I did not know how I was going to convey the news to him. I was sure he was expecting the news, after all the developments over the last couple of days. But, getting terminated is not an everyday news. I was trying to mentally prepare each sentence I need to speak when I meet him to tell the news.
Mr. Prithviraj Chauhan, the man who had served us for the last eight years was being terminated now. Though I was his manager, there were many times when I had looked for his advice to handle crisis situations. But, today, the company’s leaders have decided to bid him goodbye for ‘supposedly’ hacking the company’s bank account and purloining five lac rupees.
We all knew that Prithvi had not done it. In fact, he was the one who found the culprit. But, for some reason, he refused to reveal the offender’s name. The HR warned him that the company may take severe action if he failed to give out the culprit’s name. However, Prithvi was stubborn.
After two days of debates between the company’s leaders and HR, it was finally decided that he would be relieved of his duties from the company. I tried my best to save him. But, the least I could do was to stop the management from reporting the incident to the police. Since I was his manager, the company decided to give me the honour of handing over the termination letter to Prithvi.
It was around 5pm when he entered my cabin.
“Hi Raj.. Good evening” – It didn’t even occur to me at that time to greet him with a good evening.
“I have asked this so many times in the last two days… But, I am going to ask you one more time – Why Prithvi….. Why…. Why do you refuse to tell us who did it?
“See Raj… The man who did it was under severe financial pressure. He needed that money…. I am not justifying that he was right…. But, he has realized his mistake and has returned the money…. The purpose of law is not to punish people; It is to ensure people don’t commit the crime. I am sure he won’t break the law ever again in his life. So, why punish him?”
“Agreed. But, why should you take the blame? If he admits his mistake, we can talk to the HR and not punish him”
“Do you really think that the HR will let him go away? See.. The guy is young. If the police file a case against him, not only his career, but his entire life will be ruined. I know what your next question would be – What about me? Well, I am 58 years old. I will be retiring in another 2 years. Whatever action the company takes against me will definitely impact me, but not as much as it would impact him”
“But…” Before I could continue my sentence, he interrupted me.
“Sorry to interrupt you, Raj. Let’s not talk about this anymore. I have made my decision and am ready to face the consequences. Just let me know what decision has been taken”
I hesitated a bit, and then slowly spoke…
“I… I am sorry Prithvi….. I tried to convince our management… but… but, they were not ready to listen to me…. They…. They have decided to……. I am sorry… I can’t say it”. Without saying anything further, I handed a white envelope to him.
Inside the envelope was his termination letter. He opened it and started reading it through his bifocal spectacles. After about a minute, he folded the letter, placed it back in the envelope and smiled at me.
“Don’t worry Raj. You don’t need to feel bad about this. I understand the company’s decision and respect it”
“But, I am still sorry Prithvi… I wish I could have done something.”
“Well, if you really want to do something for me, then buy me dinner tonight. I hope you remember that you owe me one”, he said with a smile.
“Oh yes. I do remember. I promised you a dinner few months back when we were in that crisis situation with one of our clients and you saved us. I am sorry that I didn’t get time to buy you one yet. But, is a dinner all that you want?”
“A dinner and few hours of your time… I just want to spend some time with you talking about few things”
“Sure Prithvi…Let’s meet at 7:30 tonight at The Taj”
“Ok Raj… I better leave now… I need to pack up my stuff and bid farewell to our colleagues” – He was still smiling when he said this. I was amazed by his personality – How can a person continue to smile when he has been terminated for something that he was not responsible for?
Mettre la table (Setting the table)
I arrived at The Taj at 7:35pm.
“Excuse me… I have a reservation for two.. Name: Raj”
“Yes Sir…. This way… Your friend is already here and waiting for you…”
I was taken to a private room, where I noticed Prithvi sitting in front of a rectangular table. I had requested for a private room as I preferred to have some privacy.
“Good evening Prithvi..” This time I made sure I greeted him with a good evening :)
“Good evening Raj”
Once we were seated, the waiter handed over the menu to us. I let Prithvi make the choice. He ordered for a three course meal, that consisted of Indian Hors d’oeuvre (Appetizer), Chinese Main course and American Dessert.
The waiter then started setting the table. The table was already covered with a maroon colored cloth and had matching maroon colored serviette (napkin). The waiter first placed the water glass and filled it with water. He then placed a service plate and a soup bowl on the plate. The soup bowl was filled with my favorite tomato soup, with 4 to 5 crouton pieces swimming in it.
