The train lurched before stopping. Groans parted the humid pancake air in the train as sweat trickled down my exposed arms. I glanced at my wrist, where the watch smirked at me.
The local, already late to start, was now forty-five minutes late. I tied my hair into a high pony to escape the heat.
The day had started in a way such days usually do. Dull. With the shriek of the alarm piercing my dreams. The satisfying dream where I stabbed my boss in the area where his erstwhile heart should have resided. Mid-stab, the alarm’s bird song permeated my brain and brought with it, the disappointing realisation that I was dreaming.
And that Boss-From-Hell was still alive.
I was going to be late again. For a Monday morning team catch-up call. And then the spawn-of-the-devil would, in his affectatious accent (born in Govandi, an accent of South Bombay), order me to wait back to lecture me about my ‘tardy apathy towards company-bound clock-in time.’ Mahi would invariably bombard me with his work, making me stay late, while he waddled off on time. Apparently, the man was ‘bride seeing’ and his mother had asked him to come home on time with samosas. The rate at which the man (every day) met prospective brides, either he was ultra-fussy or… But I paid the price each day by staying back late and finishing the charts and documents he was supposed to prepare. Shirker!
To distract myself from the panic attack that was one breath away, I gazed around the cramped compartment, and my eyes fell on an oft-seen advertisement. Its yellow peeling background, stark against the black grime of the metallic walls.
Don’t let your troubles trouble you. Seek the one who can vanish the troubles.
I’ll solve any problem for you within 10 minutes. Even if the problem lives in abroad.
All types of problems’ solutions I have. Problems like love marriage, love lost, girlfriend blockage on WhatsApp, Tight deadline, vashikaran, latecomer to office and life, childs problem, promotion in job, domestic controversy, repulsion, dream problems, son/daughter out of order, boss problems, every problem even Aadhar card stuck.
ALL PROBLEMS SOLUTION BENGALI BABA JI +91-55555555
YOU ARE baba VERY SAD IN YOUR LIFE SO DON’T WORRY. ALL PROBLEM SOLUION THROUGH THE POWER FULL ASTROLOGER. HE MAKING TRAOUBLE SORRY THEY COME IN YOR LIFE.
CaLl NOW. +91-55555555
These advertisements were a hoot. I stared at it with my eyes stuck on the ‘boss problems’ like an errant needle in a gramophone. Could I? Should I?
Good sense, like the train, juddered into my brain, wiping away the brief moment of weakness, and I sucked in a shaky breath. As I watched the slums roll past, I thought that maybe I’d be just a few minutes late.
I was not. I was a full twenty-three minutes late.
The red powder was running low as he took a spoonful out of the bottle. Must remember to mix more. He was sweating, and the smeared ash on his forehead formed meandering rivulets across his temples as they merrily traversed over scarred and pockmarked skin. He wrapped the powder in a newspaper sheet and, with an expert flourish, tied it all together. Once all the loose powder was safely secured, he turned on the fan to its highest setting. The limping fan cobbled around the dingy room, regurgitating dank air. It rustled the obviously fake images taped to the walls. In a mandatory one, Baba shook hands with Bill Gates, and in the other, he bowed in front of Queen Elizabeth. Smaller images of Baba with Shah Mukh Khan, Malman Khan, and Bhetan Chagat dotted the once-brown-now-unknown wall. But the tall, wiry man paid no heed, he wrote the details, in a spidery hand, on a pristine white envelope and called out.
“Bimanwa, take this to the post office. And don’t mess up like last time.”
A mousy teenager, with four strands of hair disguised as a moustache, scrambled to his feet and accepted the proffered envelope. “Ji, Bengaliji. The postman missed…”
Baba shooed him off and sat under the whimpering fan to cool off, his mouth blowing air upwards to dry the sweat. Trickery is a tiring business.
