Dr Hippu Salk Kristle Nathan is an engineer-turned development researcher with an M Tech from IIT, Delhi and PhD from IGIDR, Mumbai. Currently, as a Post Doctoral Associate at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bnagalore, he does research and activism on the frontiers of disarmament, energy, and human development. He writes short fiction in both Odia and English. He has scripted and staged plays on issues of casteism, dowry and child labor. His short story Beyond the Rainbow is published in an Anthology titled “Only Men Please” – by Unisun. Nathan’s flash fiction The Thief has received an honorary mention in the ‘100 Words or Fewer Writing Contest-Five’. Moreover, his short story A Door without a Handle is a winner in ‘Piper Short Story Writing Competition Chapter 2’. He is currently working on his first collection of Oriya short stories, which is expected to be out by the end of this year.
“Ninbabu, I have kept some hot water in the iron bucket,” Sakaladevi yelled as the bathroom door screeched shut and Ninibabu fastened it from inside.
Undressing, Ninibabu wanted to scream out that he never needed warm water, not even in the coldest January dawns. So the need for such luxury on a late March morning was unnecessary. This had become quite a ritual nowadays at home. Each time Ninibabu would gear up for an interview, his mother would help him in her own little ways, flitting around him with motherly concerns.
Neatly parting his rather frizzy hair, Ninibabu patted a few extra drops of til oil to make it cow down to the commands of the comb. His eyes fell to the gaping lower shelf in his room. There lay a tumble of his clothes. Slowly, he stretched his hands till his armpits hurt, as his fingers groped for a white shirt that Sakaladevi had neatly folded and stacked under his heavy accountancy tomes to iron out the creases.
Slipping into it, Ninibabu checked himself all over again, positioning the postcard size mirror in different levels and angles. The shirt looked good enough, albeit slightly frayed at the collars exposing the inner band, but who would notice its insides?
He clambered on to the bus stop through the dusty village mounds, now and then flicking away imaginary pieces of dust from the shirt. The heat made sweat beads trickle down his back, their wetness wiping out the fold marks and making him nervous. He knew that whatever cares he took, his dull attire would pale into insignificance in comparison to the blue suits and pinstriped trousers of urban folks.
These days, particularly since he had started appearing for job interviews, Ninibabu had been feeling incomplete about something or other. In all his twenty eight years of life, he had never cared for clothing, two modest outfits being more than enough. Yet, appearing for interviews had left his confidence and guts shaken. Many a times, he had braved disgraceful looks and stifled smiles of fellow mates who evaluated his poverty with their eyes.
Ninibabu stepped up to the graveled road which led to the bus stop. This cemented road was a gift of the MGNREGA project to the village, where he had also worked for a month during last year’s summer vacation. He always derived pride from walking on it. He did not have to worry about mud or mound to protect his attire anymore. There were agricultural fields skirting the road on both sides. A crane propelled on a grazing buffalo was pecking at the dung sticking under its tail. Ninibabu pondered, “Did the beasts and birds, naked in all their glory, need clothes to ascertain their existence? Did the Paleolithic man need garments to conquer his fellow beings? Why then did man invent clothes as a need? A fundamental need, even. Didn’t his search end on food, shelter, and sex?!”
Ninibabu further reasoned, “Clothes have already played their mischief in dividing the society. It is perhaps the first form of inequality that crept onto humanity. The society is now under the diktat of cocktail tuxedos and evening gowns. Interview outcomes so often rest on layered jackets and bejeweled kamezees. Could I shun the dress code and leap forward to a world without clothes? The no-dress world of the first humans, who had the natural ability to protect from weathers in all seasons. Indeed, in their attempts to conquer nature, humans have always weakened themselves. A world without clothing would be a different world; it would be more equal, if nothing else!”
“Hold on,” Ninibabu interrupted himself. “Maybe, at this hour, I need to tame my mind.” He mentally organized his answers to likely questions for the interview. They could ask him about anything. What did he think about the recent budget? What would he suggest to combat price rise? Did he hold an opinion on black money?
The watch read five-past-eleven when Ninibabu reached the bus stop. A definite twenty- five minutes wait. He inspected his appearance once more. His shoes were polished. There were a few mud spots at his trouser ends, though not bright enough to contrast significantly against his indigo trousers.
Suddenly there was a gust of fresh cold air and the sun disappeared behind the dirty clouds. Rain was the last thing Ninibabu needed. Without losing a moment, he pushed through the waiting villagers and took up a strategic spot under the tin roof, which was definitely inadequate to give shelter to thirty odd waiting people. Ninibabu actually felt better when it started raining. He was happy that the rain could not touch him, neither his white shirt. He congratulated himself for having the foresight to secure himself amidst the crowd who stood around him like an iron-armour, protecting him from the slush and splashes.
But was this not unusual of him, Ninibabu thought to himself. He had never used his fellow villagers as a shield to protect himself. He was rather known for being brave and jumping forward to take up trouble in the interest of the entire village. Two years ago, during a flood, Ninibabu—the fatherless and fearless child—led the villagers to create a human barricade to prevent the bridge falling. Now, forced to take shelter from a little rain amidst carefree village folk, he felt pity for his situation, on behaving like a coward just to protect his outward appearance.
The rain receded and the bus rolled in. There was a lot of hustle-bustle. Ninibabu was trying to keep away from the crowd as well as succeed in climbing the bus. “Certainly pigs would fly the day my village gets proper roads and adequate buses.” Ninibabu always felt that a recent glue commercial featuring an overcrowded tram he had seen on TV must have been shot in a village like his.
There was more misfortune to follow. As Ninibabu was crossing the edge of the shed, a thick blob of water browned by the rusted tin sheet fell on his shirt, catching him unaware. He tried to evade it but it was too late. His attire was stained. “Should I just turn around and run back?” He thought in panic. But before he could do anything, the heaving crowd behind closed in, pushing him aboard the bus.
