Gopalan looked at the clock on the office wall. It showed five minutes to nine. He smiled. As usual, he was in office before time. Gopalan was always the first in office. At times he had come in before, Shyamalan the peon. It was Shyamalan’s job to open the office. Besides opening the doors, he was expected to sweep the floor, wipe the dust off the tables and arrange the files on the shelves all this before the office staff came in. Shyamalan was also supposed to be there by eight-thirty. He never came that early. Gopalan always reached before Shyamalan.
Gopalan came by bus. He lived twenty kilometres away and used the state transport buses for his commute. Every morning he would get up at four, meditate for half an hour and then do yoga for an hour. A quick bath later he would go to the kitchen and prepare both breakfast and lunch. Gopalan lived alone in a rented house. His village was about four hours by train. His parents lived there. The only son of a retired school teacher, Gopalan was happy he had landed a government job by the time he was twenty-four. It was not a high paying job. He was a lower division clerk but it was a government job. He was sure with his hard work and dedication he would rise through the levels. After all, he was sincere and hard working. No one could deny him that.
It took Gopalan an hour by bus to reach his office. He would get on the bus by seven-thirty and reach the office by eight-thirty. By eight the buses would be crammed with college students and office goers. Gopalan avoided that crowd by thirty minutes. Not that the buses would be empty, half an hour earlier, but at least he did not have to dangle on the footboards.
This was his first job and he was determined to make it a success. Within days of joining he had realized that there was no way, the office doors would open early. Shyamalan lived near the office. Someone who knew said that his house was within walking distance. Yet he came in just five minutes before the official office start time. Office hours were from nine in the morning to five in the evening. This was for weekdays. On Saturdays, the office was over by one. This was the rule- what was written on the faded board in a corner of the office. In reality, the staff would come in by nine-thirty or ten and by four-thirty the office would be empty. Saturday by twelve Shyamalan would be preparing to lock the doors. That is if Gopalan would let him.
Gopalan also believed in God. Every Sunday he would go to the village temple and pray. Not that Hinduism expected him to go on a Sunday but that was the only day of the week he was free. Gopalan had tried to get a house on rent near the office. The monthly rent amount had shocked him. On his fifteen thousand rupees per month salary, the rent he could afford got him a house which was twenty kilometres away. Luckily, he did not have to send any money home to his parents. They were both retired school teacher and their combined pension was more than their son’s take-home salary.
As Gopalan waited outside the office door he saw Shyamalan at a distance. Shyamalan came on a cycle. It was one of the fancy geared ones. It looked costly. Gopalan wondered how he was able to afford such a costly cycle on his peon’s salary. Gopalan checked his watch. It was eight fifty-five. Shyamalan was in no hurry to reach office.
“My God! Is that clown circling those college girls?” thought Gopalan.
Shyamalan was indeed going around in circles around a group of girls who were walking down the street. There was a girl’s college a kilometre away.
“This man is a nuisance. Not only is he late but he is also harassing girls on their way to college.” Gopalan thought
By the time Shyamalan reached the office, it was five minutes past Nine. Gopalan was furious. For the first time in his six months service, he was going to be late. There was a register in the office and Gopalan like all the staff members would sign his name and add the time while entering and leaving the office. There was no check to verify the details entered. It was all on trust. Gopalan was proud of his entries. It showed a time before nine every day but today that record was going to be broken.
“Do you know that you are late? The office is to be opened before nine in the morning. Today I am late because of you.”
Shyamalan pretended not to hear him. He was humming a tune. It was one of the latest movie songs. He had seen the first day show with his friends. The memory was still fresh in his mind. The tune was a catchy number and he had been humming it since the time he had heard it.
“Can you open the door? I have to start work.” Gopalan said.
“What is the hurry? There is no one else here. They do not come before nine-thirty. What is the point in opening it so early?”
“That is the rule. Government offices are to start at nine AM sharp. “
“Rule!” Shyamalan yawned.
By the time Gopalan reached his desk, it was ten minutes past nine. He had wrestled with his conscience as to what time to enter in the register. He had come early but entered the office late because the door was not opened. Should he enter 9:00 AM or 9:05 AM he thought.
Finally, he entered 9:05 AM and attached a comment next to it mentioning – Door was not open had to wait for five minutes outside.