When I stepped into the crowded, thankfully chilly, meeting room, Mahi was speaking to the herd. Despite my best efforts to camouflage myself, he spotted me. His eyes, a precursor of what would follow, seared through me until I lowered mine. As soon as the meeting ended, and the on-time folks scuttled back to their vertical coffins aka cubicles, Mahi cleared his throat. “Arishta, can you please stay back?”
Bingo. Sucks to be right.
My boss for the past five years. Who stood at the podium, poring over a diary. Yeah, a black diary that held my transgressions close to its papery chest. His toned hands made a mark, and with a jut of his chin, he indicated a front-row seat. I shuffled towards it like a lamb led to the slaughter and sat while he towered over me. The problem in this position was that it left me staring at his executive-blue shirt straining itself… blue.
I realised I had missed what he said.
“… fifth time this month, and if you don’t start reporting on time, I’ll have to report you, plus dock your pay.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” I mumbled, half-rising to leave.
“Wait. What’s the status on the Damodar Porject?”
Biting my lip to prevent the inevitable smile. “The Damodar Project is one week ahead of schedule, Boob.” To spread ‘camaraderie’, Mahi made the team call each other by their surnames except for me. I was Arishta. Misplaced chivalry, perhaps?
“I hope you haven’t informed the client.”
“What will you do in the one-week bonus?”
Bonus? “If we continue, I’ll increase the testing time so the product is robust.”
“Keep me updated.” I nodded and rose. As I reached the exit, his voice stopped me. “Don’t get late.”
I sought refuge in my bright cubicle. Rainbow-coloured Post Its dotted my whiteboard, and my tiny succulents braved the AC chill. I waved hello to them while ignoring the morons around me and booted my computer, and in no time, I was lost in my haven of the digital world of ones and zeros.
When the phone rang, Baba thanked his lucky stars for finding the appropriate caller tune and ring tone for his business. He waited till the couplet was over before picking up the call. Maximum enjoyment.
“Hello. Baba Bengali, this side.”
“Hello, sir. Are you troubled in lives? Is the trouble sitting on your chest like a crocodile from hell? Then we have a solutions for you. We are calling from Baba Bengali’s shop, and we are here to offer you the best deal. Are you ready to have your life upturned?”
“Yes. We are here to upchuck your lives. Baba Bengali has many plans for finishing your enemies, getting your women back, and even vashikaran! Tell me…”
“I’m Baba Bengali speaking.”
“Very good, sir. So, is there any problems that you are facing?”
“I’m Baba Bengali speaking. You’re selling my solutions to me, idiots. Don’t you look at the names before calling?”
“The list said Bengali Baba, not Baba Bengali.”
Baba growled and missed the days when he could slam the receiver down. He clicked off the phone with no fanfare and muttered under his breath. “Idiots. Bunch of idiots. How difficult is it to sell hopes to the desperate?”
He took a deep breath and concentrated on the tasks ahead. There were three prospective clients he had to woo. To convince them of his Mr. Fix-It powers. One guy was figuratively sobbing on his shoulder because no one liked his Facebook posts, and he wanted Baba to miraculously make him popular. As if. A colour-blind social media influencer wanted to choose a bikini colour to flaunt on Instagram so she could be besharam. And last but not the least, Malit Lodi wanted Baba to drug the phoren judges who were to decide on his extradition.
Was he supposed to bamboozle the new clients or teach his telemarketers a few tricks?
For the next few days, I swam under the radar by reaching on time. Well, time and I had a love-hate relationship, but I was playing the dutiful girlfriend for now. The entire frigging week, Mahi emailed his work to me, and to compensate for the lost time, I had to stay back with the herd to finish my work and meet the target. Yesterday, work went on for so long that I caught the last local home, and this morning, my eyes were drooping. I was reminded of a Tom and Jerry episode, where Tom used toothpicks to pry his eyes open.
Where are the toothpicks when you need them?