In the bus, Ninibabu stood thoughtless for several moments. The bus was swaying and so were the people, squeezing him from all sides. Now there was no need to save his shirt. It was spoiled for life. “I will never get through the interview today.” Ninibabu imagined the caustic body language of pink faced, well-dressed interviewers. He imagined their laughter at his rustic attire and unpolished accent.
Alighting from the bus, Ninibabu mustered courage and looked at the damage done by the rain. A brown map-like impression was splashed just below the left chest pocket. He tried scrubbing it with his handkerchief but it made matters worse. Frustrated and worn with emotions, he thought it wiser to spend time strolling in the local market, giving a miss to the interview before alighting the evening bus and returning to the village.
“But what would I say to my mother?” She would certainly be shocked. She would curse all her gods and goddesses. Ninibabu had been increasingly realizing that perhaps God had not created man, but the reverse. “Had I had half of God’s resources, I would have created a much more equitable world.”
Ninibabu was about to make a U-turn when the voice of his high school headmaster rumbled in his ears. Dharanidhar Sir had once told him never to leave a task undone for extraneous reasons. All his life, he had heard these rumblings whenever he had faced any roadblocks and had the strong desire to flee. He clutched his pen tight and abandoned the idea of running away.
It was a sun-filled day. Yet the insurance office looked dull and antiquated. A middle-aged man sat guarding the office. “He must have noticed my shirt with the tanned mark from a distance.” Ninibabu unsuccessfully tried to pull his shirt loose to hide the spot. His shirt looked crumpled from all sides and the shoes had lost their sheen. Many had stepped on him in the bus. His hair however remained plastered to his face– thanks to the extra drops of his locally made til oil.
To avoid further humiliation of not being allowed to enter, Ninibabu put up a brave front and held out the call letter to the gate keeper. The guard let him in, unconvinced, looking distastefully at his garb.
Ninibabu climbed the first flight of steps and walked down the aisle leading to the company floor. Everybody in the lounge, including the receptionist, looked at him in unison. He was led to sit on a corner of the settee. From his seat, Ninibabu was able to clearly see the interview panel through the glass partition. In the center sat a man, at least three times his size, who must have been the interview chair person. His half-bald pate reflected the ceiling light fixtures. He had a round face intercepted by a pair of gold rimmed spectacles. His attire was silvery- white and pristine.
Ninibabu was filled with self-doubt. “Would I survive? Not likely. I, my friends, my village can never stand up to this urban crowd. Even the housekeeping staff and security guards of this office are better-attired than I am. And here I am applying for the position of Assistant Accountant!”
Ninibabu’s name was fourth. It would take about an hour for his turn to come. The interview cabin appeared to him like an abattoir. Yet, he looked relaxed. “A declared defeated person is never under pressure,” he thought. He looked around. The lounge looked spacious and there was a pretty redhead sitting at the reception desk. There was a canteen and a toilet adjacent to the waiting area. A boy from the canteen had already offered him coffee which he had refused out of nervousness. He looked at his fellow candidates. They came in all shapes and sizes. They all looked somber; they had all come to win a job, a career, a life.
Ninibabu felt his stomach give a somersault. All his energies betrayed him. He had flashbacks of his mother struggling to make ends meet, his studying under kerosene lamps, long tiresome walks to school, wading through the canal to reach college.
“What, for all this?” Ninibabu murmured. “All this for being the butt of humiliation by the priviledged, for no fault of mine? This is not fair. The world does not look for struggle, not for knowledge. This world is a servant of sophistication. Will I succumb for all time to come or stand up straight?” A wild idea struck him.
Without wasting a second Ninibabu marched to the canteen. He motioned to a youngish looking canteen boy.
“Would you do me a favour?”
He closed on him whispering, “Would you be kind enough to spill some coffee on the clothes of the fat man sitting in the centre of the interview board?”
The boy looked aghast. “Are you crazy? Why are you after my job?”
“I am not here to harm you in anyway. I am not for your job. I am here for the position in the accountancy department,” Ninibabu replied gravely. He added, “I understand there is a risk, but every risk comes with a value. I can pay you for taking the risk.”
“How much?” The boy looked interested.
Ninibabu had five hundred rupees in his trouser pocket. He knew that this was the total amount his mother had saved for the entire month. She had given the money, so that on his return he could of the debt at the grocery shop and get dal and rice for the month.
“Five….five hundred rupees.” Ninibabu stammered. Not waiting for a reply he jabbed the amount into the boy’s half-clenched palm.
The boy nodded discreetly and Ninibabu returned back to his seat. Within five minutes the boy entered the interview room for cleaning away used tea cups. Suddenly there was a sound of cups breaking, and a voice yelled.
“You idiot….get out! See what you have done, fetch me some tissue papers, quick.” The boy rushed out, walking hastily past the waiting area.
It was then that Ninibabu heard his name being announced. From where he was, the nice stain marks the coffee had left on the Chairman’s shirt were quite noticeable. He pushed open the door. The interview panel including the Chairperson smiled at him. He returned their smile, probably for the very first time. Yes, for the first time he had smiled back in any interview. Why shouldn’t he? After all, he was finally on an equal footing with his job-givers.
It was not important what happened at the interview. It was not an interview—the way Ninibabu perceive it, it was more of an interaction between equals. The interaction could not have gone better. Ninibabu realized that confidence is the prelude to progress. After the interview, Ninibabu had to walk a good twenty miles back home on an empty stomach as he had hardly a penny left, but he was full of energy, full of spirit and triumph. As he retuned to his village that evening, his mother was relieved to see him safe and sound. On the twelfth day from the interview, he received a registered post containing his appointment letter.