or style unlike many actresses like her. So I think she won’t deny my proposal, sorry, our request to be chief guest.’
‘Go ahead Sagar. I see a good marketing man in you.’
I was happy because our manager totally forgot to conduct that meeting to discuss our past performance.
I turned my head right thrice in slow motion and marched to the cash counter with a thumping background music playing in my ears, like in films.
She was going through the application form and filling it.
‘Our new ATM is to be inaugurated soon and we were looking for someone special from cine field as chief guest. Now we got one. So you can expect an invite from us Archu.’
‘Oh sure,why not? I’ll try to come. But please inform at least two days in advance, so that I can allot time for it.’
‘If you don’t mind can I get your mobile number please. So that I can contact you.’
Without any hesitation I asked. Usually film stars, especially females give only their address or landline number for contact purpose and not mobile numbers. They are well aware of it’s consequences. But I decided to take the risk and ask. Holding breath my colleagues awaited for Archana’s reply.
‘Why not Sagar? But the mobile number I am using now is for my colleagues and others to contact. So I took a second connection yesterday. This new number will be the contact number for my close friends and relatives only, my special personal number. I will give you that number.’
‘Thank you Archana.’
‘Mom can you please tell me the number. I don’t remember the digits clearly the last digits are 98 or 89?’
Her mother said the number aloud and I jotted down.
I showed a thumbs up to my manager and he was happy. Poor colleagues they didn’t know that I was adept in collecting a girl’s mobile number with my sweet talk right from college.
‘Oh Sagar, it’s already late. I will take this application form with me, fill up and bring along the necessary documents to open an account soon. I can’t tell you when I’ll come, given my busy schedule. But surely I’ll come. Shall I take leave?’
With a weeping heart I replied ‘Okay, Archana’.
‘It was really nice talking to you Sagar. You are a special guy. Keep in touch.’
She gave me a soft handshake, delicate like a rose. I made sure I don’t ache her hand with my firm hand.
My colleagues fumed with jealousy.Vikas and Vinod also extended their hands for a handshake, but she returned them just a bow. All of us bid her goodbye and she left with her brother and mother. Thus I made an actress who just came to remit money sit and chat with me for almost forty five minutes. I became a hero overnight in the bank for canvassing a good wealthy customer. Manager was very happy. But my colleagues became enemies, because I did not even introduce them to her, nor gave them a chance to talk to the actress.
A week later.
We all were busy with the ATM inaugural function activities. All activities were done except printing the invitation cards for the function to be held in our bank’s premises four days later.
‘Sagar, let us just contact and ask whether actress Archana will be able to come as chief guest? In case if she has some other plans, we will look for someone else? Also she hasn’t opened an account till right?’
‘Don’t worry sir. Maybe she is too busy with her acting. She hinted that day she might be busy this week. She assured me that she’ll try to come. But wanted us to inform in advance. There are four more days for the function. So no problem, we will call her now. She will come sir.’
I dialed her number looking into my telephone diary in style and looked at my colleagues.
‘See buffoons, I’m calling her in her personal number.’
But what I heard and saw in my mobile shocked me. I panicked.
‘No, this cannot be true.’
My colleagues started chuckling.
‘What happened Sagar? She is not picking up the phone?’
‘Come on,switch on the loudspeaker I want to hear’, the manager said.
I switched on the loudspeaker. The mobile gave a number engaged type tone. But something displayed in the mobile screen. Mr.Ashok read aloud the message.
‘What ‘phone number invalid’ ? ’
My colleagues gave high five to each other and burst into laughter .They started coughing because of it.
Manager’s hope of a heavy balance savings account and my hope for a nice relationship with Archana burst like a balloon.
‘Didn’t you jot down her mobile number properly Sagar?’
Shouted my manager.
I checked the diary. Yes there were only nine digits instead of ten in the mobile number. Now there was no way to contact her. Connection snapped. We did not even know her flat number.
‘Yes. Not Archana. Her mother is the culprit. She read the number for me. Unfortunately I did not count the digits. You stupid lady. Just like my old History teacher, you too have punished me, for just talking to your darling daughter?’
Seeing my face that shined like a tubelight change to a low voltage bulb, my colleagues laughed again and again heartily. While manager burned stronger and stronger angrily.
The new year which started happily for me ended up in a disaster that will be remembered and laughed at till next new year. Let us hope very soon another pretty actress like Archana will come and save me from this disappointment.