Double-Edged Sword

“It’s a bit like Karma. Every entry on the debit side has an entry on the credit side. There cannot be a single absolute good or bad” said the old man in the sprawling bungalow sitting next to our table while Jigneshbhai, Swami and I were enjoying our coffee.

Today while we were silent, the old man was speaking. I wasn’t quite sure what he was referring to, but he seemed to react to Swami’s exuberance on the markets reaching new 52-week highs this past week. Swami was in a great mood today, and had nothing to complain as he thought about how well his investments were doing. When he has nothing to complain, generally he has nothing to say.

“Everything is so good. Markets are going up, hitting new highs, and they say this is just the start” Swami had said, a few minutes earlier when we were starting our coffee.

The old man in the sprawling bungalow was probably reacting to that, I thought.

“There is nothing like only good” he asserted.

My broker friend Jigneshbhai was listening attentively. When the old man spoke, all of us generally listened. But today Swami’s exuberance got ahead of him.

“How can you say that? Brexit is behind us, the GST bill is going to be passed, earnings have come up well, and the markets are going up. How can all of that be anything but good?” he protested.

Jigneshbhai and I waited but the old man in the sprawling bungalow did not say anything.

Swami directed his gaze at my broker friend, expecting an answer. There was a silence.

Finally knowing well that the old man in the sprawling bungalow doesn’t speak much and whenever he does, it is quite cryptic, Jigneshbhai thought that it might be time for him to speak.

“Well – for every buyer there is a seller. And both of them think they are right. Both of them think what they are doing is good for them.”

My broker friend seemed to agree with the old man. But Swami clearly wasn’t in agreement. And I was confused, trying to digest what both of them were saying.

“But isn’t good earnings good?” Swami revolted.

My broker friend smiled. And after brief thought replied. “Yes – but the buyer of shares is buying because earnings are good, and the seller of the same shares is selling because of the same reason – earnings are good. And both of them think they are right.”

Swami was still not convinced. And I was wondering what’s the truth in this circular argument of my broker friend.

“This is all philosophy. Markets are up and that is good. Nothing else is right. How can there be two sides to that?” Swami finally concluded with a tone of confidence.

My broker friend continued with the same logic that he had earlier.

“Sure – but the buyer of shares is buying because markets are up, and the seller is selling because of the same reason – the markets are up. And both of them think they are right.”

“So what? Who is right? And isn’t it all good?” asked Swami, by now quite impatient, and finally added, with an uneasy tinge of uncertainty “And finally what should I do?”

Despite the tacit explanations of my broker friend, Swami wasn’t convinced. All he knew was markets were up and he felt good about it. My broker friend had tried to explain the duality of markets.

“That’s the thing about economics and finance. No right or wrong, no good or bad in absolute sense.”

But clearly the message of balance was lost in Swami’s exuberance. But it had, nevertheless, raised some doubts in our mind on what’s good and what to do anyway.

And while Swami and I were musing about it, the old man in the sprawling bungalow got up and prepared to leave. And he left us with some food for thought.

“There is no good or bad. Markets are always a double-edged sword. For every greed buying, there is a fear selling. For every greed selling, there is a fear buying. You just need to go beyond both, so that you are never on the edge.”

 

The Madness of Crowds

Either I am a completely outdated, antique piece who doesn’t get it, or I may be a very calm composed person. I tend to give myself a positive spin with a benefit of doubt thinking it is the latter, but I suspect the former is perhaps closer to the truth.

The last week has seen me pose a dumb look on two seemingly obvious phenomena that I supposedly should have been lapping up and going crazy about. Both of them made me feel like that guy in the ‘Yeh PSPO nahi jaanta’ advertisement with the sheepish smile.

The first happened earlier this week when everyone was talking about a new game called Pokémon GO and I made the mistake of asking a colleague ‘is that a new cartoon series?’ And the second one, perhaps an even bigger faux pas yesterday, specially in Bangalore, was to ask a friend ‘What is this Kabali?’ I probably might have narrowly escaped a thrashing from the onlooking crowd.

