JPG’s mood slumps when the peon informs him to meet the boss. The peon’s crooked smile, exposing his turbid teeth, screams: something isn’t right.
Only two days back, Aggarwal jee has called him for a discussion, although the meeting sounded more like a lecture. Aggarwal is the head of the purchase department.
The previous summon came in the evening when his head was buried in papers, tallying the invoices of suppliers against quotations. Right at 4:55 PM, when everyone was eagerly waiting for the clock to tick 12, the peon rushed out of Aggarwal’s cabin. His gait was staggered as if a mouse was chasing him.
“Saab bula rahe hai,” the peon said close to his ears, although loud enough for others to hear. The peon’s hand shuffled inside his pocket while he slinked off. A clear cue of his urge to puff away at his beedi. Something JPG dislikes vehemently.
Summoning when the day is getting over, Aggarwal jee doesn’t want others to overhear.
JPG dashed toward the boss’s cabin and knocked. Most reflections on the cabin’s glass wall were preparing to leave. Yet inquisitive devilish minds still found ways to poke their noses into his lives. Chawla pretended to search for something on his messy table. JPG’s residential neighbour kept typing on his computer. This neighbour never waits beyond 5 PM unless there’s a tea party. Working late is an offence for him.
The reflections on the wall tensed when Aggarwal’s heavy voice called him in.
“Jugal, you’re an asset to the department.” The boss pointed him towards a chair. “But you should come out of old processes now. You aren’t using the vendor tool. So, your work causes delay sometimes and needs extra effort.”
Aggarwal still calls him Jugal. JPG has been his junior in the university for three years.
JPG sat alert. His eyes rested on the trophies adorning the filing cabinet’s top-shelf behind Aggarwal. Several of them were carrom and chess championships JPG had won for his department in the annual tournaments.
“Sir, technology doesn’t like me. I learn the steps with Verma. But the very next day, my mind erases them.”
Aggarwal smiled. “JPG, more than computer lexicon, use the vendor tool.”
JPG pursed his lips. He shouldn’t have tried impressing Aggarwal.
“My work extension will end in five months. Why don’t you learn computer by then? Since my replacement doesn’t know you so closely as I do, he might not admire your quick arithmetic skills and immaculate relationships with vendors.”
“Jugal… The future boss is a tough nut to crack. So, take my advice. Else, the remaining two years of your service will feel like a punishment to you.” Aggarwal’s voice was stern. More than a push, JPG needed strict discipline. “Just so you know, he has temporarily joined the Sales department.”
Aggarwal’s warning caused him anxiety. He had never imagined he, who did calculations manually faster than anyone and always correct, had to learn computers.
JPG returns from his reverie when the peon smears a tilak on JPG’s forehead.
“May Maa Sharda save you from all evils.” Then he brushes off the remnants of the holy orange colour on his sleeves, one finger after another. “I went to the temple at the hills this morning. Thought, you might like to get some blessings.”
JPG has an aversion with the tilak, the peon knows, albeit partially. The rascal thinks JPG particularly averts that temple’s hilly climb and sticky ochre paste. JPG never told shams veiled behind elaborate rituals irked him.
“Orange suits your face, saab.” He grins again and puts half a piece of boondi laddoo in the pit of JPG’s palm. His eyes remain peeled for any signs of squirm on JPG’s face. But JPG slurps the laddoo with one gentle swipe of his tongue, leaving the peon gaping with defeat.
“Please tell Aggarwal jee that I will see him in twenty minutes.”
When JPG returns after lunch, the milieu on the department’s floor is chaotic. Everyone is talking in hushed tones in clusters of three, four, or five people. Chawla’s seat is abuzz with his toadies. The moment their eyes catch JPG’s face, their lips seal in straight lines.
JPG’s left hand, holding the steel tiffin box, stiffens, and the right one pushes his old-fashioned mobile in his safari suit’s left pocket. He notices his name in a fleeting discussion. The smile on his lips, stretching over his thin moustaches, immediately falters.
He wishes his subordinate, Manoj Verma, were here. Verma is his junior by a score of years and the next desk occupant in the office. The junior owns the key to the pandora’s box of secrets in the department. Coincidently, he’s on vacation to enjoy Holi in an exotic location.
JPG curbs the pull of all the gossipy vibes after recalling Aggarwal’s summon. So, he sprints toward the cabin.
“Jugal!” The boss doesn’t nod at him; the indication to grab a chair is also missing.
What’s the problem now?
After the entrance of computers to assist their department, several people have fondly started calling Jugal Pandey as JPG from JP sir or saab.
A portent roils in the pit of his stomach. The bad omen bears the shape of the boss’s questions and doubts.
