The Pebble Collector

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Here’s an enigmatic fantasy fiction by Tapan. He unfolds the drama with a masterly touch. Read to know more, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

“Wow! Such a shiny red one!” exclaimed Tarun upon seeing the latest addition to the glass bowl that Devyani kept at her desk.  Devyani knew it was completely useless to correct a man, chauvinistic prig at that, about the correct shade of colour, but still couldn’t resist, “The colour is Ruby, Tarun!” It felt nice to let Tarun have a taste of his own medicine. He was the most experienced sales manager in the group. He never let anyone forget that.

Snubbed, Tarun changed track and made a snobbish opening, “So? What do you have for Shantanu today?”

Devyani was just four months into Srijan, a fashion design company. She was doing a project on ‘GLOCAL’ fashion, how global trends influence the local choices. Tarun was expected to be her guide. A presentation to the Studio Head was definitely something she was looking forward to.

She had a rough weekend handling the ego bouts of her boyfriend. Red with jealousy caused by a male colleague dropping her home on a motorbike at 11:30 at night, his nagging and screaming, alternately, continued till 2:30 in the morning. She could surely do better without such boors. Good sex couldn’t justify such drama.

She could not research enough on the Net or visit the Malls closer home on the Spring fashion trends. Devyani absorbed the ripples of nervousness that swam through her body on hearing Tarun hurl that question. She gulped anxiety arising from her belly and looked him into the eye, “Some ideas, some concepts, some sketches. Let’s first understand the direction. He is so experienced; I will wait for his inputs. Hours are precious, right Captain?’

Tarun’s patronising often bordered on masculine when faced with a woman’s intelligence. “He doesn’t like unprepared people; it’s your first solo presentation. Better take care.”

“Oh, you are there Boss, I will manage.” She gave the most endearing smile she could. That was her usual passcode to wriggle out of embarrassing situations. She succeeded this time as well.

She held the ruby red pebble, shiny and smooth, between her thumb and index finger. Like a veteran jeweller does with a polished diamond, she caressed the oval contours with her eyes. She dropped the little fellow inside the glass bowl, as the Almighty would plunge a human in this ocean of mankind. The pebble found comfort with its co-creatures. The clank, however, startled her neighbours. Her lips said ‘sorry’ to them silently with a naughty twitch in her left eye.

Shantanu kept his appointment at 3 PM. With her sketchbook and Mac Pro, Devyani entered his cabin. Tarun had excused himself previously citing a sudden client meet. She knew instinctively that he didn’t want to share the blame for the unpreparedness of Devyani and hence, his client called.

Shantanu had his 34th birthday celebration on the studio floor last week. He came out of his cabin briefly and returned the moment formalities were over. He was famously known for his temper, especially closer to deadlines. He was a free-lancer who was cajoled to join Srijan by its founder for his brilliance. The GLOCAL campaign was his brainchild. The campaign was commissioned by a leading online apparel brand. It intended to make Indian youth appreciate fashion trends across the globe and customise their own inspired by these. This was a game changing game-changing the choice of fashion design was being offered to the customer.

Shantanu had a really eclectic choice of art and craft. Samples of his taste hung from the walls, stood on the floor, lied on the centre table. He travelled widely. Collecting souvenirs was his passion. Devyani appreciated the view around she herself being a collector of sorts.

“Where is Tarun?” Impatience dripped from his voice on seeing the rookie enter his room alone.

“He got a call from Arvind Mills. They are planning to go online. He had to leave.” She breathed deep and exhaled softly, “And I am not exactly an amateur.” She had 30 months’ work under her belt, in addition to her NIFT degree.

Shantanu frowned, “Is it? Surprise me.”

Since morning, she had rushed through the Net, sketched furiously and had about a dozen adaptations of trends across the globe. A Poncho, blended with a Tibetan Chuba and an Afghan salwar emerged quite a stunner. Shantanu didn’t express his liking. That was not his way.

“We can develop on this. Choice of blending has to be with the wearer; how much from which component. Anonymity gives power to today’s customer.” When he spoke, he didn’t breathe. “Let’s get some coffee.”

Whenever Shantanu walked with someone to the vending machine, it marked the acceptance of his or her ideas. Some of her colleagues raised their head and cast their furtive glances of envy. Some of the good-natured ones gave her thumbs up when Shantanu was not looking.

It was about 10:40 in the night when a couple of sketches emerged the winners at the expense of tens of others that martyred for their cause.

“Ok then. Work on these in Photoshop tomorrow and let me see the first rushes by afternoon. Bye.”

Whatever Devyani’s views were about women emancipation, not being asked for a drop or in the least, about her transportation arrangement at such late hours came as a surprise. Shantanu never carried any bag for laptop or papers. Bare handed, he walked away towards the lift lobby as suddenly as he had accepted her design idea. His tall frame receded along the half-lit corridor. His Hush Puppies made his walk almost stealthy.