Once the waiter left, Prithvi started talking…
“Raj… I know that you are still wondering why I didn’t reveal the name of the person. Let me set the context with some events from my life. You will then understand”
“Sure Prithvi”, I said after taking a spoon full of the tomato soup and sipping it between my lips, only to realize that it was too hot. I started blowing air out of my mouth to cool down the soup in the spoon. I also realized that I needed more seasoning in the soup and so took the spice jars and sprinkled some salt and pepper in my bowl of soup.
“Before I start, let me ask you something – Do you know why restaurants place spice jars on our table, even though they have already added the seasoning in the soup?”
“Hmm…. Because different people need different spice levels?”
“Exactly…. Some restaurants usually serve the soup a bit bland, so that each person can customize it to his needs. Similarly, our life also starts pretty empty when we are born. It is up to us to customize our life according to our tastes. Now, don’t start wondering why I am boring you with this philosophy. I just want you to start with a fresh mind”
“I will never get bored with you Prithvi… ”
“I am just going to share a few experiences from my life, experiences which most people may consider negative. But, I feel that those events helped me mould myself to where I am now. Before I continue, let’s finish the soup before it gets cold”
Hors d’oeuvre (Appetizer)
After we finished the soup, the waiter cleared the used utensils and started bringing the next set of dinnerware. It consisted of a big plate, a small plate, fork, knife, spoon etc. We were served with two appetizers – paneer tikka and pakora.
The waiter served two pieces of paneer tikka and few pieces of the pakora to each of us. He also served a spicy green chutney on the small plate, along with a dark brown colored sweet chutney.
I took the fork in my hand and tried to cut a paneer into two pieces. But, the paneer was a bit hard and it just popped off my plate and went went flying towards Prithivi. Fortunately, it missed his head by a whisker. I gave him an embarrassing smile. I should have probably used the knife to cut the paneer.
Meanwhile, Prithvi continued with his speech…
“The first incident that I am going to tell you happened when I was in my 8th class in school. I was in Delhi at that time and was studying in A2Z Public school. I was seated behind Pankaj, the class bully during the half yearly exams. We were having our maths exam on that day. Pankaj was weak in maths and he usually carries some bits of paper with answers. But, this being the half yearly exam, the students were thoroughly checked before entering the exam hall.
So, the only other option for Pankaj was to copy from someone else. But, the distance between each seat was too far for anyone to see other’s answer paper. And, it was too risky to pass the paper. But, Pankaj was innovative. He noticed that I was using a plastic ruler, that was blank on one side. Without getting noticed by the teacher, he turned towards me and signalled me to write answers to some of the questions on the back of the ruler and pass it on to him. That way, it would only look like he is using a ruler.
Though I did not want to help him, I had no choice as he was the class bully. He was tall, as fat as a pumpkin, and looked like a movie villain. So, I wrote the answers using a pencil on the back of the ruler and passed it to him. While he was busy copying the answers, there was a surprise visit from the school principal. He randomly started checking the answer papers of few students. Shockingly, he checked the pencil boxes, and its contents as well. The ruler idea, which seemed safe a few minutes back, now turned out to be a disaster. I was wondering what Pankaj was going to do. He cooly threw the ruler away to a corner of the room.
You might have guessed by now. Yes, the principal noticed the ruler lying in a corner and picked it up, and of course noticed the answers on the back. He asked who the owner of the ruler was. I knew the consequences and so did not inform that it was mine. He asked the same question couple more times. When no one took ownership, he mentioned that he will suspend all of us for a week and will call our parents for a meeting, unless the real owner stands up.
I initially hesitated, but then did not want others to be punished. So, I slowly stood up. The principal pointed at the answers on the ruler and asked me for an explanation. I looked at Pankaj, and he was staring at me. I knew what the stare meant. I was afraid to give out his name as the culprit. I held my head down without uttering a word. I was then suspended for a week. And, the principal gave a big lecture to my parents. I was afraid to tell about Pankaj to my parents as well. I kept quiet but the incident really hurt me.
Things started getting back to normal, but I soon realized that the incident was only a ‘starter’. The main course was yet to come…”
The Main Course
We waited for a few minutes before the main course arrived.
The main course consisted of Chinese noodles and Schezwan fried rice. Noodles is one of the trickiest dishes to eat. Even today, I feel awkward when the noodles hang out of my mouth and I need to suck them. Given a choice, I would never eat noodles. I was happy when the popular brand of noodles was banned from India. But, today was Prithvi’s day. So, I didn’t want to disappoint him by not eating the noodles.
