A Hundred Little Flames - Chapter 1
There were two completely unrelated incidents that happened on Sunday, which would change Ayan’s life forever.
1. He attended an office party thrown by his boss in a swanky uptown pub in Pune.
2.More than a thousand miles away, in a small village in Kerala, not identifiable by Google Maps, his grandfather had a fall.
On Monday morning, unaware of anything but the clock on his computer ticking, Ayan took a sip of the horrendous office tea with over-boiled tea leaves, too much milk and sugar. He had only forty-five minutes left before the meeting was to begin. Beads of perspiration trickled down his forehead into his eye, and he blinked. His brow furrowed, he sat hunched, with an ache in his neck, his fingers flying across the keyboard. He felt as though somebody was raining blows inside his head. His throat was parched despite the tea, and now his stomach began to feel queasy as well.
He regretted having that fourth tequila last night. But Randhir had insisted. You can hardly refuse your boss, that too when you are out for a celebration dinner for exceeding the quarterly targets. The venue was a popular one, very much in demand, and they had managed to get a booking only for Sunday. The women at the party were downing alcohol like athletes drinking water after a race.
Ayan had never met such stunning women, so gorgeous, stylish and sexy. He could have sworn they had stepped straight out of an upmarket lingerie catalogue.
All of that was irrelevant now. What mattered was this lengthy presentation, which had to be ready for the meeting.
Dhiraj peeped over the padded grey wall divider.
‘Not now,’ said Ayan even before Dhiraj could say a word.
‘Ha. I was about to ask you if you wanted me to do a few slides,’ said Dhiraj.
‘Buzz off! You don’t even know anything about this,’ Ayan gritted his teeth as he placed his teacup back on his desk. He missed placing it properly and it went crashing to the floor, shattering into pieces, the half-finished tea splashing across Ayan’s grey trousers, staining them.
‘Fuck,’ he said, ‘I am screwed! How do I present this now, in these trousers?’
He reached out for the bottle of water on his desk, grabbed a tissue, wet it, and dabbed furiously at his trousers. That made it worse and the stain grew larger.
‘Look, I can go back home and get you a new pair of trousers,’ said Dhiraj.
For the first time that day, a look of relief crossed Ayan’s face.
‘Really? Would you do that?’ he asked.
Dhiraj was a good flatmate. Ayan was glad they lived just five minutes away from work.
‘Only if you give me the phone number of at least one of the babes at the party yesterday,’ said Dhiraj.
‘What? How did you know about the women?’
‘When you don’t get to attend the parties that Randy throws, you check out the pictures on social media. Chabra posted pictures,’ Dhiraj shrugged.
Ayan was temporarily distracted.
Then he said, ‘I am in no mood to discuss this. I left the party early, as I wanted to work on this. Also, even if I did give you the numbers of any of those women, which I don’t have by the way—what would you tell them? That you are the flatmate of the guy at the party from last night?’
‘Chill bro, I was only kidding. Leaving now,’ said Dhiraj.
By the time Dhiraj got back, Ayan had only a few more slides left.
‘Here,’ said Dhiraj, as he handed Ayan a freshly laundered grey pair of trousers. He had also got him a pair of fresh socks.
‘Thanks, bro,’ said Ayan, as he continued working furiously. His head was still pounding, but the thought of finishing the presentation spurred him on. He kept looking at the clock on the computer, and finally, when there were five minutes left, he was done. He raced to the restroom, changed and ran to the conference room with his pen-drive.
Randhir was already there, looking fresh and dapper, with no traces of last night’s party at all on his face. Ayan had no idea how he managed that.
‘Ayan, my boy, all done?’ he asked.
‘Yes, Randhir. It’s all done,’ he answered.
‘Let’s run through it quickly, shall we?’ he asked.
Ayan ran him through it and Randhir admitted he had done a good job.
‘You can present this today,’ said Randhir.
‘Eh—oh … okay,’ said Ayan, taken aback. It was an unexpected development.
