Out of Business

Ten years ago, who would have imagined that Kostobh Mukherjee would be selling talc cum powder or dry-cleaning clothes or painting houses. He not only did it now, but did it with a smile on his face. A first class graduate from one of the finest universities in the country, Kostobh had been the school topper continuously since fifth standard, i.e. ever since he was introduced to the word competition. For twenty years, he dodged every social carnival, toiled through every examination and burnt the midnight oil, only to be out of business for no fault of his own. When the sub-prime crisis hit America towards the turn of the new century, the HR quietly called Kostobh and handed him the pink slip. 

“You mean you are firing me?” Kostobh had dreaded this day for ten years but he could hardly believe it now. He had completed all his targets this term two days in advance. The HR tried his best to be his best buddy in this hour of dire need but could hardly contain a long discussion and a few exasperated gasps.

“Mr. Mukherjee, the company does not find your services indispensable any more. In accordance with the decision arrived at by the Board of Directors, we have been asked to curtail our finances, which means laying off a few men. Your performance hasn’t been any better than it was ten years ago and you have not been able to contribute significantly to the company’s growth.”

“But why now?” Kostobh looked bitterly at the HR. The prospect of his parents looking for a bride to groom this man, at a locality nearby immediately filled Kostobh with horror.

She gave him a very sorry smile and said, “We are very sorry, Mr. Mukherjee. Let me try to explain it to you the simple way. Some bankers in the rich countries were silly enough to lend money to stupid people who put their money on overestimated houses. So when the bubble burst, the banks found themselves in a flimsy and short of cash. Now people there are short of money; they aren’t buying from our country much, hence people in our country are short of money and aren’t buying from us either. So to cut things short, we have a huge dip in our sales and we have to take out someone from the sales department to please the board. It is a tough decision for us but there’s …”

Kostobh could hear it no more. The last statement kept ringing on in his mind as an echo. At least from the manager’s face, it was difficult to believe what he had just said. A smile slowly flickered on Kostobh’s face as he left the room which eventually turned into tears; painful, throbbing, irrepressible, uncontrollable, heart-rendering, intense sobs that could be a hundred curses on the manager and the company that he had served for ten excruciating years.

From the office, Kostobh headed straight to the bank to find out his financial position. Even with the meager salary that had creeped slower than a dead cockroach in ten years, he had managed a small recurring deposit, often by taking loans from neighbours, that would mature in less than six months time. Of the few right things that he had done in life, Kostobh had put all he could invest in this savings account that the bank said, would yield him ten times the money he had deposited throughout the period.

As he waited outside the Bank manager’s office, Kostobh counted the time left for his savings to mature. 160 days it was. On his drive to the bank, he had been relieved that the long period was almost over but now, 160 days appeared a shade darker, a grim bit too long. How was he to run his family for 160 days? How was he to pay the bank for the deposit for 160 days? If only he could get back his money now, he could live comfortably for another year while searching for a new firm to work with. As he was rushed into the manager’s cabin, he immediately flew upon the manager: “I want my money back!”

The manager hushed his impatient client and shut his room with a thud. In the most courteous voice he could manage, the man tried to reason out with Kostobh that he had deposited his money in a time deposit and if he withdrew it before its maturity period, he would not be entitled to any interest, leave alone the multiplication factor that Kostobh kept ringing every now and then.

“No sir, if you remove your money today, we would only release the sum deposited by you. Not a single penny more. The bank could also discount a few hundred rupees towards remittance fee, transaction fee and penalty. You must continue your recurring deposit for another 160 days to avail of what you have been promised.”

“1-6-0 DAYS!! I am bankrupt!! Why don’t you understand!!” Both the men rose from their seats and silence filled the heated atmosphere until Kostobh sank in his seat with his face sinking beneath his seat.

“I understand your situation sir and I would feel anything but pity for you, but please try to understand that we, banks are going through a situation no less. At such a time, I can help you no more than suggest to burrow from your neighbours for another 160 days; you can repay them back as soon as you realize your money.”

Kostobh’s face glowed at once. In a moment, the exasperation, the suffocation, the trifled sobs, all seemed to have been given an outlet by the modest suggestion of the manager and it struck him at once. He considered no more and headed home. With a heavy heart, as he sat down for dinner, he passed the news about his removal as well as the bank manager’s suggestion to his parents. They were dazed but Kostobh gave them a smile to kindle them again. It was all that he thrived on, and they thrived on him.