When Aggarwal’s voice picks a high octane—unusual of him—JPG looks stunned. Both at the boss’s tone and at the indirect accusations being flung at him as warnings and questions. Aggarwal’s words puncture JPG like a cleaver, through his skin, then veins and then the bones. Still, the veteran manager calmly answers Aggarwal with utmost sincerity and a balanced cadence.
Never a man of disloyalty. A man popular for his sincerity in his work, JPG leaves the cabin with a nod to submit to whatever he’s been asked for.
An official enquiry.
For the next three hours, JPG buries himself in calls and papers. The momentary progress with the vendor software dissipates, and its overwhelming charm diminishes.
This morning JPG reached office at 7:30 AM—he still walks two-and-a-half-kilometre distance—with steely determination. The lecture from Aggarwal has accomplished its purpose. JPG had decided to learn the software using video tutorials Verma had sent him over emails.
Handling emails isn’t difficult. JPG loves writing letters and has been doing it manually to their suppliers for decades. But the anticipation of using software pricks sweat under his armpits.
After finishing some urgent tasks this morning, JPG managed to get the gist of the tool in four hours. After creating his first credit note and an invoice on the tool, he cheered himself in suppressed hoots.
Once he comes back, Verma will pat my back, JPG thought and banged on his table. His CRT monitor shook slightly.
Chawla, who never liked vacations—calls them a mere waste of money and time—addressed JPG’s single excited thump on the table with a grunt. He pushed his black-rimmed glasses up but said nothing. JPG also noticed him and said nothing. An unfriendly vibe passed between the two. They had been at loggerheads for years now.
Chawla is five years junior to him and holds the same managerial position. They both report to Aggarwal, and the others in the department report to either of them.
Being convent educated, Chawla has secured a managerial position early in his career. And if JPG doesn’t get along well with the complicated second cousin of television, Chawla can surpass him. The convent-educated manager can secure the position of the future boss’s pet. Not that JPG wants to be a pet, but he only wants to retire as a senior manager. So, being in the good books of the future boss is as vital as eating jalebis every week.
And right then, the peon conveys boss’s call, the second time in this week, and things start tumbling southward.
JPG racks his way through unbearable hours while others engage in gossips and sniggers. Their eyes are no less attacking. When the heaviness of allegations become intolerable, he leaves an hour early. So unlike JPG, who comes before eight and leaves only when the clock trills five.
With slacking strides, JPG climbs a double dozen stairs of his house on the first floor. He’s unsure of his fate in the company anymore. He crashes on a garden chair under a mango tree that reaches his courtyard from the ground floor.
“Papa, look, my designs for the internship’s exhibition.” Reeti excitedly turns her laptop towards JPG. She’s in the township to spend her break before exams. This is her final semester in fashion designing. “You look upset, Papa. Are you fine?”
“I have got the perfect medicine to settle your mood, JP.” Ranjana, his wife, stations a tray on the patio table. It’s easy for the news to reach unintended ears in this township.
Reeti jumps in awe, seeing the tasty treats. JPG also looks with admiration at the snacks, his eyes sweeping between fried sinful food and Ranjana. His brows arch. Had it been a regular evening, he would have asked, “Ranju, how did I earn this feast today?” He calls her Ranju.
Ranjana would have replied in equal vigour, “JP, my rotten love, sometimes, I also behave like a normal wife. Now, forget your cholesterol and dig in.”
After finishing a spicey hot samosa from Anna’s, JPG unwraps a paper bag. He smells them with closed eyes. Oozing with sugar syrup, crispy, perfectly made hot jalebis.
“Anna is a miracle man, Papa. He still has his touch. I remember he sold samosas for athanni when I was in school.” Before JPG could praise jalebi over samosa, she again pulls a fragment of memory from her school days. “We used to run to his shop in the recess for these.” She bites into the last remaining piece after dipping it into green and crimson chutneys and fans her stinging mouth.
Ranjana laughs but says nothing. She looks at her husband, who is holding a crispy spiral. She tilts her head as if asking, “Won’t you ask today, how does it look?”
And the very moment he does, his wide eyes sweeping fast from jalebi to Ranjana and back at his favourite sweet. She smiles and rolls her index finger and thumb into a circle.
“It’s a perfect orange, like saffron. The way it should be, just how you like them.” He reads Ranjana’s gesture.
Yet JPG doesn’t reflect Ranjana’s smile.
“Didn’t you like today’s jalebis, Papa?”
“I did.” He forces a smile now.
It upsets Reeti sometimes that JPG can’t fathom orange or other colours in the red spectrum. His scooter’s accident a decade ago has damaged his optic nerves, leading to a lacklustre red family. Of all colours, not being able to identify orange depresses him.
Jalebi and Oranges are his two favourite food items. More than the fruit, it’s the sweet that has stolen his heart from a young age.