“The next incident happened at home. My younger brother and I were fighting for the TV remote. I wanted to watch a cricket match, while he wanted to watch some cartoon. Being the elder brother, I had to given in to his choice. He was watching Tom & Jerry, and had the TV remote with him. The Tom & Jerry show ended after some time, and he started switching the channels one by one. He didn’t seem to be interested in any particular channel, but was just browsing. I asked him again if I could have the TV remote.
He immediately held the remote behind his back with both hands. He then smiled at me and handed over the remote and ran away. As I turned, pointing the remote towards the TV, my mother came out of the kitchen. It was then I noticed that the channel that was currently running on the TV was Star Movies, and there was a scene showing a man and a woman in a position that was considered inappropriate for a young kid like me to watch. I tried to switch the channel, but the remote didn’t work. I turned towards my mother but she was already fuming with anger. Standing behind her, my brother lifted his hands and showed me the two AA batteries, that obviously belonged to the TV remote. Well, the rest is history…
Soon, a series of incidents happened both at school and home. Once, my friend and I went to buy a tennis ball. He suggested to buy one that was cheaper. He then had to go home due to some personal reason and couldn’t join us for the cricket game. During the game, the ball got punctured within the first over. And, as usual, I was blamed for buying an inferior quality ball.
And then, there was this beautiful girl on whom the whole class had a crush. Everyone wanted to propose to her, but no one was good enough to write a love letter without making a spelling mistake in every other sentence, except of course me. I ended up writing some 10 different letters – all with my own handwriting. So, when she complained to the class teacher, she (the teacher) easily recognized my handwriting and punished me.
Home was no better for me. I still remember the day when my brother dropped a plate on the floor and it shattered to pieces. He begged me not to tell mom. I started cleaning up the mess, when the servant maid noticed it. I guess she must have informed my mom that I was responsible for the mess, as my mom soon entered the kitchen and asked sarcastically, “May I clear the plate for you Sir?”
“May I clear the plate for you Sir?”
“Huh… Oh… Yes… Please go ahead..” The waiter then cleared my plate. Prithvi was still working on his.
“I soon became the scapegoat among my so-called friends. If anyone committed a mistake and wanted to blame somebody else, I became the obvious choice. I was the laughing stock in my group. If anyone got bored, they would start cooking up jokes with me as the protagonist.
Initially I felt very hurt and used to lock myself in a cupboard and cry. My life became tangled with lots of bad memories, just like how the noodles in my plate are tangled. But, I slowly realized that things were not going to change. Though the noodles are tangled, it is still a very popular dish. I started accepting my fate. It was not an easy transition, but slowly I started enjoying being able to make others laugh.”
I was stunned by now. How can a man be so selfless?
Prithvi soon finished the main course, and the waiter arrived with the dessert.
“Have you never felt that your life has been bitter due to these happenings?”
“I would be lying if I say no. As I mentioned, I was initially very hurt. But, these events are like the brownie that we have been served for dessert – It has a slight bitter taste of the cocoa, but we rarely notice it. The sweet flavour is strong enough to overcome the bitterness. The same way, the happiness that I got by making others laugh helped me overcome the bitterness.”
I was not sure what to say. I decided to fill my mouth with the warm brownie and the cold ice cream.
“I have not shared these experiences with anyone, Raj…. But, you are like a brother to me. I felt like sharing it with you….. Hope I didn’t bore you with my talk”
“Not at all Prithvi…. You have given me a new perspective to look at things”
We were both done with our dessert by now. The waiter brought the cheque, and I paid for it
“Ok Raj… Thanks for the dinner….. I don’t know if we will get a chance to meet again…. But, do keep in touch”
Prithvi got up and offered me a handshake. It was a firm handshake.
I reached home around 10:30pm. My wife and my son were on a skype chat with my cousin sister who was in the US. I heard them talk about schools in the US and comparing with schools in India…. I suddenly heard my cousin sister mention about A2Z school.
“Hi Nithya…. You studied in A2Z Public school, Delhi right?”
“Do you happen to know Prithviraj Chauhan?”
“Prithvi? Hmm… Oh yes… I remember him… that tall fat guy… he was a real bully… More than him, I remember his brother from the same school, who proposed to me with 10 different love letters…..”
This story is slightly inspired by the following two stories –