The day was warm with a knack that you can only find in a March morning – springtime with the smell of last night’s rainfall still lingering in the air. Sunlight glinted off Jimmy’s black Ray-Bans, reflecting with as much a sheen as his extravagant flourish of taking them off. Faces looked up and smiled at him, acknowledging. The perfect start to the morning.
He breathed in, puffing out his chest. Fifteen years and counting, still winning at Nexa Robotics – the world leader in warehouse robotics. Nostalgia prickled him. He sure came a long way. Starting right from the photocopying intern to now being the proud HR country-head, reporting directly to the CEO. A satisfied grin split his face.
Strange that his key to success wasn’t a secret. Rather, a public knowledge.
His caring nod and friendly smile made him a natural for this job. The smooth talking nice guy who is always up for the smoke break with the men. The platonic best friend – an ear to their secret griefs that can’t be shared with their husbands – with the women. After all, everything mattered in climbing the corporate ladder, didn’t it?
Ten out of ten. Bingo.
He made a mental note as he walked on.
Ten of his friendly nods got acknowledged, both by the familiar and unfamiliar, the junior and senior faces that passed him. A career-rocketing habit molded years back. Close relationships always beat hard work for getting the all-important approvals. Always. Who knew when one of those nodding faces might help him secure his next promotion?
Humans, after all, were flawed feelings and sensitive hearts. Subtly craving for that comforting pat on the shoulder or the beaming ego massage. Definitely not cold logic. Not even those who slogged sleepless nights to manufacture and program robots – his more tech colleagues. This core belief was his Northern Star – he the sailor, braving the treacherous, stormy sea of the corporate. So far, he wasn’t any less remarkable than Christopher Columbus.
Recognizing another familiar face, his face instinctively split into a warm, wide grin.
Ranjan, hurrying by, halted mid-stride, as if stopped by the sheer fierceness of that grin.
‘So great to see you again, Mr. Ranjan. The vacation at Mauritius must surely have been delightful?’ Jimmy said excitedly.
‘Absolutely fantastic. Without a doubt.’
‘I can’t imagine anyone happier than Anjali and the kids.’
Mr. Ranjan’s smile flustered into an unimaginable ecstasy, almost blushing to agree and then politely bidding farewell.
Names. Remembering names was always the easy pass to one’s good books. Gospels no longer taught to the sour, over-competitive kids at MBA nowadays. Surely, miracles only happened when folks liked you.
He looked at the cafeteria whiteboard. It read in big, colorful capitals – ‘Today’s special: Cappuccino.’
Ordering one, he spanned eyes around the cafeteria. Pleasant conversation and sweeter smiles, just the way everything ought to be.
‘Your cappuccino sir. Specially brewed for you. Exactly the way you enjoy it.’ The young waiter said stressing the words just the right way, with an impressive eagerness and a professionally polite smile.
Jimmy nodded approvingly.
Won’t be surprised if that chap is made the cafeteria manager within a year. When I see talent, I recognize it.
He brushed a hand through his hair, soaking in the perfect morning.
‘Yeeessssss!’ A shout ripped through the air from a corner. Conversations dropped and heads turned towards it.
But the attraction died an instant death. Faces turned back scowling, regretting the precious time wasted looking at it.
Why, isn’t it the nerd Sushant?
And it definitely was. Anyone who had never known him could still pick him out – sitting alone at a corner table, intrigued in a deep conversation with himself. Never mind if his ecstatic yell and the pumping fist wrecked the social ambiance. Of course, never mind the mocking giggles from the tables nearby either.
So pleased with himself, no wonder if he’s having a solitary orgasm. But that doesn’t give the arrogant nerd the right to ruin other people’s morning. Not a bad time for some entertainment, eh?
Jimmy walked over to Sushant’s table. A perfect morning can only be bettered by an entertaining one.
‘Good morning Sushant! So glad to see you! Surely you don’t mind sharing some of your good news, buddy.’
Caught unawares, Sushant looked up from where he was scribbling obscurities into a paper napkin. Jimmy’s wide, smiling eyes tolerated a long, uncomfortable starring.
Then Sushant flinched back, as if out of a trance, suddenly recognizing Jimmy’s presence.
‘Nothing of interest to you, I must say.’
‘Now come on, Sushant. I am all ears for it. Surely, from a tech Guru like yourself, even simple observations are startling discoveries for the bland ones like me.’
Jimmy congratulated himself mentally at his choice of sugar-coated words. Sushant shifted in his chair uncomfortably.
‘Only because you are asking Mr. Jimmy, mind you. I am not quite sure if you would like hearing it. A sad hypothesis proved itself, all over again, today morning.’
‘Humans are an absolutely irrational, illogical species.’
Jimmy cringed reflexively. The cappuccino spilled, almost burning his hand.
The boy is not becoming a manager till he can judge correctly the temperature of the coffee he is serving. Definitely not for another five years.
‘Of course, your reputation precedes you in making such insightful statements. But how come such a dark observation on such a gleeful day?’