I find myself in numerous such situations of late. Perhaps such situations are happening more often in this new age of social and mobile and trending or whatever – again my own benefit of doubt to myself.

Mark Twain said that a ‘Classic′ is a book which people praise and don’t read. In that era, it probably took a long time after a book is released for it to achieve this kind of status. A few of Twain’s own books achieved that kind of status.

It seems that this period has been drastically cut of late. And it applies to not just books, but probably to movies, new products, games, apps, mobile phones, electronic devices, and what have you. And it looks like most of them become classics before they are released. Things people praise, talk about but haven’t yet read or seen – because they are not yet released. And I am left wondering what to do every time such a phenomenon turns up with the ‘Yeh PSPO nahin jaanta’ sheepish look.

This phenomenon was probably started by the iPhone mania in the US. For apps, maybe Angry Birds started it. Harry Potter movies used to see these delusions before release. And lately every new mobile phone release is ‘highly awaited’. So the stampede surrounding Kabali is hardly a surprise.

madnessofcrowds

In the 1841 book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles MacKay wrote of the crowd psychology that drive numerous “National Delusions,” “Peculiar Follies,” and “Psychological Delusions.”

“We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.”

It does look like these delusions are more frequent of late – perhaps because there are so many objects attracting the attention of these minds (and their pockets) with easy channels of communication.

Many of these delusions are fleeting of course, and in all honesty, quite entertaining. All of them have the common result of getting some money out of your pocket. Some high, some low. A movie ticket here, or a book there, or some paid app, or at best a higher sum for a new electronic device maybe. So the harm is limited somewhat – for all the mania, it won’t leave a big hole in your pocket before, or even if it turns bad, a lasting one on your mind after.

But in the financial markets, these delusions are dime-a-dozen, and can be quite harmful. In fact, much of the day-to-day markets run on some delusion or the other – big or small. Many of them can also last quite long pulling even the most patient and experienced hands in. And with Love in the air (as in my last post), there are lots of new money-dwindling devices (like IPOs, new fund offers, expensive stocks, research reports, technical tips, stories of riches, business news, what have you!) waiting for your mind to get fixated on them. That’s where the madness of crowds can be not just entertaining, but positively harmful as well.

In such delusions, a dissenter from the crowd can look foolish, and despite all the patience, can eventually end up joining in for the fear of missing out. It is only later that one can learn whether one was sane or stupid. It is better to miss out on such madness of crowds – due to being outdated, lazy or composed, or some other reason.

It is worthwhile to remember what Charles Mackay rightly wrote in 1841.

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

Now let me go get my ticket for Kabali.

Love Hate Aur Dhoka

“Indians have a love hate relationship with stock markets” said the CEO of the Bombay Stock Exchange a few months back. And he goes on to add “We have a market that is not safe for investors to a large extent.” Further he adds “Only 2% of India i.e. 20-25 Million people invest in shares or mutual funds.”

My broker friend was reading out from a magazine as we met for our coffee this weekend. Swami and I were wondering what he was getting at. But he continued, this time from another article.

“SIP inflows are now about 3000 crore monthly as against 2500 crore six months back.” “FII inflows till date are about 22000 crores this year against 60000 crores last year.”

Swami and I were thinking that our broker friend will now tell us what he was getting at. But he continued again. This time with even more exclamation.

“Quess IPO was oversubscribed 147 times, L&T Infotech IPO was oversubscribed 12 times, Thyrocare was oversubscribed 62 times, and Ujjivan was oversubscribed 41 times. And I am sure there are more to come.”

Finally he looked up at us, smiled and said, “Looks like we are falling in love again.”

Swami and I looked at each other kind of wondering “What’s love got to do with it?”

“The hate of the past few years is gone. The love was cooking, now it seems it is served.”

Swami and I still confused. Love, Hate, Cooking and Investing. We just weren’t getting it.

Finally Swami had just one question “So?” Our confused state of mind was amply clear to our broker friend from the question itself. He finally obliged with some explanation.

“Well – it does look like there is increased participation in the markets from individual investors now. Which is great. But I hope it is not out of love.”

