Aditi massaged her neck as she rested her eyes for a minute. Her body felt warm. Mustn’t fall sick, she told herself sternly. The whole company relied on her and her team. Her feet were killing her, the soles throbbing and sore.
“Aditi ? Akash told me you wanted these files?”
Aditi was startled. She had fallen asleep without even noticing it.
“Yes. Thanks Chetana. Could you please ask Ajay to come?”
“Sure. And I’ll get some coffee for you.”
“Oh that would be great. Thank you!”
Chetana smiled and left.
Aditi glanced at her watch. 2 AM. Panic set in. Work piled up sky high and not enough time.
She opened the files. Printouts of Newspaper clippings were systematically filed and dated in Chetana’s neat handwriting. Aditi’s face looked grim as she skimmed through them. Things looked very bleak. Their Client was in deep trouble this time.
Five decades of excellence and now this. The firm’s reputation was at stake. If handled right, their global communications consultancy could go from strength to strength. She might even get promoted. But, if they failed? Aditi shut out that thought. Focus, she told herself. Focus on the things you can control.
She rapidly sorted the articles into two piles – The ones that created good publicity for Chresantum and those that did not. Chetana had highlighted in yellow the sentences that demonised Chresantum to guide Aditi. She would have to phrase the press release carefully. It was hard, in the face of such damaging allegations. Two months in her new role as crisis communication manager had taken a lot out of her.
Ajay came in, bearing two cups of coffee in his hand. He looked terrible. Lack of sleep and a sedentary lifestyle showed in his pale pallor and the hunched way he sat in front of Aditi’s laptop.
Aditi sighed. “Ajay, what are we going to do? Listen to this, “Chresantum admitted in the investigation that it knew certain batches of the drug Tranxil CR tested positive for impurities……..but still sold the drugs for patient use.”
Here’s another, “The last inspection found Tranxil CR tablets, approved to treat depression could split apart, containing only an active ingredient without the intended controlled-release effect. What does that mean?”
“I’ll find out.” The only sound for a few minutes was of Ajay’s fingers on the keyboard. He read aloud, “The drug from the tablet is released slowly into the bloodstream in Controlled release to minimise drug concentration and side effects. The broken pills had a large dosage with immediate release leading to greater withdrawal when the patients tried to wean themselves off.”
Aditi nodded. She turned back to the article she was quoting, “The legal discovery process also uncovered evidence of deliberate suppression of unfavourable Tranxil Research results…… The incidence of suicidal behaviour has been under-reported.”
Aditi closed her eyes for a minute to think. The whole thing was a hornet’s nest. What had started fairly innocuously as a class action suit alleging that Tranxil CR created drug dependence had now snowballed into a $600 million scandal with a former employee’s claim that Chresantum deliberately sold generics that were contaminated.
They were not consulted when the first hiccup occurred and she was annoyed that they had come now with their tails in between their legs. After much of the damage had already been done.
“Aditi, what if we play on the angle that the whistleblower lawsuit was filed for money…. It says that this guy, Mahesh Bhat stands to gain by more than $30 million if the case wins.”
“Hmm tell me, is he legit? What do we know about him?”
“I don’t know about his motives…..But all his allegations were true. We could suggest that he was in it for the profit at the behest of Chresantum’s competitors, you know, planting the evidence, irate employee that sort of thing ……..after all there is huge competition for billions of dollars in this.”
“It sounds a bit far-fetched, especially after Chresantum has admitted to it….Anyway, tell Chetana to research on this….Maybe there’s something in it. God knows we need anything we can get our hands on!”She nodded appreciatively at Ajay.
She continued, “I was thinking….What if we get the big guns talking? About how test results have always been transparent at Chresantum…..Here,Mr. Chhabra says, ‘clinical trial transparency has always been our number one priority at Chresantum.” We can work it in our favour by making comparisons with PLK Pharma, you remember they always kept mum about the side effects of Selenta – about the psychotic episodes in patients, whereas Chresantum has always published findings and tests in the medical journals. That was a good move by Chhabra…..Yes, I think that would make a valid point in our press release.” She scribbled busily in a small notepad.