It was always a senior member of the team who made these presentations. Today, Randhir wanting him to do it, indicated that he trusted him completely, thought him capable and that he was moving up in the team. Ayan considered it an honour and he was glad he got an opportunity. He was nervous now and the hangover was making it worse.
‘Here, have this, it helps,’ said Randhir as he slid a bottle of water across to him.
Ayan gulped it down and Randhir smiled.
The presentation went off smoother than Ayan expected it to. His nervousness did not show at all. He knew his data well and was able to answer all the questions that the clients raised, in great depth. If they clinched this deal, it meant that they would be setting up a major production facility in Sabriya, Kuwait. Their company would also be dealing with every single process, from project inception and system design to installation and after-sales support. The revenues this deal would bring would be a milestone achievement, catapulting the company into the top league in its class. It would be a feather in the cap for the Projects Team which Randhir headed.
Later, after the client lunch, and after the clients had left, Randhir walked over to Ayan’s cubicle and patted him on the back.
‘Well done, my boy. I think I should get you to attend some more parties. Looks like your performance increases after a party, eh?’ he winked and walked away, even as Ayan muttered a ‘thank you’.
When Randhir was out of earshot, Dhiraj popped up and made a gesture with his fist moving it up and down, and said, ‘Performance increases, eh? And you say you didn’t get phone numbers?’
‘The truth is, I did not. If you hadn’t slept over at your girlfriend’s place last night, you would have known when I got home.’
‘How do I know? And how do I know who came home with you last night?’
‘I am telling you the truth. My mind was only on this presentation and boy, am I glad it’s over!’
‘Good. Now you can tell your father that you did him proud,’ said Dhiraj.
‘Not sure if he would be proud of me or anything. But at least, it will justify the favour he pulled with his classmate, for getting me in here. Now they will know I am not entirely useless,’ said Ayan wryly.
* * *
‘Hey bro, Nishi wanted to meet today. She wanted me to ask you if you wanted to join us. She has a friend with her and we could go grab dinner at this new place which has been getting great reviews,’ said Dhiraj.
‘I am exhausted. I want to just go home and sleep. I am really in no mood to meet a woman and entertain her.’
‘Oh, I will tell Nishi to bring her home, then. We can order in pizzas and watch a movie. That’s settled.’
Ayan groaned. This was the third friend that Nishi was bringing over. What was with Dhiraj and Nishi, trying to set him up? He had made it clear that he wasn’t interested. He had been burnt once and he did not intend going there again.
But he knew that Dhiraj and Nishi would not take no for an answer. They would wear him down with their sheer persistence. It would be futile for him to protest.
‘Whatever,’ he muttered as they both packed up for the day and headed towards’s Dhiraj’s car.
‘We have to hurry, bro. My dad said he would call at 8.30 p.m. today,’ said Ayan. Dhiraj had insisted that they take a detour to buy cans of beer. He had stopped off at a liquor store while Ayan fidgetted restlessly, hurrying him along. Dhiraj bought a crate of beer cans.
‘Just tell him you are busy. Nishi will probably already be at the flat with Shivani,’ said Dhiraj, as he placed the crates in the rear seat, and they both got into the car fastening their seat belts.
‘Eh? Who Shivani?’ asked Ayan.
‘Her friend—duh! She said she is bringing her friend, remember?’
‘Oh. You know I can’t avoid my dad’s call, right? Also, I promised my mother as well as Askhu that I would video call them.’
‘Oh yes, your weekly call with your family. How could I forget! You can’t disappoint Akshu for sure. That kid is something else,’ said Dhiraj.
Dhiraj had chatted with Akshay many times on video, whenever Ayan had spoken to his family. He thought that Akshay was smart and articulate and he had been very impressed with him. Dhiraj had also found it odd that there was such a huge age difference between Ayan and Akshay. Akshay was just eight, a good eighteen years younger than Ayan. ‘This is our Bahrain addition,’ Ayan’s mother had joked, when she had first introduced Akshay to Dhiraj on a video call with Ayan.
