When Abdul Karim walked into a room, he would enter it slightly sideways, as if his intent upon entering was merely to remain as close to the wall as possible. The way he looked thirtyish, shortish, brownish with a receding hairline – the way he sat at his desk – hunched over the enormous ledgers over which his days were spent as if willing himself to sink within the pages – all contributed to the indeterminate imprecision that branded his life. He was a mouse of a man, scuttling through life, keeping to the corners of his world, mindful that he was not too visible. If someone were to write the story of his life, he would probably end up as a side character.
Karim occupied a cubicle in a corner of the accounts section, right beside the ladies’ toilet. He had been assigned it because no one else had agreed to sit there. Even the Head-Peon had refused; it affronted his sense of self-worth to spend his days watching females emerge shamefacedly from the “little room”. Karim was among the lowest of the low, in pay and prestige barely above the Peons who served refreshments, delivered memos, and kept the pencils sharpened. His title was Junior Assistant Accounts Executive the length of his official designation is an indication of the difficulty in assigning respectability to a job requiring an official-sounding degree but paying not much more than a Peon. In fact, he was worse off – he did not have the luxury of throwing tantrums and walking off without serving anyone anything once in a while, and no matter how hard he worked, he was never offered a tip.
On the day of Karim’s accident, he walked out to the driveway and saw the white microbus standing there as it did every day. There was usually something to be delivered to the editor’s house, which he couldn’t bother to take himself – even if it was merely his emptied lunch-box – and the micro made a daily round-trip to his house at the other end of the city. Anyone could get a lift provided they got off somewhere en route and there was room in the vehicle. Usually, the seats were filled up by junior editorial staff (the senior people naturally had their own cars), the writers, copy and graphics people scrabbling for a seat on the outgoing micro. But as in everything else, here also there were the privileged – Saeed, Maheen, and Nouhash worked with the editor directly and although the memo regarding improper usage of office vehicles did not mention them, everyone knew that they had first called when it came to seats on outbound vehicles. The drivers even left their preset routes to drop them at the very gates of their homes.
Usually, the girls were picked up by their family cars – and since their working hours coincided as did the locations of their houses – either of them would give Saeed a lift. But often they would have various programs to attend – all work-related of course! – fashion shows, pageants, restaurants, boutiques,s or product launching, and then of course they would commandeer the micro altogether. They were charming, voluble, rich, and young – none of which endeared them to their coworkers.
Most of the people on the creative team of this Ultra Modern Fashion
Magazine (which told you about tomorrow’s trends of good living righttoday!) were young – too young, in fact. “They’re all feather-brained.”
Liaquat, the Asst. Accounts Executive would comment in disgust as he counted out the requisite amounts for Karim to slip into the salary envelopes. Karim felt no disgust; only wonder that these feckless yet enthralling young people were worth the astonishing amounts he was slipping into the envelopes. There were rumors about exactly how they had got their jobs – it certainly was no drawback that the father of one was on the Board of Directors, another’s uncle was related to the editor while a mother was Director of a leading ad firm – but their smiles never remained unreturned and their opinions on everything under the sun were sought avidly by all.
Karim had never taken a lift on the micro before. By the time he started for home, the only ones remaining in the building were the sniffy night-duty peons who inevitably forgot to bring him the tea, slice of cake and single banana apportioned to anyone working after eight. But this day – who knows why these things happen – the higher-ups had neglected to load more work on him as the day progressed and come closing time, astonishing as it was, he was done. Karim tidied his desk, waiting to see whether anyone would come up with last-minute orders.
A peon walked in and bad-tempered swiped at Liaquat’s uncluttered desk with a dirty rag. Karim waited until the peon had stamped out of the room and then slipped out of the door, his worn plastic bag under his arm. As he spotted the micro he stood indecisively for a while. Should he ask? There were so many people already standing around, surely the answer could only be no! Nevertheless, he sidled over to the driver who stood talking to the guard. Patiently Karim waited for him to finish before diffidently asking whether there would be room for him. The driver flicked away his cigarette but before answering, “Wait until everyone gets in, then if you see an empty seat that means there’s room.” The driver moved towards his vehicle in an irritated manner. Karim stood still a moment debating whether to start for the bus stop. But the twin temptations of saving his fare money and the luxury of not having to wait hours for a bus exerted an inevitable pull on his feet. And just as Dorothy (in a film he had never seen and never heard of although it was a favorite of Maheen’s) let her dancing little feet define the narrow contours of a yellow brick road, Abdul Karim’s boring brown shoes, ancient mock-leather all scuffed, led him to stand hopefully by the micro as the chattering-nattering youngsters scrambled in. There didn’t seem to be any end to them.
