Short Story 2018 Longlist, Viplove Sharma

The Last Day at Work

“All right, Mr. Sai. Thank you and wish you all the best.”

The two gentlemen stood up from their seats, with their hands stretching towards each other. After a short pause, the spread-out fingers of Ranga grasped the dead fish that Sai offered. Looking at Sai’s drooping shoulders and unsure eyes, Ranga tried to cheer his old buddy up.

“Don’t worry anna. I will ask Madhuri to send love letters to you every week!”

It worked. Sai let out a laugh, but it sounded more like a sigh. Ranga seized the moment by squeezing him in his bear-like arms. Except for the loud pats on the backs, nothing more was said between them as Sai quietly walked out of the room.

It was Sai’s last day at Craftgenics, the only company he had ever worked with. His 18-year journey was about to end. A lot had happened since the day he had walked into a 10-seater office that had now expanded to multiple offices with 2000 employees worldwide. People came in, people went out, the company had its ups and downs, but there was one man who always stood in all the storms. Craftgenics had grown old with Sai Alaparthi, but they were about to break up.

Sai deliberately took the path through the cubicles as he walked towards his office. Not many faces turned towards him, not that he expected them to. He just relived his old times. He paused at the desk that he sat at for many years. He noticed that it had drastically changed. His giant computer monitor and his noisy keyboard had given way to a slick laptop. His golden Lord Ganesha idol had been replaced with a clutter of some miniature dolls that he could not recognize. He took a deep breath and moved on.

Exit interview was always the last meeting when someone left the organization, but Sai was too special for Craftgenics for them to deny his request of giving him an hour for himself at the end of his day. That was probably the first time he had asked them to make an exception of any kind for himself.

His corner office that he walked into, was once forcefully allocated to him. “Why do I need an office? I am good with my cubicle.” He had politely argued with his boss. That was one of the few times when his boss had rejected all his arguments. “You are going in that office. Period!”

Inside his office, Sai looked at his 15-year old Titan watch and murmured to himself – “10 more minutes.” He stood at the window and saw people smoking and laughing outside. He could never fit in such groups. For one, he hated smoke, and on top of that, he barely laughed. He looked at the only girl in the group and asked her, in his mind, what he always asked – “You are a girl. How can you smoke?” He then thought of his wife and thanked god.

The sun had started to flirt with the horizon, with clouds staying away from their affair. The seamless glass windows of the skyscrapers were glistening to make Sai’s eyes squint a bit. The cabs had begun to scramble for the first flood of software engineers that was about to erupt. The tense roads of Future City were taking their last breaths of fresh air. It was just another evening in the world of IT companies, but not for the man at the window. He looked at his watch again, which had crawled its way to 3:53 pm.

Sai couldn’t stay at one place anymore. He sat on his leather chair and rested his arms on the armrests. Another deep breath, and he leaned back. He realized that he had never liked his chair as much as he did at that time. He looked at the door in front of him, hoping it would open sooner than expected. Another time-check, it was 3:54 pm.

He decided to use the time to wrap his stuff up. He bowed to Lord Ganesha and moved him to his bag carefully. The cheerful faces of his family brought a rare smile on his face, as he kissed them on their way to the bag. He then opened his top drawer. One by one, he scanned the papers and trashed them. He took no time to trash the papers in the middle drawer. The third drawer got the worst treatment of all. He simply took it out and emptied it into the trash can. It was too much for the poor trash can as some of the contents spilled over.

As he bent down to clean the mess up, he saw a small notebook hiding under the papers. He picked it up, and as he flipped its pages, his eyes widened and for the first time in days, he looked happy. He spoke out aloud – “All these years, I looked for you everywhere. And you were right next to me!”

He put the notebook on the table. He had stopped checking his watch, but it was silently trying to remind him – “Four minutes to go.” He was in a different world as he read the first page.

For the first time in my career, I have a girl sitting next to me. Her name is Paakhi. I am her Lead in the team. And that makes me nervous. It’s just that she sounded so confident and I am, well. I can barely talk to girls. But I liked her. She is very different, just like her name. Best part, her green eyes. They are so beautiful that I can’t look her in the eyes. Lord Ganesha, give me strength!

He chuckled on reading that. He thought to himself that Lord Ganesha had not been kind enough to him till date. He randomly picked another page.

We went out for a team lunch today. The first one with Paakhi. She was the center of attention obviously. And she talked the most too. Our team lunches were never so fun before. She is a bundle of energy. She has a good sense of humor too. But she is a non-vegetarian. Anyway, she is a good company. I was lucky to sit right next to her. Sandeep and Krishna teased me a lot for that, but that’s okay. Paakhi did not mind it, so I was happy.

