There was something odd, very odd, about Mr. R.K. Bansal, deputy editor. I knew it as soon as I joined Realty Realities magazine as the editor-in-chief. You should know that the publication has been around for several years, but its readership has so far been limited to mall developers and property dealers. I was hired to revamp the magazine and to make it palatable to the general house-buying population as well. A task I knew I’d accomplish better than anyone else could. I’d inherited a small staff of about fifteen people. We all worked in a large apartment in a leafy residential neighbourhood in Delhi. While we did have separate cubicles, the space fostered intimacy, wanted or not.
I first encountered Mr. Bansal in the elevator. He was about forty-five years old, reedy, and a good six inches taller than my 5’7″. While his expression reflected the mournful disapproval often glimpsed on the faces of certain dachshunds, there was nothing malignant about his demeanour, no deranged gleam in his eye. Yes, his head was rather too small for his body and his feet rather too wide, but his moustache was well groomed, his full head of hair neatly combed, and his clothes clean and ironed.
It was his canvas bag that threw his carefully assembled attire into disarray. Samsonite briefcases, leather holdalls, even knapsacks in suitably muted colours are the typical possessions of an average officegoer. I myself strongly encourage their use, since people who stumble around carrying stacks of paper look unprofessional and bring down the credibility of an organization. But this man was holding what looked like a colour-blind preschooler’s misadventure with a massive shopping bag. It was fluorescent pink with tiny prints of Donald Duck and the creature’s other anatine associates arranged in several large circles.
A few sequins in various shades of garish clung to the cloth; grey-white glue spots memorialized others that had fallen. The words “Quack Attack” were scrawled in oversized calligraphy across the threadbare cloth in some kind of purple glitter. The zipper of this tawdry tote was broken, and its loose-lipped mouth hung open to reveal a tiffin carrier, cardboard files, sheets of paper, and a number of uncapped pens. And three or four freshly uprooted money plants, still smelling faintly of the earth.
Fearing some sort of ocular ailment, I rubbed my eyes and glanced sideways to confirm what I had seen, but we’d reached the twelfth floor by then. I shrugged and hurried to the office, already a few minutes late for my meeting with Mr. Batra, the boss.
The receptionist ushered me in at once. Mr. Batra, a small man who had made his fortune building low-cost housing and who fancied himself to be something of a visionary, stood up and shook my hand, “Good to see you, good to see you, sit down.” I obeyed.
“Well Ms. Kamat,” he smiled, “As you know, you have a very small editorial team. Just you, the deputy editor and our special correspondent.” I felt a twinge of irritation. In my informed opinion, the old editorial staff should have been fired long ago. I doubted if they were even fully familiar with the English alphabet. I’d said as much to Mr. Batra, but he’d simply made a few non-committal sounds. But patience is one of my many virtues, and I knew I’d find a way to raise the standards of the place eventually. Mr. Batra was looking anxiously at me; he wasn’t completely obtuse after all.
“I’d really like to meet the team, ” I said politely. Satisfied, Batra continued. “I will introduce the deputy editor to you in a moment. He has been with us ever since we started. He is the blue-eyed boy, I tell you. Great nose for news. Indispensable. Tea, coffee, something cold?” Indispensable. We’d see about that.
Batra leaned forward, clearly poised to make one of his speeches. For all his money and influence, the man was about as articulate as a chattering stump-tailed macaque.
“We may be small now, but we’re filling an important, no, a crucial, niche in the market. Do you know there are two hundred, two hundred, malls slated to come up in the NCR?”
“Yes,” I said. “The sector is experiencing quite a boom, yes.”
Batra looked pleased. “It is booming. It is booming and it is blasting. The retail sector is also blasting. Bombastic is the word. People will want to read…”
The receptionist buzzed his desk.
“Yes, yes, send him in.”
He nodded at me. “Mr. Bansal is here.”
“Excellent,” I said.