I had to catch forty winks else I wouldn’t last, despite the 17 cups of shitty tea. The ladies’ loo was a tried-and-tested place to nap, so I pushed myself there and settled in a stall. The empty washroom lulled me into La-La Land when the main door was suddenly flung open and two women, talking loudly, entered.
“I didn’t believe in all this black magic voodoo shoodoo,” said one.
“Then? How did it happen?” inquired the second lady.
Sheesh. Where can one go for a few moments of shuteye in this office?
“Arrey, my husband was being so mean. He didn’t wake me up on time, nor did he make my morning tea. Imagine!”
“Haw! You had to make the tea all by yourself?”
“Ya! That’s when I knew I had to contact Baba Bengaliji. His churans are so effective, Malti.”
“What did you do?”
Not that Baba Bengali nonsense again!
“I mixed it in my husband’s tea for a week, and voila! Come Monday, he woke me up with a kiss and bed tea! I’m telling you, Malti, you need to contact Babaji. All your troubles will disappear.”
I need to disappear from this place.
After escaping from the bathroom, I decided to try my luck in the printer room. Since the management stopped the usage of the printer for personal reasons, the room was always empty. It was chilly, but I had my trusty stole with me. I could lean against the large machine and sleep my heart out. I could practically see the dreams circling my head.
The moment I entered the room, the printer swung into action and dribbled out fourteen pages. The last one was a photograph. Curious, I picked them to spot a young woman, and the rest were emails!
From Mahi’s very-personal account.
On scrutinizing them, I saw they were his prospective partner’s astrological charts. He had printed their union charts, and out of thirty-six points, Mahi and Sarla had scored 19 points. Just as I was about to get to the juicy parts, the door buzzed to let Mahi in. His expression turned thunderous upon spotting me with his printouts. Right behind him was another manager.
“Arishta, what are you doing here? And why are you using the printers? We aren’t supposed to use it for personal use.” Mahi frowned.
“They aren’t mine! I just entered…,” I spluttered.
He snatched the papers from my icy hands and turned towards the other man. “See, this girl. She is the employee I told you about. Taking printouts of janampatris! Despicable how they abuse the company’s money! Out of thirty days in a month, she is late 29 times! Doesn’t even stay back late. Come evening, she jolts out of her chair. How do I rate her, you tell me?”
How do you know when I leave, you five-pm-exiter? You rate me on my work, you moron!
I stormed out of the room while the door closed with an annoying soft click.
Drat. Epic dramatic- exit fail.
The itchy wig was askew. Baba looked into the mirror, which was part of Goddess Sita’s wedding gifts. Only one reflective spot mirrored his image. Baba pushed his index finger inside the damp hairpiece and adjusted it, then smiled at his reflection. He was happy to note the kohl and bhasm were in their right places and had the desired effect of mystery and menace, respectively, along with his skull-printed kaftan. He shook his head so the blonde curls could settle, then exited the bathroom.
“Namaste. What happened, Jitoo?” he asked the client.
“Babaji, I followed everything you did. I ate the red powder, and I chanted the mantras, but despite it, my abs are not coming. See!” Jitoo raised his holey, neon-green vest to show his dough-like stomach.
Baba nodded. “Did you eat the powder with milk?”
“And did you eat it at 8.41 PM every day?”
Jitoo, lowering his vest and his eyes, said. “Babaji, one day, I ate it at 8.53 PM. I was watching ‘Aap ki Adalat’ and Rajat Sharma’s comb-over was coming undone, so, I…”
“That’s the reason. If you don’t follow my advice, then how can I help you, Jitoo?”
“I’m sorry, Babaji.”
“Ask Bimanwa to give you one week’s powder and don’t forget this time. And pay in full, not half-half payments like last time.”
Baba shook his head as Jitoo exited the slit-in-the-wall office to collect his powder.
I’m not running a charity here. People expect to be cheated for free.
