Thursday 24 November 2022

Tarun Chakraborty, Short Story 2022 Shortlist

His Bullying Stops

Self-Defence is nature’s eldest law”- John Dryden

The playground located in the middle of the high school premises is small for the number of children. Lines drawn with lime powder demarcate separate play spaces for different age groups. The space earmarked for 9-12 years, to which I belong, is not spacious enough for playing anything beyond 6- a side football comfortably. Yet, 22 mini footballers cramped within its boundaries are engaged in playing the regular version of the game, enjoying every move of the sport. I am weak in sports. I am that typical non-athletic type of kid, who is prone to stumbling on the ground. Whenever it comes to doing a physical activity combined with skill, I am lacking in something. Yet I am not lacking in enthusiasm. I tried hard but I couldn't get better at playing outdoor games. That made me different from the others on the playground. And that also made bullies look for a weakling like me to pick on.

There is a boy who always bullies me irrespective of whether I am on his side or the opposite. He is physically well built, strong, and taller than me by at least six inches and has a loud voice. In short, he is made up of all that captain material. He kicks me or pushes me for no reason and I fall flat on the ground. I feel helpless. I am called by all sorts of names matching my inaptness. I am a laughing stock to my playmates. I try to protest but my voice never comes out. I am not only the weakest but also the meekest on the field. In a state of despair, I wonder whether this torment would at all come to an end. But despite all that weakness in sports, I possess one capability at least- to anticipate moves. Irrespective of being aware or unaware of it, everybody on earth is endowed with an inbuilt warning system. Otherwise, no one would have survived.

It is just like any other day on the playground. But I know from his moves that today he has targeted the right place on my body to fall into his trap. Once, while playing with my younger brother, his foot had almost touched my testicles inadvertently. I remember my mother panicked- “Never do it again, a boy can even get killed if hit there.” Luckily brother’s foot missed it very narrowly. I never forgot what mom had said. A mischievous game-plan suddenly strikes me...

I move out of the field and pretend to be relieving myself by facing a bush. But what I am doing is squeezing one of my testes as hard as I can bear the pain. With closed eyes and rows of teeth clasped as hard as I can, I bear the excruciating pain of inflicting self-injury. Yet that seems to be a better option than failing to cope with the agony, the humiliation, the feeling of inferiority from the daily dose of bullying from a guy ‘conventionally’ smarter than me.

I try with all my might to cope with the physical pain and re-enter the field without limping, without making an outward show of any strain on my face. Anything awkward going inside me is undetectable. I keep standing quietly at one edge waiting for his kick- a lot worried whether that would at all come by the end of today’s play. If it didn’t, then I would be left to myself, groaning in the misery of a self-inflicted injury- a shameful thing to happen. No, I am not all that ‘unfortunate’. I sense this terrible spasm will not go waste as I see that the bully has marked me and is approaching his trap. I am happy.

“Hey, Dude! What are you standing here for? You, lazy bum!” he yells and swings his right leg in an attempt to kick my testes. I turn away somehow and stumble on the ground. His foot misses it barely by an inch that could have otherwise been much more severe in its consequence than my simply squeezing it.

“Ouch! Aah! Aah!” I scream ‘genuinely’, venting out what I had been so painstakingly holding back for that long. To me, even the sign of my discomfort on my puckered face becomes an expression of my exultation! My groans of pain become the cries of my joy! I lie down on the ground fidgeting, writhing, and tossing about. A rub with my palms gives me some idea of the extent of its swelling. Play in the entire ground has come to a standstill. All have gathered around me. I know my good day is going to be a bad day for the bully. I am lifted and carried away from the field and then directly to the hospital. Dad has come there running, accompanied by some playmates. I am treated with injections and ointments and advised complete rest for a week. Subhas, the bully looks perplexed, his face turns pale in anguish, not entirely for me but for the consequences he would have to face. He gets a severe beating from his father. He is vilified by playmates. All accusing fingers are at him. Dad says that he will lodge a complaint against him at school and can even get him rusticated. Things are getting serious. But I don’t want all that to happen. All I wanted for was his bullying should stop. Subhas hangs around me, together with his parents. All of them wear hung faces with a feeling of deep guilt- but that was something for me to wear! Seven days pass away and I am once again on the playground with Subhas.