He carried on.

Sorry Lord Ganesha. I cheated for the first time in my life. But for a good reason. I asked the Secret Santa organizing team to make me Paakhi’s Santa. All’s well that ends well. She was so happy to open her gift. I had to drive the whole day and go to probably 10-15 shops to get what I wanted for her. The dancing and talking dog. It always stands at her desk and I love it when she plays with it. More than the funny sounds that the dog makes, its her laughs that make me crazy. But that’s all I can do. Someday, she will get married, and I will be at her wedding just to give her a gift. I am such a waste.

Another one.

Paakhi is excellent. She is a quick learner. I have always supported her in her career growth, but she needs to respect her seniors. Not sure how I can tell her on her face. It was not a good meeting today. She should not have argued with me in the meeting when there were 10 other people in the room. Fine, she can speak well and is technically good. That does not mean she won’t listen to her seniors. She walked out of the room as if nothing happened. But I was hurt.

He stopped there and closed the notebook. He kept it down and took off his glasses. He sank his face in his hands, and then rubbed his moistened eyes. Yet another deep breath, and he looked towards the door. That time, he checked his watch. 4:07 pm.

He got up from his chair and walked towards the whiteboard. Just about when he had erased the last bit of ink from it, he heard the door open behind his back. Before he could turn around, he heard the voice he was expecting for the last 20 minutes.

“Sorry, Sir! I am so sorry. My previous meeting did not end on time. And then I ran all the way from Building B. But no excuses, I am very sorry for being late.”

All of that was said in the time Sai took to turn around. He smiled, and as he walked towards his chair, he said – “The same old Paakhi! Come on, sit.”

“And all these years, I could not convince you not to call me Sir.”

Paakhi laughed but did not say anything.

“You call every peer of mine by their name but not me.”

“It’s not like that, Sir. I mean, Sai.”

“It’s okay. It’s my last day today. So, it’s okay.”

Paakhi stopped smiling. She cleared her throat and said – “I didn’t know that you are leaving. We all thought you would be in the company forever. What happened? If you can share, of course.”

Sai responded to her question with a smile – “Well, there is nothing permanent in this world. Everything comes to an end at some point of time.”

Paakhi stopped him – “Since when did you become philosophical?”

To which, Sai could only say – “Oh well.”

There was silence in the room for a moment. Sai broke it.

“Anyway. That’s not why I called you. Listen, I just want to say that you are the brightest employee in the company, and you have great heights to scale. Just keep going!”

“Thank you so much, Sir! I can’t thank you enough for where I am today.”

“That’s not true. You are here all because of your efforts. But that reminds me of something.”

“What’s that?”

Sai stood up and offered his hand for a handshake. Paakhi looked clueless but she rose from her chair rather slowly. A firm hand shook a soft one, and this time it was Sai’s hand that was firm.

“Congratulations! You have been promoted.”

“What? Really?” Paakhi only sounded surprised but looked the same.

“Yes, Ms. Paakhi Malhotra. You are now the Director of Information Technology.”

The soft hand slowly slipped out of the firm hand’s grasp. In a fraction of a second, Paakhi realized what had happened. She remembered all those stormy meetings in which Sai had faced the heat for the decisions that he had taken or the decisions that he did not take. She remembered how it was her who had posed so many questions that had indirectly turned towards him. She got the answer to the mystery of why he was leaving suddenly when his travel was booked for the coming week.

Paakhi’s face had turned pale. Sai made it worse for her when he said – “And that means, from tomorrow, this is your office. You totally deserve it.” Paakhi was still too stunned to speak.

“All right then, I won’t take any more time of yours. I guess I will leave now.”

Sai picked up his bag and started moving towards the door. Finally, Paakhi spoke, but in a hushed voice.

“Sorry, Sir.”

Sai looked down, and then he looked straight into the green eyes that, for the first time, could not gather courage to stay up. And he said his final words.

“I am proud of you, Paakhi. Always be the way you are.”

Without waiting for her response, he turned around and walked out of the room. As the glass door slowly came back to its position, she saw him walk out of the office just like he always did. Quietly and unnoticed. She wanted to stop him and say with a smile – “Good luck, Sir. Wish you all the very best.” But just like her throat, her words and her smile had dried up too. And he was gone.

As she started dragging her feet towards the door, she noticed something in an otherwise spotless office. The notebook. She picked it up and read what was written on the cover page in calligraphy.

The Girl Next to Me

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