I could hardly wait for 6.00 PM. My BFF and I had tickets to the latest craze, Pashtun, that was rolling in the moolah. Last night, I begged the parlour lady to set my hair and thread my forehead and chin. At 5.45PM, as I zipped my bag to sneak out of the company, Mahi called me to his office.
“Arishta, the female I saw last Friday, has invited me to meet again. I’m getting goofy vibes from her. So, finish the Damodar reports and send it to me. Now,” he said.
“Boob, today it’s not possible. I’m leaving now.”
Giving me a baleful look, he said. “I cannot put my life on hold for a movie, Arishta. I need to submit it on time, so please finish the report.”
“It’s not optional. I expect the report to be on my desk. We know the recession is around the corner, and the assessments are due next month. Do you really want to do this now?”
“But I had taken permission to leave early…”
“Not my problem,” he said before switching off the lights in his room and exiting. Leaving me in darkness.
That night, on the train, I burned with disappointment and impotent rage. I could kill him. I loved my work as it was challenging and the company was decent, but Boob… screwed things up. Why couldn’t he choose someone else to harangue? I couldn’t keep working late like this every day, it was getting tiring.
At Kurla, when the compartment emptied, I plonked on a corner seat and rested my head against the wall. Instead of the dirty-but-cool metal, my head brushed against something sticky. I opened one eye to spot another of the Baba Bengali advertisements. My mind churned like an acidic stomach on vengeance, and anger added the fuel that burned the logic to ashes. I gazed at my reflection in the grimy window. I could see myself biting the corner of my maroon-coloured lips while my long nose crunched in disgust as my eyes narrowed, trying to remember.
… repulsion, dream problems, son/daughter out of order, boss problems…
“Ya! That’s when I knew I had to contact Baba Bengaliji. His churans are so effective, Malti…”
CaLl NOW. +91-55555555
Before I knew it, my fingers had dialled the number. The jarring caller tune startled me. It sounded like an annoyed cat, hissing the lines in a loop.
‘Ek goli lega to ek foot lamba.
Dus goli lega to electric ka khamba.’
What. The. Heck. Was. THAT?!
“Hello?” a hoarse voice answered.
My brain pleaded, ‘Hang up, Arishta. Please.’ “Hello?” I asked.
“How can hum help you?”
“Do you handle repulsions?”
Baba replaced the phone on charge and ran his hand over his bald pate. My heart is full of sympathy for the poor, sobbing girl with an evil boss. The world’s full of people trying to cheat other people.
He’d swoop into the girl’s life and help her deal with her manager. Not literally, because of his wig, he avoided any situations where wind could usurp it, but figuratively. Repulsion and attraction powders were his forte. Actually, the only two things he knew. Everything else was a variation. Muscles? Give attraction powder to make the person fall in love with themselves. Colour-blind? Same. Extradition? Loads of red-coloured vashikaran churan. What’s the example of repulsion? His fingers eked out a dandruff flake. It’ll come to me.
The next morning, he took extra care to mix the powder, ignoring the urge to even pee or scratch under the wig, until he was done. In the previous batch, a stray hair from his wig had fallen into the powder, and he couldn’t risk its quality dropping. As he carefully sealed the yellow powder into a Ziplock, he got a call. A man wanted attraction powder urgently!
He prepared the two envelopes in his spidery writing, and placed the red and yellow pouches on them.
“Bimanwa, seal the envelopes and post them,” he yelled, turning on the spindly fan as he rushed into the restroom, his bladder and tetchy head protesting.
The bleary-eyed, gangly youth stumbled into the room and picked up the envelopes that the fan had invariably dropped on the floor and stapled them after stuffing in their contents. His red eyes grazed over them as a hiccup assaulted him. Never going to drink bhaang again!
How the mighty have fallen, my brain taunted me as I sat at my desk. I re-read the instructions, even though I knew them by heart.
One teaspoon of the powder to be mixed into tea for five days will yield immediate relief. Remember to give the liquid at the same time each day.