We were finally getting some of what Jigneshbhai was trying to say.

The quotes he was reading from did seem to indicate that individual investors were putting in money in the markets faster and in greater amounts than earlier. More money in SIPs, more money in IPOs, and lesser impact of foreigners’ money seemed to suggest that.

As we were musing over the apprehensions of our broker friend, he continued speaking.

“Because even if you love the markets, it won’t love you back. This kind of love can quickly turn into hate with the slightest mishap.”

That got Swami and I thinking about our broker friend’s skepticism.

The old man in the sprawling bungalow who was listening to our conversation walked over to our table. He always spoke cryptically, and this time was no different, albeit a bit clearer.

“Don’t love the markets. If there’s no love, there’s no hate. And if there’s no hate, there’s no dhokha. Go by your long-term plan, love it and stick to it, so that there is no love, hate or dhokha with the markets.”

Nothing is Impossible

“What’s up? Where have you been?” asked Swami, when we finally met after a long gap over coffee last weekend. It was indeed a long time since we had met our broker friend Jigneshbhai. “So many things have happened, and you have disappeared!” Swami repeated while sipping his coffee.

Our broker friend had a sly smile as he looked up from his coffee at Swami and I. “Indeed, the more things change, the more they remain the same” he said in typical nonchalant style.

“How can you say that?” Swami revolted as usual, waiting for our broker friend to react. But all he did was keep sipping his coffee. So Swami continued.

“So many things have happened in the past few months. The Fed increased rates, Modi government finished two years, our RBI governor left, Europe got bombed so many times, Britain exited the EU – so many things, and you say they remain the same?” Swami clearly had gone through the newspapers of the past six months in detail as he listed the significant events of 2016.

Jigneshbhai and I were quite pleasantly surprised by Swami’s listing. But he wasn’t done.

“And then PSU banks wrote off so much debt, Oil prices and gold prices rose again, BJP won in the state elections, a good monsoon is happening, new policies and a cabinet expansion were announced, and Trump may actually become US president!! So much has happened, we had so much to do, and you have disappeared for the past few months!”

That was indeed quite a list of happenings, I thought. I looked at my broker friend, and he was smiling too. I wasn’t sure whether it was because of the scale of events itself, or because Swami actually managed to list them out. But beyond the smile, he wasn’t speaking much as usual. After a brief silence waiting, Swami finally spoke again.

“We have missed doing the right things in the past six months. So what should we do now? Are we on the cusp of a new bull market? Is it time to get into the thick of action?” he asked excitedly, waiting for our broker friend to answer.

people-say-nothings-impossible-but-i-do-nothing-everyday-winnie-the-pooh1-600x222

After a couple more sips of coffee, finally Jigneshbhai said “I don’t know. Ideally do nothing.”

That left Swami dumbstruck. He looked at me as if to ask “what’s wrong with your broker friend?” How can he say ‘do nothing’? Isn’t it time to act? And how does he – supposedly an expert – say I don’t know? Does he really ‘not know’? Maybe he doesn’t want to share his secrets. Those were the lines of Swami’s thoughts.

I was equally surprised. Both of us looked at our broker friend waiting for him to elaborate. After waiting in silence for a few sips of coffee, Jigneshbhai seemed to have sensed our discomfort at his answer and finally relented.

“That’s the reason I disappeared. I had nothing new to say”, he said with a sense of resignation. “Honestly, why say anything if you have nothing to say? And moreover, in response to all of those events you listed, my answer was still the same. Stay Put and Do nothing. Nothing to say and nothing to do. How can I say ‘nothing to say, stay put and do nothing’ in different ways?”

Swami and I looked at each other in mute surprise on hearing Jigneshbhai’s explanation. Swami was probably thinking whether our broker friend had ‘lost his edge’. He was probably wondering what’s the point in meeting for these coffee’s if the advice from our broker friend essentially remains the same – nothing to say, stay put, do nothing. If the advice doesn’t change, probably change the advisor. Maybe that’s what Swami was thinking.