The next couple of months, Kostobh worked hard to find a new job, but at 32 and with the kind of resume that he carried, it was difficult to catch the eye. Where his juniors had managed three promotions in a singular calendar year, he had failed to get a promotion in ten long years. No doubt, he had outperformed everybody in school and college examinations, even his best friends could not vouch for him. He had always been a nerd and his social circle could be counted to two or three friends who too found themselves in trying circumstances.

For two months, Kostobh kept borrowing from his neighbours and paying for his recurring deposit. But neighbours find out sooner than anybody else when a person is out of business and in Kostobh’s case, one could never be sure that he would be back on business again. With a hundred days still to go, finances were increasingly difficult to handle.  Kostobh would act, wash, paint and do anything to keep his household going. In the next two months, he would break all barriers to make two ends meet. He would pull rickshaws, appear as a waiter in a marriage, carry heavy luggage at the bus stop and even perform stunts in local drama.

Just fifteen days for the recurring deposit to mature, Kostobh was sleeping idly below a mango tree after a hard day of toil. It was at this time that Kostobh’s father was admitted to the hospital in the emergency ward. Kostobh tried all means to arrange for the heavy money required to get him admitted but his friends had been facing tough times themselves and who would borrow money to a man in a situation that this man was in. Kostobh walked about the streets in disdain until he came across the local drama outfit. There was a long queue in front of the makeshift stage.

Kostobh slipped in the line slowly and asked another person: “Why is this mandali here?”

To this, he received a sharp stare but it hardly bothered him now. “These people are from Mumbai. They are staging a play on unemployment in Indian villages. They are auditioning today. If you get selected, you could get anything between one lakh and five lakh rupees.”

Kostobh’s jaws dropped. It was like a God-sent to him. He immediately roped into the local drama unit’s director and asked him to make a recommendation. He begged him that he was in dire need of money and that his father was ill. It did not make a difference to the director who had heard this story from ten other boys who had also done small works with him but he did give an assurance. As Kostobh waited for his turn, he reeled upon his own life how unemployment had changed his life.

Where he used to enjoy his time before a computer in a comfortable office, getting tired with a few calls between, he could now go on to work all day long in the sun. Where he idled his time away, every second now meant an opportunity to earn. Where prices gave him headaches once, he had learnt to exploit price differentials. And he had learned to interact with people, to make them see reason, he had shed his inhibitions, had done all kinds of works and had learned life.

At the stage, he showed how a man of no confidence had changed into a highly confident man, thanks to the unemployment. The director ridiculed his performance but shortlisted his name before the final selections. Kostobh waited in tow to see how his competitors fared. He noted how one had been so frail in his emotions that his emotions were all over the place. He also pointed out how another one had failed to show no emotion at all. In the end, he was confident that he could persuade the director to give him a role and he could probably beg him to give him a signing amount to meet his father’s medical expenses.

The man without emotions was selected. The man with too much emotions was also selected. But not Kostobh. At once, he was raged and grabbed the director’s throat to which a dozen men came flinging to get the director rid of his clutches. When he had cooled down a little, he asked a spot-boy very close to the director what he had in mind. The spot-boy said: “This play needs special handling. The proponents have to sway their emotions according to the audience’s grasp. The director saw that myriad of expression on one person. He got selected.”

Kostobh could hardly have been more baffled. “And what about the other guy?”

“Well, there is a character whose expression should not change no matter how much the audience laughs at him, no matter how much he makes them laugh. We needed someone to fit a character without emotions. This man suits that role.”

Kostobh left out a heavy laugh that could well have been an outburst and the spot-boy disappeared. In bewilderment, he kept wandering off the streets until he came across the bank. He rushed at once and withdrew everything that he had deposited in the recurring deposit in ten and a half years. The manager kept telling him that he would be out of his mind to withdraw fifteen days before maturity but nothing loomed in Kostobh’s mind as he put his signatures.

When his father opened his eyes in the general ward the next day, Kostobh looked into his eyes and said, 
“There are more things on heaven and earth than can ever be dreamed of in our philosophies. But this is not the end. It is only the beginning of a new life.”


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