For Nana and Nani
through whose love, I understood love itself

Foreword: The Hare, the Tortoise and the Twist

‘Dude, why are we running?’ the hare asked the tortoise at the start line.

‘Because you brag that you run fast,’ the tortoise snorted. ‘My community and other friends in the jungle chose me to challenge you. I’m here to prove we are no less.’

‘Running fast is one of my strengths and yes, I am proud of it. Just like a long life of three hundred-odd years is yours. My community doesn’t feel you people brag about it. It’s the truth and we accept it,’ the hare said, growing irritable. ‘Why should I run this meaningless race? It doesn’t make any sense.’

‘Then beat me,’ the tortoise smiled. ‘The old folks tell me that slow and steady can win any race. I am determined to beat you and I am sure I can do it if I work hard enough.’

‘That's exactly the point. Why should you work hard and not smart? Surely you have abilities I don't have, and I have qualities that you don't. Where does this race fit in?’

‘Survival of the fittest, that’s where it fits in,’ said the tortoise, puffing out his chest.

‘But aren’t both of us survivors? Otherwise, only one of us would have been standing here. Creation is about diversity. Besides, what happens if I win this race? Should I compete with a cheetah next and be the laughing stock that day? If at all I run, it will be for myself—my dreams and my desires. Not for you or this jungle.’

‘So what do you want to do right now? Got anything better to do than run this race?’ the tortoise scoffed.

‘Yes,’ the hare said, confidently. ‘I want to sit in the shade and relish a fresh, juicy carrot. Get lost chasing the clouds in the endless blue sky. Dig deep burrows to unearth new and exciting finds. Play with my friends, explore what lies beyond that horizon. I won't live the three hundred-odd years that you will. My life is too short to waste running mindless races.’

‘That's funny,’ the tortoise said as the gun went off. He started running. That is, he started moving as fast as he could. The hare stood in his spot and shook his head. Then, without warning, he ran, far from the madding crowd. He followed his heart.

The tortoise won the uncontested race.

Two hundred and forty years later, time hung heavily over the tortoise’s mundane routine of eat, swim, sleep, repeat. He was tired of hiding beneath the shadow of his shell, afraid of the vultures that dotted the skies. The hare had told him the sky was an endless blue with clouds of many shapes. Was the hare not afraid of the predators? He had dared to be a dreamer. Why was he so different?

Life was complicated, the tortoise thought as he entered the swamp for his last swim. He disappeared without leaving a ripple. Despite living and being an intrinsic part of the jungle for almost three hundred years, not a soul missed him.

The race that had been the cornerstone of his life was made into a fable by his community.

The legend of the hare, however, remains to be told.

 

Book 1: The Start Line

Chapter 1: Dream turns to nightmare

The alarm rang and Rasiq woke up without hitting snooze for the first time in his life. He checked the clock—6.00 a.m. Rasiq had spent a fitful night, anxious about the coming day.

Today is the first day of the rest of my life, he thought as he got out of bed and stretched. He pulled out his toothbrush from his travel bag and headed to the bathroom. He took his time brushing his teeth, thinking about his mother’s advice: first impressions are hard to erase.

He took an unusually long shower, scrubbing himself obsessively as if to cleanse himself of ages of dirt. His shave was closer than ever, thanks to the new Mach 5 razor that his father had gifted him. Next, he put on cologne, again something he had never done before. He understood deodorants, but colognes were an enigma.

He applied a little gel on his thick, straight hair, which had been cropped short, to make sure it didn't stand up odd angles. If he were to believe what his seniors said about investment banking, it was going to be a long, long day.

He wore his new shirt—double cuffed—with the cufflinks that Ruchika had gifted him. His new Van Heusen suit had cost him a bomb considering he had not earned a rupee in his life yet. Finally, he wore his new Aldo shoes. He didn't know anyone who wore shoes that cost ten thousand rupees, but then he didn't know any investment bankers either.

He checked himself in the full-length mirror and was satisfied with what he saw.

At 5'11" he just missed the ‘tall’ benchmark, but his lean frame made him seem taller. His dusky complexion, sharp features, square jaw and intense look made it impossible for people to ignore his presence.

He stepped closer to the mirror to wear contact lenses for the first time in his life.

‘You have beautiful eyelashes,’ Ruchika had told him when they were shopping in the mall a week ago. ‘You shouldn’t hide them behind your thick spectacles.’