I’d rather commit hara-kiri than drinking tea with Mahi for five days. I had to improvise. Think!
A while later, I knocked on Mahi’s door. “Can I come in, Boob?”
He grunted his response.
“CCD launched a new flavour, and I got one cup for you. It’s hazelnut coffee. What happened to the girl whom you met yesterday?”
Mahi accepted the coffee and greedily sipped. “Mind your business, Arishta. Don’t be pokey nosy.”
What?! “Sorry.” Mission accomplished.
When I reached my cubicle, I threw the empty pouch and instructions into the trash. Now we wait. I rubbed my hands in anticipation with glee.
It was an anti-climax of legendary stature.
Nothing happened. NOTHING. Happened.
Foolish, thinking Baba Bengali would help. You are a class-A moron, Arishta. Or class-Z. Whichever is lower.
The week ground itself to a Thursday with the first stirring of trouble for me. In the morning, Boob continued to single me out for his work and unnecessary meetings, and I kept lamenting the 2000 RS I had paid. I could have had 200 kala-khatta sodas or brought 100 books from the roadside stall.
In the afternoon, Boob called me into his office. “Arishta, we need to go over something,” he said as he flicked his gelled hair back.
Gel? From when?
He rose from his desk, pulled up a chair next to mine so our knees touched, and turned his laptop toward us. He was breathing irregularly and appeared flushed.
“Are you okay, Boob?”
“Yes, why are you worried for my health?”
“Arishta, go over my charts.” His eyebrows wiggled.
“My charts.” He pointed at the laptop. “The Damodar charts.”
Mid-discussion, he sputtered. “I can solve your problem of being late.”
“I can pick you up from Chembur.”
“I stay at Nerul.”
“Haan, what’s in a name? That way you won’t be late, and I’ll be able to… mentor you.”
“I prefer the train, thanks.”
“Don’t say no so fast. Think about it.”
I returned to my cubicle, laughing in my head at the weird conversation. That evening, while he left, Mahi stopped at my desk and waved goodbye personally to me. He freaking tata-ed me. Gross.
When Monday kicked its way in, and the creep-o-meter hit 56%; I had no idea about the week dragged in the annals of hell. I found a heart-shaped box with (partly chewed, ugh) heart-shaped chocolates and an irregularly-cut heart-shaped note tacked onto it.
‘Good Food Makes the Heart Growth Fonder but I’m Hungry for More-URSMKB.’
URSMKB? Who sends half-eaten chocolates?
I didn’t have the heart–or the stomach for it, so trashed it.When I got back from lunch, the heart-shaped box–now empty–was back on my desk. The note covered with mini hearts.
On Tuesday, the creep-o-meter climbed another 10%, landing firmly on 66%, with a juvenile and oh-so-original attempt at a poem. I wished I could’ve rubbed bleach in my eyes. Or gotten a lobotomy.
Your love is like a thin wafer,
Crispy and salty,
Once I start eating,
I cannot eat just one,
With all your love, URSMKB.
URSMKB? With my love?
Wednesday took the creep-o-meter out and bludgeoned its head, bring it to a neat 84% with a seppuku-inducing love Haiku:
When I look at you,
Poochkoo, I’m left with seven words,
Mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm.
I hope you like it. URSMKB.
It’s not even a Haiku.
The creep-o-meter touched 96% on Thursday. Pinned to my board were stapled sheets of paper. My matrimonial horoscope matched with URSMKB. Sixteen pages of TMI about our personal compatibility, our sexual compatibility (a purple pen underlining important points), along with the number of children I’d pop out (chances of three). We had scored a high score 34/36 points, highlighted in pink pen with flowers.
Better than Sarla, I sniggered until the penny dropped.
The boy’s information matched… Mahi.
Boob was URSMKB! ‘Yours, Mahi K. Boob.’
Ugh. UGh. UGH.
My head fell into my hands, and when I raised it, Boob waved at me from his office making a heart with his stubby fingers and contorting his face.
