New Delhi (summer 1984)
Sanjay gazed at that sheet of paper that had already started yellowing, the way a sailor struggling to keep afloat after a shipwreck on the high sea would look at a boat sailing towards him from the distant horizon.
It was a hot summer afternoon late in the month of June. Even though the arrival of monsoon was still a fortnight away, extreme humidity that harbingers its arrival had already set in. At that hour on such a hot and humid afternoon, anyone who could afford to do so would be taking a siesta. For Sanjay, however, there was no such luxury. He was in his office with his desk loaded with piles of files and folders. The pressure of work compounded the discomfort caused by the appalling weather. He looked exhausted, almost sick of his life.
Sanjay’s office looked more like a big cubicle than a room. The only window that it had was covered with plywood, from the middle of which jutted out the vent of an air cooler. Though the cooler was meant to ward off the summer heat that was at its peak, far from providing any respite it was only adding to the humidity inside the room. The walls of the office too were yellowing and stained like the paper that Sanjay was holding in his hand. In the right hand corner of the room, facing his desk there was another desk, this one much smaller than Sanjay’s, on which lay a rickety old Remington typewriter. The chair in front, meant for his stenographer was unoccupied at the moment as he had not yet returned from his lunch break.
It had been an unusually hectic and tiring day for Sanjay, even by the arduous standard of his day to day work that he had got used to over the last one year. A few minutes back when it was about four o’clock in the afternoon and he was planning to take a short tea break, his office boy had walked in like an apparition and quietly deposited a thick folder containing the mail received that day on his desk before walking out as inconspicuously as he had entered. It was with a little reluctance, therefore, that Sanjay had postponed his tea break and opened the mail folder instead and started going through its contents one by one. He wanted to be done with that chore at the earliest, so that he could have a cup of tea peacefully, before moving on to more pressing matters that would occupy him during the rest of the day. From the number of files marked urgent lying on his desk, one could make out that there seemed to be no dearth of them. There being more than fifty papers in the mail folder, Sanjay had little time to do anything more than putting his initials on them or at best record a terse direction on some which he considered to be of some importance. He took a deep breath, as if to derive the necessary strength to get through with that chore and started with that daily ritual.
That yellowing page would also have been consigned to the heap of papers lying in front of him, without any further ado, but for a fortuitous telephone call that Sanjay received just as he was about to put his initials on it and move on to the next one in the folder. The ceiling fan above his desk was spinning frantically, making a monotonous drone, even though it was not able to prove much relief in that hot and humid weather. Lest the pile of papers that he had seen and which were lying in front of him were blown away, Sanjay placed a paperweight on it and another one on those that had not yet been seen by him on the top of which lay that yellowing paper. While he talked on the phone he glanced at it cursorily. It looked like yet another of those badly typed routine office-memorandums, except that it had a large flourishing signature at the end of it. Even though his mind was focused on what his interlocutor was saying, he noticed the word Paris in the subject of that letter. He picked it up and tried to figure out its content. The expression on his face changed all of a sudden: he seemed to have lost all interest in the conversation, which moreover came to an end soon thereafter.
After he had put down the receiver he again glanced through the letter and then looked blankly at the wall for a few seconds as if he was in a trance. He did not seem to believe what he had just read. He picked up the letter once again and went through its contents carefully. No! What he was seeing in front of him was not a figment of his imagination: it was a letter inviting applications for a one year training assignment in Paris. In the state of mind which Sanjay had been in for last one year, during which he had suffered unending drudgery at office and utter solitude and boredom at home, it seemed to him to be nothing short of an invitation to paradise. The only requirement for the course was five years of service, which he already possessed. No doubt he would need to pass a test of French language but then the proficiency required was that of elementary level. He immediately thought of the advertisements for the crash courses in the daily newspapers, in which they promised to make one proficient in French in a matter of months. He always noticed them with interest, for he had a desire to learn French. All that he would need to do, Sanjay thought, was to attend such a crash course at the Alliance Française de Delhi. He could do that easily, for the test was to take place about six months later.
There seemed to be nothing to lose, he thought, except for the tuition fees at Alliance Française, which he did not mind at all. If he were to make it, he would say goodbye to the drudgery of his office as well as to his drab, monotonous existence in Delhi for one year, and so far as his present assignment was concerned, perhaps forever! And, even if he failed to make it, he would at least learn a bit of French. He could then make another attempt the next year. Moreover, he might come across some one interesting at the Alliance Française! Though last, that was not the least important consideration for Sanjay, for he was still a bachelor. His social as well as sex life had been more or less a disaster ever since he had shifted to Delhi a year back. Or for that matter even earlier.