‘Yuck,’ Rasiq had reacted. ‘Who puts a foreign object in their eyes? That’s so ridiculous!’

‘You know I love your lashes. Why can't you do even this much for me?’ she had said with her index finger dangerously close to her thumb, the gesture suggesting that the favour asked was insignificant. He ought to carry it out with grace.

Rasiq had acceded to her request. What choice had he really had in the matter?

His bloodshot eyes spilt a small waterfall by the time he overcame his struggle with the lenses. He took out his silk handkerchief and mopped his eyes and face.

He checked himself in the mirror a final time and nodded in appreciation of his new avatar.

The first day of the rest of my life.

He went down to the lobby of the hotel; the Trident, Nariman Point, was his transitory home courtesy of his employers. He had a week to find an apartment in Mumbai.

‘Good morning, sir,’ said the woman at the reception.

Sir? Rasiq thought. Wow. I’m only twenty-three! Was she the one who checked me in yesterday? She wasn't that courteous when I was in my worn jeans and tee-shirt!

Rasiq was pleased at the effect his new avatar had on people. He noticed as he stepped out that even the guard with the thick mustache saluted him.

His office was a short walk from the hotel. It was 7.30 a.m. He was to report at nine. Plenty of time.

He crossed the road and walked to the waterfront. Pristine! Rasiq inhaled the fresh morning air—a small luxury that Mumbai afforded its residents. He caught the rare sight of the morning sun, its orange hue reflecting radiantly off the sea. The streets were mostly empty. He had an hour to gaze at the fathomless sea, but he couldn't sit on the low wall along the promenade, as he had done last evening with Ruchika. He couldn’t afford to ruin his new suit. He stood looking at the horizon, dreaming about a future that was about to unfold.

‘Chai, boss?’ came a shout from behind him.

‘Cutting,’ Rasiq responded like a Mumbaikar. He had heard people order tea that way the day before, an oddity unique to Mumbai.

Immediately the man served him super-hot tea in a plastic cup of dubious quality. This can't be hygienic, Rasiq thought. A thought immediately followed by the realization that he had never bothered about the quality of cups before. His transformation had begun from the moment he had worn his suit.

‘First time in Mumbai?’ the tea guy asked him in a thick Mumbai accent, forcing Rasiq out of his thoughts.

‘Yes,’ Rasiq said. ‘In fact, it's my first day here. I arrived last evening. How did you know?’

‘It's obvious, boss!’

Rasiq smiled. ‘Can you give me a Classic Milds too?’

The man took one out from a pack and gave it to Rasiq. He lit the cigarette for Rasiq.

‘How much?’ Rasiq asked, pulling deeply on his cigarette.

‘Arrey boss,’ the man said, ‘today is your first day in town. I can't take money from you.’

‘No, no,’ Rasiq said, putting his cup down on the promenade wall and pulling out his wallet. ‘I have to pay you.’

‘No boss,’ the man said, as he started walking away. ‘Pay me tomorrow onwards. I cannot forget my first day in Mumbai. I was penniless. I managed some food that day thanks to a kind man. I am just repaying the debt I owe to the city.’

The man rushed to serve other people.

‘At least tell me your name,’ Rasiq yelled after him and the man turned around, grinning. He walked back to Rasiq and extended his hand, ‘I am Gopi.’

Rasiq felt slightly odd with the formality of shaking the man's hand, but he didn’t want to be rude. ‘Rasiq,’ he said, shaking his hand. ‘Thank you for the chai and the cigarette.’

The man grinned again, all thirty-two teeth on display, and walked away.

Rasiq turned to face the sea. He picked up his tea and smoked his cigarette in silence, waiting for the rest of his life to begin.

* * *

‘You have been cornered,’ Samar, a second-year associate and Rasiq's mentor at the investment bank, declared with a smirk on his face.

‘What?’ Rasiq said, confused.

‘The corner office is calling you,’ Samar replied.

‘What?’ Rasiq was even more bewildered.

‘Abey dhakkan,’ the associate said irritably, ‘the head of the investment banking division has summoned you to his office. It's the one on the corner of the floor.’

Rasiq felt like an idiot but wondered why. Was he supposed to have come prepared knowing the lingo these guys used?