‘Pure coincidence. I was troubleshooting on the Cresta’s robotic arm, zeroing out on which of the microprocessors short circuited. You must understand that such a task for a techie like me is pure bliss. I was concentrating feverishly when Anjali decided to interrupt me? Can you believe it, actually interrupted while I was lost deep in my work!’
‘No interruption is ever taken lightly by you. I have heard all the stories.’
‘Absolutely not. Since you are one of the rare few whom I can trust to confide, I know what my colleagues talk about me behind my back – a haughty, sadistic, self-pompous nerd. But that cannot be further from the truth. I see reason and act only on behalf of it. Reason, Mr. Jimmy, only reason. Pity that nobody else does that. By my religion of reason, Anjali interrupting me was a cardinal sin.’
Ah! Milking out the words, just the way you’re brilliant at it, Jimmy.
‘And that was?’ Jimmy asked, curiosity seizing him. The morning could not have turned out better.
‘Anjali interrupted me smiling, flushing and offered me sweets only because her sister had a new baby boy. Happiness from a new born baby! Can you believe such hypocrisy? I lost it completely and ranted out at her that very moment. While she left, I swear I heard her utter curses I had never even imagined!’
Jimmy was dumbstruck expressionless.
‘I don’t understand your expression, Mr. Jimmy. Are you on her side too? I mean, after all, billions of babies are born every day, how does one more make a difference?’
A sudden, righteous anger surged up in Jimmy.
Not just an arrogant nerd. A perverted, sadist too. I will drag him right to the end of it. Teach him a thing or two.
The nice guy charm abruptly evaporated out of Jimmy.
‘Isn’t there a heart inside you? Or something of humanity? A new child is a blessing for God’s sake. Just imagine the joy of his parents. This is their life changing moment, one they will treasure while bringing up the boy, as the years gray on them. They will relive their childhood, all over again, through his eyes. What is a life lived, if not for love?’
The expression in Sushant’s face surprised him – absolutely innocent and completely blank like a child caught stealing sweets from his mother. He opened his mouth to speak but Jimmy cut him off.
‘There is this thing Sushant – I doubt if you can feel that – it is called human warmth. You understand the bitter truth as to why folks talk behind your back? I am afraid I don’t know a kinder way to put it – you’re simply too heartless. Too many of your kind in the world and humanity would have ceased by now.’
Jimmy was flushed red, almost puffing. Ironically, Sushant had perfect composure.
Not exactly what Jimmy anticipated for entertainment.
‘Well disagreeing with you totally, Mr. Jimmy, is logically impossible, no matter how strong the urge. You do seem to have a point. But, the strength of your argument would have been rock-solid, if only you were born in a different time. Maybe the Stone Age, for instance.’
Jimmy’s jaws dropped at that.
Seriously? If the screwed-in-the-head nerd wants to pick a fight, that’s what he’ll get.
Suddenly the day didn’t seem as much gleeful as it had been – the conversations all around sounded more of an irritating noise, all the sweet smiles fake and the boy had probably brewed the cappuccino intentionally too hot.
‘Now, don’t get me wrong Mr. Jimmy. No offense meant, only logic implied.’
‘None was taken. But an explanation would be great.’
Merely coaxing up his words with just the appropriate courtesy then felt like rolling boulders uphill. Habitual, natural smooth talking ceased abruptly.
‘Mr. Jimmy, your train of thought would have been gospels in those times. Why, living in the perilous wilderness, in perpetual fear of the carnivorous beast or perhaps the bloodthirsty enemy tribesman, more helping hands rationally translated into surviving more days. Copulating, Mr. Jimmy, was a divine intervention. New babies, the symbolic Godly lightning bolt wrecking at the enemy.’
Whew! Where is this getting at now?
‘However, now, in the twenty-first century, things are unfortunately different. You won’t believe the hours I simply wonder at our miraculous existence. So many people on earth, yet no one falling off it. So much sucked out of the planet without a second thought, I fear tomorrow might be apocalypse itself.’
Jimmy let out a laugh. It had the intended effect – Sushant was caught unaware.
‘For a man of reason as yourself, I must say your fears are based on nothing but pure bullshit. Newer technology always takes care of the plague of every age.’
‘Well, it did so far. I hope for that too. But I guess you didn’t grasp me completely.’
There was a short uncomfortable pause.
‘With all your good intention, the happiness of ‘manufacturing’ more life, in all its technicality, is doing more harm than any good you can comprehend.’
‘I don’t quite see where you are getting at.’
Admitting ignorance never greased the cogwheels of honeyed words. Jimmy hated it, but for some unknown reason, acknowledged being in the dark now.
‘Numbers will make matters clearer. They never lie. Let us look at our very own country for instance. Just guess a figure. How many in India starve to death? How many does a curable disease kill, by the sheer lack of medical facilities?’
‘Maybe. Maybe a lot more in a country of ten billion. All rough guesses.’