One drunken evening, at their apartment, Ayan had confessed to Dhiraj how bad he felt about his father’s constant taunts about Ayan being useless at everything.
His father never failed to remind Ayan, how much he had to help him with every step he had taken. His father also constantly commented that Ayan had no focus, no goals. Ayan had not wanted to do mechanical engineering in the first place, but it was his father who had pushed him towards it. Ayan had failed two subjects in his class twelve and had then given the supplementary exams and cleared them. When he said he wanted to go to a fine arts college, his father had scoffed.
‘A degree in fine arts? Are you going to be the next Hussain or the next Arakkal? Why don’t you walk about in bare feet too?’ he had ridiculed. He had then enrolled him in coaching classes for engineering entrance exams. Ayan detested them. But he was given no choice in the matter.
He managed to get into a lesser known engineering college in Navi Mumbai. He spent four years hating every minute of it. After he scraped through engineering, his father decreed that he was to do an MBA. This time, Ayan, determined to get into a reputed college, put his heart and soul into his preparations, worked hard and managed to secure a place at Symbiosis in Pune.
But his father was far from happy. ‘If you had put in more effort, you could have cleared the CAT and got into the IIMs,’ he had said. Ayan knew then—no matter what he did, it would never be enough for his father.
On the day of the placements, Ayan was offered a job at his present company, which was into design, manufacturing, and distribution of emission solutions and electrical power generation systems. He would be based out of Pune. The pay package was good. The perks they offered were great. He had accepted the offer. It was when he called up his father to tell him the news, when he discovered that his father already knew. The CEO was his father’s classmate.
‘You know, it was Balki who had got me on this company in Bahrain. That was thirty years ago. And look at us now. He is the CEO of his company there, and I am the CEO of my company here. I had put in a word for you. There was no way you were not getting the job,’ his father said.
All the joy that Ayan had felt evaporated that instant. He wanted to scream at his father. Couldn’t his father have stayed away from this one at least, and let him get an offer on his own merit? But he had said nothing. Three weeks later, he had started working as a management trainee, which was where he met Dhiraj. They had hit it off and had rented an apartment together. It was a little over a year now, and both were doing well at their jobs.
* * *
Nishi was already in the flat when Ayan and Dhiraj let themselves in.
‘Hey babes, where’s your friend?’ asked Dhiraj, as he greeted her with a kiss on the cheek.
Ayan turned away, rushed to his room, took out his laptop from his backpack and turned it on. He found these little displays of affection and the little terms of endearment between couples in love, annoying.
‘She is in the restroom, she will be out in a minute,’ he heard Nishi say.
Ayan logged in. He saw that his father was already online. An incoming video call came in and Ayan accepted it. He smiled when he saw Akshu sitting in front of the computer, his chin resting in his arms, waiting to talk to his elder brother.
‘Hi chetta1,’ he said. He had lost his molar. He opened his mouth wide and came right towards the camera, showing it proudly to Ayan. Ayan laughed and asked him if it hurt. ‘Of course not, I am a big boy now,’ said Akshu.
After Akshu had finished filling him in on his latest escapades at the Bahrain International School, the antics of his PT instructor whom he hated, and those of his English teacher whom he loved, Ayan’s mother came online.
‘You look so tired, Ayu. Are you taking your food on time?’ she asked.
‘Ma, you always ask that. I am fine! The food in the canteen is great. Why do we always have to start these conversations this way?’ replied Ayan.
His father piped in. ‘You know how she is. Always worrying about you.’
‘Yes accha2, I know,’ said Ayan.
His mother told him that his father’s sister and her husband were planning to visit them in Bahrain and that she was excited about it.
1. Form of address for ‘older brother’ in Malayalam
2. Accha/Acchan—forms of address for ‘father’ in Malayalam.
Ayan was very fond of his Aunt Shaila and his Uncle Ghanshyam, who was in the IFS. He was currently the Indian High Commissioner in Pretoria, South Africa. Growing up, Ayan had spent many summer vacations at their home in whichever part of the world they happened to be. They had a daughter Nithya, who was a few months older than Ayan, and together, they had planned and plotted many pranks. Any news about them always made Ayan happy.
