(Short story from the publication, The First Book of Nobodyness)
In my third year of employment, I got a shock.
I have always taken great pride in not having a heart than can be rocked by mundane matters of daily routine. For instance, it has never bothered me which chair I sat in or in which corner of the room my chair was positioned. Over the past three years, my seating place was shuffled all across the room. As a fresh graduate out of college, I started off near the door. Then someone realised it was easy to go in and out of the room if you were near the door, so they wanted that place. I went to the middle of the room. Then, to the other extreme of the room; and finally, back to the spot near the door.
It never bothered me that I had an old beat-up computer, which shut down whenever it felt like it. It never bothered me that the table fan was never near my chair… not once, even in the prime of the summer when God set the oven to ‘stun’. It never bothered me that I did not have Saturdays off and that I was working on every other Sunday as well. Nope. I was stupid and happy coming to office and doing my bit every day. The way I looked at it, these were little things that I had to work around.
By the third year, the vigour of young love for the job had worn off. I knew my job was important only to me. I knew the management gave a shit whether the quality of work went up or down. Quality just wasn’t part of their business model. They could get someone else to do my job and it really didn’t matter to them whether they found someone better or worse. That’s the way things are in this country right now. We just want to get things done. We’ll worry about the how and how well of it when (and if) things get out of hand. All around me there were people who couldn’t grasp the nuances of good, bad, right, wrong, process, procedure, quality, et al., and they were all adding to my work. And at the end of it all, I had realised that if I stopped worrying about the quality of my work and let things pass, my boss wouldn’t do a thing about it. He had his hands full with his own troubles and the company wasn’t paying him to check how well I was doing my job. They were paying him to ensure that I was doing my job. It was the same mandate as mine.
But I couldn’t let bad work pass. I tried, but the way I looked at it, if I let quality take a back seat, it wouldn’t be long before I lost the ability to do good work. Nor would I learn to improve my own work because I had a long way to go as well. Yes, my reasons were selfish.
And so I became wiser to the fact that the little things mattered because the big issues will always remain un-addressed. I knew the chair was important and I also knew the position of my chair was equally important. And when God got mad in the summer, I knew I needed that fan.
But I had gotten used to not saying anything. So I was stuck with being the shuffle-guy. Actually, most of the people in the office were shuffle guys or gals. There were just these one or two power-broker types who played musical chairs with all of us every once in a while. And I suspect they lorded it over everyone else because everybody else was in the habit of suffering their lot. That’s pretty much the story of this nation’s politicians and the people they rule. I hear that we live in a democracy and I suppose it must be true since our basic liberties are still supposedly intact. But the way our leaders behave, I am thinking we live in an autocratic monarchy, under democratic clothing. Thieves and murderers are becoming politicians. Laws are being bent, amended, and broken as and when the politicians feel like it. People above the age of 50 are called young leaders. And what is the mass of the real young doing? I don’t know. All I know is that I am tired of not having my own dedicated chair in a good corner of the office.
After six months of stewing over whether I should stake a claim for a fan since the summer was coming up, I got that shock I was talking about: Our office was shifting.
“Where are we going?”
“I hear it’s a bigger office.”
“It’s air-conditioned and it has a beautiful décor.”
“Have you seen it?”
“No, but that’s what the peon was saying. They have already started shifting stuff.”
“Where is this new office?” I asked. I did not want to go to the outskirts of the city for this spanking new office. I would have to ask them for a raise – rickshaws are getting expensive and I can’t afford to waste hours waiting for public transport to turn up and then getting my crisp, clean clothes crushed while the rattletrap chugs along the potholes towards the new office.
“It’s right in this area, in that new glass building 100 meters down the lane.”
Now I was excited. And shocked. The company was spending so much on a new building? There had to be a reason. It couldn’t be for employee benefit – that would be too much to expect.
Apparently, there was a good reason. We had bagged a big contract and client visits were going to be part of the routine over the next few years. We also needed a bigger team for the new project, and so we got a new office. And frankly, that was exciting news. I felt the adrenaline of motivation surge through my veins. I felt a renewed sense of purpose. And then someone said: “I hear they have already allotted all the good seats to the new project team.”
That was it. I lost it. In my own mind, that is. New project team? What new project team? And why should the old members be left out in the cold?
“But I hear all the seating arrangements are good. The whole office is cool and spacious. Everybody will have a good space.”