Ajay faltered, “But, those findings were false, weren’t they… In the medical journals I mean.”
Aditi threw him a sharp glance. Ajay shrugged and put up his hands disarmingly, and said, “Hey, Don’t care either way, just curious.”
Aditi made no response. A small doubt crept up in her mind which she quickly smothered. She had no time to deal with her emotions.
“I want you to do this…..Generate a lot of content in print, Television and social media about how generics are cheaper, cost-effective and life-saving for third world countries. Talk about unfair monopolies by patented drug companies that help only the well-heeled. The public is clamouring for affordable drugs, we can show how Chresantum is making this possible. We need to create a lot of goodwill if we have to pull through. Oh, I just had a brilliant idea. Get Mr. Wilson to talk. He is amazing! The way he talks just blows you away.”
“You haven’t heard of Brian Wilson?” She said incredulously. “He’s one of the best crusaders against big Pharma. Knows IP rights like the back of his hand. He is very supportive of Generics for AIDS and Cancer. We can turn the tide of public opinion with him.”
“Ok. I’ll coordinate that.”
“Did Chris tell you anything about the American scene? How’s it going in there?”
“Yeah. He had called. He told me to focus on the DCGI probe and manage things in India. He said that the USFDA could be better handled by somebody American.”Ajay snorted.
“I wish he’d have a little more faith in us.”
“Yeah well you know! He thinks we don’t have the ability to handle something as big as this. Hey listen, even if we talk about Chresantum as a wonderful life-saver, do you really think it will distract people from the real facts?”
“The point is not to distract them. Hell, Chresantum has already admitted it….You can’t retract those statements they made in a court of law! These are face-saving tactics. I don’t know if the management will agree, but I also want to suggest that they make a very public show of entering into talks with Mr. Mahesh Bhat about the crisis.”
“Mahesh Bhat! He was one the one who got us into all this trouble.”
“I know. It would set a good precedence for us if we show that Chresantum is above the blame game, and genuinely concerned about making amends. How many companies do you know, that made peace with whistle blowers and showed a constructive way of repairing the damage?”
“Yes….I can see what you mean.”
Aditi sipped her coffee and pushed it away in disgust. It was stone cold, A thick layer of fat formed at the surface.
“OK, Let’s get to it Ajay….I had written something for the Press release earlier. You read it, sanitize it. I’ll research some more points.”
Hours later, Aditi stretched. Ajay was typing with intense concentration. It was already 6 AM. Aditi drew back the blinds to let in the light and peered over Ajay’s shoulder.
“And that’s done!” Ajay saved the document.” Do you wanna give it a once over?”
“Yeah….Thanks Ajay. You run along home and get some sleep…..You look terrible!”
“And you? You think you look like a fresh daisy?”
“Let’s go on a vacation after this blows over. Get some rest, Aditi.”
“I will, I will….As soon as I finish.”
“Okay. See you later.” Aditi waved him goodbye.
She went to the bathroom and washed her face. She felt more alert. Now for some editing and proof reading.
Aditi worked rapidly and finished it in two hours. Her stomach was rumbling. She had forgotten to eat dinner the night before and she was starving.
She closed her laptop shut, thrust it into her bag and hurried out of the office. She debated whether to take the bus or to go by walk. Her apartment was just a few streets away. She hesitated near the bus stop. The morning air was fresh and invigorating. Deciding to walk, she went to the small eatery she frequented. While she hurriedly gulped down her dosa she checked her mails. She smiled as soon as she saw the first one.
It was from Raghav kaka, asking her if she could make it to kaki’s birthday. The message was rambling and garrulous as ever. Kaka always gave her a blow by blow account of all that happened in their lives!
