Friday, August 27, 2010
I walked into office. How lovely it feels to say that.
Bombay was everything I thought it would be. Moving back to India could not be going any better. I’d landed a cushy job working for a UK based company in India (thank you summer internship, thank you Dad). As I lay my soaking wet umbrella down and turn my laptop on, I cannot imagine a more perfect situation. I am the first one into my section of the office because I live only five minutes away. No dreaded Bombay train commute for me, no fighting like an animal for place and no armpits in my face for 45 minutes. People may find the trains charming but I’ll take my Rs 16 auto-rickshaw ride, thanks. Some mornings I forget to tell the driver when to turn because I’m too busy admiring the chaos on Linking Road but not this morning. The torrential rain outside kept me on my toes; I had to stop the auto at the right time, so as to get as little distance between the curved plastic roof of the rickshaw and the shelter of the office building as possible. I paid the driver his fare, took a deep breath and made a run for it. It was just across the road so unfurling my ancient, wet umbrella would be a futile exercise. I side stepped puddles and on coming traffic in my bid to reach the office as quickly as possible. All this while I was being watched by the security guard; the old man in the brown uniform who sits with his visitors’ ledger and watches the monsoon anarchy from his red plastic chair. I reached office 20% wet, which was a huge improvement from my first day, where, naïve and inexperienced, I was humbled by the monsoon-puddle-car splash cartel.
I turned the lights and AC on and waited for my co-workers to come in out of the rain. At 10am, it felt weird being the first one in apart from the ‘office boys’ (the cleaners and all round problem-solvers who seem to live in the office). There were a few people sharing sweets on the main meal table but they were strangers from far-flung provinces of the office and so I did my best to walk by them without making eye contact.
10:08am and Rahul walks in. Finally! He smells of cigarette smoke as usual and settles into his workstation next to me, sighing heavily: he’d gotten bitten by the monsoon. Rahul sat right next to me and as a result was the first and strongest friend I’d made. He was young and cool and from Bangalore, just like me. He worked on digital advertising (as the new guy, I was placed in the only available seat in the area, in the digital section) and showed me a lot of cool tools like SurveyMonkey and other tricks of the trade. We discussed Bombay nightlife and music and generally got along very well. What I liked about Rahul was that he was dead professional when working on a project. He took meetings very seriously and expected a high level of output from his co-workers. There were days when he was swamped and he didn’t talk to me even once and I was totally OK with this – it was something I admired. Rahul lived about 45 minutes away, which was about the average for most of my co-workers.
10:13am. Shefali and Poornima walk in. They live near each other, on the outskirts of town and so commute in together in Shefali’s car. Shefali was perhaps the most peculiar person in the office, to me. She was a very large woman, who had some truly bizarre quirks. She took pictures of everybody with her camera phone and sporadically uploaded them onto Facebook. She was a very sweet person, who would extend conversations long beyond the interest span of the other person. She always left her phone on her desk when she went somewhere and it would ring and ring without fail every time she ventured to another part of the office. Without fail. After a while you get remember everyone’s ring tones by heart – I learnt hers first. But the strangest thing about her was the transformation that would take place when she was on the phone with a client or a supplier. She went from being this sweet, rambling creature who reminds you of an over-enthusiastic aunt to being a ferocious, straight-to-the-point business woman. She would raise her voice and tell people off like they were children. She even spoke this way to clients! This kind of behaviour was unheard of in an agency; the client is a greater than God. And here Shefali blasted them for minutes on end, if a certain piece of work/feedback hadn’t been delivered on time or if there was miscommunication or even worse, laziness on their part. When Shefali was on the phone and when she got into one of her rants, everyone stopped what they were doing and enjoyed the unceremonious verbally beating. It was beautiful.
Poornima was much younger than Shefali. Her and Rahul were very close friends. Poornima was also cool but she was married, which threw me off a little at first, because I couldn’t imagine someone as young and fun and interesting as herself, being married. Marriage is for old people. Poornima would often send us funny videos over Gmail chat and she ordered South Indian breakfast each morning. Various people would ‘pile on’, depending on who was feeling hungry that day. Eating piping hot vadas when it was positively pouring outside was a great feeling. You bond with each co-worker at some point or the other. You have ‘the chat’ where you tell yourself about each other and really learn about the other person, to a much greatest degree than rumour or passing conversation could ever teach you. I had this moment with Poornima one day when no one took up her offer to get some chaat from down the road and I thought I’d tag along. She told me she’d worked for Microsoft for a few years and that she’d only recently moved to Bombay (this I could tell). She was very South Indian and made no bones about her fondness of Tamil music or film. I told her about myself and she was intrigued about why I’ve moved back to India after doing a degree abroad. Like most people in India, she was a little taken aback by the fact that I hadn’t decided to stay on and work in ‘London’, which is the Indian word for ‘England’. I told her that this job and this life was miles better than anything I was offered there and described how wonderful my life was at this moment in time: a month into my new job, my new city and my new state of mind.