Oh, Lord, what’s happening?
Friday puked on itself and the intangible creep-o-meter crossing 100%, when my eyes fell on a (whadya expect) heart-shaped photo frame. The stock photograph of a family had my and Boob’s faces pasted on the man and the woman who held their children on their laps.
It was the last straw. I frog-paddled to Boob’s office, where he was on the phone with a client while doodling Mr. and Mrs. Boob on a legal pad. Nothing punctures a righteous rage than waiting for the rage-ee (him) to be free so the rage-er (me) could explode on them. When he finally finished his call, I burst out. “Stop it, Boob!”
Boob hung his head. “For some reason, Mahi cannot stop thinking of you. He knows it’s wrong, but Arishta, Mahi has fallen for you. Mahi thinks you are it.” He looked up and by God, I could see stars in his eyes as he stared at me.
Good God in Heaven, why is he talking in the third-person? What has Baba done?
Baba smiled at the nervous man sitting in front of him. “There’s no need to be nervous, Dheeraj. I’ve prepared the red powder with the correct intentions. You don’t–yet–love your wife, but you want to. We call this a self-vashikaran. Well, we would if we it wasn’t so… uncommon. Go on, drink the tea; the powder has no taste.”
Dheeraj made a move towards the cup when the door flung open and the breeze it brought into the room competed and won hands down against the anaemic fan. It unsettled the wig resting on Baba’s head.
“You! You! What have you done?” yelled a woman, whose voice sounded strangely familiar. Her silky, no-split-end hair framed her oval face, and even though her eyes spit fire, they were beautiful. She wielded one of his torn advertisements and dragged a handome man, who stared at her, a lovelorn expression rendering him dumb.
Dheeraj was stunned into inactivity as his mouth drooped. Meanwhile, Bimanwa, quiet as a church mouse, slipped his feet into his Hawai chappals and descended down the stairs, thinking I quit. You cannot fire a quitted person.
“What happened, madam?” asked Baba. He had a vague idea about what was unfurling.
“What happened? I asked for a repulsion spell for my boss. And what did you do? YOU made him FALL for me! He sends me heart-shaped candies…”
“Heart-shaped chocolates not candies, darling,” interrupted Boob, grinning.
Arishta glared at him. “Heart-shaped chocolates and janampatris…”
“We scored 34/36, To-Be-Mrs Boob,” said Boob, his grin intact.
“Shuddup!” Arishta glared at her boss. “Now he is like this… this… Romeo thingy! What have you done?”
Baba’s curls stuck to his face as he sweated, clearly nervous. “My powders have never failed me. My yellow repulsion powders are legendary.”
“Yellow? It was red and not yellow!” cried Arishta.
Realisation pushed him to shut his peepers. Baba’s fidgety hands curled around the conveniently placed cup, and after gulping the tea down in one smooth motion, he whispered. “Bimanwa. Stupid, stupid Bimanwa.”
“That was my love tea,” cried Dheeraj.
“Should we go home now, dear Arishta Boob?” asked Boob.
At the sound of his voice, Baba’s eyes flew open and fixated on Boob. “Boob? Now that’s a name I’ve never heard before. Strangely, I like it…I like it very much.”
Dheeraj and Arishta stared at each other in horror. Baba stared at Boob, who stared at Arishta.
The man mixed the yellow powder into the chicken and handed the bowl to his current-girlfriend-prospective-wife’s finicky Pomeranian. Today is the last of the five days. Now Sona’s dog will love me as per Baba Bengali, and she will love me forever with her dog’s blessings. Its blessings were all that we waited for.
He bent to stroke Tommy, who after finishing his meal, calmly sunk his canines into the man’s arm, barking and biting alternatively.
What the hell? Why is he biting me? thought the man.
Biting this man is strangely so satisfying, I cannot figure it out. But I am loving eet, Tommy growled, moving to tear off another chunk.
First Published on Penmancy.