Shari`s Pet Project
by Sheila Kumar
Shari had been working for a year as Personal Assistant to Boss (and Brother) Number Four at the Family Firm. She still took pains to dress well, give her eyes that little wing with the liquid eyeliner, and quickly spray one short burst of her favorite perfume down her cleavage and nowhere else. Because Shari lived in hope. One day, one fine day, her boss would look at her in a special way. And things would never be the same again.
However, the past year, all 365 days of it, had been a case of life being just the same, running on the same familiar track, smoothly, peacefully, largely uneventfully. The family firm dealt in a score of things that put a new spin on the word `varied`: construction, malls, footwear, jewellery and garments. Scores of people worked for them, and worked happily because the family firm paid well and looked after their employees. It also helped the female cause that all the four current bosses/brothers were gorgeous tall, dark and handsome types.
“Arre yaar, “Renu who was Shari’s best friend and PA to Brother/Boss Number Two, told her. “Tall dark and handsome does not mean what we Indians think it means. It actually means a tall, dark- haired and handsome man. And all our bosses are so fair, na? All except….” and here Renu tapered off, sensitive to the fact that she could be hurting Shari’s sentiments. Because the object of Shari’s affections, Boss Number Four, the youngest son of the family on Generation Three level, was not fair. He had what the matrimonial ads called a `wheatish complexion.`
Also, what both the girls knew but wouldn’t discuss was that Boss Number Four was different. Like in the tomato sauce advert. Apart from being darker in complexion than his three brothers, he was also the quietest member of a fairly rambunctious family. He was the brother always lurking in the background, a small smile on his well- cut lips. He’d be polite, he would speak when spoken to, but no one at the firm remembered Boss Number Four saying anything of importance. Ever.
But then Shari too, was different. In the first place, no one (and this included Shari) could understand just why her parents had decided to shorten `Sharadha` to Shari. She was definitely a Sharada: of medium height, of medium- coloured skin, of medium features and a medium personality, too. Shari : that name suited a model tall, willow- thin girl with masses of glossy black hair falling to her shoulders in waves. Shari was someone who stopped traffic on the Ambathur-T. Nagar route (which was the route our Shari took every day to work), who stopped conversation in a restaurant, someone the men clamoured to meet and greet.
So, yes, our heroine Shari was not a true-blue Shari but accepted her Shari-ness with the same equanimity with which she accepted everything that life gave her. When her younger sister Devi turned out to be the beauty of the family, of the colony, of the neighborhood, in fact, Shari was only too happy about it. When her father was laid off work and finances looked tight, Shari willingly gave up her fledgling dream of training to be a physiotherapist and entered the workforce instead. Her calm demeanor and genuinely undemanding happy nature attracted a fair fan following, even though boys didn’t exactly queue up to meet and greet her. She was nearing 28 and her parents knew it was high time they started to look for a suitable boy. Next year, they told themselves, as they did every year.
Shari had fallen in love with her boss the moment she laid eyes on him. She had been scared stiff of everything the first few months, had stumbled and stammered, had made typos galore, had turned tongue- tied at crucial moments. The rest of the office had gone ‘tch-tch'; Boss Number Three, when he’d strode in unexpectedly to discuss something with his brother, had laughed and asked what his brother was doing with such a ninny, he had actually used the word. But Boss Number Four had ignored his brother, ignored all the clucking of his office minions and invariably pretended not to notice the many gaffes Shari committed. Until one day, Shari had stopped committing gaffes and turned into the ideal secretary.
We can’t keep calling him Boss Number Four; he had a name and it was Anand. When Shari became an efficient PA that was when she realized her boss was not treated at par with his three brothers. Boss Number One was the dynamo. Boss Number Two was the shrewd businessman. Boss Number Three was the creative ideas man. And Boss Number Four? People would stifle a (kind, not malicious) smile, shrug and walk away. If no one actually said that he was just living off the fat of the family land in Shari’s hearing, it was only because they knew this dragon PA would have none of it. The younger lot in his office had actually taken to hailing him with `Hi there, boss` till Shari had put an unceremonious end to that familiarity. Then she found that he was being sent up lukewarm coffee and what suspiciously seemed to be stale samosas, and after a small bit of unpleasantness with the catering people, Anand got steaming hot coffee and crisp samosas. Whether he wanted it or not.
Once in awhile, he would comment on her outfit, her hair, once even on her perfume. Torn between utter meltdown delight and a sense of annoyance that he was being too informal, she’d smile, and then hurriedly change the subject. And quickly turn away, so she never saw Anand cast a speculative gaze at her.
The few times Anand would eat his lunch at the office canteen, where they served excellent food at amazingly subsidized rates, he’d stand uncertainly in the doorway and stare equally uncertainly, till someone would casually wave him over to their table. Then he’d take his plate and walk over to join them, happily sitting back and letting the conversation flow all around him.
This was not the case when Bosses One through Three ate in the same canteen. Their entrance would stir up a small whirlwind; people would rush hither and thither seeing to their food, their drink, and their chairs. And they’d graciously accept it all as their due. Which, according to Shari, was how bosses ought to behave.