It did not take him long to decide that he must apply for the course. He suddenly noticed that there was just one day left to make the application. He almost uttered—in any case he did so in his mind—a commonplace Hindi expletive and then pressed the bell frantically to call the office boy, cursing in the meanwhile the administrative wing in his office for being so callous. I’m sure someone has been trying to ensure that I don’t come to know about this course. Otherwise, how is it possible that such an important letter could be hidden inside that bundle of routine correspondence and sent to me so casually, just one day before the last date, he thought.
Sanjay seemed to have a phobia, a kind of persecution complex that some one was plotting against him, trying to fix him, ruin his career if he could. To him it seemed to be yet another proof that the same person, who had tried his best to harm him in the past, was continuing to engage in his machinations. It was the head of the Administrative Division in his office whom Sanjay suspected at that time. He came from the same region, and was known to be quite close to a powerful political leader who had taken an ill will towards Sanjay about a year back and who, Sanjay was of the firm opinion, had been continuing with his machinations and trying his best to get him fixed.
Sanjay was furious; the muscles on his face tightened. And, now I’m sure, this son of a gun has decided to take another afternoon off, he muttered to himself looking at the desk of his stenographer and rang the bell once again to call the peon. He was quite tempted to believe that there was a conspiracy behind the stenographer’s sudden absence at that crucial hour. Here at least, he was proved to be wrong, for the steno was still in office, except that he was relaxing in the canteen over a cup of tea after an extended lunch and siesta. He came back rushing and was feeling breathless as he entered Sanjay’s office bearing a sheepish expression on his face. He had rushed to his room leaving his tea unfinished after the peon told him that his boss wanted to see him urgently. It was a sheer coincidence that Sanjay had given him a dressing-down, just a few days back, for leaving office earlier then the fixed hour. That verbal lashing, which was still fresh in his mind, was probably the explanation for his presence in the office at that hour that was quite late by his standards, even though there still remained about an hour and half for the office to close.
Over the next two hours or so Sanjay was preoccupied with his application for the course in Paris. First he dictated to his steno the application, his curriculum-vitae and a forwarding letter. Thereafter, the steno typed and retyped them one by one, a number of times, on his old Remington typewriter while he checked and corrected the drafts. In the final round, four copies of each document were typed, using three brand new carbon-papers. By the time the final copies were checked yet another time, just out of abundant caution, considering the importance Sanjay accorded to that project and put into an envelope, it was about six thirty in the evening. The steno dashed homewards the moment Sanjay gave him a green signal, muttering something to himself as he left: perhaps cursing Sanjay for making him work so hard and that too so late in the evening, or his own destiny and the life of a stenographer in general. Sanjay still had about two hours work piled up before him, which he had to finish, before he could think of leaving the office.
That day Sanjay returned home much later than usual. When he went to bed well past mid night after an insipid dinner prepared by his part time cook, he was feeling absolutely drained, both physically as well as mentally. It was nothing new for him; he had been feeling that way the every other night ever since he had shifted to Delhi. The only difference that night was that now he had something, no…not something: one year in Paris, to look forward to.
The first thing that Sanjay attended to after he reached office the next morning was to ensure that his application was actually forwarded. He was not at peace with himself, till he had confirmed first hand from the officer concerned that he had received it. Later that day, he asked his office boy to fetch an application form from Alliance Française for the crash course in French. Not willing to waste even one day, he filled the form immediately and the office boy had to make yet another trip, this time to submit the application.
Over the next six months or so, he attended as many classes at Alliance Française as he could manage to do: in effect not many and not too regularly. Every now and then he would be constrained to miss a class because of some urgent work at office. At one stage, disheartened by the tardy progress, he nearly gave up the idea of taking the test that year. It was a sheer stroke of good luck that he came across a French tutor who gave private lessons in French and who claimed that he had trained a number of students for similar tests and that most of them had passed in their first attempt. From that day onwards, almost every weekend of Sanjay was dedicated to French tuition and the copious home work the tutor gave him every week.
Finally, when the test took place sometime towards the end of January; it proved to be a cake walk for Sanjay. Moreover there were few contenders having the requisite knowledge of French. Sanjay not only qualified the test but also topped the list of the successful candidates. When he received a communication from the French Embassy, informing that he had been selected for that prestigious course he felt as if he had climbed Mount Everest.