As he reached the corner office, he saw an older man talking animatedly on the phone. His short hair was peppered with grey. Rasiq waited outside patiently, observing the man. He was dressed in a pinstriped suit that looked much more expensive than his own.

After waiting for about fifteen minutes in complete silence, Rasiq started sweating in anticipation. Moving, in any direction whatsoever, keeps the mind occupied, Rasiq thought. It is only in moments of silent contemplation that the mind grows agitated.

The man slapped down the receiver of the landline phone. His action communicated anger, but his face was expressionless. Classic poker face. Or banker's face? Wait! Is that why bankers are good at poker? All of them as lively as walls.

When the man paid no heed to him waiting at the door, Rasiq knocked. The man glanced up before returning his gaze to his computer screen. He gestured with one finger for Rasiq to enter.

‘Yes?’ he enquired without looking up. Rasiq could sense that his uneasiness gave the man a strange sense of control.

‘You called me, sir?’ Rasiq said with a quiver in his voice. The man and his office intimidated him. Rasiq noticed the office had two glass walls overlooking Marine Drive and the Arabian Sea. The view was breathtaking, especially from the twenty-first floor.

Finally, the man looked up. ‘Who are you?’

‘Rasiq, sir,’ he said. ‘First-year analyst,’ he added, when the man made a strange face on hearing his name. ‘I joined today.’

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I’m Raghav. Listen, boss, I want to tell you a couple of things before you start here.’

Boss? Who talks like that? Rasiq thought. I understand Gopi, but this guy?

‘So do you think this is your dream job?’ he said, not bothering to ask Rasiq to sit.

Rasiq nodded, unconvincingly. His wobbly voice stumbled on the way and never make it out of his throat.

‘Wrong,’ the man continued, clearly satisfied with the effect he had on Rasiq, ‘it is your nightmare.’

Rasiq wondered if he was expected to agree.

‘We don't have room for dreamers. But we are going to ensure we nip the problem in the bud. You are going to slog the whole of next year. Not much time to sleep, so there won't be any dreams.’

Rasiq stared at the man, horror-struck. He swallowed hard and was afraid that it was audible. He imagined Raghav laughing like a possessed monster from a Tim Burton movie. I would have wet my pants if he had done that, Rasiq thought. Ironically, the humorous thought calmed him.

‘Tell your family and girlfriend, if you have one, not to visit you here in Mumbai: it would be a waste of a trip. Let's be clear about that, boss.’

Rasiq was too intimidated to say anything. The man smiled out of the corner of his mouth and extended his hand, ‘Welcome to investment banking!’

Rasiq managed to thank him before leaving his office.

* * *

‘That was quite something,’ Rasiq said as Samar turned towards him.

‘Not interested. Who are you?’ Samar dismissed his observation with a question as he rose from his desk. He was a good half-foot shorter than Rasiq and wore his thin, wavy hair long, probably to hide the balding that had started at his temples. He was, however, dressed smartly in grey trousers and a pink shirt with a white collar. His gold cufflinks competed for attention with the four diamond rings on his fingers. The shiny, pointed leather shoes were from Armani, much more expensive than Rasiq’s, of course. He started walking without saying anything to Rasiq.

Confused by the question, Rasiq resigned himself to following him. ‘Rasiq,’ he answered feebly as they walked, aware that it wasn’t the answer expected from him.

‘That's your name,’ Samar said, louder than was necessary considering how close Rasiq was to him. ‘Who are you?’ he asked again.

Rasiq could feel everyone in the office looking at them as they walked by the array of cubicles. ‘First-year analyst?’ Rasiq said, doubtfully.

‘Wrong again. That's the designation on your card,’ Samar said, ‘not your identity. Who are you?’

Rasiq was annoyed with the unnecessary third-degree. ‘Do you have the answer?’ he finally gathered an iota of courage to ask. ‘Why don't you tell me?’

‘You are a whore!’ Samar said as he burst out laughing.

Rasiq stood aghast. He opened his mouth to say something, but nothing emerged. He could hear laughter from the audience of the theatre of the most embarrassing moment of his life.

‘Yes,’ Samar said. ‘You are everybody's bitch.’

I’m sorry, I think you have me confused with your wife, Rasiq thought. That's what he should have said. ‘What do you mean?’ he asked politely instead, his ears burning with embarrassment.

