Monday, November 9, 2009

Hasty Retreat

I jump ahead many years with this account, from what I think of as my third life.

I never promised you chronological accuracy anyway.

On this day, I was to encounter my most bizarre meeting ever. I was at the head office of a mid-sized company's MD for different reasons, perceived by me as altruistic and by him as predatory. I only realized this much later.

The most amazing thing is - this man got exactly what I now suppose he wanted out of the meeting - for me to beat a hasty retreat and never look back. Let's call him Mr. Marfatia*.

* Names have been changed, to protect me.

Introducing myself via the person who had referred me to him, I gave him a succinct background of the cause I was there to promote and a little printed information - a worthy dossier, I thought.

In hindsight, I ought to have come armed with a few idols, some 'prasad' and a quotation or two from the Bhagvad Gita which foretold his support of the cause.

I was ready for the questions which usually get asked about the non-profit organisation I was representing.

He leaned back in his chair, eyes narrowed and steepled fingers resting on his chin.

"You have an orange-yellowish aura. That's very interesting!" he said.

I had no comeback.

Especially as I was not sure whether an orange aura was good or bad according to the aura seers.

If, amongst aura seers, this was a shameful insult, I'd be a fool to smile and say 'Why, thank you!'. And what if this was the ideal colour? I'd alienate him forever if I spat out a 'Says you! I want a second opinion' at him. 

"You have gone through difficult times. And you are a nice, lovely person" he continued.

I could see where he was going with this. No person on earth would dispute these statements.

"And mature". I hoped he meant my mind, not age.

"I can see auras, y'know", he added unnecessarily.

I knew I had to say something soon. I couldn’t forever sit dumbfounded.

While he took a call on his deskphone, my gaze wandered to the extra-large prints of various Gods to Sai Baba's portrait on the wall to an array of idols on all available surfaces. He was clearly a god-fearing soul and I felt - surprisingly - less at ease.

An overly grandiose exhibition of spirituality, that too, in commercial surroundings like an office, amongst the wrong kind of people, causes an opposite reaction in me. It’s like the person is trying hard to disguise his real nature amidst the signage of all that is good and worthy in the eyes of the world.

The truly spiritual don’t need opulent physical expression of it except the little needed to sustain their faith. Especially at the workplace.

Mr. Marfatia in particular, suddenly seemed all wrong.

Instinct told me I'd met my match at repartee - when trying to get aid out of very rich people for a cause - simply because I had none.

Might as well get my fortune told.

"So, how did you find me?" he asked.

Now he was beginning to scare me. Perhaps there should be less agarbatti smoke and more oxygen in the room.

"In my mail requesting an appointment, I'd enclosed the reference from Mr & Mrs XY who had recommended you? They said that you'd expressed interest in supporting this group's work and gave us your details. After which I spoke with you and you confirmed this meeting."

"You met them on a flight", I helpfully added.

"Yes, yes, I remember them, amazing people. But this is my new office, how did you find the address?"

"When my first courier came back undelivered, I surfed online and found a listing of your new address and resent it." And overcame your attempts to avoid my visit.

"Very, very resourceful" he mused.

Not really, I thought. In this digital age, what I’d done was simply the manual equivalent of finding a name from a phone directory. No matter. I was waiting to see by how much he'd loosen his purse strings. Based on one or two past successes, I had a number in mind.

"Y'know, am surprised to see you. I had expected to see a lady in a cotton sari with a jhola. Maybe even an old lady", he went on to say.

Disclaimer: I have to insert this here for other good folks who may or may not be working with NGOs and may or may not be reading this. Please remember, the views expressed here are not my own and I am not liable for inflammatory statements made by others.

What I have left out here are the innumerable times I'd responded to his comments from this point on, with a little nugget about the ngo's achievements. Each time he looked at me blankly and continued speaking as if I hadn't.

"So what do you get out of it?"

I was ready for it. I was always asked this.

"I am not a college student hoping to earn a better score in a foreign university admission by showing non-profit work experience, and neither am I at the start of my career where I hope to add this to my cv to give it an edge. I don't take any monetary benefit." I rattled off glibly.

Or looking for self-publicity and get myself profiled across 4-page articles in popular women's reads like Femyna after barely 3 months of ngo "work experience". They would run a 'we'll feature you and a friend for free' special once in a few months. Curiously, in the half page outdoor pic, you'd find the ngo employees in Fabindia kurtas and stoles or demure 3-yard cotton dupattas swathed around a deprecating, just visible white salwar. No matter that no one ever saw them in such these clothes before or since. I'd been fooled in the past many a time by such features, once even calling up an ngo thinking that the person featured was a demi-goddess, who managed dangerous fieldwork to being the administrative brains behind the show and a star fundraiser, only to be told by the incredulous and actual founder that the lady in question was an office trainee hired for media coordination, who unwisely had access to all information. The founders occupied in managing the small ngo realized only much later that she had misunderstood the brief to mean - publicity for herself.

His eyes seemed to have misted over.

"You know, I feel very comfortable with you. I am cancelling my lunch appointment and extending our meeting beyond the 15 minutes I'd promised."

Far from rejoicing, I slid forward slightly, and glanced over my shoulder to memorize the position of the door, just in case I'd have to make a run for it. So far, he had not shown any interest in the non-profit he'd purportedly expressed interest in.

