An intriguing story about the interconnectedness of a sling bag and its owner, Karthik. The surprise element of this fantasy fiction makes it enigmatic. Here’s the story, this week, by Bangalore-based Tapan, exclusively in Different Truths.
Karthikeyan Vasudevan was making the shape of infinity with his toe on sand. He found it soothing to drag along the lines of that infinite form. Earlier that day, a contractor had dumped sand and aggregates for some repair works at his apartment complex. A casual labourer had spilled sand on her way from the truck to the repair spot. A bit of it was lying in front of a bench in the landscaped area. Karthik was sitting on that bench, as he sat every evening between 8:00 and 8:30.
That’s how he was. The only son of a religious Public sector auditor, his colleagues in the mercantile bank and the neighbours in the apartment complex had their private jokes about his timeliness. The most common one in the bank was excess courteousness of unsocial Karthik towards a lady customer in her early forties. His juniors were sure that it was because she came every Friday to the bank at the same time, 10:30. His neighbours whispered that only the milkman and the newspaper vendor could be his friends. After all, they delivered every day on time.
No one had ever heard Karthik give any opinion on any subject. At home, it had not mattered in the past 38 years of his existence. All opinions that mattered in the house were from his mother, Jayanthi. Those that shaped his professional choices belonged to his father, Sreenivasan, or, Sreeni Sir, as everyone in the resident society called the man in his late sixties.
In office politics, everyone wanted Karthik to be on their side. Karthik had, however, this innate sense of siding with the majority. It was not his clairvoyance or anything; it was his least controversial way to remain relevant and yet don’t risk the hazard of giving opinions.
It’s not that Karthik did not have opinions. He had mastered the art of keeping those to himself. No Facebook post or Instagram picture could draw any comment from him. He universally pressed ‘Like’ to all the posts from his friends and acquaintances. All he ever posted, rather reposted, were pictures and videos of animals. He divided the posts equally, and consciously, between cats and dogs.
That night after finishing dinner at 9:30 and a post-dinner walk of thirty minutes, like every other night, before alighting on his single bed, Karthik sat on his study table between 10 and 10:30. He had inherited the old mahogany furniture from his father, who had received it from his own. It could be called the only ancestral piece in that 3 BHK apartment in one of the oldest apartment complexes in Bangalore.
So, on that old table, under a 2-watts LED table lamp, he recorded his opinions on the day’s events in his brown, leather bound, perfunctory office diary. It was quite an ugly piece to be seen with. The wide pages and the boring covers made it the perfect tool for Karthik to hide his furtive opinions in broad daylight.
He knew about his parents’ habit of prying through his stuff with the hope of finding a feminine connection that might be used to make him submit to the altars of matrimony. Hence, he carried his diary, however cumbersome, in his briefcase whenever he went out of the home.
Oh, you read it right! In 2017, Karthik still carried a briefcase. Branded Safari, the grey box weighed similar to a couple of red bricks and was always a source of complaint in a bus or an auto ride to his office in his early days of service. It was purchased with his first salary. His attachment with the dull attaché could have been seen as an irrational affinity to his first love, but alas! Karthik’s only reason for keeping it was his comfort in safe routines.
It’s not that he was not enticed sometimes. On social media’s endless feeds, advertisements of various articles made him click. It never progressed beyond ‘Add to cart’ level. He shared his father’s belief that online sales were for the gullible, those with no wisdom to understand the subtle differences between physical things, that comes only upon touching, smelling or tasting.
That night, however, during his idle browsing time on his bed between 11:00 and 11:30, he was feeling too sleepy. It was unusually humid in Bangalore and the second fortnight of March was always busy. These few days, he had to let go his routine of stepping out of office at 6:45, and being the branch manager, had to stay as long as his overburdened colleagues did. Taciturn, he was not much of moral support to them, but he ensured that the flow of snacks and beverages was steady and of good quality.
Drowsy, he must have pressed a sequence of tabs on the e-shopping site but he couldn’t, he swore to his mother eleven days later, recall how he ended up keying in his credit card details. Carl Jung would have been happy to have discovered a subconscious mind with such libido to purchase a very hip-looking leather sling bag.
When the package containing the bag arrived, his mother tried to reason on the intercom with the courier boy at the security gate that it was impossible for an online purchase to be made from the Vasudevan household. The messenger scoffed at the logic and, as it was pre-paid and he was time-strapped, without further arguments left the package with Karthik’s name in bold letters on it.
Karthik’s parents insisted that he should return it without opening. The address and the phone number of the sending company were printed on the invoice kept inside a plastic envelope pasted on the box. Karthik was determined to return it the next day, then the next, then… on a Saturday noon early April, when the clock struck 12, he opened the package.
The sling bag was quite chic! Navy blue and brown, it was a handmade beauty made of fabric and leather. It had just enough space to put his wallet, mobile, scooter keys and, of course, his diary. It was inconvenient at first to fit it into the bag, but with a couple of trials, he could manipulate it in and out.