10:25am. Vivek strides into office, smiling and soaking wet. “What happened?” we all ask. “Don’t take an auto on the highway” he chuckled. Vivek was my secondary boss. He was a young father who was on the threshold of being truly ‘senior’ as far as workplace hierarchy goes. He turns on his MacBook and we discuss his meeting yesterday, as he wipes the steam from his glasses. He had gone to meet a potential client and we sat down and had a chat about the particulars of the meeting, the history of the client and whether this would be a project we could work on. As the new guy, I asked a lot of questions and gave my inputs, which – I think – they consider ‘fresh’. Vivek is another one intrigued with my choice of moving back to India when the wonders of the West drew me so close to their bosom. The kind of money I’m making here, in real terms goes a hell of a lot further than my UK money would. I’m living with my grandparents who are only too glad to have me around: no rent or bills and food cost only if I want it. There is a maid to clean the house every morning and an anarchic laundry service that somehow gets my shirts back to me, ironed, after 2 days. I have my own room, with a TV and a bathroom. I spend Rs 40 a day ‘commuting’ by auto rickshaw and Rs 150 on average, ordering lunch into office. The only real cost I incur is having a good time and come the weekends/late evenings, boy did I have a good time. In absolute terms, I’d earn more in the UK. But then I’d have to live alone, make my own food, clean my own dishes/clothes, take the tube into work everyday and be thousands of miles away from my family. I’d get good roads, working police and all the other joys of the developed world, sure. But, as I explained to Vivek, after the kinds of summer’s I’d spent interning in India, her charms were too seductive. “Fair enough”, he said and gave me my day’s assignment. It was a research project. I was used to these kinds of tasks. A bit of savvy googling here and there, some analysis to tie everything together, a last check that I couldn’t do anything more to improve and I was done. One of the things I learnt quickly about working in an office is that no one works all day, like you think people do when you’re a kid. People work for 20 minutes, then check Facebook or Twitter for 5 minutes, then have a chat with co-workers about something work related that quickly descends into an office wide story telling session. Perhaps this was a pattern much more common with creative departments or professions: I remember the silence and sullenness of the office when I’d interned with a financial services company.
10:34am. Shweta arrives. Shweta is my boss, the flamboyant, high-flying head of the fledgling India operation. She has been in advertising and media for a long time and tends to hobnob with the city’s elite. She is a very fun person who swears as much as some of my friends. She is the most ‘senior’ person in the office and knows me very well through my parents. Thus, I get treated like a nephew even though I am a graduate. Oh, who am I kidding? I am the baby in the office until the next new guy arrives – what a glorious day that will be! She often initiates office chats by swivelling around on her chair and airing some industry news that causes everyone else to swivel around on their chairs and join in and build a lively 10-minute discussion. I love these discussions and love how they fizzle out when, one by one, people start swivelling back to their PCs.
These are the people with whom I share my little section of the office. The office itself is pretty run of the mill for an advertising company: big glass windows on all sides with a large pantry/table/eating area in the middle of the office. The office is located just behind one of Bombay’s busiest suburban roads and we are blessed in our little section, to have a wonderful window. You see, our window is polished from the outside with some mirroring material that turns our entire section into that little room next to interrogation rooms where you can see out but the person sees their reflection. Every so often this single-sided mirror will give us a hilarious moment, when some poor unsuspecting young actor starts checking himself out, preparing to enter the casting centre next door. We get all sorts and the second someone spots a potential self-admirer we all crowd around the window in some vaguely voyeuristic peer group, peering at the oblivious soul just a few feet away. We all have stories of the best instances of people checking themselves out that we’ve seen. Ashok’s story tops the lot. He was one looking out the window when a guy and his girlfriend pulled up on his motorbike and promptly started making out. While this was slightly off putting, Ashok didn’t pay attention until he noticed the guy flexing his biceps while kissing his girlfriend, with eyes on his guns rather than her! Just imagining the scene made us all laugh for a good few minutes. The single-sided mirror is one of the highlights of working in that office.