Yet as he was turning away in disappointment, someone called from inside, “Well, don’t you want to go Bhai? Get in!” It was Saeed; he was sitting behind the driver with the only empty seat right beside him. Karim hesitated, then climbed in trying to slide the door shut at the same time. Of course, it didn’t budge. “Oh hurry up!” a girl’s voice rose querulously from the back as Karim tugged at the door ineffectually. Saeed reached over and pulled the door shut smoothly – right on Abdul Karim’s fingers. The sounds of gossip and heightened laughter had so filled the micro that it was sometimes before anyone realized that the steady screaming was someone in actual pain. The driver swerved and slammed on the brakes, jerking the vehicle to a stop near the pavement. By then everyone inside was screaming as much as their lungs allowed – the only one who was not making any noise was Abdul Karim himself. The pain was so bad, he had no voice left: all that emerged was disjointed gasps. He thought his fingers had been cut off.
The young man sitting beside the driver leaped down and yanked the sliding door open eliciting a further and final yelp from Karim. For a second all was silent. Then babble broke out: “What happened?” “Oh my god, I can’t look!” and a fantastic “Is he dead?”
Karim’s hand looked ghastly. The fervid luridness of the deep purple that had instantly blossomed on his fingertips would have wrung the heart of any fashionista. But for the moment it remained invisible because he was bleeding freely from a deep cut. After minutes of everyone making inane suggestions, the driver had a brainwave and they took him to the emergency room of a nearby clinic.
The driver and Saeed went into the emergency with the injured Karim. While the others wandered around comparing the reception and the little they could see of the emergency with what they had seen on television. Maheen and Nouhash kept glancing expectantly at the swinging doors of the emergency as if they expected George Clooney to rush out brandishing a syringe or some other awesome medical tool. Everyone was bored. But they had an accident of sorts, and it would be extremely bad-mannered to leave before something definite was known. However, by the time Saeed appeared with some “news”, this obeisance to polite sympathy was growing rather thin, and one or two of Karim’s fellow travelers had already left, mumbling apologies to no one in particular.
Saeed, ashen-faced, the whites of his eyes blood=latticed, emerged to tell them, “His index is mangled; he has a cut on his palm and minor cuts and bruises on the other fingers, but nothing serious. They’re keeping him overnight because there’s no one take care of him where he lives. I called the editor, everything’s been arranged.” Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. They could go home now.
“Oh my god!” said Maheen. “You almost rip his finger off and you don’t even know his name! I mean how self-centered can you get! Chhi chhi Saeed!”
“Hey, wait a…..”
Nouhash didn’t allow Saeed to finish. “You’ve been taking your salary from this guy every month, right? He’s the accounts guy who hands out….I mean the very hand that you so dreadfully injured. Really Saeed, the callous inhumanity….”Maheen couldn’t keep it up. The look of utter dismay on Saeed’s face the guilty disarray of his usually gel-slick hair sent her into gales of laughter. Nouhash joined her, as giggly as a carload of schoolgirls – and as naively charming. Saeed could have killed them. Usually, he was an instigator, a conspirator, an accomplice in the pranks, constant teasing and baiting that went on in the office. To be at the receiving end, especially when he was feeling desperately guilty, was not an experience to be borne. He began shouting, “Me? Me, callous? Me? What about you two? I suppose you know all about his private life, you’re so chummy with him, right? You selfish little bitches, why you don’t even have decency enough to feel truly sorry for the guy! Look at you; you think this accident was a joke! You’re laughing about it! You…”
His rage wouldn’t let him finish. But it had been enough. Maheen and Nouhash sobered up immediately, their apologies a duet of humble self-criticism and remorseful abasement. “We were only trying to get you to laugh, Saeed,” Maheen said meekly, “You were looking so sad and serious.”
Slightly calmer, Saeed said, “Well, what just happened was a sad and serious thing.”