“Then, what’s bothering you?” Reeti bends towards him, her hand resting on his knee.
With the compounding insistence from Ranjana, he gives up.
“I’ve been trapped in a calumny. They’re enquiring a case of bribery against me, a machine spare parts supplier offered in lieu of leaking quotations.”
“And you handle spare parts supplies, Papa.”
JPG tells them what has passed in the office. Reeti mutters curses at the peon, who has been caught earlier, playing a shady role in trespassing the official perimeter of his responsibilities.
“He’s cunning, yes. But he can’t be… the one. He hardly understands anything about purchase processes.”
“What if he has passed the file from your desk to someone?” When JPG dismisses Reeti’s suspicion, she adds, “Papa, think… it’s not impossible. Not that your desk is number-locked.”
Indeed. Getting spare keys isn’t difficult; the peon has relatives in the security team. Also, he takes an uninvited interest in prevalent and pent-up affairs. Besides, no one ever shuts him up when he’s in the top form of his rumourmongering business and leaking news.
JPG mulls over his last interaction with Jantaa’s team. Almost a month back, JPG has reported a tally mistake in their invoice. Can a minor discord upset them to the extent of setting him up for bribery?
Impossible; they’ve been his vendor for more than two decades. They don’t look treacherous.
“Who else can benefit by trapping you, Papa?”
“Chawla,” JPG mutters as if a crispy spiral has been dipped in the sugar syrup in a busy kitchen. Like a lull. But Reeti catches his voice as if jalebis have sizzled into the boiling oil. With effervescence.
“Everyone knows he’s rude-”
“No beta, despite being outspoken, he never did any foul play. Accepting gifts from the vendors on Diwali, New Year, and financial closing is commonplace. But trapping somebody-”
“Papa, don’t be naïve… don’t trust anyone, especially when you’re being maligned. Promise me you’ll keep an eye on them, both.”
He agrees and waits for the next week.
Monday brings another challenge. Headed by the future boss, the two-membered team starts its enquiry. The team also boards a manager from the Accounts department. They acquire a cabin on another floor in the same building as Purchase’s.
As the peon serves them tea and samosas, fetches old records, and refills water bottles in the impending heat, his eavesdropping annoys the future boss.
“What transpires here should remain inside the cabin, Mr Jugal Pandey.” As JPG’s name rolls on his tongue, the future boss throws a dismissal look at the peon. His warning-laced glare catches the peon off-guard. He takes the cue, but it remains to be explored if he really heeds the warning.
Aggarwal realises the future boss is full of prejudices, and the other member carries a separate agenda. So, he sits with them intermittently, eager to salvage if the situation dipped.
After three hours, the future boss discharges JPG and sits with Aggarwal and the Accounts representative for discussions.
“How did it go?” Verma, who came back from vacation last night, asks. He has called JPG immediately after his return to express his resentment.
With mounting whispers at the helm, JPG explains Verma everything over a rushed tea break.
“Do you doubt anyone, JPG?”
“What can I say? On the previous day of contract release, Jantaa Spare Parts revised their quotation with the lowest rates. They aren’t usually this benevolent. As they superseded our regular vendor, Daga Mills, I simply prepared the contract again and got it signed from Aggarwal jee.”
“Yeah, right. I remember you asked me for a new folder the day before Jantaa’s revised rates,” Verma mentions the folders the peon got him, down to the details like their sizes, quality, and colours.
“Sharp memory, eh?” JPG, for the first time in days, chuckles.
After an hour, finding JPG sitting in a corner, Chawla invades his lunch table. Many bees have swarmed around him today, but this one is difficult to shoo away.
“You think the future boss will trust you?” Chawla, as usual, throws a caustic comment. “Or Aggarwal, for that matter?”
JPG looks at him with raised eyebrows. No one calls the boss by his name. JPG merely shrugs in the answer. Chawla teases him and digs about the enquiry meeting, but JPG scrubs and repels when it comes to hiding the details. The accused only reveals information that doesn’t matter.
Chawla rambles about the rivalry between Jantaa Spare Parts and Daga Mills. He briefly mentions that JPG should start using the software instead of bulky folders and manual documentation to avoid such issues.
Such an opportunist, JPG smirks as Chawal leaves.
He tinkers his brain, and then, like a lightning bolt, an idea strikes him. With a faint hint, he plans to coax out a confession.
With quick strides, he enters the floor.
“JP sir, I’ve been waiting-”
“Verma, we’ll discuss tomorrow, whatever is in your mind. Let me get over with the matter crushing upon me.” The manager stretches his palms to stop Verma from further poking.
When JPG knocks at the door, Aggarwal calls him in. JPG’s sleeve brushes with the departing peon. The latter looks at the manager sinisterly, mumbling ‘…ghadi bhar ka hai khel saaraa…’.