The receptionist opened the door and ushered in the man, who of course, was none other than the gardening aficionado from the elevator. Without that gaudy bag clutched obscenely to his side, however, he seemed normal and pleasant enough.
“Good morning,” he said with a slightly sad smile.
I shook his hand. As the Americans like to say, hindsight is 20/20.
The first two weeks passed in a whirl. I worked overtime putting style sheets in order, delegating stories to the freelancers of my choice, clearing cheques, and figuring out the budget for the year. Mr. Bansal, who to my relief never once asked me to call him Rakesh, was quite an easy colleague to work with, although I’d need to look at his raw copy to assess whether he was worth keeping around. Of course, I kept my distance.
Then he started talking. Not often, mind you, never while working. But sometimes he’d come in for a chat, and then I’d feel plenty of pain. He had a circuitous, soporific way of speaking. A stream-of-consciousness gush of banality that was almost pornographic in its proportions.
“Sorry I am late Ms Kamat. As you know I have a car and a two-wheeler, both in good condition, but I took the bus to submit papers to my brother-in-law. I advise him on financial matters actually. After I did yoga and had finished breakfast at seven, er, no, seven thirty, wife said, ‘Take the car,’ but I said I am in the mood for a bus, so I took the 680. No no, it was the 620 I think…”
And so on. Such exchanges became an almost daily occurrence, and while I did my utmost to maintain a cordial manner, I could not prevent the odd sob of frustration from escaping. My teeth started losing enamel, I’d gnash them so hard. He didn’t seem to notice.
Then his copy started flowing in. I was horrified. It was as if he’d transcribed his own meandering thought processes word to word. By the time I was through his feature on the future of home loans, my red pen was completely drained of ink. I called him in. “Mr. Batra, I’m afraid that this is not acceptable” He shuffled on his feet. “May I take a seat?” He slid in and spoke up softly. “Please let me know the nature of the problem. I have always produced high-quality text. I have worked here for seven years and always the editor is saying, ‘Rakesh, you are the one who makes this magazine’.”
Which is probably why I had to be called in to salvage the rag from the scrap heap. Of course, I didn’t say that. The only way to communicate effectively with employees is to focus on specifics.
“Mr. Bansal, there has been very little quality control in this magazine until now. We cannot have phrases like…” I jabbed my pen randomly on one of my markings on the page, “we cannot have language like this: ‘Finance matters expert Sudhakar Rao offers a parting wisdom capsule to our dear readers about home loans in the coming years. He says, take loans without fears’.” I paused. “What is that supposed to mean?”
He remained sitting there, impassive, and there wasn’t much else I could say. “Please go through my corrections and see how you can improve.” He took the paper. “I’m a senior journalist. No one has had a problem,” he said tremulously. I’m sure you’re a good journalist Mr. Bansal, but you also need to be a good writer. He didn’t take my advice. I had to rework every single sentence that man wrote. I had to undo all his terrible editing of clean, good pieces from freelancers. It was gruelling. I had to do something about this intolerable situation.
As soon we wrapped up the issue, I took the problem to Mr. Batra, but to my astonishment, he admonished me. “Look Ms. Kamat, you’re doing a great job but Rakesh has been with us since the beginning. The entire team looks up to him and I also admire him greatly. These are small mistakes, and it is your duty to fix them in a cooperative way. Rakesh gets the scoop and if you do not have the time to clear up the nitty gritties, we will get in a freelance proofreader. You have taken a long hiatus, so you are perhaps no longer familiar with the duties of an editor.” How dare he. Stump-tailed macaque, I thought bitterly. I forced myself to listen to him. “I will confide something to you. Rakesh thinks you have some sort of a grudge against him, but he never said a bad thing about you. Please follow his example when it comes to teamwork.” I left the office, furious. How could I get Batra to see that his beloved Rakesh was a terrible journalist and that there was something unbalanced about him? I had had my own share of problems, but they were behind me now. I’d have to make a strong case against Bansal, so Batra would have nothing to argue about.
