"Alone at Top" by Nirendra Dev : An English Short Story (WBRi Online Magazine)

Alone at Top

By Nirendra Dev

A Short Story

Nirendra Narayan DevEditor's Note: Nirendra Narayan Dev (nirendev1 [at] gmail [dot] com), an acclaimed political journalist, is a special correspondent of The Statesman, New Delhi and author of the books Ayodhya : Battle For Peace, The Talking Guns North East India and Godhra A Journey To Mayhem. Nirendra was born and brought up in India's northeast and his father served with paramilitary force Assam Rifles. His blog is at bestofindiarestofindia.blogspot.com.

We have previously had an opportunity of talking to the author and have posted the audio recording of the interview.

WBRi has the pleasure of publishing a series of short stories by Nirendra. Search with keywords "Nirendra Dev" to read his prior stories and articles on Washington Bangla Radio.

For submission of your creative writing to WBRi Online Magazine, contact the editor at submissions@washingtonbanglaradio.com.

A screen saver image on his computer carried a rather unusual caption, “Suicide is man’s way of telling the God, you cannot fire me, I quit”. Unwittingly, Mohan Kumar, alias MK, as he is better known in the professional world today, gave a curious look at the same. The computer mechanic had saved the image after doing the regular servicing. Could it have been done intentionally; but what the hell the outsourced mechanic boy would have to tell MK. The pinkish image of a fish floating in blue waters and diving occasionally in some corner gave him a special excitement. Did he find it biographical? The fish trying to leap into the bigger tumbler from the adjacent small one appealed him most. Life is like that --- one has to grow constantly. One has to jump into the bigger tumbler. The risk is okay. But the stagnancy is equivalent to farewell. MK was not sure. But he did never have much to deal with God or even think about death. Suicide, remorse or anything such never bothered him much. All his life he has been a gutter fighter. He has quit several jobs before joining the National News Trust, the country’s premier multi-media news organization.

NNT is today the most ‘reliable voice’ in the info world and the undisputed leader in television journalism, wire journalism and also running two dailies –one English and the other in Hindi. NNT originally had started as a news wire and then it launched two dailies. It had ventured into television journalism much late having launched a round the clock bilingual news channel. To be the chief executive of such a company was no small matter. He had a tastefully decorated office chamber, quite spacious – something he had dreamt long back when he had joined the company as a cub reporter about 25 years back. But that’s a page from the past. The company is actually run by a Board of Trustees with hardly any interference and thus, the CEO himself for all practical purpose is the real boss.

Today, MK has emerged as the longest serving CEO of the company and had got a special arrangement signed with the Board of Trustees. Under the new deal inked, he has been given more functional autonomy, more key decisive say on ‘transfer and promotion policy’, especially the foreign transfer, which was once a monopoly of the Board chairman and vice-chairman. And an unwritten mandate to neutralize the workers’ union and bring cost cutting by enforcing retrenchment policies. The Board too found all realistic especially in the context of economic recession as each Trustee faced stiff competition in their respective sectors. The owner of a aviation major Sudip Ganguly was the first to endorse the proposal at the Board meeting for cost cutting and retrenchment among the workers – of all categories. The Board chairman Ganguly’s aviation, DreamFlier has run into debt and subsequently to a host of managerial issues.

MK had made a presentation and convinced the Board that the entire grade III staff could be dispensed with as their utility in the company has got over with the emergence of new technology, especially the highly booming IT software and the internet. The emergence of paperless culture also made ample room for downsizing the grade IV staff strength.

Naturally, as he walked into his office chamber, he exuded confidence in every action of his. He could understand there was a new found verb in his movements. He knew, as rest of the senior grade executives have been pushed to the wall and will have to slog it out to keep their relevance and importance in the company, MK has been made all powerful. He sat by the computer apparently lost in a deep silence --- brooding on some matters he was actually not quite clear of. He walked into the rest room. The mirror smiled at him – almost complimenting him on the ‘new coup’ he staged by pushing out all his immediate competitors and juniors out of the race.

At top, you are alone, he seemed to have told the mirror in his subconscious mind.

As he was walking back to his chair, to his surprise he was feeling some pangs of worry creep up as he recalled his roadmap – the way to the glories.

The office peon walked in with a set of papers. Dismissing him by his mere powerful look, he ordered the peon to leave the papers on his table. MK pressed the alarm button and this time directed his Man Friday, Gulab Ram for the coffee. Suddenly he sprang up on his feet and walked into the rest room again to take a closer look at the mirror as if it needed to be told of something very urgently. MK smiled at the mirror. This time a more intimate smile. "Yes, you are bad. Very bad. But success does not come of its own. I can make you better. Much, much better.”