Much to his father’s chagrin, the bag found its way to Karthik’s chest. Sreeni Sir’s discomfort was more about the fact that Karthik had begun to adopt a ‘modern’ lifestyle. A good Tamil man shouldn’t break links with the past just for fancy, he warned. After all, the Safari still had quite a few years left in it. It didn’t matter to Jayanthi, towing her husband’s line, that the sling bag was more convenient for her son during his scooter rides. After all, how long would it take for a man buying a fancy bag despite having a good, old one to abandon his old parents, she lamented.
There was some charm about the bag that made Karthik ignore the displeasure of his parents and curious smiles of his colleagues. Just to look suitable for such a bag, Karthik started shampooing daily his otherwise oil-drenched hair and changed his spectacles for a contemporary frame. He sneaked a peek at the full mirror kept alongside the dressing table in his parents’ room and felt pretty pleased with his makeover.
Karthik discovered the hole on the fifth day of using the bag. It was not apparent as it was between the two pouches of the bag. It seemed like a lapse in stitching and explained the reason for 50% discount being always flashed in its commercials. By then, he had begun to like his new Avatar, and a small hole close to his chest didn’t seem to enchain his buoyancy.
The navy blue bag provided a break in the grey tone of Karthik’s life. Soon, it became inseparable from him – either clinging to his torso or adorning his side table.
Then the appraisal season came. Usually, appraisals with Karthik were quite tame. Karthik could never bring himself to a candid assessment of his reportees. He restricted the discussions to the target numbers for the last year’s achievement and the next year’s plan.
A front desk girl for high net worth individuals was the first to be reviewed that year. After the review, she was in tears. She informed her inquisitive colleagues that with the get-up, Karthik Sir’s mind had changed as well. Though she didn’t divulge the details, others quickly learned through similar, or worse, experiences throughout the day.
Karthik couldn’t much help such behaviour. Just before an appraisal would start, he could smell a numbing fragrance. Its smell could be described as a cocktail made from a ripe mango and first rain on dry soil.
A lungful of such air and he heard himself asking the front desk officer, “Why were you flirting with a senior HNI customer on 13th March?” When she felt offended, he just showed her CCTV footage of the day. “Meeting targets is important, but keeping professional decorum is more so.”
Subsequently, one of the cashiers was rebuked for coming late frequently, with full back-up from access control system. A senior accountant was pulled up for firing personal printouts from the networked laser printer. The Chief Loan Officer was accosted with his pictures with a few lenders, on different days, wining and dining in the evening in several city pubs.
The list got longer by the day. The whispering grapevine contributed to that. A couple of habitual offenders were given termination notices. The bank floor would get pin-drop silence whenever Karthik stepped out of his room. His blinds were always open, and he kept a strict eye on the floor during the day.
The next morning, he parked his scooter and was walking towards his office on the campus. A car honked and shred his think-links. Startled, he turned and saw the vehicle of the regional head. That cocktail smell entered his nostril, and he found himself raising a palm to that car. The car stopped, his boss rolled down his glass and asked, “What happened, Karthik?” Karthik pointed towards a signage declaring, ‘Speed Limit: 20 km per hr’. “Please note, Sir. You should not be seen flaunting rules.”
Three days hence, he put a giant Post-it note on his neighbour’s car, writing about his driver’s habit of wasting community water for washing his car every evening. The fragrance, once again, preceded his act. It was evident that he, and only he, was the only common element in the radicalism displayed at all the three locations.
The next day, when his father asked him at the breakfast table about his lately developed habit of going to bed post-midnight, the fragrance was there again. Quickly, Karthik sniffed along his own self. It didn’t take him long to realise that his new sling bag was the source. Near the hole, the fragrance was strong enough for Karthik to retort to the authoritarian, after 38 years, “Why don’t you mind your business?”
As the days passed, Karthik got the hang of the situation. His straight words, often bordering on insults, complimented his new looks and attitude. It didn’t help much to improve his social quotient, but people’s views about him changed from pity and indifference to fear and, what usually followed respect.
Karthik realised that the opinions he wrote in the diary at night were somehow finding their way out through that hole in the bag and channelizing themselves through his lips. They were his opinions alright, but expressed in private, never to see the light of the day. Somewhere in the diary, he had mentioned about his favourite fragrances, and his diary oozed that to forewarn him about the coming ‘leak’ of his opinions.
With time, he became familiar with the pattern. He also learned to control the impulses by stopping his breath for about 15 seconds.
The bag, being a fake Chinese product, lasted only a year. By that time, Karthik had declared his lust for men to his mother, when she escalated her annual drive to marry him off. The revelation caused her a coronary disorder. He had quit his dull banking job, not before calling his reportees lazy and his boss, a blood-sucker. He took up full time his dream of being a traveller and a blogger. Given his acumen and talent, he got sponsored well by the travel websites.
By the time the sling of the bag gave way, and the hole increased so much that its public use was well-nigh impossible; Karthik didn’t need an eerie fragrance to trigger his true self to speak. His mind and lips had found the rhythm to complement each other, and they lived happily, in sync, ever after.
Photos from the internet.
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