Tapan banged the door open unceremoniously and entered the room. The bearer sitting on a stool by the door could not even begin to stop him. The general manager looked up, his face ominous. But Tapan did not seem to care. Instead, he pulled up a chair, rested one foot on it, and said,
"Well, letís have it straight. What do you have to tell me?"
The general manager scowled at him.
"I have nothing to say to you. Youíve already received my letter."
Tapan pulled the typed letter out of his pocket, crumpled it into a ball, and threw it at the general managerís face, aiming for the nose. The letter missed its target by a few inches, and zoomed past the manís ear. The general manager stared at Tapan in utter amazement.
"What is this? What the hell do you think you are doing?"
"Donít you realise what I am doing? You think all youíve got to do is to write any kind of letter you please, and send it on to people. Well, youíve got a few things to learn."
"Tapanbabu, listen, every office has to have some discipline. You canít barge into my room like this without letting me know beforehand."
"You bastard, do you think this office is your personal empire? Youíre just as much a servant as I am. So who do you think youíre kidding by pulling rank on me?"
This time the general manager rang the bell ó r-r-ring. Tapan immediately moved around to the managerís side of the desk.
"You trying to scare me? I couldnít care less, you know. Go ahead and call your flunkey in. I spit on this job of yours anyway."
"Please leave my room," said the general manager, "I am busy."
"Oh Iíll leave all right. You donít have to worry about seeing my face again. Today, Iíll get out of here and take a dip in the Ganges before returning home. All this time that I have been in this disgusting job ó I felt like I was immersed in filth. Black-market deals andÖ"
The manager could no longer control his temper. "Will you get out of this room or not?" he exploded furiously. "At once!"
Tapan picked up a heavy paperweight from the desktop and stood over the manager, a menacing figure with angry, bloodshot eyes. "Silence!" he commanded. "I donít need this display of temper. Do you realise I can beat you to a pulp?"
No, not like this. He could not do it this way.
"Where do you want to go, sir?" said Ramchand.
"I wish to see the general manager," answered Tapan with dignity.
Ramchand was about to say something more, but Tapan brushed him aside, and walked into the bossí room.
The general manager looked up once, saw Tapan, and went back to his work.
"Yes?" he said.
"Sir, Iíve received your letter."
"Well, go on, say whatever you have to say. But just remember, ultimately you will have to send in a written answer. There are serious charges against you."
Tapan had never before had the courage to look this man in the eye, much less talk to him. But today he felt no fear. In a dispassionate voice he said, "Sir, my answer is a short one. I wonít provide you with any explanations. I just want to leave this job."
The general manager was not the kind of man who was surprised easily. But even he was taken aback at this. It was as if a small mouse had come to attack a cat.
"You want to quit? Well, well. May I ask if you have received another offer somewhere?"
"Iím just going to leave. Thatís all."
"Indeed! I must say you have a 1ot of courage."
"Itís not a question of courage, sir. Just a matter of conscience. Itís true that I needed this job to survive. But every month, when I receive my pay cheque, I feel nauseous."
"Er, Tapanbabu, I am rather busy now."
"Never mind how busy you are. You just have to listen to me. Iíve spent months, thinking about quitting this job. And now that I have taken this decision, I feel incredibly happy. Before I could decide, I used to feel miserable and depressed. I never felt like coming in to work. After all, what sort of an office is this? Everything you do here is dishonest. You keep two sets of books, and cheat the government of millions of rupees. In fact, you are doing the greatest possible harm to your own country."
"Tapanbabu, do you have to make these speeches here?"
"Donít interrupt. I mean to have my say. Do you remember how you arranged for all the baby food in the market to disappear for two weeks, just so the price could be jacked up?"
"It wasnít like that at all. It was a far more complicated affairÖ"
"Oh, I know all about it. Just let me ask you to consider one little thing. You are also an employee here, same as I am. How much do you get ó two thousand, maybe two and a half? And just for that, you are willing to serve the interests of your corrupt bosses, and hurt your country in the process? When thousands of infants have to be deprived of foodÖ"
At this point the general manager rang his bell. R-r-ring. Tapan felt his whole body becoming taut, aware, and alive. This was one day when he was not going to suffer any insult or humiliation. Ramchand came into the room and stood waiting for orders. The manager looked at Tapan once, and transferred his eyes to Ramchandís face. Then he said in an irritated voice, "Go, and get me a glass of water."
Once Ramchand was out of the room, the general manager said, "You will receive your discharge order tomorrow. You can come in next week, and get your dues from the cashier. But now I think you should leave."
"No, I have a few more things to say."
"Maybe. But I donít have the time to listen. You donít want me to call in the bearer and have you thrown out of here, do you? Donít force me to do that. As it is, youíve made enough of a nuisance of yourself."
"Donít talk to me like that. I am not one of your slaves."
The scene is very different this time.
Tapan had been hovering for some time in front of the general managerís room. Ramchand sat dozing on his stool, a wad of chewing tobacco thrust into his mouth. Tapan crept up to him a couple of times, and then retreated. Finally he came close to the bearer, and called him very softly, "RamchandÖ"
Without even bothering to open his eyes, Ramchand said, "You canít see him now."