‘One team picks up an analyst from the second year onward. But in the first year, you have to work with all the directors so they can decide whether they want you on their team. Which means anyone can and will ask you to work on anything they want. Ergo, you are everyone's bitch.’

The colour drained from Rasiq's face. He had no idea how to respond to such talk.

‘You thought you were fortunate to be the only guy on campus to get an offer from us?’

‘Yes,’ Rasiq replied sincerely, despite the situation. Jobs were difficult to get during the recession, but he had received his placement an hour into Day Z: short for Day Zero, the first day of the campus placement season.

‘Well, you’re probably the unluckiest guy in the world,’ he said. ‘The firsties have to do the grunt work on all the deals. We typically hire four or five. This year, you are the only one, which means your life is going to be four or five times harder than that of any other first-year analyst's. And boy, what a shitty life they have.’

Rasiq could hear muffled laughter from the other associates and vice presidents in the office.

‘Here’s your only real friend, the coffee machine,’ Samar continued as if nothing had happened. ‘You'll need litres of it, so you can walk in anytime, have an unlimited supply to keep you alive, alert and awake.  I'll show you your desk now.’

What have I gotten myself into? Rasiq thought, feeling every bit like a lamb destined for the slaughterhouse.

He followed Samar quietly, his ears still burning and his face an embarrassing crimson. This level of humiliation was a first for him. And to make matters worse, he had never felt so handicapped in giving a fitting response.

‘This is it,’ Samar said, pointing to an extended desk with four chairs and a single desktop on it. ‘Normally, four first-year analysts sit here for a year before earning a proper cubicle in the team they join.’

‘I guess I am lucky then,’ Rasiq said trying to brave a smile. It had sounded funny in his head but came out as desperate and meek.

Samar scoffed. ‘You can set up your office account and email. Familiarize yourself with the system. I'll send you the presentation for the deal I’m working on in a couple of hours and we can discuss the sections you need to work on.’

‘Umm,’ Rasiq said. ‘I have an onboarding session starting in an hour, which will be for the rest of the day.’

‘Rest of the day?’ Samar asked.

‘Yes,’ Rasiq said taking out his joiner's agenda and handing it to Samar.

‘It's till six,’ Samar said. ‘That's not even half a workday. We'll start at six then.’

 

Chapter 2: A first day that refuses to end

The mind-numbing presentations on the organizational structure of the bank and the role of every division drained Rasiq. He had never thought that expressions like ‘need to know basis only’ and ‘client names codified for confidentiality’ could sound so boring coming from an HR guy in a conference room, instead of from Liam Neeson in an action movie. He called Ruchika during his forty-five-minute lunch break, but there was no response. He was eager to know about her first day on the job. He hoped it was going much better than his.

Post lunch, the HR representative droned on about organizational strategy, ethics, values and code of conduct in a singsong monotone that induced sleep. Rasiq lost interest after the representative said: ‘Respecting our colleagues is integral to our success.’

He returned to the twenty-first floor at 6.15 p.m.

 

‘Come,’ Samar caught him when he stepped into the investment banking bay. ‘Grab a cup of coffee and come to the meeting room. We have a truckload of work.’

They sat in a small meeting room, discussing the context of the presentation. Rasiq had to work on an extensive section on benchmarking and valuation for a sell-side pitch to a prospective client.

‘Basically, I’ve done everything for you. Now you have to create the presentation.’

‘Sure,’ Rasiq said, ignoring the fallacy in the statement.  The research required to prepare the presentation would be humongous. ‘When do you need this?’

‘Tomorrow morning, daybreak,’ Samar said as he stood up. ‘Come, I'll log in to Bloomberg on your terminal with my password. You'll get yours tomorrow.’

Rasiq's eyes widened in surprise. Maybe it was the coffee that triggered it, but he felt a rush of anxiety.

‘Samar, I know nothing about this sector,’ he said, exasperated, as they reached his desk. ‘I don't think I'll be able to even finish the reading by tonight. I am sure there must be a million analyst reports that I will have to go through before I can even begin to put my thoughts on the slides. We need a compelling story if we are to convince anyone to partially divest their business!’

‘Sure,’ Samar said, scratching his chin. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said after a long pause. ‘I guess I forgot that you will be working on this alone. It would have been manageable had there been four of you, isn't it?’ he said, pointing at the empty seats next to Rasiq's.

Rasiq breathed easy, ‘Exactly!’

‘Did you check your salary in your contract?’

