To say that Saroja and Gangaram were both utterly shocked would have been the understatement of a lifetime. I was just amused that it was now their turn to deal with the awkwardness that until a second ago, I had so selfishly kept all to myself. They jumped back with a lot more of a jolt than I did when I first noticed that there was blunder of near-epic proportions staring me in the face. I decided to break the deadlock in communication, if only to allow one of us a chance to breathe. I tried to play it down, allowing those representing my new employer the chance to save some face, suggesting, “I think I've got the wrong letter.”
Nothing. Wow! This moment was going to have to pass, by hook or by crook, otherwise we were going to be stuck in it for the rest of our natural lives. I kept going, “My name is Girish A. Pandey,” I started off with, trying to point out to the obviously mismatched name on the offer letter – Ms. Girija Pandey – “So, this must be for someone else.” Gangaram was the first to crack a smile. No sooner had the smile broken through, but he seemed to draw in a large breath that had all the makings of instant, uproarious laughter. But, he controlled himself admirably. Furthermore, having broken free of the shackles of embarrassment, he displayed great understanding by silently shaking his head. Saroja, whom we had last left with a look of horror and five shades more pale than normal, was now looking down at the letter. It was almost as if she was wishing it out of existence, and effectively willing its memory expunged from our brains. She then proceed to, in quick succession, look all around the room before finally meeting Gangaram's shaking-head gaze, making absolutely sure that she didn't make eye contact with me.
“I don't know what to say, but we'll get another letter printed out right away,” said Saroja, with an air of abject sheepishness, enough to make me want to assure her that it was an honest mistake, pretending not to have caught on from the very start, and trying to sweep it under the rug like so much dust.
Gangaram chimed in with a, “I think my assistant must have misread the name, he he he,” he chuckled almost mockingly, explaining himself by finishing with, “We are so busy with so many new trainers joining us, he must have got confused.” Yeah. That sounded plausible. Hey, I wasn't the one demanding an explanation. They were throwing this stuff at me. Also, I decided to not raise my eyebrows at the fact that his assistant had confused my gender, nearly impossible to do with my name as I had mistakenly thought for so long. I mean, it isn't like my name is something weird like Anit or Kamal, because then it would have made perfect sense to come across “smart” people who think they know what my name is better than I do, reading my first name and middle initial together to make “Anita” or “Kamala”. Either that or Gangaram's assistant was an eligible bachelor who spent his every waking moment willing some sort of female “companion” into existence, no matter where he came across the chance.
While I was attempting to be humorous in my head, I couldn't help but notice that between the earlier shock and the tons of guilt that had since started to weigh her down, Saroja looked like she wanted to pull a Houdini and vanish. She looked visibly troubled, so I decided to end her suffering by suggesting that I read the rest of the letter anyway, since I was guessing that the rest of the content was standard. She nodded absentmindedly just as the phone rang, when in a burst of activity she pounced on it before it had finished ringing half of its first ring. I pulled the letter towards me, and gave it a once over. I was reading it, but I wasn't really reading it. I mean, I made sure that my eyes were following the lines of the first page that seemed to welcome me to the organization in a heartier manner than I was used to, before flipping the page and glancing at the long list of bullet points that told me what I shouldn't do at work, and a table on the last page that appeared to pull numbers and formulas out of thin air to tell me that I was being paid, in essence, several small amounts of money that went towards turning my “salary” into a “compensation package”. Well, at first glance, the final amount that they said I should make if I dotted my 'i's and crossed my 't's, as well as jumped through a flaming hoop every now and then, was a lot more than I was getting at my last job, so I didn't really bother with the calculations. Sitting there at that moment, my first thought was to be pointed in the right direction so that I could get right down to equipping myself with the requisite knowledge and skills to become “an English Trainer”. When I was done fake-reading, I looked up at Saroja and put the letter down on the table. She had finished her call by this time, as hushed as it was, and thankfully she seemed to have calmed down to almost normal.
“So, did you have any questions?” asked Saroja in her usually controlled manner. I said that everything seemed to be in order, and may even have flashed a very sated smile, the kind that's more wide, fruit bowl than deep, soup bowl. This may have been a mistake, because she followed it up with a, “Really?” that went way up with the rising, inquisitive intonation. I guess I felt the need to quell her panic, if there was any left, you know, so as not to have to deal with ultimate embarrassment and a strange new employee who doesn't ask questions about his offer letter, all in one day. I said that there wasn't anything there that seemed to be out of order for me, and hoped we could leave it at that and move on.