Nithya was now doing her Masters at UCLA. She and Ayan messaged each other only occasionally, as both were busy with their lives.
His mother filled him in on all the activities of the Indian Malayalee Association in Bahrain. Ayan was happy that she was involved in all of it. Soon Ayan’s father came on the line again.
‘So how is your job going? All well?’ asked his father.
Ayan told him about the presentation and the deal that was clinched because of it.
‘Let it come through. Then we will see. There is no need to count your chickens before they hatch.’ His father’s reply was quick and curt.
Ayan did not react to that. Couldn’t his father be happy for him, at least one time? He said that his friends were waiting and he had to go.
‘Don’t go binge drinking,’ his father said. All Ayan could do to hide his annoyance was pick up the stress ball sitting on the bedside cabinet and squeeze it hard. He then said a ‘bye to Akshu and his mother and hung up.
‘Done with the call, bro?’ called Dhiraj.
Ayan had almost forgotten about the girl they had invited.
‘A minute,’ he said, as he washed his face, changed his clothes and walked out.
Shivani was on the couch, leaning back with her legs stretched out. Nishi was next to her. Dhiraj was on a cushion on the floor. They had already opened the beer cans. The pizzas too had arrived. Contemporary pop music streamed through the speakers.
‘Ayan—meet Shivani. Shivani—this is Ayan,’ said Dhiraj.
‘Hi, I know a lot about you,’ said Shivani and smiled.
That was when Ayan looked at Shivani. Her eyes sparkled. Her dusky clear skin glistened and she had a nice smile. Ayan thought that she looked like an actress in a movie he had seen recently and he racked his brain to remember the name of the actress. The red shirt she wore was a striking contrast against her black linen pants. He noticed the many thin metallic bangles on her wrists and her nose ring. She was attractive. Ayan found himself liking her almost instantly. She seemed very different from the other two girls that Dhiraj and Nishi had introduced him to, earlier.
‘So what do you do, Shivani?’ asked Ayan.
‘Oh—I thought you might know! Didn’t Dhiraj tell you?’ Shivani sounded surprised.
‘Er … He might have. Sorry, I was preoccupied. Had this monster presentation today at work,’ said Ayan.
‘She works in features with me,’ said Nishi.
‘Oh, media people,’ remarked Ayan.
‘Yes, the dreaded journalists whom everyone hates,’ smiled Shivani.
Shivani then asked Ayan about his work and they chatted, munching on pizzas. Ayan learnt that Shivani had lived in Bangalore her entire life. After her schooling, she had gone to the National School of Journalism, and then had moved to Symbiosis at Pune, for her post graduation. She had got this job in the Pune Gazette, which was where Nishi worked. She lived in the same hostel as Nishi and they had become friends quickly.
It was a pleasant evening, and by the time the girls left, Ayan was exhausted and ready to sleep.
‘See? It wasn’t as bad as you thought it would be, isn’t it?’ asked Dhiraj.
‘Yeah, she was better than the last two,’ confessed Ayan.
‘Did I detect a spark between you two?’
‘Come on, it’s too early for that. I have just met her.’
‘All great love stories start with that single meeting. Of all the gin-joints in the world, she walks into mine,’ said Dhiraj clutching his heart dramatically.
Ayan laughed. ‘Casablanca is passé. What you should be saying is: You know how they say we only use 10 per cent of our brains? I think we only use 10 per cent of our hearts.’
‘Wedding Crashers,’ Dhiraj said and laughed.
It was a favourite game of theirs to quote random dialogues from movies, and the other person had to guess the name of the movie. The one who failed to guess bought beer for the other person.
* * *
On Tuesday morning, when Ayan reached the office along with Dhiraj, he saw a bright pink post-it note stuck on his computer, right on the monitor, where he could not miss it.