Gopalan was not happy with that. He would complain about Shyamalan to the Section Head. Paulose Joseph, Gopalan’s section head came around nine-thirty. After reaching office he would immediately rush to the toilet. Fifteen minutes later he would come out and go for a cup of tea. The office canteen supplied tea at the desk but there was a small roadside tea shop which all the staff members preferred. Thereafter downing a leisurely cup of hot tea, Joseph would amble back towards his desk. All this would take about an hour. At ten-thirty when Joseph returned to his desk, Gopalan was waiting for him.
“So, what is the problem?” said Joseph.
“Sir! He should open the door on time. I was late by five minutes in entering. I had reached by eight thirty-five but had to wait for thirty minutes outside the door.”
“Why do you come so early?” said Joseph still not able to understand the nature of the complaint.
Gopalan stood there for a moment. He thought of presenting his words with a different logic.
He started again.” Sir! The rule is that the office doors should be open by nine a.m sharp. Also by then, the tables should be cleaned and the dust bins emptied. For that to happen Shyamalan should be in the office by eight-thirty. He comes just a minute before Nine.”
“Have you completed all the assessment reports I sent you yesterday?” said Joseph.
For a second Gopalan was silent.
“No Sir! There are fifty files in that bunch. I completed twenty yesterday and will finish the remaining before leaving for home today.”
“Good! Now instead of wasting your time talking why don’t you do that. After you have finished those files write a summary report. You are good at writing, write that report and give it to me. I need to send it to the Director by noon tomorrow. Now go.”
Gopalan went back to his table and was soon immersed in his files. He forgot to drink his tea, finished his lunch in ten minutes and was back at his table. He hardly looked up but feverishly worked at the files. A loud laugh distracted his attention and he looked up. He saw Shyamalan sitting on Joseph’s desk. They were laughing at some joke. Gopalan shook his head in disgust and got back to his files. He stopped complaining about Shyamalan after that.
A week later Malati joined the office. She joined as a lower division clerk in Gopalan’s section. Long plaited hair, big expressive eyes, slim figure – Malati was distracting. Joseph had asked Gopalan to explain the working of the office to her. Gopalan would start explaining in earnest but then when he looked into her eyes he would forget what he was speaking and stumble on his words. She was assigned a table opposite to Gopalan’s desk.
Malati also had the habit of coming early to the office. She would reach the office door by eight forty-five. For Gopalan, this was a God-sent opportunity. All the time spent on Sundays visiting the temple were finally paying off. He started paying more attention to his dresses. He always wore a white shirt, full sleeves. Sleeves folded up to the elbow. That was his style. Simple but elegant. It went well with black trousers. Gopalan ensured his shirt and trousers were well washed and crisply ironed. He started cleaning his sandals every day. All the jumping on and off buses added tons of dirt and grime to it. He kept a dirty rag in his desk to wipe the dirt off his sandals. As they waited outside the office door, they talked. Just casual chit chat. Malati would talk about movies and dresses while Gopalan explained to her how to balance a ledger and how the annual statements were prepared. Malati listened carefully nodding her head at all the right spots but the minute someone else came she would leave the conversation and go with them.
Gopalan and a few of the older staff members got their lunch from home and preferred to eat at their desk. Gopalan began cooking and carrying a little extra in his lunch box. He hoped that someday he would get to share it with Malati. She lived near the office. Malati could easily go home, have lunch and return. All well within the lunch hour. Yet she preferred to have lunch at a nearby hotel. Most of the younger office staff went there. She tagged along with them.
After a month of Malati’s joining a miracle happened. He saw Shyamalan coming to office by eight forty-five.
“You are early!” said Gopalan trying to make it as sarcastic as he could.
Shyamalan ignored the jibe he looked at Malati standing there and said “Good morning!”
Malati smiled back at him.
“Did you have to wait for long?” Shyamalan said.
“No! I come around this time every day,” Malati said.
“I come around eight-thirty,” said Gopalan but Shyamalan ignore him.
“I will come at this time then, “said Shyamalan, “Then you would not have to wait.”
He continued addressing Malati.
She smiled again and said, “Thank you!”
Gopalan felt as if someone had slipped a hot burning piece of coal down his back. From that day onwards, Shyamalan came early. He would open the doors early and dust one table and arrange its files – Malati’s. Shyamalan would remain there near Malati’s desk till the other office staff members came in. Gopalan tried to join in the conversation. Shyamalan and Malati spoke about movies, actors, clothes and fashion. Areas where Gopalan had nothing to contribute. He would just stand there listening to the conversation. After a couple of days, he stopped trying.