Kaka was enjoying his Hindustani classes- two new students had joined, even a German girl with an impeccable Hindi accent who wore Saris and flowers in her hair! He sounded impressed. Aditi chuckled to herself. Sarita Kaki was busy with the NGO work….. Kaka sounded worried, “Sarita is still heartbroken with Amanjeet’s suicide, though she tries to hide it from me….It’s been over three months, but your kaki is not recovering….. She has become a workaholic giving herself no time to grieve…..The psychiatrist says it’ll get better but I don’t see her improving……Deeti, I know you are busy but can you make it to her birthday? It would give her such pleasure and take her mind off things. ” Aditi checked her calendar…..The birthday was two months away. She might just manage to book the tickets.
Poor kaki….Always concerned about others. Her NGO was doing good work rehabilitating domestic abuse victims and low income immigrant women in America. She made a mental note to call her and kaka in the evening.
She paid her bill and climbed the four flights of stairs to reach her apartment. She had been putting on weight the last couple of months, eating at her desk even as she worked and tried to sneak in a little exercise in her life this way.
Feeling a little light-headed with the unaccustomed exertion, she let herself into the apartment, dropped everything on the floor and collapsed on the bed. She set her alarm at 11AM. The last three weeks had been a mess; she could barely manage two hours of shuteye. As she lay on the bed, drifting to sleep, the events of the previous days began to play out over and over again. It reminded her of her theatre days when months of intense rehearsals got played out again and again in her sleep, like a loop. It was a disturbed sleep, fitful and full of vague, uncomfortable dreams.
She was awoken by the doorbell. With bloodshot eyes, she looked at the time, it was 12 PM. She had overslept! Hurrying into her bathroom, she washed her face, completely forgetting that somebody was at the door. The person at the bell waited politely and rang again, a shrill parrot screech that drew her insane. Wiping her face, she peeped through the keyhole – It was a stranger.
“Who is it?” She called out.
“Deeti? Aditi Deshpande?”
Nobody called her ‘Deeti’ except for close family and college friends. She opened the door.
“Hi Deeti! It’s so nice to see you…..It’s me, Karthik.” Aditi’s face looked blank. “Um…Karthik Krishnamurthy, we studied together at St.Ann’s…..”
Recognition dawned on Aditi’s face and she flung the door open in astonishment. “Karthik..wow! It’s been what, 7 years? Oh my god, it’s amazing to see you….Come in, come in…You look so different from that little spoilt brat I used to know!”
Karthik laughed self-consciously. “And you look the same as always……A little plump maybe….but it’s good, you look good!”
“Ah, the same old charm!! What brings you to Bangalore? Would you like anything, tea, coffee?”
“No, nothing…..I’ve been in Bangalore the past three years…..I am a journalist with the Times.”
“The past three years and you drop in now??I’m upset…..Hold on, you are not the Karthik Krishnamurthy of Times, are you?”
Karthik nodded modestly.
“Seriously? I’ve been wanting to meet this journalist and it turns out to be you! I am so proud of you Karthik! The way you exposed the Ghanshyam group scandal –investigative journalism at its best. Mrs. Pinto would be so proud!”
Karthik cleared his throat as if he wanted to say something, but didn’t know how.
“I didn’t know you were here Deeti……I came to know today…..I read your name on the press release that Whiz PR sent to the Times…..I thought it couldn’t be you, but I checked in the company website and there you were…chief of crisis communications …. I am doing a piece on Chresantum and I just wanted a few points cleared from you?”
Aditi’s happy smile vanished. In its stead, another smile appeared, the cool professional smile of Aditi Deshpande, tough as brass, an invaluable asset of Whiz PR consultancies.
“Of course, I’d be happy to help.”
“Look now, Deeti…..I really hate to be in this position…..You are among my best friends….You were the one who inspired me to take this as a profession in the first place!”
“Oh yes?”Aditi replied, politely.