Just as we were sitting in silence (actually doing nothing!), the old man in the sprawling bungalow (who always spoke cryptically) was listening to our brief exchange from the adjoining table, and came over to our table. As we finished our coffee, he spoke and left Swami and me in further confusion, and our broker friend Jigneshbhai with a grin on his face.

“Your broker friend has told you the secret. It is (doing) nothing. Nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day!”

Short Story: Anniversary

“Ladies and Gentlemen, May I have your attention please?” announced Jaspal Rana from the stage.

“This occasion deserves special cheers. Everyone please raise a toast to welcome Mr and Mrs. Malvinder Singh.”

Indeed the occasion was special. Everyone had gathered to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the wedding of Jaspal’s best buddy of fifty years Malvinder and his sister Gurvinder Kaur.

There was a loud cheer from the guests after Jaspal’s announcement. The guest list included Mr Malvinder Singh’s close business acquaintances over the past many years, relatives and family members, and last but not the least, their two sons and daughters-in-law, daughter and son-in-law, and seven grand children, and even a great-grandson.

As the 76-year-old Malvinder Singh walked up to the stage, the cheer and clapping increased into a crescendo. Everyone stood up as he was joined by his 71-year-old ‘bride’ Gurvinder on stage. Amidst the clapping, Malvinder Singh started speaking.

“Thank you all today for joining us in celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of our wedding. It has been a very enjoyable journey. And in all these years, so many things have changed. Business has changed, India has changed. Culture and Way of Life has changed. Our surroundings have changed.”

Taking a pause, he looked at his wife and friend on stage. “What has not changed is Love. What has not changed is Friendship.”

The guests broke into a huge applause, as everyone gave a standing ovation to the old couple. Malvinder Singh and his wife were overwhelmed by the occasion. With a few tears in his eyes, he continued, “My heartfelt gratitude to all of you, many of whom have been with us in this journey. And our love to the joys of our life – our children and grandchildren. May peace and happiness be with you. God bless you all.”

With that, the old couple walked off stage slowly, helped by their eldest grandson. Before walking behind them, Jaspal Rana, who at a sprightly 75 years, still had lots of energy, took the mike and announced, “Let the party begin.”

After that, the music blared, the dancing started, the food and drinks flowed. Jaspal who had made all the arrangements for this occasion asked the event managers to take over, and joined his friend and sister at the dinner table.

Born in what was now the Pakistani Punjab, Malvinder Singh had moved to Amritsar (and later Delhi) just after partition, and had built a successful business over the past five decades. Jaspal and Malvinder had met in college and during that time had grown to be close friends. After Malvinder had fallen for Jaspal’s sister, with their parents having expired early, Jaspal was instrumental in getting his sister and Malvinder married. Post the marriage, their personal friendship had got converted into a strong relation. Since they moved to Amritsar in the aftermath of the partition, they had also become business partners. Their personalities complemented each other well, and they had built their business together through ups and downs. The fifty years had been as much about Malvinder and Jaspal’s friendship as about Malvinder and Gurvinder’s marriage.

“Get me my whiskey” Jaspal told the waiter, as they settled at their table.

Then turning to Malvinder, he said “Nice speech. So – fifty years?”

Malvinder, already a bit overwhelmed, said “Yeah – I got a bit emotional.”

“You have always been the sentimental type” Jaspal poked Malvinder.

“Well maybe. But today I think I got a bit more sentimental.”

“No, no. You have always been like this.” And then turning to his sister, Jaspal asked, “He has always been like this – isn’t it?”

With a smile on her face, Gurvinder said “Yes. He cried when each of our children were born. And he had tears even when our grand children were born.”

Holding his wife’s hand, Malvinder smiled. “Yeah – that’s right.”

“See – I told you” Jaspal pulled Malvinder’s leg again. They were both in their seventies. In fact all three of them. But they still had the spark and the camaraderie of their youthful days on.

For the next 2-3 hours, Jaspal and Malvinder sat at their dining table, having small chunks of chicken and large pegs of whiskey. Gurvinder watched on and helped herself to some food from time to time. She was accustomed to this routine for the past fifty years.