‘Yes,’ Rasiq failed to understand the intent behind the question.

‘And of course we know this year's average on-campus salary.’

Rasiq was beginning to comprehend where this was going.

‘Four times,’ Samar said. ‘That's your pay. Never forget that. That's excluding the year-end bonus that you'll get. We didn't hire four people but one to do the job of four.’

Rasiq's head hung low.

‘Stop complaining or stop surviving,’ Samar said as he left for his desk.

Rasiq took off his jacket and pulled out his cufflinks. He threw them in his jacket pocket and rolled up his sleeves as he started his reading.

Great start, Rasiq.

* * *

Samar walked to Rasiq’s desk, his brown leather bag slung across his chest. 8.30 p.m. He carried an expensive-looking umbrella, his shield against the unpredictable rains in Mumbai. ‘I am heading home now,’ he said. ‘Call me if you need anything. And you can order dinner for up to fifteen hundred rupees and get it reimbursed.’

‘All right,’ Rasiq said with a single wave of his hand. ‘See you tomorrow.’

‘9.30 a.m.,’ Samar said and left without waiting for a response.

Rasiq picked up his phone. Three missed calls. Ruchika. He waited for Samar to step into the lift, then went into the lobby and pressed the button to call the lift. Once downstairs, he walked to Marine Drive and stood on the promenade, again. He dialled Ruchika. She answered in a single ring this time.

‘I have been trying to reach you for so long now,’ she complained.

‘I was in a meeting—’ Rasiq said. His brain did a somersault. What a lame thing to say. So clichéd.

‘Oh,’ Ruchika said, ‘my busy man! Are you at the hotel now? How about dinner together?’

‘I can't,’ Rasiq said, sitting on the wall of the promenade, not caring about his new, expensive suit getting spoilt. ‘I have an unholy pile of work. Don’t think I’ll be able to sleep at all.’

‘What?’ Ruchika said. ‘You’re kidding me!’

‘I wish I were,’ Rasiq said, burying his forehead in his palm.

‘Everyone told us about the crazy work,’ Ruchika said, concerned, ‘but this is madness! On the first day!’

‘I swear to God,’ Rasiq said, seething with anger, ‘if I had met this asshole of an associate outside work, I would have punched him in the face till his teeth fell out.’

‘He's your boss? What's his name?’

‘Samar,’ Rasiq said. ‘Everyone in the company is my boss, Ruchika. I am supposed to work on anything anyone asks me to.’

‘Sounds horrible,’ Ruchika said. ‘Maybe the others are different.’

‘Always the one looking for the silver lining,’ Rasiq said, smiling. ‘How was your day?’

‘Oh! I had the best day!’ Ruchika shrieked. Her boss had taken her and the other new recruits out for an extended lunch. This had been followed by their onboarding session, which had lasted only a couple of hours. Then they had met a few senior colleagues who had briefed them about the work culture at the office and the functioning of their team. At 5.00 p.m. they had gone out for an icebreaking session over drinks.

‘But I had only one glass of wine,’ Ruchika said, ‘because I thought I would come and meet you.’

Rasiq listened silently, too numb to feel anything. Was he upset because she was insensitive to his misery or was he envious of her happiness? Maybe it was neither, maybe he was just missing her.

‘Your job sounds way more fun than mine,’ he said. ‘I wish I could work there.’

‘You can join us at the speed of light, Rasiq,’ Ruchika said. ‘You know you'll be a catch for them. But your job pays way more than mine, which makes it a fair trade-off. Wait till you receive your first paycheck.’

Rasiq hung up after exchanging declarations of love. He put his phone down and buried his face in both his palms.

‘Chai, boss?’ Gopi had appeared again, grinning.

Rasiq half smiled. ‘You are working late too?’

Gopi laughed while pouring him a cup and took out a Classic Milds cigarette for him.

‘Thanks,’ Rasiq said as Gopi put out the matchstick. Rasiq took long drag and reached for his wallet.

‘I told you I can't take payment from you today,’ Gopi said as he started walking away. ‘Pay me tomorrow.’

Rasiq smiled at the man's kindness and slowly walked back to his office.

A first day that refused to end.

Chapter 3: Endless work

‘Started early?’ Shilpa said, when she arrived at 8.30 a.m. She was the head of the administrative staff.