He returned to his designated chair. Resting his right hand on his forehead --- by his old habit – he wondered, so much to do, so much to achieve, but so little time. It was depressing momentarily. As he thought the strong cup of coffee from Gulab Ram will help him.

In the meantime, he got scanning the papers left minutes before by the peon. In his latest circular, he had abolished the post of deputy CEOs – a move which would leave no second man under him. No second man meant – no immediate threat. His understanding of management was in these simpler terms. Colleagues are not for support or sharing his workload. To him, a deputy CEO would be immediate threat.

By this latest move he now had four assistant general managers immediately below him but downstairs at least by two-three grades. In other words, any assistant general manager to be considered for top post as CEO would have to be first considered for general managers and then possibly deputy CEOs.

“Bloody parasites…, what more they deserve,” MK thought for a while. He knew by keeping a motley crowd of ‘yes men’ and mediocre-level people at top he would be making the company’s management weak and possibly less efficient than it has been traditionally been. But he also knew by doing so, he has only emerged stronger.

Success, if any, should be in the air we breathe. It ought to be felt and seen everything one does; everywhere one goes. Thus, to MK, only thing that ever mattered was the success, the glories and of course the pay and perks.

But all of it did not work out as easily as it could be thought of in retrospect. In fact, MK had to ascertain this quite the hard way. Two powerful factions of the workers’ union had to be managed. MK used the well tested divide and rule policy and used one faction against the other. Ultimately he could neutralize each other. He had to undertake a few innovative steps, set up his core team and punish those who were not following his line. Often, of course, he made the difference between his personal line and management line very thin.


Just then Roop Lal Kishore walked in. As MK gave him a stern look, Roop Lal folded his hands; and bowed his head in obeisance. Roop Lal is used to doing this. There’s nothing unusual about it. So MK asked him rudely, “so why you are here?”

“I thought…..,” the poor fellow was fumbling.

“Acchha, I didn’t know, you can also think. Now, bolo” – out came the order tersely.

“Sir, there is a big news, I think Sir, One Indian AirSeas plane has been hijacked in Colombo”.

Roop Lal had hardly finished. MK sprang up on his feet. He moved out to the news hall. Roop Lal was helplessly following him, trying to keep up with the pace. A successful boss also walks pretty fast, Roop Lal must have guessed. MK gestured towards the ‘war-room’ for a quick meeting. All the Editors and both production heads of the television channel came out running. Apparently some of them knew that a plane has been hijacked. The senior editors in NNT were aware of MK’s style of functioning. In fact, Anirudh Sanyal, the low profile yet efficient Senior Editor of English Wire Service, was even carrying the print out of the news flashed minutes ago: ‘An Indian AirService plane has been feared hijacked”.

In the war-room, MK was at the peak of his excitement. He took his seat once and then again sprang up. The normal sitting arrangement could display the hierarchy around the large round table. At the centre would be MK as the boss. To his left would be Rooplal in a corner looking ever eager to take the orders. Facing him was Anirudh Sanyal, also MK’s batch-mate in the NNT. To Sanyal’s left would be the two television heads. And in that room, in a corner lay a wooden chair – isolated – for the screwed up man summoned to be reprimanded. This lay vacant today. But today, all others were standing dutifully as if they knew the boss would spring up sooner than later. Roop Lal brought in a glass of water for MK and placed it on the table. This was also not unusual. Roop Lal had proficiency in these kinds of jobs. He was designated as ‘national coordinator’ and thus could poke his nose in every sections. However, poking the nose was not his job, he was the ears and the eyes of the CEO –Mohan Kumar keeping tab on what all goes on.

Anirudh Sanyal watched the proceedings with calmness. As Editor of English Wire service, it was his department that has broken the news.

“Who got into this lead? Can I have a print out?”, MK shouted.

Roop Lal almost ran out before he could hear Anirudh saying, “here, I have it”. That son of a ….., Roop Lal was almost cursing Anirudh Sanyal.

Sanyal, a capable man that he is gave a small brief to MK and also said, “now we need to workout related stories….. I have asked for reactions immediately from the Hijack Response Team in the Government of India. Manjeet Singh has left for the job. Akhilesh Kumar has also run to the Civil Aviation Minister’s house”.

“What about airport?, the television guys should be there”, MK said.

“Yes, they are and some live shots have been aired too”, said Snighdha Medhekar, the dashing Marathi damsel and chief of Television channel. She said two senior reporters – from both English and Hindi sections are also down there.

MK had joined the NNT as a rookie reporter. As essentially a newsman he had made cultivating the nose for right knack for ‘news’ as his trump card. Actually on professional matters, few could match him. This had no doubt proved helpful in his climb up the pole, which normally in the industry would lay greasy.