Devyani was so overwhelmed at his lack of courtesy that she almost forgot to call an Uber. Good sense dawned soon. Reflecting on the day on her way home, she was sure of not having seen such a rude person in her life.

“How did it go yesterday? I hear you scored well.” Tarun was restlessly waiting for her to come to the office. She came later than usual. She could not get her groceries last evening and had to buy before leaving for office. Late nights were usual during a campaign.

“Where do you hear such things, pantry?” Devyani wasn’t pussyfooting today before Tarun, “What happened to your client meet yesterday, any breakthrough?”

She knew that the meeting was fake. So was his . Tarun was convinced that a pretty woman could achieve easily with her smile and soft handshakes what it took years for a man to achieve through back breaking work.

Tarun deftly avoided her query. “What did you show him?”

“Trust me, only my sketches,” she was curt, reading the hidden agenda behind the double entendre.

“Of course, that! But you had no decent ones when I was leaving yesterday. Some genie did that for you?”

“Yeah, from the lamp you threw at me, remember?” She changed track, “I am working on the compositions and rendering. Shantanu will review at three. Can you excuse me, ?”

“Show me before going to his cabin. He has a way of review. I will brief you.” Desperation to cling on to a story, however undeserved, was his hallmark.

Devyani looked up at him from her desk as the Photoshop file opened. Her neutral look conveyed that, at least for this project, she was past him.

She was ready by 2:45. She had four options now saved under different file names. She kept critiquing herself for the 15 minutes she had before the meeting. Tarun hovered over her desk occasionally checking the progress. “Do you need something?” This question usually fended off stickiest of colleagues. Devyani tried that with success today.

Shantanu was wearing a Nehru jacket over a short kurta along with his trademark Monaco casual shoes and blue Levi’s jeans. She had read in an interview that Shantanu was loyal to the brands he used. His room was quite day lit. The half-drawn blinds made of bamboo straws cast myriad patterns on the floor, his table and on him.

“Let’s connect to the monitor.” He settled himself on the two seater sofa, cross-legged. Devyani either could sit on the visitor’s chair or stand while presenting. She chose to stand and explain.

“These are your thoughts. Good, but yours. What’s the user group thinking? It’s their design, remember?” After all the options had been presented, Devyani was sure of getting one shortlisted for a market test. She was disappointed at such response.

“What’s your suggestion?” The challenge in her tone could not be missed.

“Design is a lonely business, Devyani. I can’t suggest what should be your approach. You have to ask people who will use the portal. Do you have cousins or friends?”

‘Younger’? Agreed, it was a mad rush this morning. She hadn’t put on any makeup. That put her in the league of aunties or what? “I will do some more research and meet you the day after.” That was all she heard herself saying. Tarun entered at this point, with the pretext of briefing Shantanu about progress at Arvind Mills.

“Did you see her work?” Devyani looked at Tarun.

“No, I was busy sorting out Arvind. They gave us no time for anything else.” “You should. She is the best on your team.”

Devyani felt unsure of this play. Didn’t he call her shit a little while ago? Tarun’s confused grin acknowledged the credit of her being in his team and masked the pang of ignoring the opportunity earlier.

“Online is less work, always. Physical store guys are unpardoning.” Tarun tried a feeble contra.

“That’s where the consumers are, partner! Have you seen the real stores in the shopping mall these days? They keep their air-conditioning off most of the day just to contain losses. I think if this pitch succeeds, Devyani should start an online vertical.”

Devyani slept only six of the remaining 48 hours. Her parents from Kolkata sent a local relative to the office to check on her after their many calls remained unanswered. She visited three malls and interviewed the college and IT park staffs hanging around there.

She was amazed at Shantanu’s insights on finding that exotic global dresses were far less appealing for an online portal than daily day wear customised to personal shapes and sizes. She had to work on her theory from scratch. The online company wanted global branding, the users wanted personalisation. She found out a way to offer both. The portal had about a million hits in a month’s time and some real business from that.

Within two months, she was heading the online customer insight vertical. That Friday, she invited a small group to her 2 BHK apartment to celebrate the occasion. Tarun had excused himself as he had to attend a marriage at his in-laws’ place. Shantanu revealed a side of his that no one knew. He sang Beatles after a few glasses of Sauvignon strumming Devyani’s dusty guitar that he found in a corner nested on old newspapers.

The night deepened. Others were leaving one by one. Devyani held one of the girls back as Shantanu seemed in no mood to stop strumming and leave. She was not complaining either. They were sitting on the terrace of her small rented apartment. Late night winds of Bangalore in this early March blew his hairs dreamily. His silhouette was so enchanting that the moment her colleague excused herself to the restroom, she went and sat next to Shantanu.

As if on a cue, Shantanu stopped playing the guitar and stood up, “What time is it?” He stretched himself in all the directions. The cologne he used sweetened the air around him. Devyani wanted to tell him not to leave, to be with her through the night. “11:30”, was all she could tell, however.