Apart from that feeling of a great achievement, to Sanjay it meant nothing short of deliverance from that miserable existence that his life had become lately, which now appeared to him to be quite in sight. He had not imagined going to Paris would be so simple: all that was left for him to do, he thought, was to obtain his passport and the visa for France, purchase the foreign exchange and then just pack up his bags and hop into an aeroplane bound for Paris. It did seem, indeed, to be so easy to begin with.
Sanjay was called to the office of the cultural counsellor of the French Embassy to complete some formalities relating to his visit. Once inside the embassy that was housed in a colonial bungalow in the Luytton Zone of New Delhi, he felt for a while as if he was already in France; it seemed so different from even the best of government he had ever seen: plush, spic and span, business like. The ambience had an indefinable air about it, an exotic amalgam of the elegance of tradition and modernity. Sanjay felt a strange kind of titillation: if the embassy was so gorgeous, how marvellous would be the country it represented, he thought in the vein of an Urdu couplet that came to his mind. And the very thought that he would be visiting that country so soon and that too for one year was so exciting that Sanjay felt a little unsure if it was really true.
All he was required to do at the Embassy was to hand over a dozen or so of copies of his passport size photographs and his college certificates, which he had been asked by the official handling his dossier to bring along and then to sign a few blank forms.
“Please, just put your signature at all the places where I have marked a cross in pencil. I’ll fill the rest of it for you” said the affable official. He knew that with his elementary proficiency in French, Sanjay would not be able to fill on his own all those forms that were all in French. In fact, he was trying to economise on his own time and effort that he would otherwise be putting in if he were to assist Sanjay in filling those forms on his own.
“And finally” said the affable official, after Sanjay had signed all the forms, “please ensure that your employer’s clearance is sent to me at the earliest. You see, all this paperwork we have just finished was only for your admission to the Institute. As for your visa and other travel requirements, I can’t proceed further, till I receive a no-objection letter from your employer. Your course in Paris starts about a month and half from now; and I will need at least ten days to arrange your visa after you have furnished the no-objection to me”.
“Don’t worry, I don’t think that would take more than a week or so’, said Sanjay.
Sanjay was feeling quite elated when he left the French Embassy. On his way back to his office, he made a mental list of all the things he would need to do during the next month and a half before he left for Paris: gather as much information as possible about Paris, practice speaking French, make a list of things he would need to take along to Paris and shop around for them during the weekends, and above all make a request for the clearance from his office.
The no-objection was to be given by the State Government which was Sanjay’s real employer and which had lent his services to the central government at New Delhi on deputation. Sanjay had fallen out of the grace of a powerful politician in that state, before he managed to get that deputation to Delhi. It was not clear if that politician had any role in that delay or whether it was simply due to the usual bureaucratic procedures. But what Sanjay had thought should not take more than a week turned out to be an interminable wait. Every day he would open his mail folder looking for some communication from his erstwhile employer only to be disappointed. As the date of the commencement of the course drew nearer, the wait for the clearance became a constant source of agony for Sanjay. The pressure of work at his office which he detested so much earlier now became a source of comfort—so long as he was busy his mind remained away from that thought of clearance that would otherwise be endlessly nagging his mind. The moment he had a bit of leisure that thought would come back and he would squirm and writhe in agony like a worm that had salt sprinkled over his body. He was convinced that the delay was due only to the machinations of that political leader who seemed to have become his sworn enemy. To make the matter worse, summer had set in earlier than usual that year. It was as if nature too was taking some kind of revenge.
Less than fifteen days were left for the course to begin. Sanjay had stopped counting the days and given up even thinking of Paris, leave aside gathering information about it or preparing for the visit. Initially he had visited the Hanuman Temple near Connaught Place a couple of times, whenever he found time on a Tuesday and prayed. Adversity had revived his faith, which had become dormant ever since he had got his first posting in the district. Then he gave up those prayers too. “After all, if it is destined that I am to rot in this office, then so be it”, he told himself. Owing to his upbringing in a religious Hindu family he deeply believed in the principle of karma. “I must have done bad deeds in some past life, must have denied some similar opportunity to some deserving person out of revenge or some such thing and now I am paying for that”, he thought. He had almost got reconciled to idea the clearance would not come by the due date and that he would not be able to go to Paris and he had got resigned to it.
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Written content copyright (C) Dinesh Verma, 2017