His bullying stops.

Fifteen years later...

With a degree in Mech Engg followed by two year’s Industrial training in a Midcap, I have smartly cleared three rounds of interviews and joined a large Steel Mill as a Jr. Manager. My boss, the six-footer, loud-mouthed, foul-tongued, with a robust physique, rugged and stern-looking reminds me of Subhas the bully of my childhood days. I am never comfortable with such people. Maybe this phobia is linked to that childhood trauma. The subconscious looks at things differently- the production floor becomes the playground and my boss- the person in authority becomes captain Subhas. And as ill-luck would have it, it turns out that this guy also has got a fondness for bullying the docile, subdued, and over-obedient types. He slaps my head for no reason. He pats my back seeming to be appreciative but it comes down as hard as a painful smack. He shouts slang for reasons best known to him only. He says that is the language of the shop floor. I can do nothing more than stare at him gawkily. That I cannot tackle him even politely, prompts him further. Still, I cannot do anything about it. He happens to be my boss and so I have put him on a pedestal. That inhibition is ingrained in us from childhood. We are indoctrinated into unquestioning obedience. He is misusing my inability to show him the limit beyond which I am going to react. Self-doubts keep on tormenting me:

Have I stepped into the wrong profession then? But then, it was my proficiency in PCM alone that had got me through one of the toughest entrance exams with a rank fetching me one of the most coveted branches going by the trend in those days. But nothing of this sort had been foreseen. Nor there had been any counselling about dealing with such toxic people in authority. Topics like ‘Boss Management’ were unheard of. Would all the places in the world be the same for me? Do bullies I cannot cope with are there everywhere and in all professions? Despite possessing the requisite knowledge and skill, my gentle manners have become my biggest handicap in that harsh work situation. Had I been ill-bred so as to become ill-mannered, perhaps I would be better suited for such uncouth people- I reflect in utter frustration. The scope for ‘hardcore engineers’ to slip off into softer white-collar functions within the same organization were not ample as of now. Smarter guys or the fortunate few with connections usually took away those scanty softer options. Even complaints to his one or two-step higher-ups fall on deaf ears. No one would bell the cat for me. Am I digging my own grave here? My mind gets clouded with negative emotions.

There is no way an across-the-table technical interview or personality test can uncover such a crippling drawback manifested in a specific work situation, unless he or she, who is otherwise not socially awkward, honestly reveals it. But then, why should one act such foolishly when the objective is to ‘win a job’ in an extremely scarce job market. So, when it is a question of survival, there’s nothing wrong with presenting an exaggerated account of self. I am not all that bad at table talk and I have done exactly that. The onus lies on the hirer to detect my hidden shortcomings and it is none of the interviewee’s business to truthfully expose them. One has simply no choice in a world where jargon like- ‘follow your dreams’ or ‘listen to your inner voice’ get lost in the crowd with the average types in a given field. I am also no exception. The only choice in our conditions is to change oneself, which seems to be unworkable without causing harm to one’s inner psyche.

Once again that old feeling of despair on the playground grips me. I am anxious whether his bullying, from which he derives a sadistic pleasure, is at all going to stop. He is dragging me into a bottomless pit. I am going into a state of mental depression. This emotional abuse has started taking its toll on our otherwise peaceful life at home where my work-related stress is seeping in. I am losing appetite. My irritability or moodiness often gets revealed by way of finding faults with or howling at Dorothy apparently for no reason. At times she reverts and we start bickering over trifles. Even watching movies together becomes difficult as I am unable to concentrate and I force her to leave the auditorium along with me giving some excuse or other. Squabbles mount further. Things are getting worse. One night I wake up screaming from a nightmare. A dream giving out intense feelings of stress or terror to startle the dreamer awake becomes a nightmare. Short of breath and sweating, I remember my dream- I am shouting at the bully at the top of my voice. But my scream in reality awakens Dorothy and she grumbles about disturbing her sleep. Yet when she asks whether anything has gone wrong, I evade. Sleep evades me for the rest of the night and I get out of bed early in the morning taking a vow that I will do something about it.