Shari watched this ensemble performance a few times, and then made up her mind. The moment Anand would walk into the canteen, she would get up from her seat and go over, fuss as ostentatiously as she possibly could, escort him to a nearby table at the perceivably posh end of the room. Well, she did it just the once; after that, Anand didn’t visit the canteen. Probably embarrassed by what I did, Shari thought on the wings of an understanding sigh. She really wished he would throw his weight about a little bit more. But she also understood that some people just could not do such things. After all, she was one of those people, wasn’t she?
So, on Year + Day One of her work life, Shari was sat her desk, looking sweet in a mint- colored salwar kameez, her hair caught back loosely yet neatly at her nape. And when Anand came in around 10.30 am (his brothers never came to office before noon), she was able to look at him, despite her heart doing its usual hammering act. He looked very dishy, in a shirt the softest colour of lavender, paired with khaki pants. Now if I were his wife, Shari caught herself thinking, I’d make sure he wore gray trousers with that shirt. Gray goes better with that shade of lavender.
Before she could blush a beetroot red, Anand said casually, “Shari, I’m going out of town for a few days. Later today, there will be a rather important package arriving for me. Please send it on to Mumbai, immediately.”
After which, he just stood there and smiled at Shari. Shari smiled back, quite confused. Then, Anand went into his office, and the madness of the day began.
Anand left for Mumbai by noon but Shari was kept busy the whole day. There were a couple of glitches which Anand had asked her to iron out. There was a string of phone calls and four visitors in his absence, and she had to deal with that. Then, Sumi from Boss Number One’s office came to cry on Shari’s shoulder… yet another case of love failure, of course. So that meant Shari’s lunch hour was spent sipping tepid coffee and consoling a distraught Sumi.
Later, she told herself that a day so busy was the only reason that when the courier arrived, she automatically signed for the package, put it on Anand’s desk, and forgot all about it.
Till three days after, when there was a call from P. Publishers. The man on the other end was brusque, even rude. “Where in hell is Anand?” he snarled. When Shari told him, he snarled some more and said, “But what about the dratted manuscript?”
Shari was too good a PA to ask “what manuscript.” She remained silent and the man filled the silence. “He has been at work on it for two years now. He has missed three deadlines. And now you say he’s away and you don’t anything about any manuscript. What bakwaas, I tell you.”
And on that petulant note, the man hung up. Shari sat appalled as realization slowly started to sink in. The courier package was the manuscript of something Anand had written. She had been told to send it onto Mumbai, pronto. She had not done it.
And then, as if on cue, the outer door opened and Anand walked in. “Boss!” gasped Shari, having thoroughly lost her composure now. “Anand,” he told her quietly, firmly. This was a routine exchange between them and Shari ignored it, launching into a garbled explanation of why he had not got his manuscript in Mumbai.
Anand came up to Shari, put his hands on her shoulders and said, “Calm down, sweetheart.” The combination of the electric jolt that went through her at his touch, as well as his calling her sweetheart, effectively stopped Shari’s stream- of- consciousness rambling. She looked into his smiling hazel eyes.
“Yes, “he told her in that familiar quiet but firm tone. “I said sweetheart and I meant sweetheart. Did you think I hadn’t noticed what you were up to in the past year, my dearest Shari?”
First sweetheart, now he was calling her his dearest. Breathe, Shari, breathe, she told herself, then asked “What?” in a small voice.
“Why, Project Anand, of course. How to get the boss to move a few rungs up the ladder. How to see he gets the right amount of respect. How to ensure he dresses better. Yes, Shari, I know how you bought that set of business ties and hung it in my office closet.”
And now, Anand was pulling Shari closer to him. “Well, my darling Shari, I have some good news and some bad news for you. The bad news first. I am never going to be as dynamic as my brothers. I do my best and I think everyone is more than happy with that but the truth is, I am a writer. I write thrillers, under another name, of course. I write as Anant Das. Now don’t pretend Anant Das is your favorite writer.”
Shari was not going to pretend anything of the sort but she didn’t get a chance to tell Anand that, since he bent his head and started kissing her in the most thorough, most toe-curling manner possible.
When she surfaced for air, Anand continued teasingly, “Now for the good news. And that, my sweetest Shari, is that you are about to be promoted from PA to wife. Just so you can continue fine- tuning Operation Anand to your heart’s content, forever and ever. I trust that meets with your approval?”
It did and Shari indicated so to Anand, in the most effective manner possible.
Author : Sheila Kumar
Sheila Kumar worked for the Times of India Group in Bangalore, Delhi, at The Delhi Times, and at Femina for many years before turning freelance. Now she writes for a wide range of newspapers and magazines, on a wide range of topics. As many as ten of her short stories have appeared in anthologies; she has also contributed stories to three Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Sheila’s book, a collection of short stories titled Kith and Kin (Rupa Publications) released to very good reviews, and now she wishes to unleash her inner romance writer. Sheila blogs at bindersfullawords.blogspot.com.
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