Okay, so maybe I am behaving irrationally. If everybody got a good spot, I was okay with it.
“How can everyone get a good spot?” a new voice piped up. “That’s bullshit. That’s the management’s way of selling these things to you. The reality is you have no choice. We will go to the new office, and we will sit in our new places, and we will like it.”
It was unfair. As a citizen, the government takes taxes, never fulfils its responsibilities, and the politicians do God knows what with our hard earned money. In the office, we slog and we slog and then a chosen few get the good seats. This was the last straw. I had to make a stand now.
The rest of the day went by me in a whoosh as I debated the pros and cons of standing up for my own chair. At the end of the day, I ended up staying late because I had a deadline to make and I was just not able to concentrate on work. It’s funny how an unsettled mind makes heavy work of even the simplest of tasks.
I finally left office at 8.30 and took a rickshaw home. The rickshaw driver wanted to talk. So I let him talk, while my mind churned the new office and new chair issue over and over again. At home, I switched on the television and sat staring at the images on the screen while I kept getting angrier and angrier with my lot in life. I was going to talk to my boss tomorrow. Enough was enough. Some time later I fell asleep and dreamt of plush office chairs.
I don’t remember too many details of the next few days because they were pretty much the same. There was a lot of speculation about teams, about seating arrangements, about canteens and everybody was talking. As usual, I sat at my desk, having no choice but to listen to all this gossip, and every now and then my mind would start having its own conversation with itself. This went on for a couple of weeks. I was able to produce reasonably decent work but the effort was tremendous. I felt tired every morning. My head ached and my bones were weary. Every evening I went to sleep early but I never remembered how or when. I was too wrapped up in office issues. I always felt dehydrated every morning but I waited to wake up so that I could go to work and see if things would change that day.
I wasn’t eating properly, but I was smoking a whole lot and pouring black coffee down my throat every half an hour or so. Black coffee and cigarettes seemed to be keeping me alive. I grabbed the odd Wada-Pav here or a Cheese Sandwich there. On the whole, it was the unresolved anger of having problems I could not address that kept me going. I had decided that I would have that new chair or I would quit the bloody job. I had to have some satisfaction in life, for heaven’s sake.
Then, one fine Monday morning, we were all told to pack our stuff and move to the new office. Just like that. I had nothing to pack, so I started walking to the new office. It took my mind two hours to walk the 100 meters, but after ten minutes I was there. It was a grand modern monstrosity with a facade of black tinted glass and brown granite-like stone. The huge central doorway gave one a feeling of opulence and I stepped into the new office building with a sense of awe. The lobby was shining with brass fittings and accessories and the tiles were clean and smooth and prohibitively plush. You know those five-star hotel lobbies, which take your breath away with all the good taste that money can buy? Well, this was something like that on a smaller scale. And this was the face of most offices in the new corporate India post 2000 AD. Plush offices, smiling people at the front desk, local security guards, clean anti-septic odours, fake plants, drinking water dispensers, bright lights… and I was happy to be a part of it. Hello world! Today was the day the rest of my life begins.
In the end, I needn’t have worried about the seating arrangements. The whole office had cubicles. Every person had his or her own workstation, which came with a name sticker. I checked out my workstation – it was the corner-most in the new project room, which meant I was part of the new project. I had a new HP computer with a 17-inch monitor, one soft-board, one small white-board with a marker, two drawers to keep my stuff and a cabinet to keep official stuff. And I had a new chair. This was life!
The next month was great. Every one was smiling. There was coffee all the time. I had switched to vending machine coffee, and twice every day I went down to the Udipi restaurant next door to have black coffee. The air conditioning was cool and it worked all the time. The building had two floors apart from the ground floor. Each floor had one huge main hall in which there were some 50 odd cubicles. The floor also had two ancillary rooms with 20 cubicles each. And then there were an array of six little cabins and three big cabins.
I was in the left ancillary room on the first floor.
After the intoxication of working in a new facility had worn off, I realised that people were now working later than they had done earlier. Most days, I was in office till 8.30 or 9 pm as a matter of routine – it had become the default. We still came in at 9.30 every morning. Sunday lost its fight for individual identity and joined Saturday and the other days as a workday. Officially, we had weekends off. We got no overtime. But we got comp offs (compensatory offs), which we could, theoretically, take on any working day. Apparently, no one had informed project managers about how comp offs worked because on any given day there was scheduled work on deadline. And so, at the end of the fourth year, I had accumulated one and a half months of comp offs, which then lapsed as per company policy. I still had around three months of ‘privilege’ leave with me. I was beginning to understand why they call it privilege leave.