“Oh, Michelle would have returned from Mumbai by now.”

It was common knowledge in the studio, but gossips never made way to Devyani as she hardly ever left her desk. Shantanu was living in with a model for some time now. She was a Franco-Negroid and had travelled with Shantanu from his last job in Paris. In skin colour conscious eco-system of India, she was finding it difficult to find shoots beyond ramps or heritage tourism.

“Michelle?” Devyani wondered, a bit loudly perhaps, and Shantanu looked at her. He left the question hanging, as was his usual. “I have to go now. Can you book me a cab?” Shantanu was seldom seen with a mobile. At one point, he used to lose a lot of them. Then, he stopped carrying the device.

Devyani was numb with the crest of her desires meeting the ebb of reality. Sudden revelation on competition didn’t please her a tiny bit. He was the boss man, so obeying was given. But he was a ravishing ‘man’ as well, and Devyani had stronger choices in men.

“Wait a little more. I will book the cab for you.” She went to the bedroom. The girl from her office seemed unaccustomed to the wine sessions. She had spread herself on the bed, in a deep sleep.

She booked an Uber for Shantanu. Next, she brought out a tiny vial from what seemed like a jewellery box. It was her mother’s. She mixed some Ajwain extract in cold water and added three drops from that vial.

“Cab is coming. Drink this in the meantime, my mother’s prescription. Works like magic after a long party.” Shantanu didn’t trust much in naturopathy, but there was a certain authority in Devyani’s voice which he didn’t want to ignore. He gulped the pungent liquid in one go.

On Monday, Devyani had to travel to Hyderabad to organise a photo-shoot. So the next morning, she asked her colleague from night-stay whether she knew Shantanu’s house address. The girl didn’t. Devyani needed some inputs and an address of his contact in Hyderabad. She had forgotten to collect such mundane information in the mystic glory of last night.

Thankfully, calling a few friends of friends, she got the address. It was not very far, so Devyani requested her colleague to come with her. “I will drop you at your place on the way back,” was her deal.

Michelle opened the door. Looking at her long legs in micro shorts and bouncing bosoms in a cropped tee, Devyani could comprehend Shantanu’s apathy towards regular souls like hers.

“Hi, I am Devyani. We are from Shantanu’s studio. Need to meet him for a while. Can you call him please?”

Michelle was visibly tense. “He went to your place last night, right?” “Yes, is he still sleeping?” It was past eleven in the day. Sun shone vertically above in the courtyard between two apartment blocks.

“He is not at home. Seems he woke up before I did and went out somewhere. I am waiting for him for some time. Could he have gone to the studio?”

They called the studio immediately. The security guard who picked up confirmed that no one had come into the studio since morning. They waited a little more at Shantanu’s flat. Michelle brewed a refreshing cup of Arabica. They spoke about the studio, Shantanu’s genius and apartheid in the Indian modelling industry. When it was past one, Devyani realised that it’s time to leave as she needed some lunch.

“9780xxxxxx, my mobile number; please him to call me whenever he returns. Without that address, I can’t leave for Hyderabad.” She had found a near perfect rectangular pebble of the size of a Rupee coin with bluish veins running over its dark chocolate colour. She gathered it in her palm when no one was looking. As she took the hair brush out of her tote, she put the stone inside.

By the next Monday, it was almost national news. One of the leading fashion designers of the country had not returned for 48 hours now. The security guard of the apartment block was vouching on his mother that he never saw Shantanu going out on Saturday morning. His statement was brushed away, as popular consensus stated that this ‘class’ of guards sleep on duty and do not care to keep an eye on the gate. In the emergency meeting called on Sunday, the Housing members decided to put the main gate under CCTV surveillance.

Police interrogated Michelle, Devyani and all the other people present in that party. They all stated what they knew. Each had enough witness & alibi. No one held a grudge against Shantanu bad enough to cause harm to him.

By afternoon, dust began to settle on the matter. People, who were newly married or had girl/boyfriends left by the lunch time. Clearly, the studio was not in a frame of mind to do creative transactions. Some minor operations and a few routine client calls ensued.

Before leaving for the day, colleagues near Devyani’s desk were startled by a clink. She had added the dark chocolate rectangular pebble with the blue veins, collected from Shantanu’s flat in her glass jar collection. The pebble clearly stood out from the others. Like Shantanu always did.

The drops from the vial with Devyani had done their work. Like all the others in the jar, Shantanu could hear and feel everything from inside the glass jar. It was just that he could not do shit about it.

©Tapan Mozumdar

Photos from the internet.

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Tapan Mozumdar

Tapan Mozumdar

Tapan Mozumdar has been a practising engineer for 29 years. At 50, he began to write short stories. Now, he is practising quite hard to be a writer. He was shortlisted, in 2016, for the Star TV Writer’s programme and Bangalore LitMart. He was published in the February edition of The Spark. He writes short stories, poems, and non-fiction.
Tapan Mozumdar

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