“What about how much you'll be earning?” she got right to the point. So that was what she meant when she asked me if I “had any questions”. Though I didn't mean to play the naive little village boy, I guess my unwillingness to haggle over the price of anything just didn't see that coming. Maybe I hadn't really done a good job preparing myself to be back out on the job market, you know, know-how-wise. Maybe I should have paid attention to all that nonsense that people talk about “bargaining” and “getting your dues” because it sure would have helped right now. But maybe it wouldn't have helped either. I mean, I was unsure about – and still am unsure about – the need to bargain with HR for salary because by definition, if a person fits a job description, or has otherwise demonstrated the ability to satisfy all of the conditions set forth by the company in an admirably efficient manner, the company, no, the industry should have and would have arrived at an equitable cost of labor value, which then becomes a “take it or leave it” decision. Going by this logic, I didn't know what I was supposed to do. Was I supposed to write down a number, signifying what I thought was adequate remuneration for spending my time in an office for over eight hours a day, five days a week, when I could be doing something else with that time? Well, theoretically doing something else worthwhile, of course. Or, was I suddenly going to have to shake Saroja's hand, shrouded under a piece of cloth, as we exchanged complex finger signals out in the open, but under wraps, negotiating and renegotiating in the blink of an eye before finally concluding with a final, hearty handshake, like I had seen in many a Malayalam movie before? In those movies though, they were negotiating the price of cattle at a seasonal market that brought together the wares and produce from all around. I think I smiled inwardly for a split second, seeing how apt the connection was; the men in the Malayalam movie bargaining for a better price for cattle and heads of livestock, which was just like people in HR haggling over salaries with future cattle and heads of livestock, soon to join their ranks and realize their folly. Maybe I could just yell out a number and see what happened. Or perhaps I was supposed to hold up a placard with a number on it, using a piece of satin cloth to do the whole sexy unraveling thing that they do with every surprise gift that was ever won on TV. Visions of the most outlandish, one-member auction slowly began to cloud my brain, so it was with considerable effort that through this miasma of how the scene before me would play out I managed to utter that I thought the compensation being offered was adequate because it was considerably more than I was making at my last job.
Saroja pulled the letter back towards her side of the table, and picking it up neatly, she turned to Gangaram and handed it to him with both hands, rather ceremoniously it seemed to me. Then, she turned to me and asked, “Do you have a couple of minutes to spare? I wanted to quickly introduce you to some of the folks here at the office, while Gangaram went and got a corrected version of your offer letter?” Sounded perfect to me. I wasn't going to go do anything after this, except maybe go home and try and catch up on as much unemployed bum-ishness as I could before having to come in to work the next day anyway. Yup, I was going to go home and save the opportunity for any madness, or any more madness as the case may be, to take place and ruin an otherwise bizarre day. I couldn't believe I was doing this, but I declined her offer, making a counter offer instead to come in bright, fresh and early the next morning in time to catch everyone at the very beginning of their day so that whatever business needed to be taken care of could be take care of then. I hesitated in the back of my mind, preparing myself for some kind of reprimand, however slight, at displaying a “work ethic” that was contrary to the “code” of this company, or any other employer for that matter. But no. In fact, my refusal seemed to be exactly what Saroja had hoped for. Maybe she meant to show it, maybe she didn't, but either way, there was a hint of a smile, slowly curling the corner of her otherwise pursed lips.
I excused myself with some made up errand-of-an-excuse, sounding sincere and apologizing for not making the most of the opportunity to meet my new found colleagues. Saroja, who seemed equally up to the task of sounding disappointed about me not accepting her invite, began with, “That's too bad. But, I think it's better to come in in the morning and meet everyone then,” as she stood up from behind her desk, shepherded Gangaram to the door, and made her way towards me with a handshake that plucked me out of my chair, and placed me second behind Gangaram on the way out of the room. I couldn't have agreed more, and although I was getting what I wanted in terms of the chance to go home and relax before getting back to work, I stood there outside Saroja's room feeling a little lost in the moment. A lot had happened today, and I needed to go home and reflect on it to make sense of what happened, but also to see what this would mean to me in the career that I was going to have to start setting up in this place. Oh, a career that I was going to have to start setting up in this place now that I had a job, of course.
“Thank you for coming in again today,” began Saroja as she put the final nail in today's coffin, “If you can get here by 9 am tomorrow, I can introduce you to some of the people that you will be working with.” I thanked her for her time and said that I'd be here, as she smiled and shut the door behind her. Then, it was just Gangaram and me, walking down the hallway, the end of which was less than five steps away. As we took our third step together, I noticed Gangaram listing heavily to the right, the opposite of the direction in which I was headed. I took that as an opportunity to look up and say goodbye, seeing as to how we were not acquaintances and all. I looked up and smiled at Gangaram, as I extended my hand, only to find that he had beaten me to it, and was already looking at me with an extended right hand. I shook it and thanked him, to which he replied, “I look forward to working with you. I heard you gave an excellent presentation...” Oh no! Not that again!