“Aw, we know that, Saeed,” Nouhash replied. “Come on,” she cajoled, “We’ll visit him tomorrow, okay? We’ll take some cake and ice-cream and some lovely flowers, pink and white ones, and a pack of cards…”
“Apa,” the driver interrupted, “We’ve reached your house.”
“Oh! Okay, bye, Maheen!” Nouhash couldn’t help herself as she descended,
“We’ll go right after tomorrow’s meeting okay, Saeed? Just make sure you find out the guy’s name before that.”Before Saeed could think up a suitable rejoinder, she had disappeared into the darkness beyond the gate.
The next day, however, it was late afternoon before any of them had a chance to even sit down to some coffee in the kitchen, much less take time off to visit the hospital. All three were feeling guilty, naturally Saeed most of all. The nurse had said that they were keeping Abdul Karim overnight for observation only, so most probably he would be released today. Perhaps he was home already! It was terrible that they – Saeed especially of course – had not been able to make time to go and see him even once. Truly terrible.
However, it seemed they were in luck. Gani Mia from administration, who was temping as the editor’s executive assistant, had just come from the accounts department. It seemed that Karim’s ring finger had become infected. He was running a high fever and complaining of chest pains. The doctors were worried about potential septicemia and were keeping him in hospital for a few more days. The three of them perked up at this news.
“Pink flowers or white, do you think?” asked Nouhash. “Wanna come with us Gani Bhai?”
Gani Mia shook his head with a smile and returned to his desk. He didn’t have much to do actually, but it was unthinkable that he leave the office before the editor. The editor was off on a meeting somewhere, and there was no saying when he would be back. But if he returned and there was no Gani Mia to provide executive assistance – feeding paper to his printer for instance, or calling the kitchen for coffee, or a Peon to staple documents – the frequent eructation’s would most certainly strike the rotund world as flat as a folio.
Karim had no idea what to do with the flowers that Nouhash handed him, nor with the red paper bag filled with mysterious packages delivered by Maheen. They were talking at the same time – as they tended to – poking and prodding around the minute room within which Karim had spent his long and lonely night. “You’d think the office could’ve sprung for a room a bit more decent,” complained Maheen as she stuck her head in the bathroom and quickly withdrew it with a wrinkled nose. “No view at all!” declared Nouhash letting go of the grayish-brownish curtains. Karim stood gawping in his brown-green checked lungi and his once-white undershirt.
The girls had entered before he had a chance to get dressed properly. Saeed took the flowers and the bag from him and handed him his shirt, “You’d better put this on, Karim Bhai, Nouhash stop grubbing around in Karim Bhai’s closet.” Nouhash stepped away with a guilty air, saying, “Oh Saeed, it isn’t his, it’s the hospitals. It’s awful inside anyway…”Oh sit down, you two. Karim Bhai, I have to make a call, can I use this phone?” Karim glanced at the telephone reposing on the bedside table doubtfully. “I don’t… I’m not sure…
“Maybe I should ask someone…” Saeed walked out of the room, then stuck his head back in and said, “You two behave yourselves. Karim Bhai, why don’t you get dressed? We’ll go out and have some coffee when I come back.”
Maheen sat in the only chair in the room, while Nouhash plopped onto the bed about two feet away from Karim. She sat there swinging her legs unconcernedly, twisting a foot this way and that, inspecting the vermilion toenails, admiring the crimson stones set in her stiletto-heels as they twinkled in the glare of the electric light. Karim coughed, uncertain of what to say. Should he offer them something? No, they were going out for coffee, Saeed had said, and they would take Karim with them. Patients usually had fruit to offer visitors – the obligatory apples, oranges and grapes that visitors brought – but no one had come to see Karim, so all he had was a half-eaten packet of biscuits which he had had the ward-boy buy for him from the hospital canteen. Surely they wouldn’t want that!