I got my chance when Mr. Bansal came to me with a gift before Diwali week. I had been signing invoices when I looked up to see his head peering over my cubicle.
“Is there something I can do for you?” I said in my most wintry tones.
“I have a small item for you as Diwali gift,” he said in his quivery voice.
I sighed. “That’s very kind.”
“No no, it is nothing. But I have prepared it myself.”
Before I could dissuade him, his head disappeared and he shuffled into my cubicle.
“I have prepared a money plant for you.”
In his hand was a dusty bottle with a small, broad-leafed plant growing in it.
“I see you love money plants, Mr. Bansal. Thank you.”
“They are very good plants. Known as pothos. Botanical name Epipremnum aureum.” He gazed at me with the sly and hopeful gaze of a child expecting a balloon for not wetting his pants.
“You know quite a lot,” I obliged.
“I have prepared this with a leaf cutting. I will teach you.”
“I’m not much of a gardener.”
“It is very easy. I collect cuttings from everywhere.”
I knew all about his favourite pastime, as did everyone else at the office. Every day, on his way to work and on his post-lunch peregrinations, he would visit parks or even sneak into private gardens to collect money plant cuttings. Sometimes he would uproot the entire plant for his larger containers.
“It’s quite an unusual hobby,” I stated. “If you don’t mind my asking, why do you do it?”
His smile wilted and then bloomed again.
“I don’t know. I just like them. I used to do press releases for the Rajiv Khera Hospital. It is a very famous institution. They had many money plants. Every room had one. Even the corridors. I miss them.”
I prodded gently. “There must be a reason why they appeal so much to you.”
“I just like them,” he repeated.
I usually do not cross-question colleagues quite so tenaciously, but for the first time, I really wanted to hear what he had to say.
“I can understand a collector’s passion, but money plants? Your love for them makes you trespass and steal, doesn’t it? A man of your standing, Mr. Bansal, really.”
Although my tone was light, perhaps even jocular, his small head seemed to shrink into his stooping soldiers.
“I am not harming anyone.”
The bewilderment on his face made me feel a little sorry for him, so I threw my head back and laughed, “I’m only joking Mr.Bansal. I’m sure no one other than somebody with your dedication to them would miss those plants.”
He looked at me warily. “I will take my leave now, Ms Kamat. Please take care of the plant.”
With that, he walked back into his own cubicle.
I had found his weak spot.
Mr. Bansal avoided me for the rest of that week. He’d show up at our cozy little meetings and keep me updated on the status of his files, but he did not discuss bus schedules, ayurvedic cures for hemorrhoids, his wife’s distant relatives, or any of the other topics that awoke the garrulous raconteur in him. He did not stop collecting plants though, and even donated three new terrariums to the office.
I brought up his preoccupation with the humble Epipremnum with my other colleagues, but they did not seem to find it as disturbing as I did. I needed to get to the bottom of his bizarre fascination. Were the money plants a cover for some other more illicit “hobby”? The more I saw him skulking in and out with his bag, sometimes leaving little clumps of mud and root in his wake, the more I just had to know. Perhaps he was a peeping Tom or one of those men who have a fetish for urinating against strange walls. Something was wrong, and it was up to me to make it right.
I finally managed to corner Mr. Bansal about two weeks after our last extended conversation. I knew he often took the chartered bus on Fridays to avoid the rush hour as a little weekend treat. I decided that the office would not be the best place to discuss the problem, since I had no wish to embarrass him in front of our colleagues. I bought a bus ticket.
When he saw me entering the chartered bus from his seat at the back, he looked as if he’d try to make a run for the door, but it was too late. I sat beside him.
“Hello again Mr. Bansal. I hope all is well.” He nodded, assured me he’d never been better, and attempted to shield the contents of the sinister Donald Duck carrier from my eye. He couldn’t quite manage the task because it was brimming over with fresh plants.
“Have you been avoiding me?” I enquired with a friendly laugh.
“Of course not. Been busy, lots of work. We should hire a junior writer.”