Gopalan’s parents were pestering him to get married. They argued that they were now old. They said that he needed to settle down. Gopalan agreed to all their terms. He disagreed with them on one point. He said he would choose the girl. For that, he did not have to look far. Right across the room in his office was the person who he thought fitted the bill perfectly. He decided to take things into his hand. He decided to write Malati a letter and confess everything.
Gopalan believed in horoscopes and palmistry. He believed in omens and good luck charms. He chose a good day to write a letter. What better day than a Sunday. After returning from the temple Gopalan sat down. He put pen to paper and poured his heart out. He wrote about how he felt the first day she stepped in the office, how he felt every day when he saw her and how he looked forward to seeing her every day for the rest of his life. Words became sentences and sentences combined to form paragraphs. Gopalan filled up two sheets and only then did he put his pen down.
Most people hated Mondays. Gopalan was looking forward to it. Monday signalled the start of a whole week when he would get to see Malati sitting at her desk, across him. He was also eager to hand her the letter and express his love for her. It would have been easier to just say the words but the problem was of privacy. She was always with someone else. In the morning hours, it was Shyamalan who loitered around her like a parasite. During office hours Malati would be with other staff members. A letter, Gopalan thought, was the best way to convey his feelings. He put the letter in his pocket and went towards her desk.
Malati was working on some file and did not notice him standing there. Gopalan cleared his throat and she looked up.
“Are you not feeling well,” she said.
“I am perfectly well.”
It was a long awkward minute as Gopalan stood there. Malati looked up again from her work.
“Is there anything else?”
“No nothing…. I…. are those files still pending from last week?” Gopalan said pointing at a pile of files on the locker behind her.
Malati turned to look. In that brief moment, Gopalan took the letter from his pocket and placed it on the table. He placed it right in the middle of the desk and started walking away. At that moment a gust of wind from the open window blew the letter off the desk and onto the floor. Gopalan did not notice this as his back was turned. Shyamalan who was passing by saw the paper fall, picked it up and handed it over to Malati.
“This fell from your desk,” he said.
Malati took the paper from him, smiled at him.
Malati looked at the folded piece of paper. She turned it over and looked at it from all sides. She was certain she had not seen it on her desk earlier. She opened and began reading. By now Gopalan had returned to his desk. As he settled down in his chair, he stole a glance at Malati and saw her reading his letter. His heart was beating wildly. He had chosen the words with care. His teacher in school would have given him full marks for the choice of words in that letter. That is if he ever dared to hand over such a letter to his teacher.
Most dear Malati, the starting line captivated her. As she read the letter Malati’s face turned a bright shade of red. In her entire school or college life, no one had ever written such a letter to her. That she had always studied in girls-only school and colleges may also have had something to do with it. Growing up on a steady dose of Bollywood and Malayalam movies had conditioned her mind to a great extent. By the time she had finished reading the letter, she was in love. She looked at Shyamalan who was standing at a distance and smiled. Shyamalan who was holding a bunch of files saw the smile. There was something different about the smile from Malati. It was not the usual thank-you-for-cleaning-my-desk or thank-you-for-fetching-my-cup-of-tea smile. This one was different. The cheeks were all red and the eyes were acting coy. The files fell from Shyamalan’s hand and spread its contents on the floor.
Gopalan was eagerly waiting for the response to his literary efforts. He looked at Malati, first on the sly then amassing some courage he looked straight at her. He noticed something strange. She was looking at Shyamalan who was also staring back at her! Gopalan did not understand what was happening and that too during office hours!
“I did not know you could write so well,” said Malati still blushing.
The office group was walking towards the hotel during lunch hour and she was at the back walking along with Shyamalan.
“What?” said Shyamalan.
“It was poetic. I have never seen such fine writing outside classical poetry,” said Malati.
Shyamalan had no idea what she was talking about, but he was not going to let that show on his face. To cover his confusion, he smiled.
Later during lunch, others in the group noticed Malati and Shyamalan’s chairs a bit too close to each other. The two were so busy talking to each other that they hardly noticed when the others finished their lunch and left. They came in ten minutes after lunch hour ended. Not that it was a big issue as other than Gopalan none of the seats in the office was occupied. Gopalan was worried. He had anticipated a torrent of emotions towards him from Malati. Instead, she completely ignored him. It was as if he had ceased to exist.
“She is a decent girl. Maybe she is too shy to express her feelings in front of others. I will speak to her tomorrow morning.”
He thought and comforted himself.