The following evening perturbed as usual, while I am on my way back to quarters in the Steel-Township, my scooter takes a turn targeting a doctor’s chamber a little away from the town. I have purposely avoided the nearby ones. I don’t want to get noticed by anybody from the township. It is a small town where words spread fast which I don’t want Dorothy to ‘hear through the grapevine’. From my story, they would be interpreted as cowardice, a lack of manliness to which our society attaches a lot of stigmas. All rubbish. But you cannot stop people from thinking what they are thinking about you. I am also becoming self-critical and conscious about ‘what others may think about me’. The company does not have any ‘grievance procedure’ and so I have to get rid of that guy’s bullying ‘in my unique way’ as I did to Subhas the bully on the playground fifteen years ago …

As I wait my turn outside the doctor’s chamber, I am at a loss as to what to say or how at all to make a start. It’s not like complaining about cough & cold or loose motion. I feel nervous. This God in the white coat, though a physician, had a penchant for psychiatry, I was told by a friend who had fixed up the appointment.

“Young man you look worried. How can I help you?” the physician appearing to be in his mid-forties, lanky and chiselled-faced, scans me with his sharp eyes behind thick-framed spectacles as I sit on the patient chair placed sideways to his.

That puts me at ease and I start venting out my woes.

“You are suppressed!” That stunning remark acts like a ‘force-stop button’ on my spontaneous narration. How nicely he has summed up it all with a single word!

“I have given you a patient hearing for more than half an hour when others are waiting outside,” he says while doing the customary BP and PR tests, “only because venting your feelings was the first step towards reducing stress. To let it all out was like First-Aid. Medication or anything else comes later on. Don’t you feel lighter now?”

“Yes, something like venting out pressurized air from water pipes and allowing a centrifugal pump to start up”, I feel absolutely at ease with him.

“Very nicely said” he appreciates me, “but you are this fine as long as the person you are facing here- that is me, does not happen to be your boss, right?”

“Yes”, I reply. He is going to lay me bare I feel.

“But just for a while imagine that I am your boss then?” he asks.

“Then I would freeze” I blurt out with a smile.

“It is your shortcoming that you become a child before anyone with some authority over you. You must come out of that. Your naivety prevents you from seeing him as a human being just like any other. Bring out the adult in you”, he remarks.

As I stare at him blankly, our psychology professor’s lectures on ‘The Parent-Adult-Child Model’ ring in my ears-

“According to the PAC Model, we all have an inherent ‘Parent, Adult and Child’ in us, each of which manifests itself in varying degrees at any given moment and given situation, depending on the personality type…”

Hazily understood stuff popping out from the past has now become as clear as crystal from my example!

“Oh! Where are you?” he quipped jolting me out of my reverie. The waiting area now seemed to hum with impatience.

“Young man, as a measure of temporary relief only, I am prescribing some Nerve-soothers and Antidepressants. That is all I can do for you once only as a physician. But remember that the permanent cure lies in you and you only- on your conscious effort and determination to overcome that. It will be long drawn. But have patience. No mantras, no gemstones, no Gurus, no self-help books, no shortcuts can help. It is you and only you who can help yourself. You are your best friend. So, believe in yourself. And also remember that if you do not shake it off now, then this is bound to erupt some day or other, in the form of distorted manners like- unnecessary rudeness or aggressiveness”. He hands over the prescription after finishing what he believes to be a piece of ‘sound advice’. But I am not convinced. I thank him ceremoniously and turn towards the exit door.

“And Listen” he calls me when I am just about to leave, “the most important point has just slipped my mind.”

“What is that doctor?” I ask uneasily fearing more of his daunting counsel.

“No alcoholic drinks while you are on these prescription drugs. The reactions can be dangerous- from dizziness and nausea to loss of consciousness and fainting. Don’t do that” he cautions me.

My eyes light up. A mischievous game-plan strikes me once again- as the one did on the playground fifteen years back! His don’ts would be at the top of my list of Dos! How true- The solution lies on me only and in my unique way! Indeed, I am my best friend. I have myself only to thank or blame and nobody else…

I get those medicines from the adjoining pharmacy and carefully store them inside the tools bag of my scooter- the safest place to hide them. To me they are not just ‘tablets’- rather each one of them is a ‘gemstone’ capable of changing my ill fate. I know that these tranquilizers are addiction drugs but I am in no hurry to consume them immediately. I will wait for the appropriate time and work situation to gulp them. I am going to compose my mantras… I am going to write my self-help book... I am going to create my shortcuts. I am going to hit the bull’s eye. Once again I recall a wonderful tip that I had come across in some magazine (Imprint or Mirror) long back:

“In shooting, when the shooter’s eye focuses on the target only, his arms and hands align automatically without even his knowing it. Similarly, when the mind is focused solely on the objective, the subconscious spontaneously prompts one into a set of cascading actions leading to the objective...”