All through the evening, guests kept visiting them presenting their table with anniversary gifts. The old couple kept thanking every guest, and asked them if they had dinner and a good time. Every time some one from the guests came, they would touch the old couple’s feet. One by one, the guests finished their dinner and started leaving. Eventually, the old couple’s children and their families also started having their dinner.

All through the evening, Mr and Mrs Malvinder and Jaspal kept going back to some old memory that they had shared over the past five decades. Sometimes it was about some family event, others were about something to do with their children, few others were about something related to their business. Fifty years is a long time, and there were more than enough memories to fill an evening of conversation. And as memories filled the evening, the whiskey pegs filled the glasses.

By the time most of the guests had gone, Malvinder and Jaspal were several pegs down. And Gurvinder started doing what she had been doing on such evenings for so many years. She started asking her husband and her brother to stop. But like other occasions in the past, she knew that this was not going to work. Not when it had not worked so far. But this time, the occasion was special and she sensed that both her husband and her brother were way past their normal limits.

“I have a confession to make” suddenly Jaspal announced. People make confessions when they are drunk.

“So are you getting married?” asked an equally drunk Malvinder with a twinkle in his eye to Jaspal. “Have you finally found the woman of your dreams?” poked Malvinder. Jaspal had never married and Malvinder never knew why. Beyond an age, he had stopped asking him.

“Arre no. I had found her long time back” Jaspal mused. “But this confession is not about me, it is about you” he continued.

“About me? Did you mess up something in the business?” asked Malvinder unable to think what it could be. Though he was not in a state where he could think anyway.

“Arre no – it is about your marriage. And your wife. And a surprise!” Jaspal said in a jolly tone.

Gurvinder looked up when she heard that. Malvinder was already eager. They had reached a stage where there were no more surprises. It was their fiftieth anniversary, and surprises were things of the past. Nevertheless, Malvinder asked his friend “So what’s the surprise?”

Jaspal peered at his friend and gazed at his sister in drunken stupor, and announced “Arre yaar, you married the wrong woman!”

Gurvinder frowned at her brother on hearing that. She was the only one who was sober and she wasn’t quite sure what her drunk brother was saying to her drunk husband.

Jaspal stood up and started staring closely at his sister. “Arre – this is Parminder, not Gurvinder. You got it all wrong.”

Gurvinder got up from her chair to calm down her brother. She asked him to sit down. He was already quite unstable, unable to stand straight. But he continued blabbering.

“And I was the one. I, your best friend. I messed up your life” Jaspal said, and started crying. He walked towards Malvinder and putting his head on his shoulders, he continued crying. Malvinder, equally drunk, was surprised at this sudden emotional outburst from his normally stoic friend, and tried to console him.

Every drunken man feels that he is not drunk and the other one is. Malvinder who had heard Jaspal call his wife Parminder was convinced that Jaspal was drunk and needed his consolation. Holding his head, he said “No my dear friend. You made my life.”

Gurvinder, who by now was quite alarmed pinched her brother and asked him to sit down. She whispered in his ear “Sit down. What are you saying?”

At the same time, she also pinched her husband and asked him to sit down too. “Both of you are drunk. You are not young anymore. Now let’s go home” she ordered. And she asked their driver to get their car.

On hearing that, Malvinder told Jaspal “Jassie – your sister is telling us to pack up.”

And Jaspal obediently said, “Yes, we should listen to Parminder, sorry Gurvinder.” He kept his finger on his lips, and both of them started walking towards the car.

The next day, both of them got up with their customary hangover headache. And Gurvinder realised soon that both of them did not remember anything about last night’s conversation.

But Gurvinder – no Parminder – remembered everything. And she also remembered things that were embedded in the depths of her heart for the past fifty years. On her fiftieth wedding anniversary, she had managed to stop her brother from spilling surprises to her husband. She had prevented the spilling of secrets. A secret that only she and her brother knew.

That she was not the Gurvinder that her husband had originally loved. But she was Parminder – her identical twin sister.