Rasiq nearly jumped out of his seat, startled. He had worked through the quiet of the night and hearing a human voice seemed alien to his caffeine and adrenalin enhanced senses.

‘No,’ he said. ‘I worked the whole night.’ His voice was grainy from lack of use.

‘Oh! Poor kid,’ Shilpa said, walking to her desk. She pulled out a small kit from her drawer and handed it to Rasiq. ‘Take this,’ she said. ‘Go freshen up.’

Rasiq took the kit and looked inside: a toothbrush, paste, razor and a small shaving cream.

‘Thank you!’ Rasiq said, surprised at the kindness. ‘You are a lifesaver, Shilpa!’

 

In the washroom, he looked at his creased shirt and dishevelled hair and tried to control the damage. However hard he tried, he couldn't manage the fresh look he was hoping for. He went down at close to 8.45 a.m. and saw Gopi selling his tea and cigarettes on the promenade. He smiled widely as he saw Rasiq approaching him.

‘You look different,’ Gopi said.

‘A lot has happened since yesterday,’ Rasiq said.

‘I knew this city changed people, but this is quite a transformation. No coat, no smile, no enthusiasm!’ He poured him a cup of tea and handed him a cigarette. ‘And I think you have something in your eye.’

Rasiq rubbed his eyes, ‘What is it?’

‘A dying dream,’ Gopi replied, philosophically.

Rasiq laughed and took out his wallet. Gopi smiled and took the money, ‘Doesn't seem as if it's your second day, though.’

‘No,’ Rasiq said. ‘A first day that refuses to end.’

‘But I will define a new day with the sunrise,’ Gopi said. ‘Or you might single-handedly bankrupt me!’

At 9.15 a.m. Rasiq hurried to The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and bought five cups of coffee before returning to the office.

People started coming in from 9.30 onwards. ‘I have coffee here,’ Rasiq said to the associates.

A few of them smiled, walked to his desk and exchanged greetings. They took their coffee and walked back to their desks.

No time for small talk, Rasiq thought.

‘Thanks for the coffee,’ Samar said. ‘But I hope it's not a bribe to get out of a yelling.’

‘Yelling?’ Rasiq asked, naively.

‘Have you completed the work?’

‘Oh,’ Rasiq said. ‘I sent it to you two minutes ago.’

Samar smiled, nodding. ‘I'll call you to discuss my comments.’

‘Sure,’ Rasiq said.

In the two hours that Samar took to review Rasiq's work, he got several new work requests. Rasiq didn't know whether it was a good or bad sign that no one noticed he was wearing the same clothes as the day before and hadn't slept a wink.

He inhaled deeply and started working on the new requests.

* * *

‘This is good work for your first day,’ Samar said, bringing a set of printouts to Rasiq's desk. ‘I have marked the minor changes you have to make. It shouldn't take you too long, so let's review this at lunch.’

‘Sonali has given me some work,’ Rasiq said. ‘Shouldn’t I complete that first?’

‘No,’ Samar said. ‘This takes priority.’ With that, he walked back to his desk.

Rasiq stood and went to Sonali. ‘Would it be okay if I completed your work after lunch?’

‘Why?’she asked, irritated.

‘I received comments from Samar on the Konkan deck and he wants me to prioritize that,’ he said.

‘Why is my work not done yet?’ she asked, looking at her watch.  ‘It's 11.30 and it shouldn't have taken two hours!’

‘I’m sorry,’ Rasiq said. ‘It'll take me another thirty minutes to complete it, tops!’ Rasiq said. ‘I had to do some research before I could even begin...’

‘What did they teach you at IIM Ahmedabad?’ Sonali said, her nostrils flaring. ‘This is basic finance! I didn't know they were breeding morons on that campus, or I would have fought harder to recruit from IIM Calcutta!’

Rasiq felt a growing anger in his chest. Although not the biggest fan of his institute, he still felt a need to respond to the scathing, personal attack on what was a big part of his past. Today was not the best day though, and maybe there never would be a good day for that.

‘Samar,’ she yelled across the floor. ‘Give him thirty minutes before he starts on your deck. He hasn't completed the small task I gave him this morning.’

‘Cool,’ Samar said.

‘Thanks,’ Rasiq said, not knowing why he was thanking them. He walked back to his desk, wondering what had happened.

He worked quickly on Sonali's request, sent that out on time and started working on the deck for Samar.