I looked at the soft-board on which I had pinned two email messages, a paper with some quotes, and a series of Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strips. Bill Waterson and his Calvin and Hobbes strip were my only connection to reality now. I looked at the whiteboard on which I had written the key project deadlines. Then I looked at the 17-inch monitor. Then I looked at the plywood boards that separated me from Arnika in the next cubicle. This was now my life: a three square feet cubicle. I had gone from working in a big room to working in a huge warehouse like room. I had gone from being one of the chairs in a row to being a chair of my own in a row of chairs of their own. I had gone from working and breathing in one large space to working and breathing in three square feet. I was no longer just an ant marching in sync with other ants to meet deadlines as part of a big corporate delivery. I was now one of the many alienated ants marching in pre-designated isolation to meet a big corporate delivery. Delivery. What sort of terminology was that? Apparently, the company was always delivering, but it didn’t get us anywhere. Who were the idiots taking the business calls? How can so many people be working so many hours every day and still the company stays exactly where it is?
But I had problems of my own. Two months into the new facility, and the fight for chairs began anew. And it wasn’t surprising. The new chairs did not have staying power. They had fancy designs and great visual appeal but just couldn’t take the strain of long hours. Some chairs had lost the armrests, others had lost a wheel, still others had lost a leg, and a few chairs had lost their backs. My chair was still intact and comfortable, which is why it went missing one fine morning when I came into work.
“Have you seen my chair?” I asked Arnika.
“No,” she replied aloud, but pointed to the cubicle at the other end of our row. I grinned and went to the next cubicle and the next till I reached the last cubicle.
“Bobby, that’s my chair you are sitting on.” I didn’t bother asking.
Bobby looked up with a guilty expression. “Is it? Oh I didn’t know.”
How can you not know you dumb ass, you took it from my cubicle. Bobby was this mousy character with a penchant for procrastinating.
“Thanks. Ask the boss for a new chair if yours has broken down.”
I took my chair back home and then the rest of the day was peaceful. My chair isn’t any different from the others in the office. It has red upholstery and black armrests. But from the day I sat on Cadence (that’s my chair), I knew there was no other chair for me. The armrests are just at the right height for slouching. It does not squeak, it is stable, comfortable, enthusiastic… it suits my personality. Don’t ask me to explain how it suits my personality, it just does.
Cadence was missing again a few days later and this time it wasn’t Bobby, but Mythika. Mythika was one of the hubs of office gossip and most of the time she was spreading unfounded speculation, which is why I call her Mythika. She was this tiny girl, very insecure and very loud in her behaviour. As a consequence, she was forever in somebody else’s space wanting to know what’s going on and trying to take centre stage. I had to listen to her irritating high-pitched sing song voice chatter for ten minutes before I got Cadence back.
Some times I feel chairs have everything to do with world equilibrium. I mean, look at the facts: Basically, it’s a butt rest. But we end up resting everything but our butts on it. All around the office I see people lounging, lying, resting and leaning on chairs. Yeah, they do sit on it as well, but how long can one sit in one position?
When I come into office every morning, my back is straight, my posture admirable. Then my arms go on to the armrests, which are lower than they should be. So I slide down into a more comfortable position. By the time I switch on my computer, my back is hanging on for dear life, and my legs are dangling way out in front of the chair – I call it my ‘Thinking Posture’. You can tell a lot about people by looking at the way they sit on their chairs. Like if the person is sitting straight, s/he is confident and fresh. If the person is slouching, s/he has probably been in office for over an hour and is getting bored. If the person is lounging, it’s after lunch. If the person is fidgeting, it’s still a couple of hours to going home time. And so on.
The seat itself is very important. As you know, in a classroom, there are several benches available. But usually there is that particular bench that looks at you and says: You sit here. And so, every day we make it a point to be there early enough to catch that bench. In college, the days someone else got to my bench first, I would simply skip class. Now, I have to fight to keep Cadence.
