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He was a quiet man. He sat there, stroking the rim of his nose absent-mindedly, his face modestly contorted in a frown which lent his personality an air of concentrated disgust. His face was scarred from the battles of youth: acne. The angry boils of his teenage years had cleared, but that had made no difference, they had merely settled, made themselves at home.

His clothes were unremarkable, a brown checked shirt, neatly pressed black trousers and recently polished cheap black shoes. He looked no different from everyone around him. It characterized the bourgeois. He didn’t know that. But he knew that was no measure of him. There was a difference. He knew it.

“Buddy, I’ll mail you the terms and conditions of our company. Go through it and intimate me of your acceptance. We’ll love to have you on our team.” the loud-mouthed HR representative, Manu negotiated with the new joinee on the adjacent table.

He looked up to see Manu, who had been looking in his general direction, smiling at him. He smiled back quickly. He hoped the smile had reached his eyes, he didn’t know. He went back to staring at his computer screen.

“One, two, three, four, five , six, seven, can you believe it?”, the pretty girl behind him chimed.

“What? What?”, her friend asked, excited.

“There are seven people wearing green today. Awesome no?”

“Just like that day with all those pink dresses. I think there were more pinkys though.”, said the guy sitting on the opposite computer, the one who was always surreptitiously stealing glances at her. The girls started giggling.

At lunch, that day, no one solicited his company. He bought ice cream to feel better. He proceeded to sit on an empty table in the cafeteria, the cone in hand. Sweet, quiet, purposeless contemplation.

“Aur Dubeyji, having lunch alone today?”, a voice interrupted him. It was the IT guy.

He merely smiled, not because it had been a rhetorical question, but because that was all he could do. The perfunctory and the frivolous held no interest for him, so he thought. His perpetual nervousness had cost him the hearty spontaneity which familiarity and proximity engender.

On the way back, in the empty elevator, he had time to look at himself in the mirror. He didn’t like it. He noticed an older body which wasn’t representative enough of his potential. He didn’t feel too good.

He had a report to give the boss in half an hour. He felt confident about that. He had nothing to report, with all the right reasons. His boss was always undecided on what he wanted, whether this was part of a larger scheme, he didn’t know. He had a nagging suspicion that information was held from him, that he was a mere pawn, another cog in the wheel. The larger picture was hazy and all he happened to desire was clarity.

After reaching his seat, he took a long sip from the water bottle carrying the sticker of his name. He had once gone through half the bottle in a hurry, only to realize that it wasn’t his name on the sticker. He had then emptied half his bottle into it to make it seem undisturbed. He had been careful ever since.

He went through what he was going to say in his mind. He knew he had to sell it well, otherwise it would just mean more pointless toiling, another day to kill. After he had done all he could, he picked his large notebook and set off. He had a purpose, at last.

“May I come in sir?” he knocked on the door.

“Yes, yes, come on in.” He entered, his notebook held across his chest.

“So, what have you got for me?”, the boss swivelled around from his computer to meet his eyes with a piercing gaze that had seen him through to the top.

“Nothing much, sir.” He realized he had gotten off on the wrong footing.

“What I mean, sir, is that there doesn’t seem to exist a reasonable degree of correlation between inflation, money supply and IIP.” The boss held the tips of his finger together and closed his eyes. That was not a good sign. This was his listening position. He was a incisive reasoner and a practiced listener. Right now, he wanted to hear a good reason. Fortunately, he had one prepared.

“Sir, the predictive nature of our model hangs on our ability to predict the change in the trend of inflation. Now, autocorrelation can give us that, but only with a lag. It has no predictive quality. The prediction of the change in the trend has to be accounted for by external factors like IIP and money supply, which simply do not provide us with enough information to make a reasonable estimate.” He had stated his case. He was satisfied. He had been succint and sensible, much suited to the boss’ taste. “The model is doomed to failure.” he wanted to add, to deliver the finishing blow.

The cabin was deathly quiet.

“Have you tried the seasonally adjusted values?” the boss inquired, his eyes still closed.

“Yes, sir.” he said hurriedly. He had not. He thought there wasn’t much value in that. Seasonally adjusted values merely smoothened the variations arising due to the seasons, but the inherent lack of correlation was nagging him.

“Okay, so what do you want to work on?”, the boss got out of his reverie.

He did not know what to say. This had been too easy. The haze returned. He couldn’t see clearly. He could not comprehend why all his hard work of months was going to be led to waste. Suddenly, he didn’t want what he had wanted. He wanted some form of resistance, something to tell him that he had not been a fool. He didn’t understand the pawn had the king under check. It was a victory, albeit minor. He would, eventually. Right then, he despised being a pawn.

“Sir, I wanted to work on the debt market, understand the contribution of the major participants and how the market works in the real world.” he said.

The boss nodded his head, his eyes closed again. He stood there, the notebook held close, hopeful and perplexed.

“I’ll think of a project appropriate for you and let you know by tomorrow. Till then I want a neat report of what you’ve been doing.” He nodded. He did not feel as glad as he had imagined. He realized he hadn’t been doing much all these days.

He walked back to his seat. The feeling began to sink in. He had been released from the anguish accompanying the feeling of being on a wild goose chase, the hopelessness which is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You don’t find the goose because somewhere inside you don’t want to.

He thought he had seen the slightest hint of a smile on the boss’ face when he was leaving. He drank some more water, a faint smile playing on his face.

When he reached home, his wife noticed and complimented his good mood, said that he should be more like this. He rolled his eyes and told her it wasn’t that simple.

The next day, he smiled confidently at the receptionist and wished her a very good morning. He reached his desk and noticed the new face in the usual crowd. He sat and got down to making the report. Soon, Manu arrived, the new guy in tow, making all the introductions, doing his job.

“Ashish, this is Pratik.” Manu began. He awkwardly turned his head away from them, his face slightly lopsided, one of his eyes slightly smaller than the other. Manu went on, “He works with the fund accounting team. He’s been here with us for around a year. This is Ashish, he is a project trainee who has joined us for an intern lasting, what two months?” he asked offhandedly.

“Yes, sir.” Ashish replied dutifully. They looked at each other and smiled.

“Manu, it’s Alok, not Pratik,” Manu’s assistant reminded him. She looked awfully embarrassed.

“Oh, I am so sorry.” Manu was suave as always. “Ashish, meet Alok.”

He forced himself to meet eyes with Ashish.

“Hi. Have a good time here.” He shook hands with the newcomer and smiled. It took an effort.

After they had gone along to make further introductions, he sunk his head and closed his eyes. He knew he was different. He was better than them.