At 1.30 p.m., Samar came to Rasiq's desk with his tiffin.

Rasiq smiled, clearing some papers from his desk to make room for the lunch box, thinking they would be eating together.

‘Will you finish the deck in the next thirty minutes?’ Samar asked, ignoring Rasiq's actions.

‘Yeah, sure,’ Rasiq said, hoping the grumbling in his stomach wasn't audible. Samar nodded as he turned to leave and join the other associates for lunch.

He left the office close to 2.00 a.m. and crashed on his bed as soon as he entered his hotel room. He woke at 7.30 a.m., without an alarm.

Repeat.

* * *

His circumstances remained unchanged for the rest of the week. On Friday morning, before he left the hotel, the staff reminded him that his check-out time was noon the next day.

Shit! His complimentary stay was over and he couldn't afford to continue staying at the Trident since he didn't have any money. He had borrowed close to a lakh from his dad, but he would need that to pay the deposit and brokerage for the apartment he would be renting.

He called Ruchika.

‘Hey,’ she said in her most charming voice, brightening the day for Rasiq. ‘Such an early call! Are you missing me already?’

‘Yes,’ Rasiq said, not lying. ‘It's been only four days, but it seems like a month.’

‘You've probably done a month’s worth of work already,’ Ruchika said.

‘Ruchi, I need your help in looking for an apartment today,’ he interrupted her.

‘What? You haven't looked?’

‘You know I haven't had any time for that,’ he said. ‘Did you look for yours?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I’m moving in with Shweta, my friend from undergrad college. Her roommate is planning to leave at the end of the month and we'll manage until then.’

‘Wow,’ Rasiq said. ‘You are lucky! But can you please help me out?’

‘Rasiq,’ she said. ‘I was planning to go clubbing tonight. It's Friday, not a dry day.’

Rasiq's shoulders slumped. ‘Cool,’ he said, wondering when he had picked up that habit from Samar. ‘I'll think of something.’

‘Sorr...’

Rasiq cut the call. He was too busy to talk more.

* * *

Back at the office, Rasiq sent out the work he had completed to the team. He knew he had about fifteen minutes to himself before the next assignment came his way. He had timed that over the past week. He took out his notebook and turned to the last page.

Balance Sleep, he wrote at the top of the page, almost in a trance.

3 April, Sunday: Hardly

4 April, Monday: 0

5 April, Tuesday: 5 hours

6 April, Wednesday: 2 hours

7 April, Thursday: 3 hours

Ten hours over five nights. He was sure his brain cells had started dying by the millions. He should not be able to even sit right now. He should crash. He was defying all logic.

Yes, Rasiq thought. I am defying all logic. Logic applies to mere mortals. Not me. Because I am not an ordinary person. I am superhuman.

* * *

‘Hey,’ Ruchika called Rasiq at nine that night. ‘We are leaving for the club now.’

‘Did you get late at work?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘I went to the parlour at six and it took a while to get ready.’

‘Oh!’ Rasiq said. ‘Send me a pic, please?’

‘You got it, naughty boy! Why don’t you join us after you finish work?’

‘Ha ha,’ Rasiq said. ‘Funny! Even if that turns out to be a possibility, I would prefer to crash, like a logical person.’

But I am superhuman, am I not?

‘Maybe I'll pop in for a bit,’ he changed his mind. ‘Where will you guys be?’

‘Hawaiian Shack, Bandra,’ she said.

Another Mumbai altogether. It would take him an hour to reach there in a cab. Thirty  minutes after midnight though.

‘Cool,’ he said. He couldn't ask her to come to Colaba because he might not even be able to meet her.

* * *

At 1.30 a.m., as he was leaving his office, Rasiq got a call from Ruchika.

‘What’s up?’ she sounded excited.

Rasiq pulled the phone away from his ear. He could hear the loud music that Ruchika was shouting over.

‘I finished just now,’ Rasiq said, tired.

‘Come na,’ she said, slurring a little. ‘We’re still here and not planning to go anywhere till they throw us out!’

‘What time will that happen?’

‘What?’

Rasiq rolled his eyes. ‘When does the club close?’

‘Nevaaa!’ she shouted.

Rasiq laughed. ‘I'll be there in thirty minutes.’ He was missing her like crazy.