That Gurvinder Kaur had been killed by rioters in the post partition mayhem a few days before the wedding day. A few days before Malvinder was to arrive for the wedding. And that Jaspal, his best friend, had convinced and coerced Parminder to become Gurvinder to save his friend from shock. And to set right all their lives. And that among the partition riot victims that day was also the girl who Jaspal was supposed to marry. And that this was supposed to be Jaspal’s surprise for his friend Malvinder. Best friends getting married together to the loves of their lives.

But fate had willed otherwise. And given a surprise to everyone.

Short Story: Verification

On a Sunday afternoon, Balaji, an engineer by profession, was having coffee with his wife at home when the telephone rang.

“I am calling from the Hulimavu police station. Can I talk to Balaji?”

“Yes this is Balaji speaking.”

“Sir, you have to come to the police station for address verification for your passport. Can you come in the next thirty minutes?”

Balaji had applied for a passport a year back when his office required him to travel. He had also got it then, and had also traveled abroad six months back. So he wondered what this verification was about. But he decided against making any inquiries on the phone around that. “Better safe than sorry with the police” he thought.

“Yes sir. I can come. Should I bring any documents?” he asked obediently.

“Yes. Bring your passport and address proof for last six months.”

“Address proof?”

“Bank Statement or electricity bill.”

“Ok Sir. I will be there.”

And the line got disconnected. Balaji told his wife that he needed to go to the police station for verification.

“Why one year after you got your passport?” she enquired.

“I don’t know. I will go and check.”

He collected the passport and documents from his cabinet, quickly changed his clothes and got into his car. It was only a 10 minute drive from his home to the police station. He parked his car some distance away and walked towards the police station.

The police station was housed in a decrepit building which had two floors. There was a board outside which had a list of various departments and their heads and contact information. Another board listed the various crimes that had occurred in the area in the past six months. There was a police van in its premises where a couple of constables were chatting.

Balaji asked one of them “Address verification?”

They pointed to an office on the first floor. He walked up to the first floor.

“Where should I go for address verification?” he asked an orderly sitting outside the office. He pointed inside.

Balaji walked in and asked the officer sitting inside. “Sir, someone called me to come for address verification.”

“Who called you?” the officer asked sternly.

“Sir, I don’t know his name. He said he was calling from Hulimavu police station.”

The officer did not say anything after that. He continued with his work and put his head back into the file he was reading.

Balaji waited, thinking that he was probably working on his request. When nothing happened for a while, he asked again. “Sir, my address verification.”

“Wait” came the reply.

The police station looked like a busy place. There was constant movement of officers, constables and probably, criminals, thought Balaji. There were people looking into files for something, sitting on chairs and working on tables piled with what seemed like hundreds of files. There were old computers on some tables attached to noisy rickety printers and wires hanging from broken switchboards. In all this mess, Balaji wondered how work got done at all.

“Sir, when did you get the call?” asked a person who had just walked in to the office.

“Around thirty minutes back.”

“Last year’s case?”

“Yes”

The person, who Balaji thought was another officer, looked at some list in a register at the far end of the table.

“Name?”

“Balaji Rao.”

The officer seemed to have found the name.

“Sir, you should have come 11 months back. Your papers are pending. We were going to send a negative report about you. Then you would have got into a problem with the passport office” he explained.

Apologetically, Balaji said “Sir I did not know I was supposed to come. No one called me.”

“Ok – sit inside. I will come.” The officer pointed to a cabin inside where Balaji went and sat. For thirty minutes or so after that, nobody came.

Finally, the same officer came back with a file and what looked like a form. He explained to Balaji that this was the verification form based on which the police station is supposed to send a report to the passport office.

“One negative report from us and your passport would be withdrawn.”

Balaji profusely apologised again for not coming earlier though he wondered how he could have come if no one called him. But he kept his thoughts to himself.

He dutifully answered the questions from the form that the officer asked him one by one, and handed over the documents he had got.

“Sign here” the officer said from time to time, and Balaji obediently followed the instructions.

After an elaborate procedure that lasted for around forty-five minutes, the officer filed the form and the documents.

“Go to the ground floor. Verification section.” the officer said, gave him the file and walked out.