His dilemma was solved as the nurse walked in swishing her crisply starched white sari, all hustle-bustle and busyness. She looked at Maheen and then Nouhash with slightly raised eyebrows before she came and stood in front of Karim. Nouhash offered her a ready smile as the young woman whipped out a thermometer in an efficient manner and stuck it in Karim’s embarrassed mouth. The nurse looked at Nouhash seated on the bed again and began pumping Karim’s arm vigorously with the blood pressure machine. Rendered speechless and immobile, Karim could only watch as Nouhash tried her smile on the nurse again, again to receive no acknowledgment. How she could not succumb to the easy charm, the insouciant delight of that smile was beyond Karim’s comprehension. The stern, measureful minute over, the nurse removed the tools she had appended to Karim and noted something in her chart. “The bathroom flush is broken again,” Karim said diffidently “I informed the ward boy, but he said that I must inform higher authority this time.” He was eager to let Maheen know that the state of the toilet was not his fault – not entirely. The nurse glanced at Nouhash again and replied tersely,
“That’s not my responsibility, tell someone else.” She sniffed, handing him two pills. “Anyway, this bathroom has never caused any botheration before and now twice in two days! Matron apa is coming to check what you are doing in there.” Her duty done, she packed away her things and marched out of the door.
“Whew!” breathed Maheen, “If that’s just her, what must the Matron be like? You are up shit-creek, Karim Bhai!”
Nouhash giggled, “Ahha, the toilet’s not working, of course, he’s up…”
Maheen reproved, “Don’t be coarse, Nouhash, it’s unbecoming, the question is what should we do?”
The two girls looked at each other and began laughing. “A rescue, a rescue, we’re going to do a rescue!” sang Nouhash and Maheen together. Nouhash giggled irrepressibly, “Karim Bhai, We’re going to rescue you from the evil clutches of Madame Matron Apa, the dastardly villains disguised as a nurse.” Karim couldn’t help but smile at the gladness that they brought with them. “Come on Mr. Abdul Karim Accounts Sahib,” Maheen called, “Let’s smuggle you out and get you some tea.”
Nouhash tiptoed to the door and peeked outside. ‘The coast is clear, except for that idiot Saeed. He’s going to the wrong cabin.” She stuck her head outside and beckoned furiously, “Psst, Saeed you dumb-head, over here.”
After long wrangling over where to go, they sneaked down the corridor with Karim in the middle. It is doubtful whether the constant giggling of the girls and the seriously clandestine-activities-going-on expression on Saeed’s face was helpful, but they left the building without meeting the Matron or anyone stopping them. Karim was all spruced up or as spruced up as he could get – considering the circumstances and considering who he was, and ready to follow them. They walked him out of the hospital to a fast food joint nearby. Saeed’s mobile trilled as they were about to enter and he stopped, motioning them to go inside. Karim walked in with Maheen and Nouhash on either side, vivid and vivacious in their reds and maroons like fantastic tropical birds. He darted anxious glances all around him, nervous that everyone was staring at the spectacle of him with these two, and fearful that they were not.
They chose a table – more a stool against which bright orange plastic chairs were ranged – for four near the front. Karim had never been in a place like this before. He sat smiling shyly as Maheen and Nouhash decided to have plain coffees, no espressos or perhaps lattes they’re so creamy, ohh look they serve frappes here! And Saeed came in and ordered some lemon tea for them.
“So what does the doctor say?” asked Saeed once the waiter had departed with the somewhat confusing orders.
“Oh, they shall let me out tomorrow or perhaps the day after.” Answered Karim.
“Ooh you must be dying to get back to your own house, Karim Bhai!” said Maheen. “I remember when my dad took us to Bangkok, I loved it there but all the time there was this little piece of my mind that was desperate for my own little bed.”
Karim thought of the narrow cot covered with a thin mattress (stuffed with god alone knew what) and grayish coverlet to which he retired at the end of the day. He thought of his joyless meals in that flat full of men working and living away from their families and didn’t know how to answer Maheen. So he just smiled.
Karim felt it incumbent upon him to say something – anything – so he said, “It is very generous of the office: they are paying all my expenses at the hospital. If not, it would have been difficult for me to afford all this.”
Nouhash wriggled in her seat. Money always made her uncomfortable. She was embarrassed even signing for her salary or filling out reimbursement forms.