Chapter 4: Get the drift of her drift

Rasiq reached the club at around 2.00 a.m. He saw Ruchika dancing with her friends. Spellbinding. He took a minute to absorb her presence. The short, dark blue dress accentuated her figure. It came half-way down her thighs and her beautiful, shapely legs moved with grace despite her drunken state. Her parlour-fashioned hair bounced over her shoulders as she danced. Breathtaking!

He walked up to her and smiled, not even trying to say anything over the deafening music. Ruchika shrieked, inaudibly, and hugged him tightly. Rasiq hugged her back and realized just how much he had missed her. He found her lips and they kissed briefly. She broke free from him, embarrassed, and gestured for him to dance with her.

A group of people surrounded them, none of whom Rasiq recognized from IIM. Her work colleagues, presumably. Rasiq ordered a large rum and Coke and joined the gang. They danced to the beats of the DJ, losing all sense of gravity and time until the club staff pushed them out at 4.00 a.m.

Rasiq hadn't had too much to drink. But his sleep deprivation worsened the impact of the little alcohol in his bloodstream.

A guy, who Rasiq didn't know, put his arm around Ruchika's waist as they stepped outside. Ruchika didn't object and Rasiq couldn't understand his reaction. Should I be angry and tell the guy off? Or is this the new normal of our working lives that I am expected to adjust to?

‘Hi,’ he said to the group. ‘I am Rasiq.’

‘Oh,’ a short girl in the group said. ‘Finally, I get to meet you!’ She walked toward Rasiq with quick little steps in her high heels and gave him a sideward hug. Rasiq reciprocated. ‘Ruchi has told me so much about you,’ she said, ‘Mr Big Shot Banker!’

‘What?’ Rasiq said, uncomprehending.

‘You work in investment banking, no?’

‘Yup,’ he said, observing Ruchika with the guy, who was still holding her at the waist, both lost in deep conversation. He shrugged. ‘How about you? Do you work with Ruchika?’ he asked.

‘Oh no!’ she said, laughing. ‘I work with Ogilvy in digital marketing,’ she said.

‘And how do you know Ruchi?’

‘We’re childhood friends,’ she said. ‘Hasn't she told you about me?’

Rasiq raised his eyebrows and shrugged. Even if she had, it would have been difficult for Rasiq to recall.

‘I’m Priyanka,’ she said, extending her hand. ‘I am going to kill Ruchi for not telling you about me!’

‘I am sure she must have told me,’ Rasiq shook her hand. The formality of the gesture seemed weird after the hug. ‘I’ve barely slept in a week and I have lost control over critical parts of my brain,’ he joked.

That reminded him how tired he was. The week's fatigue hit him at that moment and he longed to snuggle under the sheets in his hotel room.

‘You and I should catch up sometime,’ Priyanka said, not letting go of his hand. ‘Especially if Ruchi hasn't told you anything about me, we have a lot of ground to cover!’

‘Sure,’ Rasiq said, more as instinctive small talk than anything else, slipping his hand out of her grip.

‘Cool,’ she said. ‘I'll call you to schedule something?’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘You can get my number from Ruchi.’ Rasiq yawned. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘but I need to leave. I’m exhausted and need to go catch up on my sleep.’

‘Hey,’ the guy with Ruchika said, walking up to Rasiq. Ruchika was following closely behind him. ‘I am Abhishek,’ he said, extending his hand.

‘Rasiq,’ he responded awkwardly, not sure of his emotions in his sleep deprived, alcohol spiked state.

‘So,’ Abhishek started with a slur, ‘do they have you bring coffee for them every day already?’

Rasiq’s eyes were suddenly focused and bloodshot. ‘I’m sorry?’ he said, taking a step towards Abhishek in rising anger that he was no longer able to keep in check.

‘No, no,’ Abhishek said, smiling. ‘I have friends in investment banking who do that, that’s all.’

‘So?’ Rasiq asked. His eyes darted towards Ruchika who was still standing behind Abhishek and smiling self-consciously.

‘So, it seems like we have arrived at the price of a man’s self-respect!’ Abhishek said as he started laughing.

Rasiq realized that none of the associates had asked him to bring coffee for them. It was something he did of his own volition. Why? he wondered. It took me all of a day to become subservient in a hostile environment to appease my bosses.

Rasiq looked at Ruchika, laughing with Abhishek.

He shook his head and left. He was disgusted, more with himself than with them.

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