Having taken care of domestic front, he immediately called for Manish Kumar Reddy, an old hand in diplomatic reporting. MK put him on the job for working on a diplomatic story as New Delhi’s relation with Colombo had run into rough weather following the coup in the island nation. Obviously, the suggestion was will the government now sit down for a diplomatic backchannel communication with Colombo’s new military rulers.

A big news event would also sometime excite MK the wrong way. He would move up and down the gigantic news hall and scream from one end to the other. MK’s faithful loyalist Roop Lal Kishore would tirelessly try to cope with the pace of his boss. In the meanwhile, occasionally he would walk into MK’s large office cabin and instruct Gulab Ram for coffee for MK. On his part, MK would often shoe away Roop Lal directing him to oversee what else has gone on the newswire or television channels.

After strolling and passing his instructions, MK would walk into his office chamber, and pick up the phone to tell his maid servant at home about the big event. In other words, he would be late tonight. These are normal in most news men life and MK knew this was the reality. His wife Arundhati also appreciated it for quite sometime but no longer. Arundhati used to be really a passive partner in their family who always thought it was her obligation to make things easier and smoother for MK at home. But she too gave up.

Sitting on his sofa, MK was lost in himself, lay there stretched. Thoughts would crowd his head fast – was he really satisfied with all that he has achieved?

Tears welled up in his eyes as he remembered Nivedita, his first love or infatuation. Nivedia had rejected his offer long back. The Chandigarh damsel had very attractive eyes, curious lips and powerful chest of a north Indian maiden who had developed a little too quickly. He had his chin rested on his palm again by habit. His faithful Gulab Ram walked in with his daily dose of tablets. One yellow and the other white. Swallowing them with about half glass of water, he instructed Gulab not to be disturbed for a while. “I want to take rest for a while…..”.

Accordingly the room was shut and his all phones were directed to the personal staff’s table. As he tried to close his eyes, Nivedita’s face surfaced again before his eyes like the tide wave. The failure to win over Nivedita had been haunting MK all along his life. To a large extent, MK often thought it was this frustration that made him a gutter fighter. May be without his knowing he always wanted to make himself a worthy lover boy for Nivedita.

The first meeting, he always remembered with excitement. Nivedita was sitting at the foot of the bed his mother was as he had just walked in. Their eyes met. For a while MK stood stunned unable to move his eyes off Nivedita’s radiant face veiled partly by her hair. She had smiled with a twinkle in her eyes. MK took some time to get back his composure. This was a unique experience; something he had never experienced. MK did not know, he was in love. But he knew, there was something like this.

Time has paced out very fast. MK was trying to come back to the present. He wanted to traverse from the past very fast. The past has not been all a sweet dream. Nevertheless the reality is today. Here, he is the CEO of NNT and almost a national celebrity. He had dined with Kings, saw princesses move their hips and had interviewed dictators and cricket legends. Life has given him, may be, what he had sought.

But in the process, he had to cough up some price. His wife Arundhati had separated with him complaining especially about his indifference to family life. For few years, he had even got involved in an extra-marital affair with a smart scion of a conservative rich family. That also died its natural death.

Slowly, he was again lost in a web of puzzles. Now whether I am happy, I cannot answer that, he thought. He tried to reason with himself….. hmmm the real answer lies only in the womb of time or would be never answered. He seemed to tell himself yet another time: the question would probably not be answered even by posterity… Because, the key question whether I am happy or not would die with me.

Suddenly, he recalled only in the morning his daughter had called him saying she was flying back from Colombo. Momentarily, he wondered whether she also took the ill-fated hijacked flight. His daughter Lavanya had gone to Colombo in connection with her relief work organized by the NGO she works with in conjunction with the UN agencies. The military coup in the island nation was followed by mass killing of an ethnic minority group in a sensitive pocket.

Unwittingly, MK switched on the television channel, the home production NNT News. It flashed the news that the hijacked plane had crashed into the blue waters and all passengers and crew members on board had died. Gradually, the news reader, Shalini Thapar read out the names of casualty. It included Lavanya Bhardwaj. MK knew this was his daughter – using her mother’s surname ‘Bhardwaj’.

His hands stood still. Lips dried up and eyes welled up obviously threatening to spill. A sudden feel dawned on him. That he was wrong and that he had sinned may be.. It was too much to bear. He sobbed his heart out, burying his head between his knees, his body bend like a rope on the sofa.

He lay there in silence till sleep finally overcame him. Probably, he woke up after an hour… the pain too woke up with him. Just then there was a knock on his door and English wire editor Anirudh Sanyal walked in with few others. Before he could muster his words braving his dried tongue, Sanyal said, “MK our NNT television has been proved wrong. The plane has not crashed. The ticker guys in Chennai had got it all wrong. All passengers on board including Lavanya is safe”. MK could not hold it. Like a small kid, he walked into the arms of Sanyal and with his tearful eyes gave a look, which if translated would have simply read: I am sorry friend.

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