Balaji went there and waited. He asked the constable seated there what will happen next. “Sir will come” he explained. He took the file from Balaji and kept it on the table inside.

Balaji’s observation of the busy activities in the police station took over again. Balaji waited and eagerly kept looking for the officer to return. No one came.

After around thirty minutes, an orderly walked in. Balaji who addressed everyone as Sir by now, asked him “Sir my verification?”

“Name?” he asked.

“Balaji Rao.”

The orderly checked the files kept on the table. “Your file is ready” he announced.

With a sly smile, he came a bit closer to Balaji, and whispered “Keep two hundred rupee notes in the file. Courier charges.”

Balaji did not question it and quietly removed the two currency notes from his wallet and placed them in the file.

The orderly walked off somewhere. After five minutes, the officer arrived. Flashing a smile at Balaji, he picked up his file from the table and checked it again.

“Yes, Mr Balaji. Your file is complete. We will send the positive report to the passport office tomorrow.”

“Thank you Sir” said Balaji.

The officer then went on to explain how the country needed responsible citizens like Balaji and how most people don’t turn up for the verification and get into bigger trouble later with both the police and passport office later due to their own carelessness. The officer complimented Balaji on his proactive approach, and explained how he had avoided all that trouble now. He further volunteered to help Balaji if and when required in the future.

“Your verification work is done. You can go home now” he finally said. Both of them thanked each other again and Balaji then walked towards his car.

As he got in, his mobile phone rang. It was his wife who seemed worried that he was in the police station for so long, and asked him what took him so long. Balaji confidently reassured her. “My verification job is done. I am coming home.”

Short Story: Help

On a normal working day, Rajat Gupta, who worked as a marketing manager with a large private company, would be in some corporate meeting at this time in the afternoon. But today was a relatively light day. So he was sitting at his desk staring at the laptop screen, pretending to be busy, but actually reading some news from a website. His cubicle was always in order. It had photographs of his family, a coffee cup and some papers related to his work. He looked at them and thought life was good.

His colleague, Kiran, dropped in at Rajat’s desk.

“I need a small help from you. Are you free for a few minutes?”

Rajat looked up from his laptop.

“Yes. sure – what do you need?”

“Well, there is a friend of mine who has got an offer from Microsystems Corporation. He wanted to chat with you as you have worked there earlier.”

“Oh Sure. Give me his number. I will call him.”

“No – he has come over to the office. His name is Gautam and he is sitting in that meeting room in there.” Kiran pointed to the glass room on the other side of the corridor.

“If you could drop in and have a quick chat, that would be great.”

“Yeah sure. Will go right away” said Rajat.

“Thanks. And by the way, just let me know when you are done.”

“Will do” said Rajat and started walking towards the meeting room.

They generally used this room for meeting visitors like interviewing candidates or presentations from vendors. The room had a large table with six chairs. It was in the corner of the office floor, so it had only one proper wall and on three sides, it had walls of glass. Two of the glass walls were facing outside and one of the glass walls faced inside. The one facing inside had a glass door. Rajat pulled that door and entered the room.

“Hi. Are you Gautam?” he asked.

Gautam was standing facing the external facing glass wall which had a view of the road below. He was probably looking at the traffic below. He had his back to Rajat as he entered.

On hearing Rajat, Gautam turned around.

“Yes I am Gautam.”

“Ok great. I am Rajat. Kiran told me about you.” He thrust his hand forward for a hand shake.

“Oh – is it?” Gautam said, turning a bit pale, and did not shake hands with Rajat.

A bit surprised, a bit peeved, Rajat pulled a chair and asked Gautam to take a seat.

“Thanks” he said and sat down.

“Yeah – Kiran told me that you got an offer from Microsystems Corporation and needed some inside info before deciding to join them.”

“Yes – that’s right. I am currently working with NetSolve Corporation and was wondering if it would be a good move. How long did you work with Microsystems?

“Well I worked there for around 4 years. It is a nice place overall. I think..”

“Did you know anyone in marketing?” Gautam cut Rajat abruptly before he had completed.

“Yes I worked closely with Mr Roy.”