11:35am. Naman strolls in, flip flops slapping the white floors as he nonchalantly high-fives everyone. Naman was a real character. He was without doubt the most chilled out guy in the office. He was another one, like Rahul, who could be dead serious when he wanted to, but that happened about once every three weeks. Him and Rahul would take their cigarette breaks together and he’d get terribly flustered if Rahul had already gone for his smoke minutes before and thrown the whole cycle out of sync. There was no dress code in the office (once again, symptomatic of your modern day, relaxed, creative environment) and so most people had their styles. Naman always wore genuinely funny T-shirts and his trademark khaki shorts. He’d take great pride in unveiling his newly ordered T-shirts in front of us and getting a laugh. He was one of those who started a sentence in English and finished it in Hindi and vice versa, equally often. He’d always have some funny work related anecdote to tell Rahul or Poornima. He’d recite his story over everyone else’s heads, to the opposite side of the room, just so everyone hears it. He was the office joker. Naman was another of my close friends, especially at lunchtime.
Lunchtime was a really fun time in the office. There was one table inside and one table outside. On good days, both were used but in today’s ferocious rains, people had to take shifts on the inside table. Our section ate together at around 1:30 and lunch could last until 2:30 depending on how much you wanted to scavenge. Naman took me under his wing and taught me the art of eating everyone else’s lunch. People were very liberal about sharing food. Vivek and Poornima got yummy tiffins delivered by a very efficient company. Shweta’s maid always packed her some gourmet (by our standards) lunch. Nikhil and Shefali got tiffins from home. Naman and I would order food from McDonalds, Subway, the Chinese place or the Indian place. The trick, I learnt, was to order your food as every else sits down to eat. That way, you can snipe bites from everyone else and once you’re half full, chow down on the food you’ve ordered. By this time most people have cleared off the table or are too full to eat yours. Ruthless ingenuity. Lunchtime was another time where stories were exchanged and Shweta usually got things rolling with her tales of famous stars she’s met through her work. The gossip would reach a crescendo and then be totally smashed when someone’s Big Mac Meal arrived.
There was an unspoken pact between 2:30 and 4: no one would ask for work and no one would give any. We left each other to our own post-meal devices. This was when I’d do my Internet ‘rounds’, checking the Guardian, NDTV.com, Football 365, Arsenal blogs and other personal blogs. It was a time of quiet where I think, most people just wanted to digest their food and rest their mouths and ears after the frenzy that was the communal lunch.
At 4pm, one would either order tea/coffee from the office boys or go pick up some chaat or sweets. Shefali would bring around sweets everyday, without fail. It was another of her quirks, I suppose. She loved her sweets. This is when people would perk up and work related conversations would restart. This is when I’d show Vivek or Shweta my day’s work and get their feedback, in time for me to spend the final few hours of the day fine-tuning it before I headed home. The hours between 4 and 7 always passed the quickest. Before I knew it, it was twilight, the rain has eased up and it was time to pack my things and head home.
My first month had passed like those last few hours. It had been a blur, a wonderful, exciting, eye-opening ride that had shown me how enjoyable work could be and how welcoming and friendly a work environment could be. The Bombay office was an island of calmness, laughter and air conditioning juxtaposed with pulsating maelstrom of rain, smog and madness that was Bombay. I was part of the workforce, for the first time in my life. I was no longer a meandering student, wondering what I’d do: I was doing something. I’d become like my co-workers - I was no longer an intern. I’d reach home everyday, sit down on my bed and feel a real sense of satisfaction as I took my shoes off because that day, I had done work.
“Let’s go Casino, innit”, chimed Jeet, breaking the silence left by the loading of a new Pro Evo match on the Playstation.
It was a novel idea that caught my imagination, even though it was quite a common activity for Jeet and Nilesh. I had been playing on the Playstation in the messy living room of their basement apartment for the better part of an hour and was bored, hungry and a bit cranky. It hadn’t been an evening of vintage conversation and laughter, far from it. Nilesh was a friend from school in India, who still treated me the same and I liked him for it. We were both football geeks who had similar experiences in school; we shared hilarious memories of pathetic nights “clubbing” in Bangalore and boarding school antics mostly. But when he wasn’t talking to me, he became one of them. He became a Jeet, a Gujrati Londoner who wasn’t the least bit interesting or charming and who had a penchant for talking like a gangster and lazing around on a sofa playing Pro Evo. He’d become one of them and it was sad, to me.
I guess he was a victim of his environment; when looking for an apartment he’d chanced upon an advert posted by fellow Gujrati sounding guys in a nice part of town, so he took it. Dipesh was the other tenant in the flat but he was rarely in the living room, choosing to spend his time watching movies in his dark room. He was also one of them, just quieter. I found myself analysing these people and stopped myself, who was I to judge these guys? They were living life and seemingly enjoying it; I didn’t want to come across as a wet blanket.