It had been a week since Karim had come back to work, ten days since his accident. His almost healed ring finger looked ugly. They still slightly swollen tip was all blotchy purple, streaked with a raw red, like the debit and credit columns he sometimes typed up. The nail had turned black. He couldn’t use his right hand to eat yet and used a spoon, diminishing his enjoyment of the brief respite from his drudgery. People came right up to him though, asking about his hand – how it was doing, whether it still hurt, whether it was easier to type or write manually. Saeed stopped by his cubicle often, and even Maheen and Nouhash came once. They didn’t like accounts very much – the desperate brown of the walls, the dingy white ceiling and the cramped topography made them feel all grumpy and glum for the rest of the day. They needed to visit the accounts section lesser than they used to anyway: Karim had begun to take their bills and salary slips to the third floor, delivering them right at their desks. He would come away rewarded with a signature and a smile. Karim had walked in on Liaquat once or twice, smirking and making snide remarks about his visits “above” as he sat with the others over their eleven’ o’clock tea. But he didn’t let it bother him. They had never bothered their heads about him before, and now he wouldn’t let himself be bothered about them.
Abdul Karim had been out all day and had no lunch. The Deputy Chief of Accounts had a meeting with a major client. He had taken Karim along to assist him. Karim had spent the day sitting behind the Deputy Chief, offering him pins, paper clips, plastic binders and folders, smiling silently with the laughter of the others.
The Deputy Chief had now gone to “an important dinner engagement at the Samarkand, I can’t be late”, depositing him near the office. In the dim dusk, Abdul Karim walked slowly toward the office savoring the last autumnal breath of the trees, delaying his entry within those engulfing walls. His day was eaten up by his useless attendance at the meeting, he still had his regular tasks to finish before he could think of going home. The white microbus crossed him, then backed up and braked beside him. The door slid open and two eager, young faces emerged “Karim Bhai, this is the last car! Come on, quick, get in!”
Saeed’s face appeared in the window like a sudden moon, “Man, you’re lucky I saw you, we’re the last ones, and we can just squeeze you in. Come on, we’ll be late.”
Puzzled, Karim asked in his slow voice, “Where… where are you going?”
“It’s the dinner, of course,” said Maheen, while Nouhash sang “The Board of Directors are gonna feed-feed-feed us, all we can eat, oh if that isn’t a treat” to the tune of a popular Hindi song.
“We’re going to Samarkhand,” Saeed informed him insensible tones.
Karim relaxed and smiled, “Oh, I see. Well, no, I suppose the accounts section isn’t invited.”
He had heard the others talking about the grand dinner the day before at lunch, but he had received no invitation, and they had not mentioned going either. Obviously, it was another one of the office bashes that Karim often made up the bills for. The upper floors were the ones that were invited.
The front window was lowered and Liaquat’s head popped out like an ugly jack-in-the-box, “Of course Accounts is invited, Karim, don’t be stupid. Didn’t you see the notice we hung on the kitchen door? But of course, since you spend your time chatting in other departments, you were bound to miss it.” There it was, that sneering smile passed right across Liaquats’ face again. He could go through, couldn’t he? The whole office was invited. He had missed the notice posted on the kitchen door, but he was still invited. He could climb up the steps of the micro and squeeze in. They had space for him – just. But the sight of Liaquat’s raised eyebrows made him hesitate. “I have work to do,” he said in a low voice. “Thank you, but I have to finish my work.”
“Aw Karim Bhai c’mon getta life,” Maheen said, Nouhash adding, “Not today, today no one’s a dull boy. Come on, get in!” she ordered. Something inside Karim hardened at the beckoning of that delightful voice. He stepped back a pace and shook his head. “I have work to do,” he repeated. He stepped back again and raised his hand bidding them farewell. Karim waved his hand slowly, his damaged right hand. “See you around then, Karim Bhai!” Nouhash’s voice hung in the air, as ephemeral and shimmering as a soap bubble, as the microbus sped away.
He watched the taillights recede into the distance, and then turned his head, looking the other way. He could see the vivid yellow of a taxi faraway. The office would be silent now, deserted. The night-duty peons would be nowhere to be found if one wanted tea or even a glass of water, preferring to gather and gossip god knew where in the building. Even Liaquat had left today; Karim would surely be the only one on his floor. He took a deep breath.
Perhaps it was the lingering scent of Nouhash’s perfume or perhaps it was the hunger-spasm in his belly that made him close his eyes and lurch forward in a broken rhythm. His feet searched the curve of the asphalt road like some maddened cartographer. And as unerringly as he balanced a column of figures, Abdul Karim, Junior Assistant Accounts Executive stepped right into the path of the taxi wheels.