We didn’t have the budget to fulfill his hesitantly expressed wish, and he knew it, so I got down to business right away.
“I can see you’ve had a busy day, Mr. Bansal. That’s quite a loot you’ve got there.”
“It’s nothing much.”
“Oh no, you’ve harvested a real bounty today. What do you plan to do with your treasures?”
He fidgeted with his signet ring, transferring it from his left index finger to its counterpart in his right hand.
“I don’t know what you mean. Did you see the files I left on your desk before leaving?”
Not a very deftly managed change of subject. I felt a slow anger at his verbal clumsiness, at his opaqueness, at his horrible bag. This sorry excuse for a man was supposed to reacquaint me with the world of journalism?
“I saw the files, Mr. Bansal. I wish to discuss something else with you, and I’m glad we have this opportunity to do so informally. As your immediate superior at work, I do wish you’d confide in me about why you feel it necessary to collect these plants during office hours. It does strike me as a tad inappropriate.”
I noticed a slight tremor in his hands, maybe a hunted look in his eyes.
“I collect them in my own sweet time,” he said. “My work is not suffering. I go only during lunch hour.”
I chided him gently. “But Mr. Bansal, you do realize that it does not look good. You going in and out with your portable nursery. Which I may add is not in mint condition since it allows mud to fall all over our place of work.”
“It won’t happen again.”
“It will if you don’t do something about that zip, or preferably, get a new bag.”
The bus ground to a halt at the Moolchand Flyover stop. Even though Mr. Bansal lived in the opposite area of town, he quickly rose and strode to the door.
“I have work here. Good evening.”
An odd man. I would have to do something about his attitude. It was not professional, not professional at all.
I looked out of the window. He had stumbled his way to the pavement and was sitting there, right there out in the open like a beggar or a drunk, his head in his hands.
I spent the weekend visiting with my mother at the nursing home. I don’t hear her complaining about my single status now; she’s lucid enough to be grateful that I’m there for her. On my part, I welcome the duty, but it is with some relief that I greet each Monday. It was going to be a busy day. I had to attend a meeting with Mr. Batra and several other board members. They wanted to license a foreign retail magazine, so it was to be quite a serious affair. I felt a rush of pride. The company was trotting along at a pretty decent clip, and I liked to believe my judicious handling of the editorial department had something to do with it.
I arrived early to work in order to give my presentation some finishing touches. I usually pay little notice to my environment when I am thus preoccupied, but certain colours, such as fluorescent pink, latch on to your retinas like a ball of fire. I stood still. I’d finally caught him in the act. Mr. Bansal was crawling out of a hedge, his face pinched with concentration, a few yellow leaves flecking his hair. One hand held the bag, the other a trailing length of sagging vine. Was he out of his mind? This was theft. Here we were, a young upcoming company, and here he was, our very own botanical bandit, literally poised to rake the entire organization’s reputation through the mud.
I had to do the right thing. I waited till he had pulled himself up. He shrank back when he saw me.
“Ms Kamat. What are you doing here?”
“I’m afraid I have to ask you the same question. Except that I know the answer. You stole those plants from someone’s house, Mr. Bansal.”
“It’s not like that,” he stammered.
“Clearly, nobody else realizes the extent of your obsession, Mr. Bansal. You need help for your condition.”
“I don’t have a condition. I just like these plants.”
“So if you liked someone’s gold chain, would you justify yanking it off her neck?”
“It’s not the same thing. Nobody cares for these plants. They practically grow wild,” he stammered.
“Ethics, Mr. Bansal. Thievery is thievery. I cannot allow this.”
He trembled silently.
“As your immediate superior, I will have to inform Mr. Batra although I will request him not to involve the police since I do not believe you are evil. Only very, very sick.”
He whispered. “Why are you doing this to me?”
“It’s all your doing, Mr. Batra. I am the only witness who has the courage to put an end to this madness.”
