• hashtagkalakar

A Common Man

By Tejas Yadav

He felt her beady eyes on him, slowly scanning: up and down, then down and up. Some muted hostility glinted behind those twin orbs. What now? Had he done something wrong again? Then it was gone, like a sudden flash of disdain.

She smiled back at him. “Welcome! You made it despite the rain. Come in, come in! Your feet are drenched. I’ll show you around.”

Her voice carried an unfamiliar, jubilant note. For the benefit of colleagues, he assumed. Except, there was not a soul to be seen around.

He stepped into the gleaming, round hall of the government building where she worked. Not just any building, she would remind him, on several occasions. The Presidential Palace, home to “the most powerful man in the country,'' she quipped. What a strange expression, he thought. What does it even mean, he wondered, to be most powerful? He said nothing.

She was secretary to the President, a position she pretended not to dwell upon but secretly luxuriated in, given the awe it inspired in her social circles. Oddly, it did not induce in him the same fervour. But today, he was going to make an effort.

Down long glittering corridors, he trailed quietly as she glided with an air of easy familiarity. More at home here than he had ever seen her before. Yet, something was amiss. He tried and tried but could not fully work out the artifice in her person. Everywhere he looked there was gold, glass, light and sculptures, dazzling in mad frenzy. How does anyone get any work done in this opulence?

Overwhelmed by sensory assaults, his shyness bubbled up to the surface. Skulking, he suppressed a smile. How did the abolition of monarchy, in turn, lead us to this ostentatious farce?

“I know, I know. It must be all too much to take in at once. But isn’t it lovely?” she asked.

Whatever the ‘it’ was, its loveliness was a truism; he was not expected to respond. She spoke animatedly, hands moving quicker than lips. This work-avatar of hers had all the gusto of an ebullient city-guide herding unsuspecting, ignorant tourists in the hope of a generous tip. How could she not see the blinding pointlessness of this pomp?

When he offered a response, it was an attempt at gentleness. “Yes. It all looks so very...extravagant,” he said. Tact was not an ability he had thoroughly nurtured. She paused in front of a wall of rippling water that was, in fact, a vertical fountain, four floors high.

“This is no ordinary place, you do realize that?” He did, but he did not want to disturb her incredulity. Some perverse joy surfaced knowing that she was offended.

“There is so much history here!” Not all of it good or memorable, he muttered to himself.

Oblivious to his discomfort, she beamed at him, “You know, most common people are not even allowed inside?”.

Common, so that was the role he was assigned.

He was not too wounded by her choice of words. Hers was not a cruel superciliousness, he could tell she had gradually coloured herself in the woven blend of her social position.

She had learned, as one must, to fit in.

“Thank you,” he said, “really”. He fought an urge to run out into the street. Beneath roaring thunder, the rain was resurrecting, pelting ‘common people’ like him. Indoors, it was bright, warm, and burnished. Is this what power means? He hastened, trying to keep up as she turned down hallways and corridors, opening doors to show him hidden stately rooms. The entire exercise provided greater thrill to the guide than to the hapless tourist.

They crossed one or two smartly dressed officials and clerks on their rounds of the administrative wing but, in general, the palace felt like an open tomb. Somehow, he had imagined great, chaotic activity of supreme importance in the President’s offices. Government employees, secretaries, staff, even politicians were missing from this grandiose scenery. They did not run into a flurry of suited public servants, laden with sheaves of files, memorandums.

The echelons of authority were deserted.

“Where is everyone?” he asked. She was galloping down a white marble staircase.

“This is everyone. People are working, I suppose. Here we are, my office!” She held the door open for him. A brightly-lit basement room with high ceilings, four wooden desks arranged in two rows of two. No windows, he winced. The white paint on the walls imparted a glaring vastness to the caged room.

She led him to her desk. A computer, some files, no touch of personal attention. How cold, sterile, how unfeeling it all looked to him.

“Let’s go back up,” she said, already back out at the door.

Already? She did not allow him to linger, appearing in a hurry to draw him back to the splendour and glitter of the upper floors. She offered no tales of office gossip, no anecdotes of banter or bickering with the other occupants. (They surely are not working right now, he thought, where were they?)

She appeared to move quicker in her work clothes, although he found they hugged her body too tightly. At the head of the stairs, her mind seemed to be juggling a ponderous and confusing issue for a few moments. Meanwhile, he looked at his feet, his soggy sandals had not fully dried out in the heated indoors.

She caught him glancing downwards and then began sputtering out breathlessly.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think we can visit the President’s main office. He’s working late this evening. I don’t have that kind of clearance yet. Maybe another time, you have to come back to see it —”

“Sure, don’t worry about it,” he said. “This was great.”

As they walked back towards the central hall, he felt a new sadness creep over him. He could neither place the origin of his anxiety nor name the precise malaise that plagued his mind. It caught him unawares, a throttling bout of self-doubt and insecurity. He felt dark heavy rain-clouds weighing down his bony chest.

Turning a corner of the hall, a middle-aged lady, was walking towards them. Her appearance instantly discomfited both the assumed tourist and the guide.

“Oh hello, you’re working late?” The lady spoke in an affected, shrill British accent.

“Yes, some things to do for the President, Gwenda,” she said. “Got to run along though. Nice seeing you!”

He noticed the two women exchange furtive glances. Then the lady left, glaring in his direction.

“Was that a friend?” he asked, confused by the heaviness in his own heart.

“A work acquaintance, yes.” She spoke in an exasperated voice now that belied an urgency to be alone.

“Must be good to have friendly faces here, I know you work long hours.” Why was I not not deemed worthy of an introduction to this curt work acquaintance, he rued.

“Well, yes I guess so. I never thought of it that way.”

He felt the same. “I will get going now, thanks again. Really, I appreciate the visit.”

“Of course, come back any time.” She did not mean it, this time her words stung.

“Yeah, perhaps.”

He kissed her on each cheek, feigning a smile. A feeble shadow of unhappiness that had fluttered, only moments ago in his mind, now morphed into a leaden wretchedness.

He looked out at the black rain clouds, struggling to find his umbrella in his bag.Nearly out through the revolving glass-doors, her faux-pleasant voice called out to him again.

“Only — next time, maybe you could try to dress better.” Her eyes scanned him up and down, unblinking and serpentine. “You know, not wear those old sandals?”

She let out an unctuous smile, looking at his muddy footwear.

He circled inside the twirling door and slid back into the darkness that swallowed common people.

By Tejas Yadav

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