The trouble with having a favourite chair is that you get mighty upset when your chair goes missing. There have been days when I have come into office to find Cadence not near my computer. Then I have to go searching every cubicle, checking every chair. And frankly, with the admin freaks trying to cut cost to earn brownie points with management, my chair is going to go missing more often.
All this makes me wonder you know. That maybe, just maybe, all the trouble that we are seeing in the world right now has something to do with people and their desire for the chairs of power. That people are suffering on the streets because someone’s chair has gone missing somewhere. That someone is going to get great grief if my chair goes missing again. That I am not liking the person I am turning into. A year ago, I couldn’t have cared less whether I was sitting on a chair or a beanbag. And today, I am writing a philosophical treatise on the impact of accoutrements on an office worker’s life.
I was pretty despondent about my lot in life and was pondering why I had been reduced to extracting petty pleasures out of office furniture, when Ro2proman called up. Ro2proman was the scourge of all software programmers and product designers in the world of Mistech, which was a giant among tiny software companies. Ro2proman was a Quality Analyst and he was also a good friend of mine. We have known each other since we were little children studying in college. Nowadays, children grow up by the time I would have reached kindergarten.
Anyway, so he called up and the conversation went:
“You have shifted companies?”
“Who me? No.”
“But someone told me you are working in that new mind-blowing building on the Old College Road.”
“Idiot, my company has shifted to new premises.”
“Ah, so it’s true! You are working in that new building. Okay, I am coming over right now for an on-site visit.”
“When will you be here?”
“I am standing in the lobby. Can you speak to this security guard and tell him I have come to meet you?”
Within a few minutes Ro2proman came to wonderland. And the first he thing he said was: “I want to see the restroom. I have heard great stories about your restroom. I hear you guys have wall-to-wall mirrors and black marble platforms with king-sized washing basins that dispense hot and cold water. Is it true?”
I had forgotten to tell you about the restroom. It was a marvel among modern amenities and we had recruited three talented designers from a rival company on the strength of the restroom.
Ro2proman entered the restroom in awe. It was everything he had heard, imagined, and expected it to be. The mirror was wall-to-wall and the soft natural light winked at you after being reflected off the black marble platform. There was lavender hand wash dispensed from glass bottles and there was hot and cold water. It was a big restroom and its labyrinth-like design separated waiting areas and wash areas from the stalls.
Then I took him to the cafeteria on the terrace and it further enchanted him since it was the monsoon season and the rains had painted the city green. After coffee and a burger, we got around to talking about things that mattered; like the meaning of existence in the corporate jungle and the futility of it.
“How’s your job coming along?”
“Same shit different day.”
“How long you been with Mistech now?”
“How long you planning to stay?”
“They’re all the same. So it all boils down to the facilities.”
“You guys have cubicles?”
“Oh yes, we are a regular factory. I work in a room that has long rows of people stacked up one behind the other. We are separated from each other by blue-coloured ply boards. We have a whole two square feet to ourselves. If I become a team lead I will get another square feet more.”
“How many people does your company employ?”
“The number keeps fluctuating but I think we are at 700 right now. People come and people go every day.”
“Two square feet? That’s like a can man.”
“How many people in a room?”
“The floor I work on? We have 300 people in six rows of 50 each.”
“Dude, that’s a huge floor.”
“It’s a warehouse.”
“So you have soft-boards? And pictures on your desk to make you feel comfortable?”
“Pictures yes. Soft-boards no. But we have coffee mugs.”
“Yeah, personal coffee mugs. Each employee gets one when we join.”
“What kind of coffee mug?”
“It’s like those painted mugs you get for 30 bucks in a gift shop. It comes with the company logo. HR thinks it’s cool. It’s supposed to give us an individual identity and make us feel connected to the company.”
“Are you serious?”
“Does it work?”
“Dude, I think someone has spent a whole lot of money on psychological shit to come up with that idea. The only thing I relate to at work is that coffee mug. It’s familiar, it’s mine, and I feel comfortable looking at it. If that coffee mug isn’t there I go mad.”
“I feel the same about my chair.”
“My entire existence is now concentrated in that coffee mug. I am a maroon mug with employee number 252 printed in yellow font accompanied by the blue company logo.”
“I am cubicle number 1, first floor, employee number 124, chair number ABPUN 0108.”
We sat there for some time thinking about our individual identities.
“You have coffee mugs?” I asked again after a bit. “We don’t have coffee mugs.”