“Don’t do this, please. My wife has diabetes. It’s Type I diabetes that she has had since toddlerhood. Insulin injections…”
Leave it to him to lead the conversation to medical matters even as his career lay in jeopardy. There was no stopping him.
“My daughter wants to study abroad, I need this job. Please, I need this job”
I smiled, sympathetically, because I am not a cold-hearted person.
“I am sorry. I really am. But you should have considered all that before you embraced this life of crime.”
His eyes brimmed over and large tears rolled silently down his cheek, some following an unsightly trajectory to his nose. I was embarrassed for him.
“Come with me I said.”
He wiped his face with a grimy handkerchief and without argument walked beside me.
“Don’t forget your bag.”
Anshul Batra took of his glasses and wiped them for the sixth time since he’d heard the sordid tale of horticultural theft. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Mr. Bansal, sobbing, had finally raised his voice, his face streaked with mud and tears. “Ms. Kamat has always been after me. You know, sir. The years of service I have given to you. And no one else has a problem with my plants.”
What a way to conduct himself. If I’d been Mr. Batra, I’d have been buzzing for security by now. He, of course, did no such thing and was looking at me resentfully. Couldn’t he see that Bansal had brought this on himself? I was just doing the right thing. That mentally unstable man needed psychiatric care.
I said so.
Mr. Batra sighed wearily. ” Look, perhaps one day you will thank her for what she has done for you. I will not terminate your services as has been suggested, but I do think you need to focus more on your work and less on your hobbies.”
Bansal had calmed down a little by now. He glared at me. “I don’t know what I have ever done to you. You have such a big problem with my bag. Why is it even relevant? It was a present from my daughter. You are the one who needs to be admitted to a mental hospital.”
I felt my ears grow hot. Batra had promised he wouldn’t discuss my temporary indisposition with anyone, especially considering that I’d had a perfect track record before that unfortunate time in my life.
He turned to Mr. Batra. “Sir, this is an attempt to drag my name through the mud. It is a sustained personal attack on me. You have worked with me for seven years and not once have you ever heard a complaint about me.”
Stump-tailed macaque. He wouldn’t know an illiterate nutcase even if one did a bear dance in front of him. I willed myself to remain silent, to keep my fingers from twisting against each other.
“I understand, Rakesh. Just be careful in future,” he swallowed deeply. “This is your last warning. You can take the next two days off. Come back on Monday.”
Without a word, Mr. Bansal got up and walked towards the door.
“Aren’t you forgetting your bag?”
Although I felt somewhat depressed by the unpleasant episode and by the fact that Mr. Bansal had not been fired, I was also hopeful. I had exposed the man for what he was and even that blind fool, Batra, had no choice but to confront the issue. I had no doubt that it wouldn’t take Mr. Bansal very long to revert to his pilfering ways. As usual, I reached the office early. It would be a good two hour before anyone else came in and I could set about reading the business papers and marking out story ideas before all the noise began. I turned my key and walked into the blissfully silent office.
I was just about to switch on the lights, when I realized I was not alone.
“Hello there,” I heard Mr. Bansal say. What was he doing there?
“Aren’t you supposed to be on an off today?” I asked, annoyed at the intrusion. He walked up to me, close enough for me to smell the omelet on his breath. I shrank back. “Are you trying to intimidate me, Mr. Bansal?”
He laughed, not unpleasantly. “Of course not. I just came to give you some breakfast.”
I felt my mouth grow dry. I knew I needed to get out of there.
Suddenly I felt his surprisingly strong arms pressing me down to the chair. Before I could react, he’d handcuffed me to it.
I wanted to scream, but no sound would come out of my throat.
He quickly stripped off a wide piece of duct tape and plastered it violently on my mouth. I prayed I wouldn’t wet myself.
He produced a sleek black briefcase. “Do you like it?” he asked. He smiled again and laid it on the desk beside me. “Allow me to open it for you.” He clicked in the combination and the lid sprang up to reveal at least three kilos of shredded leaves. “Breakfast!” he announced. He rummaged deeper and lovingly brought out another object. A knife? “It’s a weeding hook, a khurpi. Makes short work of many unwanted things,” he chatted.