“Yes….I wanted to be a musician….But your speech…., the speech you gave was a turning point in my life – the passion with which you spoke-it hit me! And I saw that nothing mattered but the truth – exposing the truth.”
Aditi said nothing. She wished she could turn him out but politeness demanded that she let him stay. She felt flat. The sudden euphoria of seeing a much beloved friend drained as she remembered the ugly realities of her time and space. This was no friend…..this was another one of those obstructions on her path to success. She had been genuinely happy to see Karthik – it took her back to an innocent time of idealism and belief – and he had rudely awakened her out of it.
“Deeti, why are you defending Chresantum? Anybody with half a brain can see how unethical and fraudulent their practices are.”Karthik demanded, suddenly angry.
“I am sorry to hear you say that….Chresantum has been grossly misrepresented by the media….You always show a skewed perspective…..Why have people forgotten that Chresantum was at the forefront of the movement to defy Western Pharma companies in making generic drugs for AIDS. If it is such a profit-mongering company, why did it have to sell it to International agencies for a fraction of the cost to be given to patients for free? Did you also forget the ‘Access to basic medicine campaign’ that helped millions of people?”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Why are you defending Chresantum?”
She stared at him, silent. “I believe they do good work.”Even to herself, she didn’t sound convinced.
“If you’ll excuse me Karthik, I have a long day ahead….If you have any specific questions for the article, please mail them to me – I’ll take some time out to answer them.” Her tone was dismissive.
Karthik looked deflated, as if disillusioned of a long cherished ideal. He nodded and attempted to smile, but couldn’t.
Aditi suddenly felt bereft. She saw the hurt on Karthik’s face and hated herself for what she’d done. “Good luck with your article. You make a great journalist.”She added feebly.
Karthik nodded and turned to go. He faced her suddenly, as if on impulse, looked her straight in the eye and said, “I hope you find peace.” He went away with quick, rapid steps.
Aditi stood stunned and disquieted. What did he mean by that? “Never mind, get ready, you’re late!” said a voice in her head. She went back into her apartment and had a quick shower. She did everything as fast and mindfully as she could, to dull out the pain of Karthik’s last words.
While she blow-dried her hair, she consulted her day planner. There was a meeting with Frank Sanders, who had flown in all the way from New York to liaise with the Indian team on the Chresantum project. If all went well with this, she could get a chance to work in their Manhattan office! It would be worth all the hard work and long hours.
She took special care when dressing up and chose the most elegant suit she could find. She even put on a little makeup. She glanced at herself in the mirror. It wasn’t much, but it had to do.
She caught an auto and went to the Ritz hotel, where Mr.Sanders was staying. She felt a little self-conscious as she went past the well-dressed men and women in the restaurant where she was to meet him. This was not her first time in a high class hotel but she still felt a little gawkish in front of what she felt were rich, sophisticated people.
She looked at the time. She was ten minutes late. She had always been fastidious about being punctual and here she was, late on a day it really did matter. The irony was not lost on her. She smiled grimly at the thought of it.
She spotted Mr.Sanders on a table to her right – A sallow-faced man who looked up at her with disapproving eyes as she made her way to him.
“I’m sorry I’m late….Just a bit caught up with the unexpected turn of events.”
“Good Afternoon, Aditee….Yes, I know the information reached your team late and I apologize….It’s a bit of muddle with teams in so many countries and the New York office sending out confusing directives.”He said with uncharacteristic candour. He motioned a waiter toward the table who came up with two menu cards.
“I hope you’ll have lunch with me?”
“I’ll just have a coffee, thank you. I’m not hungry.”Aditi said untruthfully. “Where are the others?”
“Oh this is just a meeting between us – I want to discuss something confidential.”
Aditi was surprised. She was under the impression that all her team would be here to pitch in their ideas.
“I read the mail Mr.Ajay sent – the way you want to handle the campaign……That was pure genius, you know!”
Aditi blushed, gratified. Words of praise from the VP were words of praise indeed.