"Never mind," said Tapan. "I have some good news for you. Your liveries allowance has been sanctioned."
"It has?" said Ramchand, opening his eyes.
"Yes. You are to receive fifty-four rupees every year to buy your khaki jacket, a belt with brass fasteners, and a pair of shoes."
Some more time was spent discussing these important matters with Ramchand. Then Tapan gave him a meaningful look and asked,
"Is the boss in?"
"Yes, but heís very busy now. He is not to be disturbed"
"Oh come now, Ramchand. You know Iíll only take a couple of minutes to speak to him."
But those couple of minutes Tapan had to spend just standing silently. The boss was engrossed in reading a file. He did not seem to be aware of Tapanís presence at all.
Tapan shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and waited silently for a few more minutes. Then he ventured to speak in a very low voice.
"Why do you keep standing there? Sit down, and let me finish what I am doing."
The general manager was asking, him to sit down ó to Tapan this in itself was an indication of good fortune. He sat down carefully, and fastened his eyes on his glass desktop. Roving eyes could be taken as a sign of instability.
But just as he had settled down to wait, the manager relit his cigar, exhaled a cloud of smoke, and said,
"Right, now you can tell me what you want."
Tapan continued to stare at the desktop a little longer. Then he raised his face, bent forward, and said,
"Sir, if you donít forgive me this timeÖ"
"What on earth are you talking about? Forgive you for what?"
"Sir, I received that letter day before yesterday."
"Oh yes, I remember now. A show-cause letter was sent to you. Why havenít you sent in an answer? You were supposed to do so within forty-eight hours."
"But thatís precisely why I have come to see you sir. To ask your advice about what to write."
"Thereís no room for advice here. This time thereís absolutely no way you can keep your job. I have done a lot for you. But if you will persist in making mistakes in your work, misplacing important documents, and whatís worse, just disappearing for one or two weeks at a time without notice ó well, how much can the company tolerate?"
"Sir, I was sick sir. Thatís why I couldnít come to work."
"If you are going to be sick eight or ten days of the month, then all I can say is that perhaps you should quit this job and get a thorough medical checkup."
"But how am I to live, if I quit my job? I have a large family to take care of, my father has retired."
"Well, how do you expect to live without doing your share of work? You think you can have this job as a sinecure? Look at all the unemployed young men frantically looking for jobs. If I could give one of them a fair chance ó no, Tapanbabu, you canít stay on here any longer. Try looking elsewhere."
"Please sir, please consider my situation, just this once sir. If I lose my job now, all of us will simply starve to death. I got married only a year ago."
"Young man, if you got married, then that should have been all the more reason for you to work hard. Instead, you have been having a year-long honeymoon, and you expect the company to provide for you! Thatís just not possible."
"Sir, my wife is sick."
"You are a hopeless liar. Why, it was only last month that I saw you with your wife, in front of the Metro cinema. You even introduced me to her. Sheís a fine, healthy woman. And now you tell me sheís sick."
"Sir, her illness is not something you can see from the outside."
"I understand. I can see why even your union leader admits you are an absolutely worthless worker."
"But of course theyíll say that. Itís because I never go to any of their meetings."
"Never mind that. Whether you go or not is no concern of mine. But I am sorry, Tapanbabu, I canít help you. I have taken a final decision. Your discharge letter has already been typed."
Tapan stood up trembling. His face was pale, bloodless.
Suddenly he came round to the other side of the table, and clasped the managerís hands.
"Sir, I beg of you, donít destroy me! Just give me another chance."
"Good God man, what are you doing? Donít carry on like this, please. After all, I am also an employee here. The company pays me to look after its interests."
"Sir, everybody knows how good you are. Please donít ruin me like this. The way things are now I shall never find another job. The only thing left for all of us to do will be to starve. Only let me have another chance, sir. Just once more."
"What if I do give you a chance? Will you mend your ways?"
"Just try me, sir. Iíll never make another mistake, never."
"Is that a promise?"
"Sir, I solemnly swear to you, if ever again IÖ"
"Look, I donít particularly enjoy firing people, you know. But a company cannot function on the basis of charity and kindness. All right, let me have that show-cause letter."
Tapan took it out of his pocket, and gave it to the general manager who briskly wrote something on it with a red pencil. As he watched, and read, Tapanís whole face was lighted up with relief and joy. His voice was heavy with emotion, as he said,
"Sir, I really donít know how to thank you."
"Never mind your thanks. Just go and try to do your job well from now on."
Even as Tapan walked out of the room, he could feel his whole body trembling violently. As if he had literally escaped from the jaws of death.
An excess of excitement urges many people to the toilet. Tapan too felt the same need. He walked towards the menís room with long, hasty strides. And all the way he felt compelled to spit repeatedly. As if there was an unending store of saliva welling up inside his mouth. And however much he spat; he still could not feel he had got rid of it.
There was a fairly large mirror in the bathroom. It was cracked down the middle, but no one had bothered to replace it. Tapan contemplated the cracked image of his own face in that mirror for a long time. Finally, he exploded the whole mouthful of spittle all over that face.
An Akademi Award-winner, Sunil Gangopadhyay is a writer and poet in Bengali and has been a powerful influence on its literature for several decades