Gautam flashed into a smile on hearing that. Rajat also noticed that Gautam was staring at the window and at the table from time to time, as if trying to remember something. He was not quite sure why. Just as he was going to ask, Gautam continued.

“Wow. That’s amazing. I will be reporting to Mr Roy. How is he to work with?”

“Well, he is a decent guy. Quite good to work with.”

Rajat noticed that Gautam started staring at the ceiling now. Right in the middle of a conversation, he would start turning his attention to other objects in the room. The window, the table, the ceiling. Rajat was getting a bit distracted by that. And also starting to lose a bit of his patience. He was the one who was helping. He expected a bit of attention when someone has come to ask for job advice. Instinctively, he felt like stopping. But this was Kiran’s friend. So he continued.

“Mr Roy will give you all the freedom to operate independently. Generally, he will spell out his expectations upfront, but leave it to you beyond that.”

Rajat felt a bit thirsty and got up to get some water. The bottle was at the other end of the table. He walked to the other side.

Gautam continued asking his questions. “Great. That’s good news. And how is Microsystems overall as a company?”

Rajat picked up the bottle of water and took a gulp.

“Is it a good place to work in general. Does it offer good growth?”

“One sec.” Rajat said and walked back to his chair. “Do you want some water?”

“No thank you.”

There was a moment’s silence as Rajat had another gulp of water. Gautam was staring at him,  and was lost in thought. He was waiting for the answers.

“Overall it is a nice place to work. They will let you decide your working time and offer you flexibility in your work location. Growth may be a bit slow. You know how it is in such large companies.”

“Yeah, that’s true” agreed Gautam flashing into a smile again.

“So when are you joining them?” asked Rajat. He was now getting ready to close out the conversation. He was hoping that Gautam had no further questions. In any case, his constant fiddling and lack of attention was putting Rajat off. He thought that he was done with whatever help he could provide.

“They expect me to join next week. But I will be taking a month or so.”

“Alright then. Hope my inputs helped and wish you all the best.” Rajat was getting ready to finish. “I need to get into another meeting now.”

Rajat did not have any such meeting, but he got up from the chair and prepared to leave.

Gautam got up too and with a smile, he thanked Rajat. Gautam put his hand forward for a handshake. Rajat shook his hand and left.

He walked down the corridor and went back to his desk. He checked his laptop to see if he had got any email. There was nothing new. So he went back to the news that he was reading before this funny meeting with this funny guy.

Seeing Rajat at his desk, Kiran dropped by.

“So how was it?”

“Well, it was fine. I gave him all the inputs on Microsystems he needed.”

“Ok great. Thanks man for your help.”

For a moment, Kiran thought of stepping out, but then stopped.

“By the way, how did you find him?”

Rajat looked at Kiran not quite sure what to say. For a moment, he thought maybe he should tell Kiran that he found the guy odd and that his behaviour offended him. But then, he decided against it.

“Well, the guy seemed ok. How do you know him?”

“Hmm..He is my batch-mate from B-school. I know him for 10 years now. So did you find anything odd?” Kiran probed.

Rajat felt maybe he should tell Kiran now that he was insisting.

“Yeah, I found him a bit odd. He seemed a bit fidgety and low on attention span.”

“Hmm..that’s the reason I asked you.” Kiran went into some kind of thought after saying that. He briefly paused and finally started speaking.

“I forgot to tell you before you went in that Gautam is blind.”

Rajat looked up to Kiran from his desk. Rajat felt a bit stunned on hearing that.

“He slowly lost his vision due to an illness over the past 5 years and now he is 90% blind. He does not wear sunglasses or carry a stick or tell anyone. And his eyes look perfectly fine. But he can only make out that you are there but nothing more than that.”

Rajat did not quite know what to say. His mind went back to the meeting room and the sequence of events during his conversation with Gautam. Kiran patted Rajat on his back getting him out of his thought.

“I will just be back. I need to walk him downstairs to his car. And by the way, thanks a lot for your help.”

Rajat sat down on his chair and stared back into his laptop screen. He tried to read the news but could not concentrate.

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