‘URGENT: Leena from HR wants to see you as soon as you are in. Go to the conference room,’ it read. The note was from Juliet, the woman who did all the administrative jobs in HR.
Ayan was surprised. This was an unusual request. Perhaps Randhir had told them about the presentation and the deal he had clinched for the company. Leena headed HR and Ayan couldn’t imagine why she would want to see him, and what the urgency was about.
He walked over to the conference room and gently opened the door.
‘Come in,’ Leena called out.
When he walked in, he saw that there were two senior HR managers sitting around the oval-shaped table with her. He was puzzled. This seemed like an interview set-up. Why were they all here?
‘Have a seat, Ayan,’ Leena said.
Ayan glanced around uneasily and fiddled with the button on his shirt.
‘Ayan, do you have any idea what this meeting is about?’ asked Leena.
‘Er … No. I have no idea,’ said Ayan.
‘We are speaking to everyone who attended the celebration party on Sunday night. You had attended it, right?’ said one of the senior managers.
‘Yes, I had. Why?’ Ayan asked, puzzled.
‘We will come to that,’ said Leena. ‘What time did you leave?’
‘I left at around midnight as I had a presentation to work on, the next day.’
‘Do you know until what time the party went on?’ asked one of the senior managers.
‘No, I have no idea,’ said Ayan.
‘Are you aware of what happened at the party? Did anyone who was there tell you about it? ’ asked Leena.
‘No, I really have no idea. Could you tell me what this is about?’ Ayan’s palms were cold and he curled his fists into a ball under the table.
‘Were you introduced to any women at the party?’ Leena’s tone was grave.
Ayan felt his heartbeats racing. He knew there was something very wrong, but he couldn’t grasp what it was.
‘Yes,’ he replied.
‘Did any of them come with you when you left?’ asked one of the men.
‘No, nobody did. I left alone,’ said Ayan.
‘Ayan, this is a very serious issue and it is a breach of company policy. If you have any information about any of the activities of that day, you are required to disclose it, right now, in the best interests of the company,’ said Leena.
‘I already told you, Leena, I left early. I did not speak to anybody about the party. In fact, I attended it only because Randhir insisted.’
‘Ayan, this company has the highest standards of ethics. The women who attended the party that day were all escorts. Randhir put it under entertainment expenses and claimed it from the company. Not only that, someone has posted a picture on Facebook, of cannabis joints being handed around. It was posted on a private page, but is going viral now, as someone has leaked it. This has put us in a very embarrassing position. We have no option but to sack all the people who attended the party that evening. We have already spoken to Randhir and he has agreed to put in his resignation. We strongly recommend you do the same. That way, it will be off the records,’ said Leena.
Ayan’s eyes widened and he shook his head. He was at a loss for words. He absently curled and uncurled his fists. This was a bolt from the blue.
Finally, he spoke.
‘I am innocent, Leena! I didn’t even know about the escorts. I … I presumed they were socialites who were invited. That’s what they told me. And … and I haven’t touched cannabis in my life. This is just not fair,’ Ayan was speaking fast.
Leena leaned back and clicked her pen shut.
‘Sorry, Ayan. These are non-negotiable policies. The company’s reputation is at stake. We are sure you will get a new job elsewhere. You can pack your things and leave. You can serve out the rest of your notice period, which is what it will be on paper, from home.
All your dues will be cleared by the end of the month,’ Leena said.
And with that, the meeting was concluded.
Ayan walked back to his cubicle, his shoulders slumped, looking down at the floor. He sat for a minute staring blankly at the computer screen.
Dhiraj peeped from the next cubicle and asked, ‘What happened, bro? Why did they want to see you? All good, I hope?’
Ayan did not look up from the computer screen. ‘I am fucked. That’s what happened,’ he said.
Then he quietly cleared out his desk, packed his bag, and walked out of the office.
He walked on in a daze. He did not know when he reached home, and how he let himself in. He also did not recognise the cry that emanated from his mouth, as he flung himself on his bed.
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