“Sir, can you call Chawla? I need to question him.”
The future boss dismisses JPG’s request. He considers questioning Chawla baseless.
“Innocent unless… proven guilty.” Aggarwal leaves a long breath. “JPG deserves the benefit of doubt. Chawla will cooperate, I’m sure.”
The future boss chafes but gives in.
“Why do you think I should learn the tools, Chawla jee?” JPG asks him after Chawla enters the cabin.
“Because it’ll help you to get rid of those colourful folders. Who wants to tally everything manually?” Chawla shrugs and looks at Aggarwal. “I’m surprised, Aggarwal sir, why you still scan his paperwork and sign those bulky folders when the tool can save so much time.”
“Folders irk you so much, don’t they, Chawla jee?” JPG asks.
“Not folders, technophobia. Technology is to help us, not to run away from.”
“And that’s why the lowest quotation was leaked from my file. But why would Jantaa call Aggarwal jee and drop him a hint about me? They needed the contract; they got it.”
“Are you accusing me, Jay-Pee-Gee? Can you prove it?” Chawla smirks.
“Verma can. Aggarwal jee, can we call him, please?” JPG looks at his boss intently.
Despite the future boss objecting in grunts, Aggarwal calls for Verma.
“Can you tell what happened the day I was filing the paperwork?” JPG asks the newcomer in the room.
“Around nine in the morning, JPG asked me if I had an extra folder.” Verma hesitates momentarily and gulps the mint-flavoured chewable. “I asked the peon, and he fetched a couple of folders from the stationary room. I kept a blue one for myself, gave two black folders to Chawla sir, and then an orange folder to JPG.”
“Are we sitting here to learn the minute-by-minute account of exchanging folders?” The future bangs his palms over the table. “Mr Pandey, stop treating us like mushrooms and distracting from the agenda.”
The Accounts manager scribbles the details. His boss suspects that employees drain money on stationery for personal use.
Aggarwal requests the future boss to keep patience and politely asks Verma to go on.
“JP sir likes orange colour because jalebi is his favourite.” On days of a tea party, Verma always makes sure to order jalebis to impress JPG. “So, I offered him an orange file, thinking he might like my gesture. He is… my boss, after all. He thanked me with a smile later.”
“What exactly did I say later?”
“Eh?” Verma stands dumbfounded.
“Do you remember JPG’s words when he thanked you?” Aggarwal elaborates.
“Oh yes, I remember word by word. ‘Thank you, Verma, orange file looks so exuberant. I hope Jantaa wins the contract.’”
“Did I say that for the vendor?”
“Ah, maybe not,” Verma stammers. “But about the file, you said so.”
Aggarwal smiles and leans back on his chair, stretching his locked palms upward. JPG looks down, sniggers, and looks at Chawla. No one understands what passes between the head and his favourite manager. For a moment, silence ensues in the cabin.
“O terri,” Chawla claps in excitement, “Verma, spill the beans.”
The future boss looks at the members of the purchase department in bewilderment. “Can someone explain to me what’s going on here?”
“I once asked Chawla an orange envelop, and he gave me a pink one. I thanked him without realising it wasn’t orange. Aggarwal jee later explained me. He knows I’m colour blind to the red spectrum.” JPG clears his throat. “After that incident, I never specify colours.”
Verma’s jaw drops.
“I gave JPG an orange file to track it later among black and blue for copying the lowest bid. Jantaa Spare Parts wanted to make JPG’s remaining time miserable here.” Verma’s head hangs low.
“So, Verma… vacation in Andamans isn’t inexpensive, is it?” Aggarwal says.
Later, JPG conveys his gratefulness to Chawla for cooperating. And Chawla shrugs it off with his apology for the pink envelope.
In the evening, JPG climbs the stairs of his house in content and peace. Reeti waits for him with his favourite sweet. Ranjana smiles at him. Their eyes make conversation while the orange tinge of jalebis reflects in JPG’s eyes.
“Your WhatsApp is now set, Papa. You’re added in your office group, too.” Reeti passes him a new smartphone, an upgrade from his old keypad mobile.
“Why are they welcoming me as JPG in the group, Reeti?”
“They mean Jugal Pandey jee, JPG is a misnomer to JP jee… texting lingo, Papa!” She smiles. “But jpg is related to images, too.” She explains about images and their extensions.
“What? And all these days, I thought it’s J dot P dot J-E-E!” he laughs and bites into a crispy spiral.
athanni: 50 paise
beedi: an Indian variety of thin cigarette with tobacco wrapped in tendu leaf
…ghadi bhar ka hai khel saaraa… : a line from the song “Oye Oye”, Tridev movie; meaning: “game over in a few minutes”
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