“I called for this meeting because we like the way you work. There are very few as dedicated, well-read or creative as you in this company and I’m happy to tell you that you’ve been promoted!”
She stared at him in disbelief. “I’m sorry, but the Chresantum consultation is still under way?”
“Oh that’s alright…..Chresantum was botched from the beginning….But I think we stand a fair chance of saving the damage with your campaign ideas. But let’s keep this between ourselves…..You know there are senior members here who might be ticked off at having been passed over for promotion. Chresantum will be your last project in India.”
Aditi felt overwhelmed. She was happy but also disappointed. It felt as though this was an undeserved reward. If the promotion had come after the lawsuit was successfully settled, it would have been different. It seemed like success had found her a little too early.
“You don’t look particularly happy, Aditee.”
“Oh no…..I am glad! I’m just a little…taken aback. It’s such a privilege Mr.Sanders…..I cannot tell you how grateful I am for this!”
“Good. Good! We should have some wine to celebrate!”
It was over 5 in the evening when she finally left the restaurant. A little giddy with the wine and happiness, she hailed an auto back to her apartment. They had spent over four hours discussing strategies for all of Whiz PR’s current projects and Sanders seemed respectfully attentive to her suggestions.
This was it! She was finally going to live her dream….Manhattan! Amazing pay and a great work culture. It still seemed a bit unreal. She couldn’t wait to tell Kaka and kaki, she could even stay with them in New York! It was vexing that her phone had switched off, just when she was bursting to tell them. She went into her apartment, put her phone to charge and took a leisurely bath in the shower. Much of the edge to the Chresantum lawsuit was gone and she felt uncharacteristically light-hearted and happy.
Out of the refreshing hot bath, she made herself a cup of tea and settled down in her favourite easy chair and switched on her phone. 18 missed calls from kaka. Aditi sat upright, fear clutching at her insides. She called him back. No answer.
She called him again. Busy. She waiter for a few seconds and tried again…..This time the phone rang for what seemed like an eternity before kaka’s tired voice said, “Deeti?”
Aditi knew each and every inflection of her kaka’s voice. She knew immediately that he had bad news. To her horror, he had begun to sob –the weeping of a man with pent-up sorrow.
“Aditi, kaki passed away…..”
“She threw herself from our apartment window.”
Aditi was dumbstruck. Her strong Sarita kaki, the strongest woman she had ever known in her life, killing herself?
“No kaka.” Aditi sounded strangely calm. “It was an accident…kaki is always strong, she would never attempt to kill herself.”
“She did it right before my eyes, I was reading the newspaper, finishing my breakfast….and she walked to the window and…..”
“What are you saying? My kaki who told me never to bow down to life? No….no”
Raghav Kaka hesitated. “When I told you Sarita was not recovering….I didn’t tell you just how bad she was, I was afraid you’d be worried…..Her memory had become vague…..She would get panic attacks and would be angry for no reason. She blamed me for Amanjeet’s suicide….I didn’t know what was happening with her….. I found out today that she had stopped taking her anti-depressants the past two months – Her prescription is still intact…I read up on the medication –Her psychiatrist had told us that it was completely safe, with no addiction. No side effects….I am suing him, I read that many people on this drug had committed suicide…Sarita was depressed not suicidal……Aditi why did I make her go to the psychiatrist?” Kaka wailed. “I killed her….She would have been just fine without the medication.”
Aditi’s mouth felt very dry. She wanted to comfort him, but couldn’t. She spoke, her voice not her own, “What was the name of the drug?”
“Tranxil CR – I am filing a case against the company – They are playing with people’s lives – The bas##rds! Aditi? Aditi?” He heard a sharp intake of breath and the clatter of something falling.
Aditi heard Kaka’s voice as if from a distance. She felt hemmed in, like something was wresting the breath out of her lungs. Sarita kaki was there, looking at her with doleful eyes.