I felt as if my heart would give way. I had never been so terrified.
“Do you want to hear a story?”
I blinked back tears.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. I heard him flipping through a book. The pages smelled musty, earthy.
“I always used this book as a reference. Have you heard of it? It’s called Home Gardening by Pratibha Dwivedi. A great book, but it’s been out of print for decades. My father gave it to me. Here’s what Ms Dwivedi says on page 146.”
He pinched my cheek till it bled. “Listen and learn. This is what she says:
The belief is that if a Pothos cutting is stolen it brings luck and money; if borrowed or purchased, this does not happen. The truth is that it grows with such ease inside or outside the house in soil or water that one need neither borrow nor purchase but just ‘pick up’.
“DID YOU HEAR THAT?” he said in a strange whispery scream. Everybody knows this. Everybody but you and my wife. She never liked me collecting my plants either. Kept telling me it was going to get me in trouble. It never did… I tolerated her asking me questions. You’ve been trying to discredit me from day one. I tried to be nice to be nice to you. I know you tried to kill yourself a few years back, threatening to jump out of the office window. You couldn’t get a job anywhere. I encouraged Mr. Batra to hire you and this is how you repay me?”
I squeezed my eyes shut. This could not be happening. I’d wake up, have two cups of tea, go to work…
“Now you have a choice. Either I split your skull open with this-and I will do it-or you eat what I feed you.”
Guessing my answer, he stripped off the duct tape. My face throbbed.
“Open your mouth.”
I clamped my lips shut.
“Fine, be difficult.” I heard him scoop up the leaves and opened my eyes.
He looked at me blandly. He was holding a large steel plate in his hand. It was filled with pothos leaves.
He squeezed my mouth open and shoved a in a handful.
I clamped my teeth down on the leaves slowly.
“Here’s another something you didn’t know about pothos. It’s almost as toxic as you. It causes intense burning in the mouth, lips, tongue, vomiting.”
I stopped chewing. My mouth and throat felt as if a thousand bees had deposited their stings in me.
I was going to pass out.
He forced open my mouth again and forced in another handful. The vomit and saliva frothing at my mouth didn’t seem to faze him.
He winked, “Enjoy your meal. I hope you choke on it.”
And then suddenly his demeanour changed. He looked shocked, afraid. He yelled, “I’m getting help, I’m getting help.”
Five minutes later, he came back with the guard.
I felt myself drift into unconsciousness.
I heard a faint whisper… no one will believe you.
When I opened my eyes, God knows how many hours later,” I realized I was in a hospital bed. A nurse fussed with the IV drip above the bed.
“Feeling better now? You’ll be OK in a day or two,” she said brightly.
It was torture to get the words out. “I want to press charges…”
I couldn’t read the look on her face. “I don’t think anyone will press charges,” she said. “There’s someone here to visit you. Maybe you should talk to him.”
“Send him in,” I mumbled.
It was Mr. Batra.
“Oh Ms. Kamat. It shouldn’t have come to this. Rakesh told me everything.”
What was he talking about?
“He told me he’d come in to clear out his desk-he was planning to resign, you see-and that you just went crazy when you saw him.”
I could not believe my ears.
“He said you shredded all the plants in the office and started cramming them into your mouth, saying that you’d get him this time. That everyone would see he was insane and violent by forcing those leaves into your mouth. You obviously didn’t know they were poisonous.” He clasped his head in his hands.
“That’s not how it happened,” I said, but he held up his hand to silence me.
“Rakesh is a kind man and he insists that we should not file a case against you, but please do not come into the office. You should check yourself into a psychiatric facility. You are not a well woman. I’ll courier your belongings and termination letter to you. Please take care of yourself.” He got up abruptly and left the room.
That’s when I saw the bottled plant on the bedside table, a Get Well Soon card propped against it.