The next morning Gopalan was walking towards the office by eight-thirty. That was when he saw another miracle! He saw Shyamalan was already there! Gopalan saw someone else standing with him. It was Malati! She was standing there talking to him.
“That ruffian! He is now trying to steal my Malati!” Gopalan thought and almost ran up to the office.
The two were laughing at some joke when they saw Gopalan.
“Oh! You had to come in so early!” Malati said.
There was disdain in her tone. She seemed upset that he had come early! Gopalan did not understand what had happened. Seeing her he had thought that he would use the opportunity to speak to her and continue on the base which the letter had set up. Instead, Shyamalan was there.
“Open the door for him, “said Malati. Shyamalan immediately complied.
For the first time in his one-year tenure at the office, the doors opened for Gopalan by eight thirty-five. He signed the register. He felt happy as he looked at the office entry time next to his name. Then he went and sat at his desk. That was when he noticed that he was alone in the office. He ran to a window and looked out and saw Malati and Shyamalan walking up to a near-by restaurant. This was not what he had expected. He looked at the pile of folders on his desk, sighed and got down to work.
After a few days, Gopalan had stopped looking in Malati’s direction. He returned to his old ways. He stopped cleaning his sandals. Some days his shirt would be crumpled but he did not care. He stopped carrying a little extra food in his tiffin box. He knew his life was going through a bad phase and hoped that matter did not get much worse. That was until the day someone came to his desk and handed him a cover. It was a wedding invitation. Inside it printed in neat artistic font were details of the marriage of Shyamalan with Malati!
“This will be the first marriage between office staff in this office,” said Sathy Devi. She was the senior-most typist in the office. In her fifties, she was due to retire in a year. She was discussing with Kartikeyan the new section officer. The other staff members were listening in. Shyamalan and Malati were on leave – in preparation for the wedding. Gopalan, as usual, was at work, ignoring the conversation at the desk a few feet away from him.
“Do you know Shyamalan is getting a car in dowry?” someone said.
“He does not need a dowry. He comes from a well to do family,” someone else replied.
“Has to be. If someone can afford to live so close to this place, he has to be rich.”
“Malati also lives somewhere close. I always wonder what it was that attracted them to each other?”
“Oh! she told me once. Shyamalan had written her a nice love letter. She was floored by the words. That is how it all started…”
Gopalan had heard enough. A cry of anguish escaped his lips and he jumped up from his desk. Everyone turned in his direction. Gopalan ran towards the door. There was a limit to how much a man could tolerate. This was unfair. He had poured out his feeling on the piece of paper and someone else was benefitting from it. This was not right. He ran out of the office.
“What happened to Gopalan?” someone said.
“Who knows. I always found him a bit weird. Do you know he comes in half an hour before office time?”
“As if all that extra work gets you any extra money!”
The office staff returned to their gossip.
Gopalan was out on the street. It was about eleven in the afternoon. He had never come out at this time of the day. The roads were jam-packed with traffic. Car, busses, scooters raced each other on the street. People crossing the street at random, brakes screeching, driver putting their head out and abusing the pedestrians, traffic policemen trying to control the madness. Gopalan had never seen this world. He was dazed. He usually came in and left when there was little traffic. He stood there dumbstruck for a few minutes stunned by all the madness unfolding around him. Then at a distance, he saw Shyamalan and Malati.
The two were standing in front of a huge shopping mall. They were looking at the mannequins on display. Gopalan could see them talk and laugh. He could imagine what they would be discussing. It had to be about the clothes. He had heard enough of their morning discussions to know what they always discussed. Then he saw Shyamalan point towards something, Gopalan’s eyes followed in the direction and saw a huge movie poster hanging outside the Mall. It was announcing a new movie releasing that week. The couple could be seen in an animate discussion. They had big shopping bags in both hands, everywhere there was traffic and noise and yet the two seemed to be oblivious to their surroundings.
Gopalan watched them from afar, saw them smile and then something happened. It was as if an electric bulb had popped in his brain. He saw before him a couple that was perfectly matched. Malati and Shyamalan complemented each other. Their interests, likes, dislikes all matched perfectly. Gopalan felt as if a weight had been lifted of his shoulder. He went back up the office stairs walked up to his desk and sat down. He looked at the files scattered around on his table. He began arranging them in neat piles. Then he took out a cloth from the lower drawers and cleaned his sandals. Satisfied that they looked neat he settled down to work.
Life was back to normal.