"I've also had great personal tragedy. My wife died y'know. She had this illness for a long time and was very weak towards the end and bedridden for months. The doctor was not sure what it was. My twin daughters have grown up well and taking the loss somehow. They are my only solace. I have been sent many trials. I have had to face so many losses - much much more than anyone else.

This man was officially wasting my time. All he needed was someone to talk to. Well, why not? He deserved sympathy. His life did sound hard. Maybe my intuition causing all this uneasiness was wrong for once.

"And then, I decided to move on. God gave me a second chance and I married again. Her twin sister. She is my wife now."

What?! I thought this happened only in Hindi movies.

Now, my instinct was clanging alarm bells at me.

For many reasons. Why was he going into such personal detail? I'd only known him some ten minutes. It felt wrong. Also, hadn't he said his daughters were his 'only' solace? What about his second wife?

"But you will not believe this. My happiness was shortlived. She has been ill too these last few months and is very nearly bedridden."

"You killed your first wife, married her twin in no time - how ghoulishly creepy is that! And now you're doing away with your second wife with slow poison just because you didn’t get caught the first time? You sex maniac!!" I screamed out.

But only in my head.

"Y'know, I can tell you’re a spiritual person."

"I don't think of myself that way" I replied, "I have yet to understand much about it."

"Which God do you pray to?" he asked.

This was all too much. Can’t a person be entitled to some spiritual privacy?

"All" was my answer.

He seemed displeased.

"You must come over and meet my daughters sometime" he suggested.

Why only daughters? I wondered, struck dumb again by the ramifications of what I thought he was saying - between the lines.

"Tell me about your family" he commanded.

As if hypnotized, and also because in India, it's considered acceptable for people you meet in the work context to ask you what your mother and father did and do, and what your siblings did and do, I answered.

"I have parents. Retired now." was all I allowed myself to say, keeping it to the barest minimum.

"I have a farmhouse in PQR. Why not join me on the drive down? Will take only 3 hours"

Through the haze of smoke, I noticed that he'd stood up behind his desk and was walking around it.

This comforted me, because standing up had made no noticeable difference to his height. I was sure I could overpower him in a struggle if it came to that. Stop being absurd, I told my intuition - that was a remote possibility. This was a civilized man.

He walked around me to get a file out of a cabinet.

"Why are you carrying a cloth folder? From now on, you must use this" he said grandly, handing me a glossy leather laptop case. Empty, ofcourse.

"I'm trying to cut down on leather" I managed not to say aloud. I didn't want to trigger anything that would send him over the edge.

Another part of my brain wondered purely academically, if I would have accepted the dinner-with-family invite if the case had contained a laptop too. The non-academic part of my brain reminded it that I would have refused to accept the gift in the first place. What if it was the latest Sony Viao? it countered. The non-academic part of my brain now kicked in full force with a reminder that this was no time for idle thought and I should get out of all this smoke before permanent damage occurred. Hadn't I read somewhere that inhaling the smoke of 4 agarbattis was the equivalent of smoking a whole pack of cigarettes?

"Tell me more about yourself. What is your time of birth?"

Picture yourself in my mules. How would you have avoided answering?

"No one is sure. My parents still argue about it. The hospital clock and wristwatches were all showing different times and though I could tell you the time, it could be +/- 5 minutes either way", I congratulated myself on this evasive reply.

Now I was convinced he was shopping for wife no. 3. Until he met wife no. 4? I wanted to say that I didn't have a twin. And maybe I was not desperate enough (yet) to marry someone 20 years older, no matter how many foreign offices he had. God forbid he find quadruplets the next time.

By now, all thoughts of selling the cause were forgotten. It was getting onto 6 pm and the outer office seemed to be emptying quickly. My herd instincts were urgently nudging me to join the outer throng.

"You must come with me to this party on Saturday. I'll introduce you to all sorts of bigwigs. We'll go to many parties."

He may look like Napolean, but this seemed my Waterloo.

Could this man get any more crass? Selling myself as an escort was not what I had in mind, no matter what the cause.

I knew how to put him off though.

"So Mrs. XY had said that you had given a firm commitment of Rs. 11 lakh?"

For once, Mr. Marfatia was speechless. As it very commonly is with such people, his generosity was in inverse proportion to his ego.

"I'll have to read the dossier first", he finally said.

"Ofcourse, Mr. Marfatia, I wouldn’t expect you to decide before knowing all the details. And I'd be happy to answer any other questions you may have."

I never heard from him again.


Pegasus said...

Hmmm....thinking...interesting article....a bit surpriised that this still happens. Liked the deep thoughts in the post script.

Maybe one of the things which drives "this" kind of behaviour in cities like Bombay is society have to be like this or behalf in a certain way because "what will they say about you..." which makes people say one thing and believe in something totally different...just one of the thoughts...

Annoymously said...

C-T, the people written abt here are the aberrations mostly. The majority of the people I met were wonderful. :)

Maybe..i guess some introspection is in order.

Beta said...

Nice article.

Somebody actually said that he could read people's aura? Thought that happened only in movies and that too in a comical context like Baby Mama.

Annoymously said...

Yep! And he was as big a con.

Speaking of.. Baby mama was fun. Waiting for Fey's next. Caught a nice one on pix called Stranger than fiction - an unusual but cute film.

Annoymously said...

Greetings Jaiswal, my newest groupie. Do I know you? How did you chance upon this