My single objective is- ‘His bullying should stop’.

Vishwakarma Puja arrives. It is a day that falls on the 17th of September every year- the day of the year on which the respective dates on the Gregorian calendar and the lunar calendar (on which Hindu festivals are based) coincide. On this day idol of Vishwakarma the Technical God of Hindus- believed to be the divine engineer and architect of this universe, is worshiped primarily in Eastern India, in factories and technical establishments like garages, waterworks, construction sites, etc by the technical workforce irrespective of religion, along with engineers and supervisors joining in at their invitation. This is perhaps the only ‘secular’ Puja (worship) in our country. Such is the spirit that Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians stand together before the Universal Technical Lord and offer Pushpanjali (flower offerings) to the chanting of Mantra (sacred utterance) voiced by the priest. It is a spectacle to behold!

Worship or Puja apart, some places also turn into a day of festivities within the factory premises with decorations, artwork, dance, music, and feasting. Traditionally on this day of the year, employees- engineers as well as staff and union leaders sit together at one place within the running plant and indulge in boozing together. Barriers are forgotten. The juniors feel honoured. It is believed such a boozy affair within the works promotes teamwork and builds camaraderie.

My boss, that great bully is hosting a Vishwakarma Puja party in his office where I am invited. But I don’t believe in such superficiality from a crank who defies every code of conduct.

I free myself from the morning chores and start walking toward the bully’s office. But by then I have already charged two pills and the third one is stealthily held between the gap of my index and middle fingers for the opportune moment. This is the first time that I have taken any sedative. I am feeling relaxed. I am at peace with the entire world- no mental perturbations, upsets, or uneasiness, a bit drowsy though. A few more steps and I realize I am staggering. Yet I try consciously not to make an outward show of it, the way I had done while walking back towards the playground after squeezing my testis fifteen years back.

I knock at the door and enter the festive office feeling like a sleepwalker. His office wears a different look- the walls, ceiling fans, and lamp shades have been rinsed to remove stains of soot and grit. Additional fluorescent lights provide extra illumination. Long crowbars and tongues usually kept leaning against walls at the corners have been removed. Two extra tables have been added lengthwise to his office table giving it the look of a long conference table under the cover of the tablecloth. Flower vases with flowers add to the aesthetics. Decorations momentarily grace the ambiance of the otherwise lousy shop-floor office.

He is sitting at the head of the long table and the rest of the chairs- about twenty of them are almost occupied. The booze fest has just begun. A bonanza of mouth-watering snacks has been offered on platters.

“Always late, never on time!” this is how he greets me fully knowing what I had been up to. All heads turn at me. I feel embarrassed.

“Come and sit here” he shouts pointing to a vacant chair lying crosswise next to his, reminding me of my sitting position with the doctor.

The office-boy turned bartender ceremoniously places before me a drink- a strong cocktail in a glass which I instantly cover with my right palm with my left palm placed over it. I loosen the grip between my middle and index fingers and earth’s gravity does the rest. Saying to myself- ‘Come, Peter if not on the shop floor, at least here and now you must perform, or else suffer bullying and cry silently forever’, I gulp the entire content of the glass in one single guzzle.

“Oh! That’s brilliant” his pat of appreciation feels too heavy on my back and he gestures to the bartender to serve me one more drink.

“Cheers”, the entire assemblage expresses good wishes with their glasses raised before drinking. The party has got into full swing and so has the Rolling Mill which rumbles in a continuous rhythm...

I gulp down two more servings and the fourth helping arrives. But I am deliberately hesitant this time. I am feeling dizzy. My eyelids are heavy. I am resisting dozing off on the table itself and becoming a laughing stock in their eyes for going on a binge too early.