So off to the casino we went. Nilesh wasn’t as enthusiastic as Jeet at first but he sprung off the couch as quick as anyone. It was 3am and October and therefore cold. I was in London for an Arsenal game and had decided to spend the night with an old school friend and got much more than I’d bargained for.
The bus ride was long and boring and awkward because the three of us had to sit in separated seats; London night buses are crowded, it seems! London by night was great to see though. There were plenty of people out and about. There were tourist groups and 20 odd year old girls clip-clopping across the pavement. The city was definitely still buzzing as we got off the bus. We walked across a couple of very charmingly lit squares that oozed Central London and then down a back alley that hid cafes both swanky and squalid. I clasped the sides of my coat closer to me: the wind in England is remorseless.
We finally reached the Casino, innit. It was the cheapest, tackiest thing I’d ever seen but I was excited. Neon lights screamed at us from above. “Slots, roulette, blackjack”, they cried in purple and red electric hues. Jeet and Nilesh both flashed their casino cards at the entrance and walked in. I had to fill out a form to get mine. It was worth it, Jeet assured me. So, after five minutes I was a member of ‘Play to Win’ Casinos. I felt an odd rush and decided to keep and open mind and try and enjoy myself in this alien world. It was my first time inside a Casino and it was quiet. This wasn’t Vegas.
Nilesh was playing an electronic version of roulette. He broke even. Jeet played slots, a game I shall never understand. He lost, obviously. He too turned his attention to roulette as I watched on curiously. He won! He won 5 pounds. I was offered the chance to play many times but declined. Watching was enough of an experience. We were amongst the 10 people in the Casino, although at 4am I didn’t really expect more.
We decided we would take our winnings to McDonalds. Jeet talked excitedly about previous nights at the Casino as we walked. His was South London slang – quite a dialect! He told us – well, mostly me – of how they had once gotten chucked out because of unruly behaviour and of a time where he won a whole £50 after a particularly successful night at the roulette ‘table’.
Everywhere as we walked, there was something to see. We passed nightclubs as they were closing. Dazed patrons staggered out, their loud voices filling the narrow cobbled streets. Bouncers were ushering boisterous folks out of their now brightly lit watering holes. There’s nothing more sad than a nightclub at closing time. The music is dead and the bright lights chase people out the door faster than any testosterone filled bouncer ever could.
We passed all kinds of emptying clubs. There was a joint that billowed only black people. It was clearly some sort of ‘night’ as the guys were dressed like pimps and the girls were dressed like… well you can guess what they were dressed like. Verbal fights broke out, in loud slurred tones. Someone had looked at someone’s girl and it was going to kick off. The girl screamed in outrage! How dare anyone look at her? We laughed and walked on.
And Indie club had all the telltale signs: the skinny, pasty skinned guys smoking outside. The production line wardrobes were amusing. There were even some long hair oldies walking slowly away, no doubt dreaming of that 'proper' rock pub they hadn’t been able to enjoy tonight. But it was mostly pale guys in checked shirts and plimsolls, as non-threatening a group as one was likely to find on this street, on this night.
There was a more conventional, house-music playing club that had emptied its laundry onto the street. There were suit-clad City boys, loudly discussing women and how much they’d paid inside. The City boys weren’t drunk but quite cranky. They searched angrily for an eatery to pander to their cravings. A Japanese restaurant sufficed. McDonalds glimmered in the distance but the large, steaming bowls of noodle soup in the Japanese place were too tempting. We joined the clubbers in their post clubbing grub hub.
10 pounds for a dish was worth it, just to listen to plethora of conversations wafting around us. I’m not sure Jeet or Nilesh cared but I did. It was fascinating. Hip, young Americans compared the night’s experience to ‘New York city’. The 4 actual Japanese people there ate silently, almost frightened to look up from their bowls. The City boys were louder than ever, inside the hole-in-the-wall.
“I bought her a fucking Mango Martini”
“Just leave it, Eren”
“Nah, she was acting pricy for no reason”
“They all do, you muppet. That’s why you buy ‘em Tequilla”
“Fuck this, we’re going to Soho tomorrow night, this was bollocks”
I hid my smile in my Udon. I tried to make conversation, reminiscing about school nights ‘out’ with Nilesh but he seemed distracted. Jeet asked me about India and I told him about life there. I “sold” him life there, like I try and do to everyone who asks me about India. It’s purely instinct, I promise.
It had been an eye-opening night for a sheltered kid like myself. I’d seen the night in London’s dazzling centre. Whether I’d be back again is an intriguing question. Maybe after a little Tequilla.