Suddenly, there was a certain malicious light in Sushant’s uncomfortable gaze that made him shrug in his chair.
Ah! Here comes his infamous arrogance.
‘Now, Mr. Jimmy, I would like you to think properly before answering this most important question. How many of those millions have you just guessed die prematurely?
‘Prematurely?’ The word surprised Jimmy.
‘In simpler words, die without contributing to what you just labeled as ‘newer technology’.
Silence fell in. Jimmy did not enjoy one bit where this conversation was headed. The morning entertainment was turning out to be a really bad idea.
‘How I see things, a perspective most find hard to digest is that we are always born in debt. Loaning someone else’s lunch to come alive. Only by using your brain and hands, you give back to society, to earth, slowly paying back your birth-debt till you reach the financial term of breaking-even. The point when humankind actually starts profiting from your existence.’
‘How many, of the millions, we have just guessed, do you think breaks-even?
‘Ugh huh. Not many.’ Jimmy’s voice died like a wilted leaf.
‘Maybe five in a hundred at best. Even that’s exaggerated optimism. Imagine yourself in those shoes. Waking up, with a rumbling stomach, to only one thing in your mind – not sleeping hungry again. And if you do manage to not starve, then your euphoria is surviving long enough to mate and procreate. That’s as much an ecstatic fantasy as for my current self – seventy kilo, plump, non-athlete from every angle – to climb Mount Everest. Not impossible, but utterly non-productive. Surely, when grabbing the next meal is your driving force in life, only an irrational fool will waste time trying to eradicate global hunger. Or cure cancer for that matter.’
‘I am afraid, connecting your dots seems a little difficult for me.’
‘Alright. An analogy will clarify.’ Sushant began rubbing his chin, lost in thoughts.
‘If a bank loans to a hundred customers and gets an interest from only five, would you be willing to invest in that bank’s funds? I, for sure, won’t.’
‘Seriously Sushant, you cannot compare human worth to something as ignoble as a bank?’
‘Would you?’ Sushant leaned forward. Predatory eyes going for the kill.
‘The point is crystal clear – humans, as a species, would drive itself to extinction, unless what you call a divine intervention actually intervenes.’
‘Surely we will find a way out!’ Jimmy cried out in disbelief.
Nearby a few heads turned. But, of course, a mere turn of heads didn’t mean it will be undoing the years of hard earned rapport.
‘Absolutely. With newer technology, right?’ Sushant’s voice had turn chilling cold, his eyes menacing.
‘Or was it the five in a hundred breaking-even. Exaggerated Optimism.’
Jimmy now felt those eyes boring into his skull.
A mental picture of everyone standing up from their tables, gazing at him then whispering and chuckling drew up in his mind. In the background, multi coloured capitals on the cafeteria whiteboard read – ‘Today’s special – Morning Entertainment.’
‘But that’s the beauty of life Jimmy, how can you not feel it? You live life, savor its sweet struggle, relish those rare, treasured moments it offers despite all its obscurities. The warmth of holding a new born baby is one of those moments you cherish to your grave.’
The evil eyes feel down as if defeated. Jimmy felt a weight lift off him. He looked around him. It was relieving – there was no one chuckling nor any mocking words on the whiteboard.
There. That should do it. Nice comeback Jimmy.
Sushant sighed and then shook his head.
‘All the effort, you still didn’t get it, do you?’
Jimmy raised his eyebrows.
‘I am no evil shaman, Mr. Jimmy, no matter what everyone thinks. All I’ve got to say is plain – we’re relishing the wrong sort of ‘happiness’, the wrong ‘beautiful moments’. Having a baby – I will still call it human proliferating – was a noble deed once when circumstances were far different. Stone Age was just an apt reference. But not now. Not in the twenty-first century. Not when, if your very species were a bank, you would not invest in it.’
Jimmy opened his mouth to reply but found himself at a loss for words.
‘I am not done yet. There is a horrible, beautiful irony to it. If we don’t alter the concept of our beautiful moments, there won’t be any more such beautiful moments left to treasure. Extinction will be our ultimate end.’
Jimmy reached for his cappuccino, but it had grown too cold, almost stale. Exactly like the morning turning lackluster and gloomy.
A relief came when Sushant looked at his watch.
‘Oh shit! The timer for restarting the robotic arm has overshot by seventy-five seconds! Damn it! Got to go, Mr. Jimmy. I will look forward to more such fulfilling conversations.’
Jimmy thought he caught a look of pleased satisfaction in Sushant’s eyes, but then again he was not really sure. He sipped on his bitter, stale cappuccino, lost in thoughts.
Morning entertainment was never supposed to be thought provoking.
A twenty-three-year-old fantasy addict who sees the world through the eyes of a four-year-old, wishing that magic was alive in the real world as it were in books. Till the day it actually happens, he chooses the harmless company of goblins and dwarves in medieval inns, sipping ale and weaving tales. And of course the occasional hiccup in between laughs.