“Don’t sit idle. Just drink that” he shouts in his ‘feudal lord’ style, in a manner the lord would have thundered at one of his tolerant subjects. I sit still pretending a nervous look. I know what he is going to do next. I am inviting that, in fact, a lot ‘worried’ whether his next move is going to come at all, the way I was ‘worried’ whether Subhas’s attempted kick on my testes would come at all some fifteen years ago. My heart is pounding.

“Are you kidding? He lunges towards me and slaps my head. He has offered me what I had been craving. He has fallen into his trap.

I give in to the drowsiness; succumb to the dizziness that I had been painstakingly resisting all this while. I drop down my head on the table, eyes closed, breathing feebly. It is ‘genuine’. No pretensions. I do not have to feign semi-consciousness that is now progressing into unconsciousness, imparting a near-death feeling. Yet, to me it feels much better than the feeling of swallowing indignation every day.

“Sir, what you have done, he has suffered a nervous breakdown”, voices reach my ears feebly in my dazed state. The drug is working its psychedelic effects on me. Faintly audible talks weave into a mix of low-pitched murmurs until I know nothing…

I open my eyes to find myself lying on an emergency bed at the ‘Works Clinic’ located inside the factory premises. I am unaware of how I reached there. The wall clock shows it has been about two hours since the party wrapped up too early because of me. I am feeling lighter with a bit of headache though.

“Couldn’t you drink more responsibly?” the doctor on duty rebukes me. I am relieved. He has no inkling of my guile.

“Sorry, it won’t happen again”, I say reflecting remorse.

I am informed that suspecting alcohol poisoning, the contents of my stomach have been pumped out through a tube inserted down my Esophagus and I am safe now. But facilities for testing the extract do not exist here he regrets. How lucky- it was not there! I thank my stars! I am diagnosed as suffering from severe trauma and advised to take rest for the next four days; No medications. But I do not need all that anymore. Feeling ecstatic after coming out unscathed, I simply want to run away from the spot.

Back home as a pillion rider on my scooter which a co-worker drives, I find Dorothy pacing up and down in anguish.

“Why do you drink that nectar, when you cannot endure it?” she reprimands not knowing the full story. I feel relieved once again.

“This tastes like real nectar”, I say sipping black tea which she has served chattering something which does not enter my ears. I plummet into slumber.

A flow of visitors follows. They are deeply concerned about me and bluntly say that the crook’s bullying has taken its toll on me. He is vilified by them the way Subhas was. They are all sympathetic towards me and full of disgust for him. The small township is rife with hushing. He is on his way to becoming ‘infamous’. I know that ‘egoistic’ man is going to come to my house, if not to see me, at least to stop the bad name that is looming large over him. After all, we all are afraid of getting a bad name. I am expecting his visit any day. Two days later there’s a knock on the door. I get up and open it. He looks skittish.

“Don’t disclose it to anyone”, he enters my house his voice somewhat subdued.

“Are you afraid?” I ask him looking straight into his eyes.

He is stunned beyond words and says nothing. I don’t know if he has suspected some foul play.

“So, kind of you Sir, you have come to see me”, I change my tone. I am mature enough to realize that here he is my guest and so I play a traditional host’s role.

“Don’t be so soft as not to be able to withstand blows like this. Mind you, we are working in a Steel factory”, he still plays the egoistic boss (Parent) and I the helpless junior (Child) listening intently, staring gawkily. I still do not know whether he has suspected any foul play and even if he did, has my indifferent reaction been able to remove that? I am not sure. All that my conscious mind desired for was his bullying to stop. But given my strength and weakness, my subconscious (a slave of the conscious), has triggered off such stealthy acts. I feel sorry, but with my limitations, there was no better way to tackle this man.

He thanks Dorothy for the tea and sweets she has offered and leaves. As he walks back I hear him muttering feebly- “I have learned the lesson of my life”. Yes, indeed he has detected the foul play, but can’t do anything about it. How sad! He has fallen into his trap the way Subhas did.

Advice like- you should be strong, you should be confident, you should know how to tackle people, and you should know how to handle stress, pour in free of cost from visitors. However, only if someone among them had simply whispered- ‘You should know how to be stealthy instead’, then to my ears the same would sound like- ‘You should know how to hit the nail on the head’. But no one does so.

I join duties. His bullying stops.

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